Last week, after learning that Adam "MCA" Yauch of the Beastie Boys had died at 47, Gawker asked sometimes Deadspin contributor Peter Nash—also known as Prime Minister Pete Nice of 3rd Bass—to share his thoughts about MCA's legacy and being a white MC during the golden age of New York hip hop. He obliged.
Adam "MCA" Yauch and I had a few things in common. We shared a record label for a minute, along with some managers and a mess of mutual friends. We were also two white MCs in the ‘80s—Yauch with the Beastie Boys, and me with 3rd Bass—and that was enough to give way to beef between our crews.
The golden age of New York rap ended a long time ago, and with MCA's death I'm reminded of what's already been relegated to the milk crates—all those vinyl records in their distinct burgundy-and-black Def Jam 12-inch covers. I had never really known Yauch. When I heard that he passed last Friday, all I could really recall was having taken a picture of him and Flavor Flav (both wearing yarmulkes) at our manager Lyor Cohen's wedding in the Dominican Republic in 1988. Back in the day, I'd bumped into him at the Milky Way or Hotel Amazon on Rivington Street when Public Enemy was performing.
The rest was all on the mic. MC Serch and I had clashed with the Beastie Boys ever since Licensed To Ill was released on Def Jam. One thing about white MCs is that we all have chips on our shoulders bigger than Chubb Rock and Heavy D combined. No other white boy could have been the first to rhyme before you; no other white boy could have been nicer on the mic than you; no other white boy could have rocked fresher Nike kicks from Jew-Man than you. And no other white kid could have been the original b-boy to show his pale face at NorthMore to see the Funky Four or at the Latin Quarters later on to see Scott La Rock and KRS-One. Back then, seeing a white boy at a New York City nightspot was like a Sasquatch sighting. Saying you were in the spot was like a badge of honor. And as far as we were concerned, we were the only white boys in the room.
MC Serch and I had friends who'd grown up with and gone to school with Ad-Rock and Mike D at St. Ann's in the Heights. Mark Pearson, my college roommate at Columbia, and his boys John Merz (later known as the Reanimator) and Dan Kealy (later known as MC Disagree) had always considered themselves hip-hop connoisseurs way before Ad-Rock and Mike-D were down. Blake Lethem was another friend who'd grown up with Pearson and Merz, and was known in Fort Greene as Kid Benneton (and years later served as the inspiration for the protagonist in his brother Jonathan's Fortress of Solitude). Lethem was one of the original white MCs. He later went to Manhattan's High School of Music and Art with Serch, Slick Rick, and Dana Dane. Almost by osmosis, Serch and I absorbed the white b-boy angst of each of those characters, and when we joined forces working with producer Sam Sever and Def Jam and Rush rep Dante Ross — two more early pale-faced hip hop figures with ties to the Beastie Boys — we were primed to erupt. Ever since the Beastie Boys blew up in the summer of 1986, all we'd heard was that we weren't them. Record labels had no idea how to perceive our music on its own.
But it was also around this time that the Beasties and their producer, Rick Rubin, were falling out with Def Jam, and Russell Simmons had just put me and Serch on the Rush artist roster. In just a matter of time, we signed with Def Jam and recorded a Beastie Boys dis record called "Sons of 3rd Bass." "Counterfeit style, born sworn and sold out with high voice distorted," I rapped in the second verse, "If a Beast'll wish play fetus, I'd have him aborted." I saw Ad-Rock at a barbershop near Canal Street not long after and we didn't even exchange words.
Our mugs soon showed up on the cover of the Village Voice. "White Rappers," the headline read, "Beyond the Beastie Boys: 3rd Bass Breaks the Street Barrier." Soon after, the Beastie Boys released Paul's Boutique on their own label and to much lower sales than their Def Jam debut. People said they'd fallen off; others thought we were just a creation of Russell and Lyor to fill the void they'd left at Def Jam.
A few years later, MCA took his own shots at Serch on "Professor Booty." "You should have never started something that you couldn't finish," he wrapped, "'Cause writin' rhymes to me is like Popeye to spinach."
Through it all, though, I never had any beef with MCA as an artist, or as a person. Sam Sever had always told me he was cool people, and that was good enough for me. In fact, I always felt that MCA's grizzled voice and persona gave the Beastie Boys their real hip hop sensibility, which was something white MCs always had to fight for. This past weekend I listened to a 2008 interview MCA did with Serch in which he said a big influence on his rhyming was Spoonie G's 1979 record "Spoonin' Rap," and you can so clearly hear that influence in his early rhymes. In reality, and despite whatever the Voice cover said, the Beasties had already broken the perceived "street barrier" for white artists performing in a black medium: their 12-inch single off of Licensed in 1986, "Hold it Now, Hit It," had done the job. The record got major play on KISS-FM and WBLS with tons of spins by Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, Mr. Magic, and Marley Marl. For any MC at that time, white or black, recognition like that on the Friday or Saturday mix-shows was the epitome of success.
And for white MCs, it wasn't easy. Bill Adler, the publicist/in-house psychologist for Def Jam and Rush, was around to see us — along with other white MCs—struggle for radio play. He talked about Yauch over the weekend and nailed what I think is MCA's musical legacy:
Yauch was the best conventional rapper of the three guys, he's the one who sounded most like a "rapper" as far as I'm concerned but he was also a musician and he was a producer, so he always had a strong hand in the production of the band's recording and I think his personal journey must've had its affect on his two partners as well.
What Adler was really saying is that Yauch sounded black. He had a voice and cadence that made him sound like the other MCs on the scene. He could blend in. The Beasties could never have conquered the pop music scene without the quick wit and Jerry Lewis moves brought to the table by MCA's rhyming counterparts. What Mike D and Ad-Rock brought to the Beastie Boys shaped their identity, for sure but without MCA's authentic voice and sound, could they really have recorded a track like "Hold It Now, Hit It"?
After "Fight For Your Right to Party" blew up, every A&R rep was looking for something similar: White Boy Rap/Rock shit. To put it in perspective, the concept of a white kid rhyming—let alone making records—was nonexistent in the early '80s. And outside of a small group of people scattered throughout New York's five boroughs, the white audience for hip hop was similarly scarce. Serch and I both started out rhyming off a hammered-out beat on lunchroom tables. The kids we hung out with happened to be black. Eventually, we started writing rhymes, and it took some time before we had the swagger to actually perform them or even battle other MCs. If you were whack, you'd know soon enough from the response you got.
When the Beasties and Serch each dropped their first records, nobody was really making videos—so the kids listening would just assume the records were by black artists. My old manager, the late Lumumba Carson (also known as Professor X of X-Clan) and others often said that if you didn't have a visual on me and Serch—if you only heard us on the radio or in the club—you'd think we were black. Still, we had trouble evading the stigma our whiteness carried. It wasn't even until our record, Steppin' To The A.M., played on Video Music Box that people's heads got fucked up by the fact that we were white. No one could just try to sound black—you either had it or you didn't. You were nice or you were the proverbial sucker MC.
MCA was nice. In 1986, as Adler recognized, he and the Beastie Boys joined Run-DMC on the infamous Raising Hell tour. It was a seminal moment in their career:
I remember the Beastie Boys go out at the bottom of the bill on the Raising Hell Tour in 1986—It's Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Whodini—and the Beastie Boys scampered out for 25 minutes at the beginning of the night every time. They were playing nothing but arenas and the crowd was about 95 percent black, so you'd imagine that that'd be a tough crowd for the Beastie Boys, but they went out and the music was strong and the performance was strong and they made friends every single night all summer long. It was not a problem, they were accepted because they were wonderful.
Years later, Yauch and the Beastie Boys ended up reinventing themselves and became as much a part of the alternative rock landscape as full-fledged musicians who transcended their early roots in hip-hop. Still, they recognized their debt to black music and the audiences that welcomed them on that first Raising Hell tour. On those stages, MCA experienced what only a select few white MCs could ever lay claim to: he moved the crowd alongside the likes of Run, D and Jay, LL, Jalil, Ecstasy, and Grandmaster Dee. 'Nuf said.
MCA did it all in his career. Aside from the NYC radio play or the Run-DMC tour, the only marker that might have had similar career importance was having your own record jump off at the city clubs. One night, I remember, I went to the Latin Quarters with Lumumba to see Just-Ice perform his hits, "Latoya" and "Gangster of Hip-Hop." Before the show, "Hold It Now" blared on the house speakers, and DMX, Just-Ice's human beat-box, approached me. He gave me a pound and a hug and then complimented me on the song. He thought I was MCA, I realized.
At the time, I was still waiting on my own record; being mistaken for MCA was salt on a deep open wound. But now it feels different—like an induction into some obscure fraternal order of cracker MC's. An Elk's Club for white boys who rhymed on records for Def Jam.
Lumumba just laughed his ass off. "All of you white boys look alike."
Peter Nash, formerly Prime Minister Pete Nice of Def Jam's 3rd Bass, is the author of two baseball books and also writes for Haulsofshame.com. He is currently working on his upcoming book, Hauls of Shame: The Cooperstown Conspiracy and the Madoff of Memorabilia.