Welcome to the Music Roundtable, where music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, on the 30th anniversary of the Beastie Boys’ debut, Licensed To Ill, three of our writers discuss what the album looks like in the face of the Beasties’ now-considerable legacy. Licensed To Ill was the first hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 100, and recently crossed a 10-million-sold threshold. The album’s anniversary was marked with a vinyl re-release this fall remixed by the Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin (MCA died in 2012).
Gwen Ihnat: From the very first moments of the Led Zeppelin-sampled drumbeat of “Rhymin’ & Stealin’,” it was apparent that music lovers were in for something brand new. Three young white guys from New York had been playing together since they were teenagers, and on November 15, 1986, unleashed their unique mix of stealing from the best, pop-culture based rhymes, and unbridled beats. The Beastie Boys had arrived with Licensed To Ill, and rap music, not to mention the still-burgeoning genre of “alternative,” was never going to be the same.
The richness apparent on Licensed To Ill came as a surprise to those who expected further frat-boy anthems like “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)”, the trio’s first big hit. The boys had also snagged a gig opening for Madonna, a combo that was a head-scratcher to most, and the combined MTV push helped put the Beasties on the map. But it’s on the rest of Licensed To Ill that the seeds of greatness to the Beasties’ now decades-long legacy can still be discovered by today’s listener. Hearing it now, what comes across most is the brashness—an almost unhinged confidence that this record will be one for the ages. The cockiness of “I stole your honey like I stole your bike” might have gone too far on lines like “My rhymes are rough / My rhymes are slick / It’s no surprise you’re on my dick.” But no one else in the world was going to claim they had more rhymes than Abe Vigoda.
It is not a perfect album. There is much too much misogyny and female degradation, along with a push for violence, which the band has since disavowed (it’s especially jarring to hear future Buddhist MCA wax rhapsodically about his gun). In all likelihood, no one ever needs to hear “Brass Monkey” ever again, not to mention the anti-feminist rant of “Girls” (“to do the laundry / to clean up my room”). But the classics that Licensed To Ill contains are considerable. The pirate anthem of “Rhymin’ & Stealin’” segues right into a random rant of “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves,” which is hilarious even as it makes perfect sense. Its second song—an introductory rap announcing “The New Style”—is a tradition the trio would return to. The guitar-jam-fueled “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” remains one of the best Beasties songs ever.
The Beastie Boys would perfect their particular blend of homage and rebellion on their next release, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, which wasn’t as successful financially, but now is looked back on as their high-water mark creatively. They would continue with inspired, irrepressible releases like Check Your Head, Ill Communication, and Hello Nasty all the way up to MCA’s death in 2012.
When we brought up Licensed To Ill’s 30th anniversary at an A.V. Club staff meeting, some of us wanted to mark this important musical milestone, while others thought the album itself didn’t warrant such a close look. Sean, where do you fall on this grid, three decades after we were all first introduced to Licensed To Ill?
Sean O’Neal: I think Licensed To Ill is… fine. Good, bratty fun, even. But I’m of the mind that whatever legacy it has is entirely due to the time in which it was released, as well as the Beastie Boys albums that followed, and not because of its own artistic merits. And I think that anyone who goes back to it now expecting something epochal will be disappointed—and possibly confused.
Look, I loved Licensed To Ill when it came out, primarily because I was a young, snotty white boy, one whose exposure to hip-hop was limited to what I caught on MTV or what my slightly older cousin would play for me when our parents weren’t looking. I don’t remember which came first—me seeing the “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” video, or my cousin popping the Licensed To Ill cassette into his boombox as we listened beneath a sleeping bag to muffle the sound. But I do remember being grabbed by just how aggressive, proudly juvenile, and gloriously raunchy it seemed—a far cry from most of the music I listened to, which was a lot of Phil Collins and Tears For Fears. Like you said, it was brand new to me.
But that was only because I was a kid who didn’t know any better. In fact, the album’s sound wasn’t really that new at all. By the time it came out, Licensed To Ill’s producer Rick Rubin—the guy largely responsible for turning the Beastie Boys from hardcore punks into full-fledged rappers—had already given the world LL Cool J’s Radio, as well as rap’s first real crossover hit, the Run-D.M.C./Aerosmith mash-up “Walk This Way,” both of which brought the same aggressive, hard-rock edge to the genre. The only thing that was truly “new” about the Beastie Boys was that they were three white Jewish kids—and if we’re splitting hairs, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers had been doing the whole white-boy rap-rock-funk for a couple albums already.
I’m not saying that the Beastie Boys don’t absolutely deserve their place in the pantheon, nor am I arguing that Licensed To Ill wasn’t a seminal release within that ’80s new school of hip-hop, nor I am denying that its success didn’t help open the door for hip-hop to make its way to pop radio. Far from it! But again, I believe a lot of that has to do with the context, not the album, which only could have come from its debuting during that very brief moment in time. And 30 years later, now that the novelty’s worn off, Licensed To Ill simply doesn’t stand up to contemporaries like Run DMC ’s Raising Hell or Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush The Show.
Even compared to the rest of the Beasties’ own catalog, Licensed To Ill feels dated and trend-chasing, rather than trendsetting. It’s not the artistic leap forward like Paul’s Boutique, which blew my 1989 mind that it was made by the same group. Nor does it have the genre blurring, the impressive live instrumentation, or the timeless, endless replayability of Check Your Head (one of my favorite albums, period) or Ill Communication. And if it weren’t for those other records, or the place in musical history these three punks unwittingly stumbled into, drunk and ass-backwards, I doubt we’d be sitting here talking about Licensed To Ill in such lofty terms.
Again, don’t get me wrong: There are still some great, kickass songs on Licensed To Ill, in between some very annoying ones. You’re right that “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” remains a banger, with Slayer’s Kerry King making a convincing argument for rap-metal that would take more than a decade for Kid Rock to refute. “Paul Revere” and its cool, liquid backward beat offers the first nascent hint of the experimental production they’d soon become known for on Paul’s. And the Zeppelin riffs on both “Rhymin’ & Stealin’” and “She’s Crafty” are the best Zeppelin-related pilfering since Zeppelin stole from all those old blues guys. (Though I’m pretty sure even I would sound cool rapping over “When The Levee Breaks.”) These songs—and really, the whole album—have a raucous, four-beers-in party vibe that’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to at a loud volume, preferably behind an even louder din of people yelling and bottles breaking.
But as an album worth closer study or solemn, retrospective critical reverence? I just don’t hear the “richness” you’re trying to sell me. What I do hear are a lot of cringeworthy, dorm-room raps that—even leaving aside the casual misogyny and homophobia (this album was almost called Don’t Be A Faggot, lest we forget)—had a lunkheaded childishness even the Beasties themselves were pretty quickly embarrassed by. Granted, most nascent ’80s rap lyrics were almost uniformly “boast followed by awkwardly rhymed boast,” and even the great Chuck D spent his first album big-upping his car. So there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Beasties writing about little more than their own rhyming skills and being proudly obnoxious. But let’s not pretend like Licensed To Ill is anything more than it is: a fun party album made by three wiseasses who, had they not been forced to live up to the historical importance of their own fluke success by evolving so quickly, probably would have ended up a hip-hop footnote alongside 3rd Bass. And their debut definitely wouldn’t be getting a fancy, 180-gram vinyl anniversary edition, or inspiring think-pieces like this one.
Okay, David, you’ve heard from the two old people. As someone who came to Licensed To Ill presumably long after the Beastie Boys had already become the Beastie Boys we all revere, what are your thoughts on this album’s artistic significance? Also, do you chill real ill when you start to chill, or when you get your fill are you chilly chill?
David Anthony: I’m not one to chill, but that’s mostly because I’m busy doing the Jerry Lewis.
Your presumption is right that I came to both the Beastie Boys and Licensed To Ill well after you and Gwen had. This is due to the fact that the album was released four years before I was born, and I highly doubt my mom—who favored Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty—was blasting “Brass Monkey” when I was still in my infancy. But like those that came before me, my introduction to the Beasties came by way of MTV and the few songs that garnered some radio play. However, by the late ’90s, this was a pretty confounding thing. I’d hear “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” or see the videos for “Sabotage” or “Intergalactic,” and I’d be left to wonder how this was all the same band.
When I started working my way through the band’s discography, I saved Licensed To Ill for the end. This was due to the fact that I couldn’t stand “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” Nothing about the track appealed to me, partially because I’m a total fun-hating nerd, and also because I didn’t have an interest in drinking or drugs, let alone the party culture surrounding it. Hearing Licensed To Ill after consuming the band’s ’90s material is a weird way to go about it, but it’s what I did. And I think it contributes, at least partially, to why it’s the Beastie Boys record I listen to the least. Well, next to The Mix-Up, I guess.
Listening back to it now, Licensed To Ill still has some good songs—“No Sleep Till Brooklyn” may rank among my favorite Beasties tracks—and, surprisingly, the rock-forward approach to rap doesn’t sound as hokey as it could. But what struck me listening back now is that I see Licensed To Ill not as a hip-hop record (though it obviously is) but as a bad New York hardcore record. It makes sense, given that the Beastie Boys started as a hardcore band, but I was shocked by how much the New York City scene bled into this album.
As much as I love hardcore, the New York scene of the early-to-mid ’80s is never one I’ve connected with. There were a couple good bands here and there, but for the most part, it was dominated by moronic party songs, misogyny, homophobia, and straight-up racism. It’s no wonder that the Beasties’ lyrical perspective was defined by the scene that bred it. Beyond that, I was shocked by how much the production and vocal delivery of the group mirrored that of those hardcore bands. They constantly employ gang vocals, for one, and even much of their flow feels lifted from the deliveries found on Age Of Quarrel or a Murphy’s Law record.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I agree with your assessment, Sean. It’s a record that’s great for drunken debauchery, but it doesn’t hold up when listened to thoughtfully. Revisiting it also showed me that what made the Beastie Boys so special was that, on their later records, they were able to create sounds that felt completely their own. While Licensed To Ill has some fun samples of guitar riffs, they don’t have much lasting resonance beyond that immediate rush of recognition. I’d say the same for the trio’s wordplay, as it’s so concerned with being clever that it ends up not really saying anything at all. But I’ll also admit that maybe this record really isn’t for me. I don’t go out looking for music to soundtrack my parties—and in fact, I kind of hate going to parties anyway. Maybe it’s not you, Licensed To Ill. Maybe it’s me.
What do you say, Gwen? You’re obviously a fan of the record, and I’m curious to hear what keeps you so enthusiastic about it all these years on. What am I missing?
Gwen: As I said, it’s not a perfect record. I really like some parts of it, and am ready to dismiss outright some other parts. But for me what resonates on Licensed To Ill are the glimpses of future Beasties greatness. If they could write something like “Brooklyn,” they were going to be able to give us an album like Ill Communication. It was just a matter of time.
I really enjoyed hearing your responses to the record, Sean and David. I get the connection to Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” but I have to say that I never even thought of the Beasties as in the same category as Public Enemy, even though I know there’s lots of mutual appreciation between them. Public Enemy was important: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was required listening in 1988, even if Flavor Flav at times could be just as funny as the Beasties’ one-liners. Public Enemy was writing about important social issues; the closest the Beasties ever got to a social issue was homelessness, I guess, in “Johnny Ryall.” But I listened to these bands for very different reasons. And to my mind, Red Hot Chili Peppers can’t even lick the Beastie Boys’ high-tops.
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.
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