Beastie Boys ~ Licensed to Ill (1986)

Posted on May 5, 2013

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Ladies and gentleman: the raucous kings of Def Jam. This record introduced the young rap world to a trio of eccentric mavericks, discovered and nurtured by Def Jam Records co-founder Rick Rubin. In the mid-1980’s, after Rubin and his business partner Russell Simmons kicked in the door with future Hip Hop giant LL Cool J, the two visionaries gave the game a shot from left field, with a free-spirited, punk-infused troika named the Beastie Boys.

The Beastie Boys were a group of upper-class kids from Manhattan; who each found their way into Hip Hop by way of New York’s punk movement of the late 70’s / early 80’s. Initially, group members Mike D (Michael Diamond) and MCA (Adam Yauch) had formed the group in 1981 as a punk rock band; with drummer Kate Schellenbach and guitarist John Berry filling out the collective. A year later, the quartet met the last Beastie, King Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), who at the time was fronting another punk group known as The Young & The Useless. In 1983, both Schellenbach and Berry left the fold; King Ad-Rock officially joined the team; and the trio switched their sound to a fusion of both punk and Hip Hop. Later that same year, they met up with Rick Rubin, a New York University student who ran the small Def Jam label from an on-campus dorm room. They dropped a couple of singles, with Rubin as their disc jock (under the moniker DJ Double R). In 1985, Def Jam scored a $600,000 production deal with CBS Records; and a year later, the Beastie Boys took center stage; with an adventurous set entitled Licensed to Ill.

On Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys waste no time revealing their rock roots. The first cut “Rhymin And Stealin” borrows the slow-pounding drums from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”; which Mike D, MCA, and King Ad-Rock stomp across in animated fashion. “Rhymin And Stealin” proves to be the perfect opening salvo for Licensed to Ill. The Led Zeppelin drums bump hard enough to bruise a sternum; and the Beasties’ lyrical chemistry is on full display.

The Beastie Boys – and Rick Rubin – experiment throughout Licensed to Ill. And, clearly, these dudes are having fun. “The New Style” stops on a dime, and then changes directions freely, due to its’ alternating breakbeats, and the zany, lyrical free-wheeling of the Beasties. “She’s Crafty” is a boulevard rocker that revisits the Led Zeppelin catalog; using guitar riffs from their 1973 number “The Ocean” to support a tale of a female that games the entire crew, and then jacks them for everything they own. On the short-but-banging “Posse In Effect”, the Beasties adopt a B-Boy stance, spit memorable non sequitirs, and blow every set of speakers from Nevada to Nova Scotia. On “Slow Ride”, MCA, Mike D and Ad-Rock smoke, drink, and kick up dust every chance they get, over a bubbling track that interpolates the War classic “Low Rider”. And on the humorous and brief “Girls”, King Ad-Rock flies solo and gets stupid wit’ it; spitting nursery rhymes about his favorite vice, with twinkling keys, comical doo-wop vocals, and a fast-marching drum line playing behind him.

The second half of Licensed to Ill contains some of the disc’s most memorable material. “Fight For Your Right” is a rock thrasher that became the Beastie Boys’ signature song, and their biggest hit. In just under three minutes, the Beasties wild out like teenage misfits, over an adrenaline-fueled rock track with Kerry King (of Slayer) on lead guitar. “Paul Revere”, produced by Rick Rubin and co-written by Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels (a.k.a. Run DMC) is inventive, to say the least. On this cut, the Beasties ride Rick’s bass warbles and beat shuffles aptly; telling an engrossing tale where Ad-Rock and MCA wind up on the lamb, and meet another outlaw (Mike D) as they evade the authorities. The calypso flavored “Hold It Now, Hit It” moves crisply, and has the trio trading the mic back and forth, doing a little more free-wheeling, and freaking fly routines as they go along. These cats aren’t strangers to the bottle, as evidenced by “Brass Monkey”, a madcap thumper built on a sample of Wild Sugar’s “Bring It Here” and bubbling 808 drums, where the Beasties salute a popular cocktail they never leave home without. The influence of both Run DMC and LL Cool J can be felt on “Slow And Low”; due to the cocksure verses originally written by Darryl and Joe, and grating rhythm stabs similar to those used on LL’s “Rock The Bells”. And the closer “Time To Get Ill” has the lyrical spirit that by now has become commonplace for the Beasties, along with a brilliant display of beat alchemy from Rick Rubin, whose spellbinding track somehow blends Barry White, Led Zeppelin, and the theme songs from Green Acres and Mister Ed into one seamless whole.

The Beastie Boys got some flak when they first hit the national stage in 1986. First off, they were lambasted for being White men in the world of Hip Hop, and their punk rock backgrounds didn’t help matters much. They were thought of as punk burnouts that latched on to rap music when punk didn’t work. Well, from the sounds of Licensed to Ill, these dudes had every right to try Hip Hop. Their devil-may-care formula, party-starting enthusiasm, and obvious chemistry, provided the fuel for this album.

And Rick Rubin, the demented genius behind the boards, outdid himself with this album’s production. I didn’t think it’d be possible to outdo Radio, the album Rick laced for LL Cool J in 1985, but he most certainly did. Beat-wise, Licensed to Ill is just as hard as Radio, but its soundscape is a bit more expansive. Whereas Radio was melody-deficient, Licensed to Ill provides varied music backdrops that mesh well with the floor-shaking drum lines. This may have been Rick Rubin’s crowning achievement as a rap producer.

Since its release, Licensed to Ill has greatly impacted the rap industry. Besides being the biggest catalog seller in Hip Hop History (9.5 million copies and counting), some of Hip Hop’s biggest talents have taken cues from it. Dr. Dre took inspiration from this album in later years; using breaks and similar production techniques for tracks he’d lace for Eazy-E, NWA, and himself in the late 80’s and early 1990’s. And before breaking ground with NWA, a 16-year-old Ice Cube employed the Beasties’ animated rhyme delivery on his records with his first group, Cru in Action (CIA).

Though they became the big dogs at Def Jam Records, the Beastie Boys wouldn’t be there long. For most of 1987, the Beasties were on the Licensed to Ill Tour, a series of concerts that took them across the United States and Europe. While the Beasties were overseas, litigation over an uncleared sample in one of their songs (“Hold It Now, Hit It”) prompted CBS Records to halt royalty payments to Def Jam until the matter was resolved. The royalty freeze caused a breach of contract on Def Jam’s part with the Beasties, who were owed more than $2 million in royalties; monies that Def Jam could not pay. Lawsuits and countersuits were soon filed, with the Beasties on one side attempting to leave Def Jam, and Def Jam and CBS on the other side; alleging the trio had broken their contract by refusing to record a follow-up album. In 1988, after relinquishing any claim to their Licensed to Ill royalties, the Beastie Boys were released from their Def Jam contract. The group, who’d also developed personal issues with Rick Rubin during this fracas, signed with Capitol Records in early ’88; and officially severed ties with both Def Jam and Rubin. Rubin would exit Def Jam shortly thereafter; selling his interest in the label to Russell Simmons, moving to California, and founding Def American Recordings. Though the Beastie Boys have enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame run in the music world since this release, Licensed to Ill remains a defining moment in their respective careers. After 20-plus years, it still bangs like crazy. If only modern rap could be this adventurous.

To listen to Licensed to Ill, click here.

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