COVER ART: World B. Omes (David Gambale)
Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill
IN future weeks...
IN THIS PHOTO: The Beastie Boys/PHOTO CREDIT: Lynn Goldsmith/Getty Images
I am eager to feature other Hip-Hop classics in this feature. I have already included Beastie Boys before but I have not dissected Licensed to Ill. It might have been more appropriate to include Paul’s Boutique here as, in July, it turns thirty. I have featured that album a few times so I thought it was a good idea to concentrate on another album that sounds great on vinyl. Make sure you buy a vinyl copy and let the magic take over you! Many prefer the expanse, sheer audacity and legacy of Paul’s Boutique because, as albums go, it did not fare that well at the start - and many did not expect the Beastie Boys to release a second. I recall listening to Licensed to Ill as a child because it had these great raps, fun songs and memorable lines. I was aware of other great Hip-Hop albums as a child but nothing quite like Beastie Boys’ debut. Depending on where you feel Hip-Hop’s golden age begun, you have to include Licensed to Ill in the beginning. I think 1986 was the start of things and, alongside Raising Hell by Run-D.M.C., there was something in the air – it would take another couple of years before Hip-Hop reached its true peak. The world was not quite prepared for these cocky and funny guys who were mixing juvenile humour with some of the slickest and most cutting lines around.
The boys’ experimental tendencies and crate-digging allure would materialise more explicitly on Paul’s Boutique but there were samples a-plenty of Licensed to Ill! There are so many great moments of the Beastie Boys’ debut. Kerry King (of Slayer) shreds it on No Sleep Till Brooklyn which, in itself; is a monster song. I think it is the best song on the record and sort of defines what Beastie Boys were all about. The trio released seven singles from Licensed to Ill and you can understand why they did that. Paul Revere has ‘single’ written all over it and how can one refute the allure of The New Style?! We also were treated to (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party) and its cool video; the exceptional Brass Monkey and the aforementioned No Sleep Till Brooklyn. I will come to look at reviews and the legacy of Licensed to Ill but, when you think about each song and how packed they are, it sort of takes the breath! The opening track, Rhymin & Stealin creates a conversation among Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and The Clash – When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin) and I Fought the Law (The Clash) would sound unnatural spliced by other bands but the Beastie Boys made it work wonderfully! The New Style brings in Trouble Funk whilst one can hear Fat Larry’s Band and Steve Miller Band on Slow Ride; some delicious Matronix on Paul Revere and everyone from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Kool & The Gang on the closer, Time to Get Ill.
One of the reasons why I love sampling so much is because you get the original song but they are augmented and made fascinating by hearing other artists’ voices on them. Look back at all the classic Hip-Hop albums and (the creators) dug deep into the crates and fused disparate voices to create something explosive, eclectic and sense-altering. I love how these pioneers preserved forgotten artists and reintroduced older sounds to new listeners through their visor. It not only means we get to hear unconnected artists/sounds spliced naturally and to great effect but it means you discover artists you might not have otherwise of heard. Beastie Boys ran into a bit of strife regarding copyright and clearance when they released Paul’s Boutique – overloaded as it is with sample – but that was an inherent danger when it came to sampling. A few Hip-Hop groups got into trouble for not getting clearance but one can forgive them because of the results and their intentions: not to rip anyone off but make this incredible music that sounds like nothing else. There are few more confident debuts than Licensed to Ill. One is blown away by the energy, confidence and sheer talent of the Beastie Boys right from the start on 15th November, 1986. There was not a lot of similar music around and, aside from Run-D.M.C. and Eric B. & Rakim – whose landmark debut, Paid in Full, arrived the year after – Beastie Boys were in a league of their own.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Levine/Getty Images
Some might write off a lot of the songs because they are quite juvenile and lack the sort of authority they would hone on their next album. Whilst the original title pitched for Licensed to Ill was scrapped because of its homophobic connotations – I shall not print it here – the band knew that was a mistake and they did sort themselves out soon enough. I think it is unfair to dismiss the debut album from the Beastie Boys as being a bit immature and slight: in actuality, it is a fantastic album that sounds more impressive and nuanced now than it did back in 1986. Contemporary reviews are largely positive and, as AllMusic wrote in 2011, there is a lot to love about Licensed to Ill:
“There hasn't been a funnier, more infectious record in pop music than this, and it's not because the group is mocking rappers (in all honesty, the truly twisted barbs are hurled at frat boys and lager lads), but because they've already created their own universe and points of reference, where it's as funny to spit out absurdist rhymes and pound out "Fight for Your Right (To Party)" as it is to send up street corner doo wop with "Girls." Then, there is the overpowering loudness of the record -- operating from the axis of where metal, punk, and rap meet, there never has been a record this heavy and nimble, drunk on its own power yet giddy with what they're getting away with...
Pitchfork approached things from a slightly different direction when reviewing the album:
“Okay, so it isn't the music or all the rhymes that translate beyond the scene of the crime. What, then? Probably just that the Beasties didn't give a fuck-- AND AMERICA DESPERATELY NEEDED TO BE SHOWN HOW NOT TO GIVE A FUCK. And it sort of still does. Licensed to Ill demonstrated that you could be "groundbreaking" and "important," and still have no goals beyond getting drunk before 6th period. Think about that. It meant that you could live life as one giant inside joke, speaking in tongues and making hilarious references to Chef Boyardee with no one outside your circle of jerks the wiser. Sorry ma, forgot to take out the trash, but that's okay because I drink Brass Monkey and I rock well. "What?" "Nothing".
I love the sheer brashness of the album and the sense that this self-confidence won over the public. There was a strange irony that Rap and Hip-Hop was pushed more into the mainstream by a trio of white guys – many at the time criticised the genres for being too black to be considered mainstream.
In this excellent feature from 2016, Medium celebrated Licensed to Ill and its many merits. They did, as it goes on to say, condemn the sexist language and homophobia that the Beastie Boys would later apologise for:
“ There is a sense of genuine discovery, of creating new music, that remains years later, after countless plays, countless misinterpretations, countless rip-off acts, even countless apologies from the Beasties, who seemed guilty by how intoxicating the sound of it is, how it makes beer-soaked hedonism sound like the apogee of human experience. And maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but in either case, Licensed to Ill reigns tall among the greatest records of its time”.
“This seems obvious, but it’s important to not underestimate that this is still one of the best selling rap albums of all time, even 30 years later. Considering that so many naysayers in 1986 dismissed hip-hop as a novelty genre, this is incredible.
Hip-hop had been constantly increasing in popularity since its humble beginnings in the mid-70s, but it was Licensed to Ill that really shook up the culture and catapulted rap music to new levels of acceptance. It’s easy to group the Beastie Boys in with the rest of the closely-knit, Def Jam and Rush-affiliated artists like LL Cool J and Run-DMC. But at the time, Licensed to Ill stood out completely from the rest of rap music as a cultural phenomenon in itself.
With regards the frat-like behaviour of Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond (vocals, drums), Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch (vocals, bass) and Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz (vocals, guitar) back in the 1980s: Should we excuse them as being a product of their time and knowing no better?
Of course, this was the 1980s and there’s always going to be a debate around how much we should excuse antiquated attitudes for being a product of a different time. This is especially true of the Beastie Boys, who for the rest of their career made it a priority to apologize for their offensive lyrics during this period. The most notable instance of this was MCA’s now legendary verse on “Sure Shot,” where he publicly repented for the group’s earlier sexism:
“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue,
The disrespect to women has to got to be through,
To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends,
I want to offer my love and respect till the end.”
But if we look beyond the surface, Licensed to Ill was actually a really innovative album — only a few hip-hop artists like Doug E. Fresh and Mantronix were making such experimental hip-hop at the time. There’s the amazing “Hold it Now, Hit It,” one of the strangest hip-hop singles of the period; “Paul Revere,” a fake western origin story propelled by a backwards sampled loop; and “Rhymin’ and Stealin,’” which contains the legendary, yet super-random bridge that has the group screaming “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” over and over. This is by no means a normal hip-hop album.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Licensed to Ill doesn’t get looked at as a creative breakthrough because it’s unfairly judged against the rest of the band’s catalogue and not appreciated on its own terms. Of course, Paul’s Boutique was creatively groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean that what preceded it is therefore generic. Both albums were extremely progressive in their own ways, but because hip-hop as a whole progressed by leaps and bounds between 1986 and 1989, Licensed to Ill looks basic in comparison. But they didn’t simply go from immature idiots to musical geniuses by the time Paul’s Boutique came out, like many would have you believe”.
Whilst this retrospective article from 2016 suggests that better things would come from Beastie Boys and a lot of the songs lack clout, they did have some positive things to say:
“The Beastie Boys, at first, were just dumb fun. But they were about to become important—musically at least—by having the brilliance to, say, mix the soundtracks of Psycho and Jaws on Paul’s Boutique. Would Paul’s Boutique have been as astonishing if it hadn’t risen out of the bratty antics of the earlier record? Like you guys point out, sometimes it doesn’t even sound like the same band, but I don’t think they stumbled into their place in history “drunk and ass-backwards,” or that they were forced to evolve, Sean. I’m guessing a 1986 platinum record would ensure that the “Beastie Boys always on vacation” lifestyle would persevere for quite a while…
Still, they went back to the studio and amped everything up a notch in 1989, expanding on Ill’s prescient cuts like “She’s Crafty” and “Hold It Now, Hit It,” and continued to do so throughout their career. On the Beasties’ debut, if you listen to how excited they are, how cheeky, how out-and-out full of themselves, it’s almost like they knew what was coming”.
I have a lot of love for Licensed to Ill and, whilst it does not captivate in the same way as Paul’s Boutique, its importance and the way it acted as a catalyst cannot be diminished. It was lucky we got a second album from them because, as is stated here, there was great tension in the camp by 1987:
“The Licensed to Ill-era came to a sticky end in 1987, with all three of the Beasties unhappy and barely speaking to one another,” Sawyer notes, pulling from the memoir. Reportedly, Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons gave the Beastie Boys an ultimatum to receive their royalties. The surviving members of the band do not address the reasons for not speaking in the interview. However, they do discuss the business at play with their label. “Russell [Simmons] was like, if you don’t go in the studio, then I’m not paying you,” Mike D reveals. “His calculation was that we would all be like, ‘Oh we want our millions. OK, Russell, we’re going to do it.’ But we were all immediately, ‘F*ck you’”.
It is a remarkable work that, yes, has some flaws – some of the lyrical content is hard to excuse and love – and they would make bigger statements but you cannot deny Licensed to Ill is fun, compelling and provided a sense of relief and fun at a time when Americans really needed it – look at what was happening in 1986 to get a sense of why music was a perfect distraction! If you want to see where the Beastie Boys started out and how they announced their arrival in music, snap up a copy of Licensed to Ill and let it do its work. It is not a perfect album (is there such a thing?!) but it is immensely fun and the samples are awesome; the raps and lines are, for the most part, funny and great and the guys put something into the world that helped get Hip-Hop and Rap to the masses. For those reasons alone, I feel Licensed to Ill deserves a lot of respect and has fought for its right…
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Natkin/WireImage