I’d like to express my respect for the late MCA’s work by sharing some thoughts his passing brought to mind about an aspect of his life that many of referred to but few focus on at length, which is his interest in and practice of Buddhist teachings. I didn’t learn about Buddhism from MCA, and I practice in the Vipassana or Insight Meditation tradition, which is quite different in some respects from the Vajryana or Tibetan schools he studied in. At the time I began my own practice, I didn’t even like the Beastie Boys. It was 1985/6 and the band was at the height of their fame, if not their creative cachet, following the release of License to Ill. That record was blasting at the first party I went to where people were doing drugs and so on when I was a freshman in high school. It sounded like frat boy music to me, and some kids at school used to come up to me and say “get out of my house if you don’t cut that hair” in a way that didn’t make me wanna go out and pick up the record. I didn’t think it held up to hip-hop records I loved by Run-DMC, De La Soul and Public Enemy, anyway.
The transformation of the band out of that phase has since become something of a musical cliche, kind of like the ’90’s version of Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival. When I was in the Folk Implosion, I remember being in the offices of Mercury Records in New York for a meeting and seeing an article about the Beasties posted to the wall of a publicist’s office cubicle. It quoted the band as saying that “we look back on ourselves in those days and cringe.” It struck me at the time as the perfect thing for a publicist’s office. Their job was to help musicians change their image and message in this kind of fashion. It was a good sound bite – but it was still a sound bite.
When I did begin to listen to the Beastie Boys, I didn’t know that MCA was interested in Buddhadharma. It was 1992. Check Your Head had just come out, and I had just returned from a retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice center and community in the South of France. I had not heard Paul’s Boutique at that time and was a bit behind the curve as to the transformation the band was going through. I’d spent 6 months as an exchange student in Paris and was struggling to wrap my head around the fact that Nirvana, (the band), who I’d seen at tiny Club Babyhead in Providence the winter before, were now as big as Metallica. I had virtually no contact with the music scene while in France, apart from being lucky enough to see My Bloody Valentine on the Loveless tour at the Olympia in Paris. (Man that show was SO AWESOME!)
Back in the states, the video for So Watcha Want was getting a lot of airplay and it caught my eye. My roommate at the time hit the nail on the head when he said the genius of the video was its technical minimalism. It used just one effect without layering on multiple visual tricks that would have diluted its power. It’s a great way to understand hip-hop too. If you put a cool effect on a drum sample and put a wash of loud guitars playing bar chords over it, you won’t be able to hear the subtleties and power of the drum and bass tracks. This is the Low End Theory executed to perfection on another record that came out around that time by A Tribe Called Quest. (One of my favorite albums ever.)
I loved how the So Watcha Want video used weather disaster scenes of the type I had seen playing on a column of TV sets behind the bar Max Fish in New York. (Those scenes have a different resonance today as the climactic disaster is coming home to roost in the USA this summer, as drought threatens to inflate worldwide food prices.) The cyclones and such seemed the perfect illustration of my favorite line from the song, Mike D’s genius lyric “I think I’m losing my mind this time, said I think I’m losing my mind, that’s right, Yeah I think I’m losing my mind this time, This time, I’m losing my mind.” Or something like that:
I loved the way MCA jumped towards the camera at the start of the video. I also liked how skeptical and nonchalant he looked while staring into the camera waiting his turn at the mic. AD-Rock and Mike D looked like they were trying a bit too hard to get your attention by comparison. I like the way MCA’s voice fits into the vocal texture of the band as a whole, on all their records. His voice reminds me of a loyal and somewhat grouchy but loving dog. It’s lower tone grounds the more nasal and high pitched sounds of his cohorts. Lou once told me that Rick Rubin told Ad-Rock he should go solo after License to Ill came out, because “he was the only one who could really rap.” I think Ad-Rock was smart to stay put.
Once I heard Check Your Head from start to finish, I decided my favorite song was Jimmy James. I don’t know if MCA actually played the bass part on it. The storyline was that the band began to play their own instruments on this album, but it sounds like a sampled track to me. Whatever, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome.
It was when the next Beastie Boys album came out – Ill Communication – that I became aware the Yauch/MCA had “gotten Buddhism” (as William Burroughs once teasingly put it, referring to a fellow writer.) What I admire about the way in which the dharma changed his input into the band wasn’t so much the way he rapped directly about it in the song “Bodhisattva Vow.” I liked the song but thought it sounded a bit rote, like it was running through a checklist of things you’re supposed to say if you’re a Buddhist. I also wondered whether he was hedging his bets by disguising the vocal track under so much distortion, perhaps feeling self-conscious about how this new lyrical subject matter would go over with the band’s audience. Not to worry. The song ended up being played during the Young Adult’s Retreat at the beloved Insight Meditation Society in Barre MA.
What jumped out me more was the way in which MCA had followed through on the heart of the Mahayana tradition by translating the bodhisattva’s vows to extend wisdom and compassion to all beings into rhymes that ran against the grain of the misogyny, ageism and racism that is so endemic to our culture. I’m thinking of the lines in Sure Shot (my favorite song on the record: I don’t like the bigger hit Sabotage.) “I wanna say a little somethin’ that’s long overdue / this disrespect to women has got to be through / to all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and the friends I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.”
For reasons I will go into later in this long post, this line is more overdue within the context of the 2,500 year old tradition of Buddhism than it is within the context of the 35+ year old tradition of hip-hop. For now, let me add that anyone who has seen the color of my hair over the last decade knows I’m also a huge fan of the immortal lines, “I got more rhymes than I got gray hairs / and that’s a lot cuz I got my share.” It could be the anthem for the series of Top 40 over 40 posts I’ve been doing on this blog – except MCA was in his 30’s when he wrote it. It’s a great extension of the Buddhist tradition, which stresses the impermanence of things in general, and of things like health, youth, wealth, success in particular. In the Vipassana tradition, monks chant the 5 subjects of frequent reflection every day. They run as follows;
“I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging.
I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.
I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma,
Related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma.
Whatever kamma I shall do, for good or for ill –
Of that I will be the heir.
Thus we should frequently recollect.”
MCA said around the time of the release of this album that he wanted to use the band as a way of “sending positive energy out to all beings.” I think he did a pretty good job of that and of living according to the first and fifth of these recollections on Sure Shot. Ad-Rock has said in the press that he was impressed with how MCA was bummed but not afraid as he neared death. I can only hope my own practice brings me to that place when my time comes.
Even more necessary was MCA’s line on Alright Hear This from the Ill Communication album “As we learn to breed love for one another / In this time of melding cultures / I give respect for what’s been borrowed and lent / I know this music comes from African descent.” As the scholar Eric Lott has shown in his great book Love and Theft, this is the story of American Popular Culture right from the start. Lott’s study of the minstrel show of the 19th century asks us to confront the fact that minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment throughout this country. White appropriation of black musical culture did not begin or end with the way rock and roll grew out of the blues.
MCA’s line that pays respect to what has so often been stolen with profound disrespect isn’t just necessary because of the fact that the white Beasties were the first rap group to have a #1 hit on the Billboard charts. It’s necessary for any white artist in America, in any genre. It’s also necessary for any white citizen in this country, inasmuch as the wealth of this country was (an is) largely built on the suffering and forced and/or exploited labor of people of color.
I put myself under the microscope with regards to that since the breakup of the Folk Implosion, and while there’s a lot we did I’m proud of, I feel like I could and should have done a better job of paying the kind of respect MCA does in Alright Hear This. I didn’t really speak up about ways in which I thought the movie Kids was racist – though we talked about it while working on the soundtrack, and I conveyed some of my concerns to one of the film’s editors when he told me to slap some salsa music on a scene in which Puerto Rican youth appear. (If you’ve never read bell hooks’s essay on Kids, you should.)
I also feel like I could have done a better job of addressing the influence of hip-hop of my band’s music. It’s a theme of a book I’ve been working on that I hope to finish one day. For now, I will share the example of the following promotional video for our last album, One Part Lullaby. It embodies the Love and Theft tradition and dialectic more than I would like it to. Among certain things that pass without comment in this interview, there’s the name of the Fort Apache studio we made the Kids soundtrack. But the thing that makes me cringe the way the Beasties say they do when they look back at their frat boy days for real is the “Interscope been berry berry good to me” line. If I’m gonna write about other people’s mistakes, I feel it’s important to own up to my own, of which this is but one. It makes me kinda glad the record didn’t become a hit, cuz practically no one saw this video when it came out. (663 views on youtube.)
Returning to the topic of MCA, his well-known speech at the MTV awards ceremony on racism directed against people of the Muslim faith rings even more true in today’s endless war on terror (no capitals on purpose) than it did back in 1998 or so. It was broadcast on Democracy Now the day after he passed away.
In his book American, Slavery, American Freedom, the historian Edmund S. Morgan argues that there is no such thing as “American Freedom” without “American Slavery,” raising questions about just how free this country really is. Today writers like Angela Y. Davis and Robert Perkinson see the current system of mass incarceration as very much an extension of slavery, and write about in ways that reveal the lie behind notions that we live in a post-racial society. From these authors I learned the answer to the question, which country imprisons a higher percentage of its minority population, South Africa at the height of Apartheid, or the United States today? It’s the latter. And don’t think it’s improving under Obama. While his administration has managed to reduce the racist sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1, a) it’s still 18 to one, and b) his administration has stepped up and increased the rates at which “illegal” immigrants are arrested and put in prison in this country. (check out sites like http://www.presente.org/ for more info.)
This isn’t just a question of removing people of color from the economic and political playing field. It’s about the huge profits being raked in by private prison contractors and communities who receive tax dollars allocated based on census figures that include the prison population, who cannot vote in many states. This often amounts to a transfer of tax dollars from urban communities of color to rural white communities. The prison industry is now the number one money maker in the state of Texas. (See http://texastough.com/) In the following clip, Angela Davis shows how the growth of prisons is related to economic outsourcing. Now that the American working class lives in places like China and Bangladesh, (I’m quoting Mike Davis) many of the formerly working poor have become superfluous to the society that once depended on their labor. The double standards of the war on drugs function as a pretext for containing this potential political discontent in jails that ensure white voters retain their majority even as people of color are poised to become the majority population of this country by the year 2040:
For all the flack hip-hop catches for its supposed moral irresponsibility, it’s the only musical genre that has treated this subject in any kind of depth. (Of course, there is plenty of corporate hip-hop that treats the issue as an occasion for blaxploitation-style money making, much of it purveyed by my former employer Interscope Records.)
What I want to say about the dharma here is that I wish this topic was more often spoken of in Buddhist communities. It’s also heartening to me that issues of racism in Buddhist communities are being addressed now in a way they were not in the 1990’s. There are now retreats for people of color at IMS, and centers like the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland that are in the vanguard of teaching on this issue. Buddhism is a big thing, with lots of people in it that disagree about stuff. I recently saw a video clip from a Buddhist conference on the website of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that talked about a contrast between what the BPF and others refer to as “engaged Buddhism” – (see semi-trustworthy Wikipedia:
Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.
– and Buddhism that is less interested in social justice issues, and more prone to being reduced to a branch of the self-help movement.
Buddhist practice is much more popular and “mainstream” than when I took it up. It’s weird to me how this parallels the difference between the indie rock of 1985 and the indie rock of 2012. Much as the phenomenon of Arcade Fire topping the charts runs the risk of watering down the music, Richard Gere’s discussions of Buddhism with David Letterman and Barbara Walters runs the risk of watering down the dharma. One of the teachers I studied with, Larry Rosenberg of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society, used to joke about “the good old days when no one was interested in this stuff.” On a more serious note, he said in an interview that “there’s such a tendency for everything to become trivialized and commodified in this country. I worry that will happen to the dharma as it takes root in the West.”
One way in which I and some yogis I know feel this is happening is the complicated relationship between Buddhism and various kinds of therapeutic and self-help movements. On the one hand, a healthy nexus has been established between the therapeutic and dharma communities that was sorely lacking (I am told by older students and teachers) in the 60’s and 70’s, when a series of sex scandals rocked various practice centers such as the one Chogyam Trungpa set up in Colorado. On the other hand, students coming to Buddhism after hearing about it from folks like the great John Kabat-Zinn who have brought the practice of mindfulness into mainstream medicine via the DSM-IV sounding acronym MBSR (midnfulness based stress reduction) sometimes view the pursuit of liberation in a narrowly personal way.
My sister, who is a serious dharma student, once referred to this phenomenon as “gettin’ comfy.” She meant to say that practices and teachings can be applied superficially to attain a beginning level of calm through meditation that can be mistaken for the final destination, instead of the first step. The Thai teacher Achaan Chah used to make fun of western monks who were obsessed with tranquility and calm. He said that the hippies that came to study in his monastery in the ’60’s and ’70’s were too focused on what Buddhism calls Samadhi, a state of concentrated attention that can sometimes bring you to states of bliss that aren’t really the goal of Buddhist practice. These young students were motivated by a mindset Larry Rosenberg once parodied with the one-liner, “we just wanted to get high.” Today, Larry could see that this mindset was another manifestation of the consumer culture he grew up in. Westerners wanted to accumulate states of rapture the way they were raised to hoard capital. Achaan Chah redirected them by asking, “are you calm enough to see it?” He taught that calm and concentration were tools that made the investigation into the roots of suffering that is the heart of Buddhism possible. It is not an end in itself. The point is to uproot greed, hatred and delusion and cultivate wisdom and compassion. As Achaan Chah’s student Ajahn Sumedho once said, to follow through in this intention at some point requires that one “endure through the seemingly unendurable.” It’s not like a yoga class given at a resort hotel.
The left wing critic Slavoj Zizek (who I’ve never read for reasons that can be summarized by saying there’s a reason he’s called “the Elvis of critical theory”) has written that Buddhism has become the ideal ideology for capitalism at this point in history. It’s teachings on impermanence can be used to avoid confronting the suffering caused by the greed, hatred and delusion of the financial elites that run the globalization economy. If you lose your pension or your job due to Wall Street speculation, you can turn to the reflections on emptiness as a way of avoiding looking at painful truths about the causes and conditions that led to those losses. Here’s an interesting video from a recent Buddhist workship in which David Loy refers to Zizek’s criticisms as in part justified. He sees the engaged Buddhist movement as one that’s in the minority on the contemporary US dharma scene. You could say that he wishes there were more yogis like Adam Yauch who spoke out about “multinationals spreading like a rash.” (No Shame In My Game, from Hello Nasty).
Like I said, I didn’t know MCA and have not studied in the Tibetan tradition. But I was impressed as I watched how he began to talk about the dharma publicly that he never presented it as an escapist practice. It’s been quite something to see the kinds of tributes that have been written about him since his death. They seem to be motivated by the positive energy MCA put out through his music with respect to social and spiritual issues.
Some things I observed about how his practice was presented in the press back in the ’90’s made me decide I didn’t want to make my own practice a topic for discussion in interviews and such The Folk Implosion did in the second half of the 1990’s. I’d like to say a little bit more about that, and flesh out what I said above about the relevance of MCA’s line about disrespect to women to the Buddhist tradition. But it’s gettin’ late and this post has gotten for too long as it is. So for now I send metta to MCA and his family and friends, and thanks for some amazing music.
for a look at non celebrities who embody these values w/o getting blog posts from x indie rockers, check out