Adam Yauch, who helped make hip-hop a worldwide cultural force as one-third of the breakthrough crossover group The Beastie Boys, has died after battling cancer. He was 47.
The band's publicist said in a statement that he died in his native New York City on Friday morning. Yauch, also a film director who co-founded the distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories and an organizer of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, was first diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his left salivary gland in 2009.
With bandmates Mike D (Michael Diamond) and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), Yauch started the Beastie Boys in the late 1970s as a hardcore punk outfit.
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But they evolved into a sneering, comedic rap group that, under the guidance of producer Rick Rubin, broke through by mixing hip-hop beats and classic guitar riffs -- the same formula often employed by Run-DMC, their labelmates on Rubin and Russell Simmons' Def Jam Records.
The Beastie Boys' lighthearted approach -- and whiteness in a genre dominated by African-Americans -- helped them achieve mainstream success at a time when hip-hop was often dismissed as urban braggadocio set to music, despite the artistry behind it. MTV's heavy rotation of the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)," and Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" helped expose millions of young people to hip-hop for the first time, paving the way for every massive act that has come since, from Public Enemy to Kanye West to Eminem.
But the Beastie Boys became one of the longest-lasting groups the genre has produced, by evolving constantly. While their breakthrough record, "License to Ill," was full of fratty party jams, their follow-up, "Paul's Boutique," was one of the first albums to recognize the vast potential of aggressive, whimsical, multi-layered sampling. It made so many lists of "underrated" hip-hop albums in the '90s that it eventually shed that status. For the follow-up, "Check Your Head," Yauch and his bandmates played their own instruments, deftly combining hip-hop, grunge, jazz and psychedelia.
As the group continued to experiment over the next two decades -- and pack stadiums -- Yauch branched out into directing and philanthropy.
A Buddhist, he was a founder of the Milarepa Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting awareness and activism about the Chinese government's unjust treatment of Tibetans. In 1996, Milarepa produced the first Tibetan Freedom Concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which was attended by 100,000 people, making it the biggest U.S.-based benefit concert since 1985’s Live Aid. Converts continued over the next decade in New York City, Washington, Tokyo, Sydney, Amsterdam, Taipei and other cities.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Milarepa organized New Yorkers Against Violence, a benefit headlined by Beastie Boys for the New York Women’s Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Association for New Americans. Both were chosen because they were seen as less likely to receive support than other groups in need.
Under the alias Nathanial Hörnblowér, he directed several videos for his group, and later helmed the Beasties' 2006 concert film "Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!" He also directed the 2008 basketball documentary "Gunnin' for That #1 Spot," and founded Oscilloscope in the same year.
He said after his cancer diagnoses in 2009 that it was "very treatable," and the group delayed tour plans and the release of its album "Hot Sauce Committee Part 1," which was finally released last year in slightly different form as "Hot Sauce Committee Part 2."
He is survived by his wife and daughter.
For big-time fans, here is a 29-minute version of the band's hit, "Fight For Your Right to Party":
Photo: Getty Images