Licensed to Ill: The Beastie Boys’ Joke That Went Over America’s Head

beastie boys licensed to ill

The Beastie Boys’ 1986 album Licensed to Ill unleashed an iconic trio in the making on an unsuspecting America. Kids who didn’t know Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J saw MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D on MTV and said, “I can do that!” It didn’t matter that they couldn’t, because the kids raced out and got the record and went to the shows and bought the backwards-hat, dust-smoking, girl-chasing hip hop cartoon that the Beastie Boys were selling.

The rise of MTV in the early ‘80s meant that the music video suddenly became the go-to format for a hit record. What did the videos look like? Big hair. Soft drinks. Wholesome. The Beastie Boys? Backwards caps. Budweiser. Hide your daughters and bolt the windows. The Beasties were hip hop, rap to the television crowd, and unlike 80’s rock or pop, the universal appeal of hip hop is authenticity: you’re supposed to believe that the MCs are real. Some of the audience was confused: are the Beastie Boys the lyrical heirs to Run-D.M.C’s New York throne – or just screaming, pie-throwing caricatures?

Related: Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike on the Culture Creature Podcast

Licensed to Ill‘s smash hit, ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)’, was a comedy of rebellion and was a spot-on spoof of MTV culture. Later, Mike D acknowledged that “there were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.” The album was racing to number one, but the Beasties were becoming their own punchline.

Before the videos, the Beastie Boys were a punk group turned hip hop unit who were signed to Def Jam on the strength of  a prank-call rap single called ‘Cooky Puss’ and a dancehall jam called ‘Beastie Revolution.’ Their humor was crass and they pushed it visually to embody their new, loud-mouthed monikers: MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D. To some, they were three New Yorkers telling you to fuck yourself, and there wasn’t any wild originality in a New Yorker telling you to fuck yourself. The three spend Licensed to Ill yelling in your ear in unison and then taking each line apart word by word, Beastie by Beastie. They wrote songs with flows like basketball plays: MCA on the low, Ad-Rock and Mike D like guards on the prowl, all three creating a sound that was totally unique. By the end, you feel like you know them, and you want more.

At the concerts, you got the cartoon. Crushed Buds flying, foam fizzing on speakers. Girls in cages. Food fights. Fist fights. Hocked loogies. People saw them on TV with chainsaws and brews and figured that was them, not quite noticing that the videos had the Twisted Sister rock poses down perfect. This is where the Beastie Boys’ aimed the parody: the rock scene at the time.

In 1999, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch said ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)’ “…began as a goof on all the ‘Smokin’ in the Boys Room’/’I Wanna Rock’ type songs in the world.” Heavy metal and rap were the big sounds, and both were looking backwards in the early eighties. Hip hop was born in the crates, fingers running over records and pulling out choice cuts. Licensed to Ill is full of samples. Led Zeppelin. AC/DC. Black Sabbath. Steve Miller Band. Creedence Clearwater Revival. War. Kool & the Gang. The album even sampled the first wave of hip hop artists: Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow, right up to current wax from Slick Rick, Schooly D, and Run-D.M.C. Run-D.M.C. and Rick Rubin put the Beastie Boys on Def Jam. Rubin co-produced the record with them, and he was not afraid to reach for bold sounds that could border on corny.

Yauch said, “I remember someone showing up on our tour bus with a tape of what Rick had made from our demo [for ‘Fight for Your Right’] and playing it. Rick has replaced the drums with these big rock drums, and replayed the guitar with a real top-40 cheesy rock sound. He’d mixed it with all this compression and this clean gated sound. I don’t think that anyone, at the record label or otherwise, ever suspected that it would be near the hit that it became.”

Licensed to Ill’s songs are sparse with big washing-machine-sounding drums and bearded guitars to get you to the choruses. The record, made of sample soup, itself became a treasure chest of samples, with lyrical hooks borrowed for excellent records by Eric B. & Rakim, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Outkast. The Beastie Boys’ ‘The New Style’ samples Run-D.M.C’s ‘Peter Piper’ – and is also the source of what became a classic Beasties sample. Ad-Rock’s exclamation of “Mmm…drop” from ‘The New Style’ was used by legendary producer J Dilla (on The Pharcyde’s ‘Drop’) and later, by the Beastie Boys themselves, on their 1998 hit ‘Intergalactic.’ Licensed to Ill was an instant education in music history and a path to the sounds of hip hop’s future.

Right from the first song, you get one of the most powerful samples the Beastie Boys had discovered: ‘When the Levee Breaks’ from Led Zeppelin IV. Second to James Brown break-beats and Rubin’s liberal use of Aerosmith drums, ‘Levee’ was a towering sound for the album and an important move in hip hop. Dr. Dre  sampled it. Ice-T. Public Enemy. Eminem. Mike D even had it on in the background when he recorded his bass drum thump on the Beastie Boy’s classic ’So What’Cha Want’. ‘Rhyming and Stealin’ used Zeppelin swagger and the track stomps with John Bonham’s thunderous bass drum and Black Sabbath’s sludgy ‘Sweet Leaf’ lurking around. This sound – the Def Jam tandem of hip hop breakbeats and metal guitars that Rick Rubin had also used on productions for Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J – became the sound of New York and the sound of mid-1980’s hip hop.

And the Beastie Boys were in control. On ‘Paul Revere,’ MCA cut the recorded tape himself and ran the drums backwards. They knew what to do with Rubin’s penchant for metal. ‘She’s Crafty’ took the monster Led Zeppelin lead riff from ‘The Ocean’ and made it lighting hot by adding a jazzy gameshow high-hat over the top. Slayer’s Kerry King plays the guitar chords on ‘No Sleep till Brooklyn’ and the Guitar Center Eddie Van Halen solo. But Licensed isn’t all maximum decibel metal. ‘Brass Monkey’ is the sound of a hypnotic, wailing horn like a kite darting away in the wind. ‘Girls’ rings with vibraphone charm and dances away to Ad-Rock’s take on a doo wop song.

In ‘Girls’, Ad-Rock sings that he just wants to make girls “smile / from White Castle to the Nile” and tells one girl the adorable “if she would dance I would DJ”. It ends with a ‘Shout’ call and response where the group yells ‘Girls’ and Ad-Rock answers, ‘to do the dishes’, ‘to do the laundry’. They’re bad jokes, and they get worse.

On ‘The New Style’, you hear that they “ragtag girlies back at the hotel / and then we all switch places when I ring the bell.” The record is about very few things: girls; drinking; Brooklyn; White Castle. The verses are all libido, but hover between childish and gross. The vocal interplay, like a Harlem Globetrotters’ Magic Circle, is so effortless and stylish that the jokes go by quick. And if you catch them, they’re over the top. The Beastie Boys shoot people. In the first two songs. Blow their guts out. They rob. The manager smokes dust in the back of the bus.

Some of it was misunderstood. The censors scratched over calling a girl ‘def’ on ‘She’s Crafty’, but on ‘Slow and Low’ you hear ‘I do not sing but I make a def song’. ‘She’s Crafty’ even sounds Motown in little instances like, “Now I like nothing better than a pretty girl smile / and I haven’t seen a smile that pretty in a while”. The girl isn’t awful. They don’t call her anything you wouldn’t say in front of your mother. They don’t clown her – she clowns them. By stealing all their things. There’s an admiration of her thievery.

Licensed to Ill hit number one on the Billboard 200. It was a genuine sensation, lauded by critics and landing the Beastie Boys on almost every continent into 1987. They travelled to make jokes and skateboard and wound up wasted and rhyming onstage next to girls gyrating in cages and a prop penis. These gimmicks – in particular the caged women – would dog the Beastie Boys. Parents and detractors of the band saw them the way they saw the Sex Pistols: a nasty and appalling influence. The Beastie Boys seemed to ratchet up the chaos for the same cheap thrills that Johnny Rotten had sought. Like the Pistols, the Beasties found out how difficult it is to keep the circus going.

The Ill tour ended in Liverpool, England, with a riot ten minutes in and Adam Horovitz booked on assault. The London Broadcasting Corporation is quoted as saying, “the audience chanted, ‘We tamed the Beasties,’” though a riot isn’t tame and that seems hard to chant. The Beastie Boys were certain which parts of their act were a joke – but a lot of the new audience wasn’t in on it. When you’re on stage with a big inflatable dick floating around, it must feel like something has to go: you or the dick.

Licensed to Ill was released on November 15, 1986. Every perfect song is produced to sound young and dumb, with tacky guitars and inflated drums. The Beastie Boys completely disowned some of these lyrics later. Those lyrics seem ill-conceived but not of ill-intent. They were bothered that they’d insulted women, mothers and sisters. So they spoke, they called themselves out. As Yauch later said on ‘Sure Shot’, ‘The disrespect to women has got to be through.’ The band apologized for their words and actions surrounding this record.

The Beastie Boys’ audience never stopped demanding their Ill jams. DJ and band leader Mix Master Mike told Culture Creature that he was aware that fans were calling for ‘Fight for Your Right’ on later tours, but “the lyrical content in that song is not what they’re about. A lot of songs we didn’t do on purpose, because that’s just not how they rolled. But we would do ‘Brass Monkey,’ even though they didn’t drink Brass Monkey.”

Culturally, Licensed to Ill was an introduction. The band’s talent was only glimpsed here – sold out of a suitcase fast, on to the next score. What has survived in the music industry is the misogyny and the disrespect that Adam Yauch later turned his spotlight on. To this acknowledgement, the Beastie Boys spent the rest of their career putting footnotes on their debut. They could have taken the cartoon back to the studio and back to the bank. Instead, they wanted to change what they wanted to represent. What they wanted to represent was brotherhood, sisterhood, and love.

If you hold Licensed To Ill up to the bathroom mirror, you’ll see the tail end of a Boeing 727 that says EATME. Flip to the back and it’s a crushed joint. The Beastie Boys made a dope record full of party jokes that flew over America’s head. They wanted it to be a mirror to dumb metal. It turned about to be a reflection of our whole culture.

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