“Now here's a little story I've got to tell
About three bad brothers you know so well
It started way back in history
With Adrock, (M.C.A.) and me (Mike D.)”
Licensed to Ill, the 1986 seminal debut album from Beastie Boys, was the sound of a loud and roaring frat party put to wax. Structured over sessions in Rick Rubin’s filthy NYU dorm room, the album merged punk’s raw sensibility with hip-hop’s street credentials, tipping its hat via samples to rock legends like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC. Arriving at the end of the mid 80s, Licensed to Ill also came sprinkled with American teen culture, spurts of male masochistic violence presented over almost caricaturish comedy, slick production, and marketing chops from Rick Rubin that catapulted the boys Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horowitz into global stars.
Licensed to Ill stemmed from the lives and stories of America, specifically New York’s white teenagers who were witnessing the changing city. Kids from middle class and well-to-do white suburbs who predominantly heard rock on radio stations, pulled stupid pranks with their mates and didn’t mind getting into stupid brawls over a few beers, were also the same kids who were coming across their first taste of New York’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. Over pirate radio stations, clubs in shadier alleys playing wilder experimental music, within integrated housing projects across the city, these kids were growing amidst a newer version of New York.
An affluent adolescent with a penchant for all things music, Rubin spent days at his Weinstein Hall dorm room with a disdain for authority and a love for punk and rock n roll. It was the 1983 Run-DMC track “Sucker MCs” that first got Rubin thinking about hip-hop. Raw, lo-fi, minimal, street and energetic – the culture intrigued Rubin and the song planted the seed in his mind to create that same energy over a full-fledged hip-hop album. While the Beasties were a trio of middle-class Jewish kids (a quartet before they traded drummer Kate Schellenbach for Rolland 808s) who all lived near each other’s blocks and were aspiring to be a punk group.
Over 30 years have passed since Licensed to Ill was first played across radio stations and blocs across America, but its trailblazing nature is still crystal clear. The opening track's audacious John Bonham sample was enough to show the kids of ‘86 that they were in for an almost wacky work of new wave bringing in diverse worlds and eras together through a unique choice of samples. Rock, punk, metal, rap, blues, jazz, funk, R&B all found a home on Licensed to Ill- as Rubin and the boys scourged through crates of records to pick the perfect bites from Kurtis Blow to the Clash, Slick Rick to Steve Miller Band - all harmoniously melding the sound of hip-hop to come.
Bangers cemented themselves as mantras of teenage braggadocio and drunken debauchery. “Fight for your Right” – though penned as a satire on the white American teen excesses, stands as an anthemic call to party. “Paul Revere” came with a title that mentions an American folk hero whose ride shaped the nation’s history, while what lied within was a wild and goofy Beastie Boys origin story.
On “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” rock and rap merged seamlessly, arguably the next progression of bridging the two cultures after “Walk This Way” released early that year. In a move of integrated marketing genius, Rubin brought in Slayer guitarist Kerry King for riff duties for “No Sleep…”. Even before the release of Licensed to Ill, Rubin had identified consumer bases for the Beasties to explore.
But not everything was worth the spotlight on Licensed to Ill. The album came with its own share of dark overtures and no-holds barred comedy breaching into immaturity. In their quest to titillate urban MTV-watching audiences and raise a mocking middle finger to America’s reserved parents, the Beasties took the act a bit too far. The album reeked of homophobia with the initial proposed title of Don’t Be A Faggot. Thankfully, sense prevailed and Columbia Records refused to run it. The album is also guilty of harboring sexist lyrics and rampant misogyny. On “She’s Crafty” there’s pointed digs at a woman’s sexual choices – “I think her name’s Lucy, but they all call her loose.” Even on the hit “Brass Monkey” the veiled suggestions towards violence on women are a cause of concern. While the less said about the track “Girls” the better. In today’s world it’s a minefield of misogyny and gender discrimination, as you hear the boys go “Girls! To do the dishes. Girls! To clean up my room. Girls! To do the laundry. Girls! And in the bathroom.” But then again, the 80s weren’t a great decade for subtlety and nuanced behavior.
Despite glaringly offensive lyrical content, it's hard to ignore Licensed to Ill's spot in the musical lexicon. Commercially, it broke the wall of mainstream and got hip-hop onto every American TV set. Licensed to Ill thus still stands tall as a major chapter to pick notes from in the pages of hip-hop and music history. The cover art showed a Boeing-727 plane crashing on the side of a mountain. With Licensed to Ill as their debut, the Beastie Boys arrived as a collision and upheaval in mainstream culture, and hip-hop was no more just a footnote in the timeline of music. It was now licensed to roam free, expand and eventually dominate the charts.