The closest I’ve come to reaching an understanding with death is this: death is a long echo. It’s deafening at first and as soon as you think the echo has faded, some thing comes along and pings it back into your life. And when death creeps into music it’s like an echo chamber. Maybe it rattles in the rests of Jeff Buckley songs, or lives inside Notorious B.I.G.’s words, or hangs on every Elliott Smith note. Chuck Klosterman tried to write about the mysticism of death in rock ‘n’ roll in his book Killing Yourself To Live, only to admit defeat and come up short in the end. It eludes musicians until they meet it by hedonism or by accident, and if they think that death renders their art inert, they are sorely mistaken. It can’t, it won’t, and it doesn’t stop.
I do know this much to be true: song for song the Beastie Boys have the best beat drops in rap. I know this because I’ve spent the last year living by myself with no one around to judge me when I put on “Putting Shame In Your Game” and throw my hand in the air sitting here on my couch yelling at an undermined volume underneath my headphones, “Beastie Beastie Beastie Beastie Boys getting live on the spot!” Just acting a fool if you can even imagine.
To my ears, those preambles and drops are some of the most captivating moments in music. Five seconds of ancillary noise or a little moment of tension before something funky goes down. They’re quick and if you’re not trained in from the very beginning you’ll miss it. It’s Ad Rock screaming a long hello to Brooklyn, it’s MCA counting down from four to one, it’s Mike D coming through with the sure shot, or it’s all three letting us know that the tempo is: slow and low. Life will disappear for a second and when the beat mmmmmm drops my apartment becomes a sweaty house party with a keg in the corner and my parents gone until next week. Every beat drop I throw my right hand in the air with the “that’s fucking right that beat just dropped” gesture and hardly anything makes me happier.
This has been my favorite thing about the Beastie Boys since I was 12, and since Adam Yauch died a year ago I’ve found that even through all the joy they bring, death is loud and living and right next to me every time I listen, echoing off all the life in their songs.
At first I didn’t want it there. There’s practically nothing morbid about the Beastie Boys, and of all the places where death would embed itself, this surely was the most hostile environment it could find. Maybe it would just slink off and be silent like death is supposed to be — a void, an absence, a cipher. Maybe this one time it would just shut up already.
But losing one member of a trio is a bizarre thing in music. There’s so much of who the Beasties are that is still here today, and there’s so much that is gone. MCA was the hypotenuse to Ad Rock and Mike D — a little more spiritual, a little more sage, and a little older since track one. Still, it’s not quantitative, there’s no math, no way to officially mark what has left. The band lost much more than a bassist, even though they lost their bassist. That’s what puts MCA’s absence into such a confounding headspace: I don’t know who the Beastie Boys are without him, but I know they’re still the Beastie Boys — same but different. I’m in a protracted state of mourning and unrest, perpetuated by the far-off chance that maybe Ad Rock and Mike D will carry on in some way to keep the band alive.
Listening to Beastie Boys for the past year has been like listening to Mike D and Ad Rock trying to keep the Beastie Boys alive.
Losing an integral member of a trio is not totally unique. Eleven years ago — almost to the day — TLC suffered a similar loss when Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes died in a car accident in Honduras. In many ways, she was the hypotenuse to Chili and T-Boz — an outlier like MCA. Left Eye was always the one to rap whether it was a nod to Positive K in “Kick Your Game” or the praying for “clear, blue, unconditional skies” in “Waterfalls”. She and MCA, though just parts of the whole, had such singular voices it’s hard to imagine carrying on without them.
Nevertheless, TLC plan to go on tour this year using a projection of Left Eye in her corporeal stead, and plan to record another album this year (with none other than Drake). Maybe the echoes have stopped ringing for Left Eye, or maybe TLC’s storied financial troubles (relayed by their ersatz accountant Left Eye in the VH1 Behind The Music special on the group) have come to the fore. There’s any number of reasons why TLC can do this now, 11 years later.
That’s partially why I remain in this limbo state with Beastie Boys stuck in the middle with MCA’s ghost still there. There’s something so interminable and everlasting about MCA, but I know that he’s not there. He’s still loud on the mic, he still echoes. For years I’ve become acclimated to hearing “Body Movin'” without it even coming close to making me think about my own mortality. Death is not taken in caprice. Death reminds you of mortality, when so much of music – especially the Beastie Boys — is there to make you feel alive, even immortal.
For I am a bard but not the last one,
I’m my own king and this is my castle,
Dwell in realms of now but live in those of the past,
Seen a glimpse from ahead and I don’t think it’s gonna last.
And you can bet your ass.
-MCA, “A Year and a Day”
Photo by Dale W. Eisinger, taken at Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn.