History has been very kind to Licensed To Ill, the debut album by Mike D, King Ad-Rock and MCA, the group collectively known as Beastie Boys. Sure, there are unfavourable aspects that simply cannot be overlooked in 2021 - sexism and homophobia will be forever tied to the debut, but 35 years on so is their maturity and repentance.
Beastie Boys came up believing that stadium rock was the enemy; they started out as a skateboarding hardcore punk band and shared bills with groups the likes of Necros and Millions Of Dead Cops, before being bit by the rap bug and switching gears around 1983-84. That is until fellow punk turned hip-hopper Rick Rubin – who’d initially been raised on rock music out on a rock called Long Island, where being cool didn’t matter as much – introduced the three city slickers to the genre.
Fast-forward to November 15, 1986, and the Top 10 albums in the Billboard 200 included the likes of Boston, Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis And The News, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel and Madonna, whom our anti-heroes toured America with in 1985, performing to confused parents and children alike who were not yet living in a hip hop world.
From the opening bars of 'Rhymin' & Stealin' and those sampled drums from Led Zeppelin's 'When The Levee Breaks', 1986 knew that Licensed To Ill was going to be something unheard of before. With rockstar posturing and tongue firmly in cheek, Beastie Boys spat rhymes that still ring as clearly amazing to this day.
Lyrically, they were walking that tightrope between goofing on frat-boy culture and rock star clichés, and being the archetypes of their intended ridicule. Blurring those lines paid off commercially, enabling them to crossover into the rock world. The catalyst was '(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!),' written by Yauch and his friend Tom Cushman for another group and brought back to Beastie Boys when Def Jam deemed the album too short. Essentially a hard rock song with a drum machine, 'Fight For Your Right' may have tricked MTV viewers who weren’t in on the joke into thinking that Beastie Boys were the next Twisted Sister. Another huge single for the group, 'No Sleep Till Brooklyn' (featuring guitarist Kerry King from Def Jam labelmates Slayer) drove the joke home.
Ironically though, the inspiration for these songs came from another hip-hop group – Run-DMC, whose 'Rock Box' had combined rap and rock elements two years prior. Run-DMC was the template for Beastie Boys in so many ways and the group's consummate idols. The loud drums and the shouted vocal delivery where bandmates would complete each other’s lines. And then, of course, there’s the fact that Run-DMC actually wrote pieces of Licensed To Ill, including 'Slow And Low,' which they originally recorded (with Rubin producing) as a demo that never made it onto their own albums.
The first four lines of 'Paul Revere' were concocted by Run (Joe Simmons) for Beasties to use. There is a dispute over the musical origin for the track which Run claimed he created by playing a copy of 'It’s Yours' by T La Rock backwards. However, Horovitz remembers Yauch (who was really into The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the time) creating a beat on a Roland TR-808 drum machine and playing it backwards, just as Hendrix’s band had done with a drumbeat for the intro of 'Are You Experienced.'
What might get overlooked in retrospect is how advanced Licensed To Ill sounds. Hip-hop was evolving fast, but nothing else by the end of ’86 had such complex structures, where songs would pause halfway through and go in entirely different directions, like 'The New Style,' which was subsequently sampled on over 250 records. Beastie Boys proved themselves to be more than just another copycat rap act, but something else altogether, coming out with a unique and diverse musical palette.
The sample selection spread across the album’s 13 tracks (technically only 10 contain samples) are really an amalgam of four distinct cultures: hip-hop (The B-Boys, Joeski Love, Mantronix, Kurtis Blow, Doug E Fresh, Schoolly D, etc), old soul, disco and jazz records that hip-hop adopted as its own (Cerrone, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, Barry White, Bob James, Kool & The Gang), hard rock (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC) and punk (The Clash).
Even a doo-wop influence can be heard in the melody on 'Girls,' which is reminiscent of the 1962 hit 'Remember Then' by The Earls. Where Rubin’s work on LL Cool J's debut full-length, Radio, was sparse and direct, Licensed To Ill took far longer to create – two years, in fact, in an effort to build an entirely self-contained universe. In this dimension, bragging about using angel dust or rapping about comedian Phyllis Diller over the theme songs for Mister Ed and Green Acres is not normal, but in Beasties’ dimension, it was par for the course.
On March 7, 1987, Licensed To Ill topped the Billboard 200, the first hip-hop album ever to do so. It then stayed there for seven straight weeks, holding off Bruce Hornsby And The Range, Genesis, and Janet Jackson. We were well on our way to living in a hip-hop world. By 2015, Yauch, Horovitz, and Mike D were certified diamond, with 10 million in sales – an accomplishment shared by no other hip-hop record released in the 80s.
History has been kind to the album in this respect. By simultaneously appealing to the mainstream music fans, the upper echelon of music critics, and all echelons between, the masses were – and continue to be – enthralled by Beastie Boys despite their misdemeanours. 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 group, who for the rest of their career made it a priority to apologise 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.”
This was in 1994 and was a complete 180 for a group that were as famous for having go-go dancers and a 20-foot hydraulic penis on stage as they were for any talent they had. They should be commended for having the courage to throw away a large part of what made them successful - much easier said than done - in order to stand up for what’s right. In doing so, they laid the blueprint for how artists can mature in public without excusing the impact of their early mistakes.
To many fans and critics, Licensed to Ill was the debut that, despite being a commercial sensation, is really just a product of its time. It’s a fun, mid-80s Def Jam record. Then out of nowhere, they split from Def Jam’s control and matured into true artists by dropping their frat boy schtick and hooking up with the Dust Brothers to create a wildly creative masterpiece in Paul’s Boutique. And as the story goes, the band would continue experimenting for the rest of their career, never to return to the immature style of Licensed to Ill.
Look beyond the surface though, 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.
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 can look 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. Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D were always extremely creative and simply took the experimentation they learned on Licensed to Ill to another level as they moved on from Def Jam.
BEASTIE BOYS' LICENSED TO ILL IS THE WAXX LYRICAL APRIL RECORD OF THE MONTH