Hip hop has planted many a curious seed in many a young, impressionable mind over the last – what is it? Three decades? Whether it’s some bloke from Staten Island New Jersey telling me about Chinese medieval legend, a New Yorker giving me dietary advice, or a Californian explaining the San Andreas fault, hip hop sometimes broadens the mind. It’s not always about pimpin’, gansgterin’, and mass murderin’ you know.
I grew up in a little country village north east of Dundee (that’s in Scotland by the way – I know some of you aren’t from round these parts), so it’s maybe no surprise that my exposure to hip hop was a little rarified. Like most kids growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, Run DMC were the first ones that really got me. And of course, from that point on, most of the artists who made an impression fitted that general mould. Young, charismatic African American folk with style and attitude, and mostly with a shared obsession with Adidas training shoes.
We had a half hour ride to school each morning on the country bumpkin bus, and happily enough, there were a few of us who loved our music, including, but not restricted to, hip hop – a genre that was still in its infancy at that time, in Scottish terms at least.
One day a young lad from the next pick up stop reached into his bag and pulled out a new cassette. It was “Licensed To Ill”. I can remember to this day the first time we all heard it, and how we gave him blank tapes so he could record it for us, as you had to do in those days if you were a tight arse who used his pocket money for other football-related pursuits.
It was just different – even then. Both good and shite all at the same time, if that makes sense. Like a bunch of daft lads had stumbled into a room with some booze and whatever else they could lay their hands on, and the room happened to have some recording equipment and a few mics lying around. It was all a bit of a joke, you know? And you knew they were at it. But as is the case with most cheeky chappies in life, they grew on you. Well, I say ‘they’ grew on you. I can only speak for myself here, but at the time, it was only really Ad Rock that grew on me. The other two seemed to be hitching a ride on his talent… particularly MCA. I just didn’t believe he was sippin the def ale with all the fly women, because he looked like a tramp who hadn’t slept for a month, and probably smelled much the same.
“Licensed To Ill” had some bona fide classics on it, it has to be said. “Fight For Your Right To Party” and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” are records that helped define our generation in many respects, as much as things like “The Message” or “Don’t Believe The Hype”. But there were also growers. “Paul Revere”, with its hypnotic backwards drum beat sample, wormed it’s weird way into your brain and was as much a precursor of trip hop as “Potholes In My Lawn”. It was a weird album. But it was still a bloody good album, and as nippers, we played it til the tape wore away.
In the months and years that followed, we graduated to more varied stuff, with hip hop starting to make inroads into the mainstream charts more and more often, and artists struggling with the fact it was becoming ‘pop’ – that it was losing touch with what it was all about in the first place. But still, the classics kept on coming, and most passive muso-type fans then had moved on, not giving them a single thought for several years, other than a vague passing knowledge of them and others parting company with Def Jam.
The assumption of course was that the novelty band had had it’s day, albeit making an impact on moral commentators and Volkswagen owners in equal measure. We all moved on to acid house and indie, of course – most of us did. But hip hop remained the listening backbone for me.
It wasn’t until several years later that a DJ we’d grown up with started telling us about an album called “Paul’s Boutique”, and how it was maybe the best hip hop album he’d ever heard. Oh, and it was done by the Beastie Boys!? Eh? The Beastie Boys? The dunderheads in the sideways caps who looked like they’d gone to a fancy dress party as rappers?
And it’s funny – it was good, but being the age I was (16 or thereabouts at the time) I was more enamoured with what I saw as the real thing in De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, or in Public Enemy, than I was in the diddies in the VW medallions pretending they were born again. So I gave it a few listens, clocked the standout crackers from the track listing into the odd compilation tape (I’m guessing we all did that too in those days), and moved on to weeks and weeks of listening to what, in retrospect, was an uninterrupted stream of the best hip hop that was ever made, (bar a few exceptions, most notably the ones influenced in turn by the artists that broke through at that time). Jeff Young was on Radio 1 every Friday night. There was no Pete Tong. There was no Dave Pierce (*shivers*). And there was definitely no Tim Westwood, save for the namecheck in the Bomb The Bass album, which was about as much of him as you could take.
It seems a sin now to think that Paul’s Boutique actually passed me by, but “Egg Man”, “3-Minute Rule” and “Shake Your Rump” were the only tracks that really registered. And again, there was a wee sniff of Ad Rock and DJ Hurricaine carrying the other two on their backs in talent terms.
It wasn’t until “Check Your Head” came out that people clocked what was going on, and even then, it was all a little bit ‘underground’ – a little bit ‘indie crossover’. Gangsta rap was just washing up on our shores and Ice T and Ice Cube were both making the gradual transition to Hollywood megastardom. The big names were taking over the world. The Beasties, meanwhile, were playing their own instruments? It was at this point I reluctantly found myself starting to like MCA, because I’m a basshead, and he, it seemed, was a bit of a dab hand on the bass, be it the bass guitar, or the double bass. It was a real feature of what was a truly unique album – even more so than “Paul’s Boutique”, for me, and the template of course for everything they did from that point on.
It was part hip hop, part hard core rock, part jazz, ehm… it was a bit like they’d taken everything that every other trendy band was trying to do (the Faith No More and Red Hot Chilli Pepper types, the grunge types, the ‘daisy age’ style rappers) and melded it into the kind of album that epitomised that aspect of that time. Everything that wasn’t some variant of house music, you know? REM might have been on the cusp of owning the Western World and its stadia, but these guys made a genuine pitch for hearts and minds, and in the process, I found myself liking MCA and Money Mark just as much as I did Ad Rock. (Mike D was still a bit of a diddy for me at that stage.)
I mean, MCA was blithering on about buddhism. The only real exposure I’d had to that kind of thing until that point was in BDP’s “Edutainment”, so a song featuring monks chanting ‘ommmmmm’ with a weird esoteric MCA lyric over the top? It was like nothing else anyone had done. It didn’t really matter whether it slotted into this or that pigeon hole – by that stage you thought “wow – this fella’s weird”, and all thoughts of mysoginist insomniac tramps went out of the window.
The big standout was, of course, “So Whatcha Want?”. It’s one of the best records ever made for me. But flippin’ ‘eck, did they not go and make a solid ‘never skip a track’ album that you could listen to again and again and never get bored of?! The little gang of diddies with the inflatable knobs and the VW gongs. Now they’re rocking the stage as a 4 piece jazz ensemble and/or punk band?
But then, of course, in 1993, the watershed came, and they became the darlings of MTV – the favourite band of every kid in the Western World that didn’t exist in a dark place.
Spike Jonze has to take a lot of the credit for that, of course, because the video for Sabotage meant it was hard wired into your head for the rest of your life, but damn was it good. And it wasn’t even hip hop! Maybe their biggest hit – is it? I’m not even sure. But the hit that you think of now when you think of the Beastie Boys… it’s not even hip hop. And it became increasingly clear that, in creative terms, a big big part of that was down to MCA.
At that time I was about to head over to the USA for a summer of fun in the sunshine, learning how to be a pizza chef in the process, and six of us spent three months living in a room with no real windows and miniscule cable telly. And what was on that telly almost every hour of the day? MTV, and by extension, “Sabotage”. As it happened, on my 41 block bus journey to the boardwalk and back each day, it was invariably “Ill Communication” on my walkman, and quite often, I’d be reading a magazine with an interview of the three of them inside. I’d get in for my shift and the manager would be muttering “Like Ma Bell, I got the Ill Communication…”. They were hot property, and the media wanted their story as much as the rest of us did. So we found out about Grand Royal (record label), and X-Large (clothing company), and the fact they were marrying Tamra Davis and Ione Skye, and the fact that they wanted to play basketball, and… well that was Ad Rock and Mike D (who was now beginning to show some personality). MCA? He was learning Kung Fu, being all buddhist and mysterious, apologising for stuff (eh? MCA?) and making big statements about human rights and whether things were all as they should be in Tibet. Eh? MCA?
From that point on, your brain clocked the fact that the most interesting stuff on Check Your Head was driven by him (go and look back at the words to “Something’s Got To Give” and “Time For Livin”). The most interesting, thought-provoking stuff. And meanwhile he was organising Free Tibet concerts, and collaborating with Lee Scratch Perry.
MCA? Yup – we knew what to expect from MCA by that point.
For me, the albums beyond “Ill Communication” kind of meld into one, as they gave the impression of ageing disgracefully (the way we should all want to do it), while being increasingly activist about the things they cared about. As a result of Handsome Boy Modelling School’s “So, How’s Your Girl?” I got to the stage where I actively liked Mike D. It took fully a decade. In fact, I’d grown a bond that strong I resented them hiring a new DJ and making a big deal about it at the time (Mixmaster Mike took the place of DJ Hurricaine). But again, it was increasingly clear from “Hello Nasty” on that MCA was the creative driving force of a very creative and driven band.
“Flowin’ Prose”, “And Me” and “I Don’t Know” were all him, and only one of them was anything you could remotely call hip hop, while all of them were concerned with cosmic shit of the kind that would put the Shamen to shame.
By then of course he was making all their videos as “Nathaniel Hornblower”, dressed as an Austrian yodeller with tweed shorts and braces and a false beard. A firmly established lovable creative nutter. Who’d have thunk it? The fella’s ongoing capacity to innovate and enlighten outlived my “Aloha Mr Hand” and “ABA All Stars” t-shirts (both covert bits of band merchandise I picked up that summer in America).
It’s a weird thing to think that with every exposure to the bloke and his mates since that time, they made me smile. They’re a band that defines every chapter in my life, and beyond the early chapters, he probably takes a lot more credit for the smiles than the other fellas do. Given his beliefs, you’d have thought he would have been a lot more relaxed about his situation than everyone else was, and that in itself makes you smile, doesn’t it? The kind of person who stares down the barrell and still smiles.
It’s very sad to see someone like that go.
RIP MCA – I’m guessing very few of us really knew you, but we enjoyed watching from afar. Here’s to an interesting and inspiring life.