Our "Classic Rotation" series revisits classic albums on the anniversary of their release. Today we take a look at the Beastie Boys’ classic album, "Licensed to Ill", which dropped twenty-eight years ago on November 15, 1986.
Rapâs early origins, if we are being historically correct, were partially nurtured by punk and new wave, coming out of rebellious Manhattan kids (and those influenced by the music coming out of the area). With respect to Run DMC, rap and rockâs symbiosis started with icons like Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, and Blondie, who would saunter out the first rap verse, on MTV, for suburbanite consumption.
By the time three white Jewish kids called the Beastie Boys (Mike Diamond as Mike D, Adam Yauch as MCA, and Adam Horowitz as Ad Rock) got into a studio with Rick Rubin, âRaptureâ had been out. Bambaataa had teamed up with Sex Pistols fireplug Johnny Rotten. The Cold Crush Brothers had released a cut called âPunk Rock Rap.â There are occasional eye-rolls over Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and Robin ThickeÂ being played on black radio. However, Phil Collinsâ âIn the Air Tonightâ was played on R&B stations, while other white artists like The Clash, Depeche Mode, Human League being regularly played in the hood.
This prelude lined up a transition from punk to rap for the Beastie Boys, a former 4-piece, which once featured Kate Schellenbach on drums (who later joined Luscious Jackson, the first band on the Beastiesâ Grand Royal Records â a nice turn around for the drummer, who was rumored to be nudged out of the group by Rick Rubin). The trio put out a then-experimental rap single called âCooky Puss,â which became an underground New York hit. They gained the attention of Rubin, who had recently started Def Jam Recordings with Russell Simmons.
Starting with 12â singles âRock Hard,â âHold It Now Hit It,â "She's On It," and double A side âPaul Revere/The New Style,â the group set out the road. First backing Johnny Rottenâs post-Sex Pistols outfit, they moved on to open for Madonnaâs âLike A Virginâ tour. Beastiemania took hold, and Rubin was already at work on the debut, Licensed to Ill.
Endless fictional thievery-referencing meta-track âRhymin & Stealinâ leads off the album, using the huge John Bonham drum sample from Led Zeppelinâs âWhen the Levee Breaks.â âThe New Style,â from which Ad-Rockâs vocals were sampled by J-Dilla for âThe Newâ on the classic Donuts and Pharcydeâs âDropâ, features more interesting references, notably about violent gunplay.
âLet me clear my throat
Kick it over here baby pop
And let all the fly skimmies feel the beat
Coolin' on the corner on a hot summer day
Just me, my posse and MCA
A lot of beer - a lot of girls - and a lot of cursing
Twenty-two automatic on my person
Got my hand in my pocket and my finger's on the triggerâ
The woman-dogging âSheâs Craftyâ is one of the misogynistic cuts, with another Zeppelin sample. âPosse In Effectâ contains a Joeski Love sample and MCAâs wittier set of rhymes:
âI got a girl in the Castle and one in the pagoda
You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda
I'm a Def Manhattan killer - a rhyme thriller
A mic in my hand (bust it) and a mouth full of Millerâ
Warâs classic âLow Riderâ is perfectly sampled in âSlow Ride,â with Rubin adding percussion and heavy 808s. The cut is followed by the problematic âGirls,â a track only performed once (sandwiched in between a rendition of âSabotage,â in 1995.) Knowing it was likely too far, they eventually apologized for the track, and, in effect, the album as a whole.
âFight for Your Right (To Party!), an unintentionally massive, 80s hair rock, teenage delinquency record, put them on the permanent path to stardom. The iconic hook and video drove the album, but would have heavier ramifications shortly after the release. âNo Sleep Til Brooklynâ takes from Motorheadâs âWe Are the Road Crewâ from No Sleep Till Hammersmith:
"Another plane, another train
Another bottle in the brain
Another girl, another fight
Another drive all night"
Hood favorite âPaul Revereâ used backwards 808s drum patterns, thought to either by Runâs idea, or (per Run) a complete mistake turned into a dope track. Ad-Rock goes for the moon with a memorable and comedic line:
âThe sheriff's after me for what I did to his daughter
I did it like this, I did it like that
I did it with a wiffleball batâ
âHold It Now Hit It,â the albumâs most interesting track due to its creative sample usage, was also of import for the fact that it was presented as a single, prior to Beastiemania. The song with the then-faceless artists enabled them to gain respectability from the jump. A prelude to what they would accomplish with the Dust Brothers on Paulâs Boutique, it featured samples from Doug E. Fresh, Bob James, Jimmy Castor, and Kool & the Gang.
Party record âBrass Monkeyâ (a drink comprised of rum, vodka, and orange juice or orange juice in a 40 ounce bottle of Old English) is still being played in college frat parties across America. Guitar stab driven âSlow and Lowâ was demoed by Run DMC originally. (This is likely the origin for ideas Rubin used in Jay-Zâs â99 Problems.â) High energy closer âTime to Get Ill,â runs similar to âHold It Nowâ¦,â with plentiful samples, perhaps as accidental career foreshadowing.
In form and function, and with Run DMCâs incredible albums setting precedent, the classic Licensed to Ill was the prototype fusion album. Initially, Run DMC had to be coerced into utilizing rock elements, where has the Beastie arrived with punk rock credentials, allowing for a audibly distinguishable adaptation of rockâs nuances. Licensed to Ill stands as rapâs solidifiers, helping to cement the genreâs foundations. Aside from the misogyny and sixth year frat boy antics, the most surprising (and disturbing) points on the album are the lyrics filled with casual gun violence, which isn't always noted in discussions about the project. Of course, they became Buddhists -- unable to hurt a fly -- and environmentalists. Of course, they did.
Thereâs a narrative that says Rick Rubin masterminded the album, which is a somewhat dubious assumption, given the Beastiesâ uses of playful wordplay and star appeal took them beyond the interesting production. (This is aside from the albumâs split co-production credit, showing the group's very active role). In the background, âFight for Your Rightâ¦â was shaped by personas Rubin created for the trio that none of them wanted to maintain going forward.
This idea (and that Rubin and Simmons likely insisted they carry on in character) actually progressed into a parting of ways for Def Jam and the Beasties, who both went on to spectacular careers. However, they would both have to admit, their temporary partnership pioneered something groundbreaking and irreversible. Itâs possible that Eminem, a megastar known to be highly influenced by the Beasties, doesnât make it out of Detroit without them. They busted down some doors, and stretched the genre over into new terrain. Neither can take that away.