It Started Way Back in History: The Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed to Ill’ Turns 30

photo: L. Cohen/Getty Images
(Photo: L. Cohen/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, on Nov. 15, 1986, the Beastie Boys released their debut album, Licensed to Ill. It was the album that not only introduced the world to the three punks-turned-B-boys, but it also brought hip-hop into the mainstream.

Nearly four months after its release, Licensed to Ill knocked Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet from the top of the Billboard album chart to become the first rap album to ever hit #1. And it stayed on top for seven weeks.

Prior to the Beasties’ breakthrough, hip-hop had been slowly creeping into the mainstream consciousness from its inner-city roots. Seminal hip-hop records like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message,” and Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That” were all R&B hits, but stalled midway up the mainstream pop chart, as did the albums that spawned them. White punk bands furthered the cause. Blondie’s “Rapture” topped the Hot 100 in January 1981, while genre-bending Brits the Clash also experimented with rap in “The Magnificent Seven” in 1980 and “This Is Radio Clash” in 1981.

The punk connection is notable because the Beastie Boys actually began as a punk band, inspired by hardcore groups such as Black Flag. Formed from the remains of the Young Aborigines, the Beasties’ first lineup included Mike Diamond on vocals, Adam Yauch on bass, drummer Kate Shellenbach (who would go on to become a member of Luscious Jackson), and guitarist John Berry. They released the Polly Wog Stew EP in 1982; Berry departed soon after and was replaced by Adam Horovitz, and Shellenbach also bailed as the group evolved into a hip-hop act.

Eventually the Beasties traded in their instruments for mics and a turntable, as Yauch, Diamond, and Horovitz became known as MCA, Mike D, and King Ad-Rock, respectively. The Beasties acknowledged that hip-hop and punk shared certain sensibilities. “Punk rockers have really funny hairdos,” Mike D once told me. “And homeboys have really funny hats,” added Ad-Rock.

Released independently in 1983, the Beasties’ 12-inch “Cookie Puss” was basically a forerunner to the Jerky Boys, but this crank phone call to a Carvel Ice Cream store featured a backing of hip-hop beats and scratching. The flipside, “Beastie Revolution,” had the Boys jokingly posing as Jamaican toasters, hinting at the genre-jumping that was to come

With their transformation into a hip-hop group complete, the trio needed a DJ for its live gigs. They chose Rick Rubin, an NYU student and budding producer who went by the stage name of DJ Double R. Also smitten with hip-hop, Rubin formed Def Jam Recordings with fellow New York hip-hop enthusiast Russell Simmons. In 1985, the Beastie Boys released the Rubin-produced, AC/DC-sampling “Rock Hard” on Def Jam, the label’s second single. Def Jam, whose roster also included LL Cool J, had landed a distribution deal with major label Columbia Records, which would insure their releases could be found in stores across the country. However, Mike D claimed that the Beasties weren’t on high Columbia’s list. “They looked at us as the curse of the whole deal,” he said at the time.

Recorded on and off during 1985 while completing tours as a support act for Madonna and Run-D.M.C., Licensed to Ill showcased the Beasties’ rapid growth from fun-loving pranksters to a legitimate hip-hop act, although there was still plenty of clowning to be found.

But Licensed to Ill didn’t immediately work its way into the popular consciousness. The first four singles released from the album — “Hold It Now, Hit It,” “Paul Revere,” “The New Style,” and “Brass Monkey” — had only moderate success on the Black Singles and dance music charts. It was the via the album’s fifth single, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)” that the Beasties bumrushed their way into the mainstream.

“Fight For Your Right” really wasn’t a rap song at all, but a typical rebellious rock anthem not too far away in sound and spirit from Twisted Sister’s 1984 hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Although they may have been pumping their fists in the air, the Beastie Boys were doing it with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. Mike D later explained to NPR, “The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different. 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 video for the song played out like a John Hughes movie gone to hell with the Beasties crashing a party and leading the pie-tossing mayhem. Rubin was featured in the clip, as was a blonde, pre-MTV Tabitha Soren.

Rubin and Ad-Rock played guitar on the “Fight for Your Right,” and another rap ‘n’ roll track, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” featured Slayer’s Kerry King on guitar. However, at the time, the Beasties claimed they had no use for live instruments. “If you’re not gonna have as much equipment as AC/DC, you really shouldn’t play instruments,” Mike D said. “When we can be as rich as them and have that kind of stage show, we’ll play instruments.”

“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)” served as sort of a musical Trojan horse for suburban music fans. They bought Licensed to Ill based on that song, but when they got it home they discovered the album was more about hip-hop than rock. And the Beasties were readily accepted in the hip-hop community, even sharing bills with the likes of Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy.

The Beastie Boys laid out their manifesto in the album’s opening tracks “Rhymin and Stealin” and “The New Style.” In the former, backed by John Bonham’s sampled thundering drums, lifted from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” the trio fired off round-robin raps about being plundering pirates, but they could just as well be rapping about taking hip-hop over lock, stock, and barrel. And if you didn’t get the message, they introduced “The New Style” in the next track, with each boy offering a rapped verse while introducing themselves to their new-found audience, and sampling such records as “Drop the Bomb” by Trouble Funk and Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper.”

Licensed to Ill was rowdy, ridiculous, and at times offensive, as the Beasties took the braggadocio of hip-hop and blew it through the roof. It should be noted that at one point, the band wanted to title the album after a homophobic slur, but the record company refused to release the album under the proposed title. Some of the lyrical content that did make the album would haunt the Beasties later, when they grew up and became more enlightened. “There are some things that I think are really fly and still stand up and there are songs that I am completely embarrassed to be involved with,” Mike D once said.

Lyrics aside, the sound of Licensed to Ill was revolutionary. It not only brought hip-hop to the masses, but also influenced some of the genre’s leading artists. While the Beastie Boys sampled a whole slew of classic sources on the album (including the Clash, War, the Steve Miller Band, Kool & The Gang, and Kurtis Blow), N.W.A, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Rick Ross, De La Soul and others would go on to sample various bits from Licensed to Ill. The album would eventually be certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Assn. of American for sales of 10 million units, joining the elite clubs that includes titles by the Beatles, Garth Brooks, Eminem, and Elvis Presley.

And true to their word, once they got the cash, the Beasties did go on to pick of instruments and become a legitimate recording and performing band, with keyboardist “Money” Mark Ramos Nishita and percussionist Eric Bobo rounding out the group. They went on to have a successful and lengthy career that was only cut short by the death of Yauch from salivary gland cancer in 2012. And their influence and impact is still felt today. Not bad for three wise-cracking white punks.