Adam Yauch: White rapper who went from novelty act to genre-bending pioneer

Accused of appropriating rap music, Yauch likened it to the Rolling Stones playing the Blues

Adam "MCA" Yauch was a founder-member of the Beastie Boys, the white rap group who burst into the mainstream with their  rowdy, tongue-in-cheek  anthem "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" and the nine-million selling debut album Licensed To Ill in 1987. He then did more than his bandmates, Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, to dispel the notion that the three Jewish New Yorkers were just cocky cartoon characters jumping on the hip-hop bandwagon.

Within a couple of years, they had left their novelty hit behind them, as well as the leeriness of "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" and "She's On It", and embarked on an idiosyncratic career that delivered the occasional, irresistible, crunching chart biggie – "Sabotage" in 1994, "Intergalatic" in 1998, "Ch-Check It Out" in 2004 – and No 1 albums – Ill Nation (1994), Hello Nasty (1998) and To The 5 Boroughs (2004). They also made the most of their magpie, maverick instincts as they headlined Lollapalooza and launched their own label and a glossy magazine – both called Grand Royal – that dared to put the Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry on its cover.

Yauch was the most benevolent, thoughtful and multi-talented of the triumvirate who paved the way for the likes of Eminem, the Avalanches and Andrew WK, and often the originator of their most left-field ideas, wittiest rhymes – delivered in his gravelly voice – and funniest disguises. "You can learn a huge amount about yourself and other people by being in disguise," he said. "We were just doing it as a goof, but you put on some outfit and it totally affects the way people perceive you."

He practised Tibetan Buddhism, incorporated Buddhist chants and messages into the group's music and helped organise several Tibetan Freedom Concerts around the world. He wrote humorous letters to the New York Times, while under the Nathanial Hörnblowér pseudonym he directed several Beasties videos that were jammed with playful references to pulp and pop culture.

He also directed Awesome; I Fuckin' Shot That!, an imaginative film assembled after giving camcorders to 50 Beasties fans at their Madison Square Garden show in 2004, as well as a basketball documentary in 2008, Gunnin' For That No. 1 Spot, and several shorts. The most recent, Fight For Your Right Revisited, featured a posse of famous friends and spoofed the clip that had accompanied the group's breakthrough hit 25 years earlier.

Born in Brooklyn in 1964, he was the only child of a New York architect and a schools administrator who were not too concerned when he dropped out of Bard College in upstate New York after two years. Influenced by the positive, powerful punk rock of The Clash and US hardcore bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat, he picked up a bass guitar and joined Diamond, guitarist John Berry and drummer Kate Schellenbach – later of Luscious Jackson – in the original line-up of the Beastie Boys.

They made their live debut on his 17th birthday, and in 1982 contributed two tracks to the ROIR compilation cassette New York Thrash and released Polly Wog Stew, a self-financed EP that packed a Ramones-beating eight tracks into just 11 minutes. The following year Horovitz replaced Berry and they started to move from hardcore into scratching, sound collage, dub and rap with their second EP, Cooky Puss.

In 1984 they lost Schellenbach and teamed up with New York University student Rick Rubin, who had produced and issued "It's Yours" by Jazzy Jay and T La Rock on his Def Jam label. Rubin became DJ Double R, on the "wheels of steel", for their live shows, but more importantly the producer who masterminded the Beasties' collision of metal and rap on the AC/DC-sampling "Rock Hard" and Licensed To Ill.

In 1985 they supported Madonna on her first US tour but her audience didn't seem ready to accept "three talentless urchins who pranced around making lewd gestures", as one reviewer put it. Despite the promotional might of Columbia, by then Def Jam's distributor, the first four Beasties singles made only the lower reaches of the R&B charts.

However, "Fight For Your Right" tapped into the frat-pack "party hearty" mentality it was meant to lampoon, and briefly turned the Beasties into tabloid fodder. Their fans stole Volkswagen signs off cars to wear on chains in imitation of Diamond; Horovitz was arrested for throwing a beer can at a member of the audience in Liverpool. Their European tour featured go-go dancers in cages and an inflatable penis. The Beasties also attracted criticism for appropriating an African-American genre of music. "I kind of think of it like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin playing the blues," Yauch responded.

In 1988 the Beasties left Rubin and Def Jam. "It was fun being 'stupid'. Nothing wrong with that," Yauch said of their early hits. They signed to Capitol, moved to Los Angeles, changed musical tack and collaborated with the Dust Brothers on the sample-heavy Paul's Boutique. It spawned only one minor hit, "Hey Ladies", but is now acknowledged as a genre-bending masterpiece.

The Beasties added electro, jazz and psychedelia to their potent hip-hop brew but occasionally reverted to their original guitar/bass/drums format, an approach that paid dividends on "Sabotage" in 1994 and the all-instrumental album The Mix-Up in 2007, on which Yauch also played double bass.

In 2007, Yauch produced Build A Nation, the comeback album by Bad Brains. Oscilloscope Laboratories, the company he started in 2002, produced and distributed films such as We Need To Talk About Kevin in the US. He was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2009 and was unable to attend the Beasties' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month.

Adam Nathaniel Yauch, rapper, bassist, songwriter, producer, director: born New York 5 August 1964; married 1998 Dechen Wangdu (one daughter); died New York 4 May 2012.

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