RIP Adam Yauch: Some Personal Memories

I am sure I can’t add anything to all the professional obituaries of Adam Yauch, so I thought I’d add something a little more personal. Back in the early to mid-1980s, there were two musical movements happening in New York City that were important and influential to me and my friends (among many many others, of course). One, the Two Tone ska revival was destined to remain a subculture, albeit one that we embraced heartily. The second was Hip Hop.

As soon as we heard Rapper’s Delight, we were hooked and in those relatively early days of the genre, as some clubs slowly morphed from the discotheque model to a more hip hop-centered experience, it wasn’t unusual to see blacks, whites and Latinos all in the same club.

Not to digress too much into the economic and cultural makeup of New York in the early to mid-1980s, but it was certainly a different time and I found myself in a complicated social world that somehow merged my left-wing, hippy/socialist summer camp (Thoreau-in-Vermont) with the private school I attended (The United Nations International School, aka UNIS) and the NYC ska and hip hop communities. NYC was (and is) a large place, but if you were in certain high schools and of a certain mindset, your orbits were large, inclusive and on the surface or to an outsider, contradictory. Didn’t seem that way to us, though.

A meager attempt to diagram this: several NYC ska bands had members in my school, two girls in my school dated two of the Beastie Boys (you can spot them here, fighting for their right to party) and some of my friends from summer camp would, on occasion, play football and socialize with them.

To say that The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show blew our minds would be an understatement and they both revolutionized hip hop. First of all, they were the first two rap albums that many of us had heard guitars on, which was no small musical feat. Granted, The PE album was far more musically ambitious, but the Beasties would catch up pretty quickly. Secondly…three white guys (who some of us actually knew) rapping and doing it well. To be honest, no one thought it was possible.

It was almost like they were two sides of the same coin. The Beastie Boys for when it was time to go out and drink, dance, party and celebrate being young and PE for when you felt a little more angry at the system and wanted to rage agains The Man. They were both NYC to the core and both made my transition that year from high school to college a little easier.

As Adam and I got older, our paths would occasionally if not cross, run parallel for a few minutes and then he started working in film, starting Oscilloscope Laboratories. Unfortunately, after a few brief meetings at parties in high school, before either of us were anywhere near who we would become, I never met him again. We clearly developed similar outlooks on things like human rights and I love the fact that he started an honest-to-goodness indie distributor in the days when most others had been gobbled up or closed. I’d like to think that we would have gotten along and I’m certain I am not alone in thinking that his death is a terrible loss to music, film and the world in general.

Adam Yauch’s death might be the first of a contemporary music idol of mine, “contemporaries” in that we sort of grew up together. Not literally of course, but we were roughly the same age, had many of the same cultural influences as kids, were from the same city and ran in some of the same circles, both then and now. I am sure part of my reaction is a reflection on my own mortality and that’s to be expected. His passing is hitting me much harder than I would have imagined but I’m ok with that.

Rest in Peace, Adam Yauch.

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