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Remembering Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys’ on-and-off relationship with college radio

Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, of the Beastie Boys passed away from cancer today at the age of 47. Although I knew Yauch had been battling cancer for the last few years, the news still hit me as a shock. I started to think about how my relationship to Yauch and his bandmates’ music owed a lot to my experience with college radio, and the band’s own on-and-off relationship with the college airwaves.

I was in high school when the Beastie Boys major label debut first hit MTV. Their snotty combination of hip-hop rhythms and hard rock riffs quickly found its way into my walkman rotation. What I didn’t know then is that “Licensed to Ill” was a step forward from their “Cooky Puss” EP, which was more of a rap parody, but also an underground hit of sorts on college radio stations across the country. Licensed to Ill, on the other hand, was a pure mainstream pop success, and so was mostly unwelcome on indie-centric college stations.

As I discovered more punk, underground metal and indie rock the Beastie’s appeal wore off for me. By the time I graduated high school Licensed to Ill had been pushed to the back of my box of tapes. In 1989 I started college and joined my school’s station WTSR. That fall I was surprised to find a copy of the Beastie Boys’ second album “Paul’s Boutique” (on vinyl) in the heavily-played new bin. I hadn’t yet heard the record myself, and hardly expected it to be embraced by this staff of very selective DJs. But then one of the veteran DJs assured me that it was very different from “Fight for your Right (To Party),” enthusing about the dense tapestry of beats and samples woven together by the Beasties and their producers, the Dust Brothers. Indeed, this was a significant departure, helping to usher in a brief period of intricately creative sampling in hip-hop that would quickly be undone by copyright lawsuits just a few years later. However, many in the music industry considered the album a commercial failure initially because it didn’t sell as many units or chartedas high as their debut.

A couple of years later I was well steeped in my college station and the so-called “college rock” music that was quickly morphing into a more commercial version called alternative rock. Early in ’92 there was new buzz around the Beasties because word was that they had picked up instruments again for the new album which would combine rap with their punk rock roots. That album, “Check Your Head,” also became a college radio hit. The growing influence of college radio on commercial alternative rock helped the album cross over and push that album to #10 on the Billboard albums chart, higher than “Paul’s Boutique,” but still shy of “Licensed to Ill”‘s #1 peak and 146-week run on the Top 200 album chart.

By the time their fourth album “Ill Communication” dropped in 1994 the rock mainstream and MTV were once again ready for the Beastie Boys, propelled in part by Yauch’s blossoming as a uniquely talented music video director. This made the album the first big pop success since their first, but also helped push them out of college radio and back onto commercial stations.

Very few artists have traveled back and forth from the graces of college radio like the Beastie Boys. More typically a band gets its start on the left-end of the dial, but once it crosses over there’s no journey back, no matter how few albums it sells after its commercial peak. But by experimenting and searching for new forms of expression that were still compatible with their wise-ass demeanor, Adam Yauch and his fellow Boys managed to find a home on college airwaves after what could otherwise have been a one-hit-wonder album. The exposure and airplay college stations gave the Beastie Boys the opportunity to jump back into the commercial spotlight once the mainstream had caught up with them.

Adam Yauch will be most remembered for the Beastie Boys, but he was also an activist for peace and Tibetan freedom, as well as an accomplished flimmaker and producer. He will be missed.

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One Response to Remembering Adam Yauch and the Beastie Boys’ on-and-off relationship with college radio

  1. John Anderson May 4, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    Indeed. WBCR (Beloit College) used to use Cooky Puss as the music bed for its request-line promo. That was my introduction, and I’ve been a fan since.

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