The Beastie Boys’ ‘Licensed to Ill’ Proved That Hip-Hop Was Bum-Rushing the Mainstream
The Beastie Boys' debut album Licensed to Ill is one of the most influential and groundbreaking rap releases of all-time. Comprised of Michael "Mike D" Diamond (vocals, drums), Adam "MCA" Yauch (vocals, bass) and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz (vocals, guitar), the Beastie Boys managed to break the mold and become the first notable Caucasian rap act to gain mainstream recognition at a time when the genre was dominated by the African-American and Latino community, forever shifting the paradigm and cultural perception in hip-hop.
Released on November 15, 1986, Licensed to Ill would be wildly successful: the first rap album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200, achieving platinum certification within three months of hitting shelves, eventually selling over ten million copies in the U.S. Their success was the subject of praise and scorn in equal measure; with some heralding them as boundary-breakers while others dismissed them as obnoxious posers. Critics scrutinized the Beastie Boys' crossover success, coming at a time when many of their peers in hip-hop were only attaining a fraction of the accolades the Beasties had garnered.
But Public Enemy frontman Chuck D credited the trio with showing him how to command an audience. At the Beasties' 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck showered the trio with praise.
"The very first time the Beastie Boys headlined they toured, it was the ‘Licensed to Ill’ tour, they hit the road in January 1987," Chuck recalled. "They invited us to join the bill in April 1987. The lineup was the Beastie Boys, Murphy’s Law, and Public Enemy." Continuing to laud the group and their impact on Public Enemy's own artistry, Chuck revealed the Beasties "made us rethink what we should do on stage and affirmed for us how important our own Beastie Boys, he calls himself Flavor Flav, might be to our success. In that way, the Beastie Boys literally helped us to get our act together by living up to more than their name night after night on the road."
The Beasties were also behind the discovery of a teenage phenom LL Cool J and his signing to Def Jam as the label's flagship artist (Ad Rock ghost-produced the original version of LL's "I Need A Beat" single in 1984.) Despite the fact that race undoubtedly helped them to crossover, the actual origins of the group and their commitment to authenticity and sincere appreciation for hip-hop music and culture indicated that they weren't simple "culture vultures."
Prior to being a Beastie, the group's founder Mike Diamond was a Young Aborigine, the name of a punk band he would form in 1978 with drummers John Berry, Kate Schellenbach, and bassist Jeremy Shatan. However, after Shatan would depart from the band, the remaining members would replace Shatan with bassist Adam Yauch, rechristening themselves the Beastie Boys in 1981. Making their recording debut on a compilation, titled New York Thrash, the Beastie Boys would soon record their first EP, Polly Wog Stew, in 1982. Soon after, the direction of the promising hardcore band's career would reach a turning point with Berry's departure. He was replaced by former The Young and the Useless drummer Adam Horovitz. Horovitz, who had become friendly with the band after opening up for them at the taping of the short concert film, "Beastie," would join the group in adopting an approach that mixed their punk aesthetic and sensibilities with the style and sound of rap music, which had began to permeate throughout the five boroughs.
The Beastie's first attempt at a rap record, "Cooky Puss", released in 1983, would be well-received, but Schellenbach, the lone female member of the group, would leave the fold prior to the release of the Cooky Puss EP that same year. The buzz created by the Cooky Puss EP, which embraced the sampling, prompted the Beasties to begin their gradual evolution into a full-fledged rap group, enlisting NYU student Rick Rubin to be the group's DJ. The move would pay dividends, as Rubin, who had been in cahoots with fellow NYU student Russell Simmons to put together a rap-focused record label named Def Jam, would offer to produce records for the Beastie Boys. With Diamond, Yauch and Horovitz each adopting their own hip hop monikers - Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock, respectively - the latest incarnation of the Beastie Boys hit the ground running in 1984, releasing the 12" single "Rock Hard," one of the first official releases from Def Jam Records.
Although LL Cool J would be the first act on the label to release an album (1985s Radio), the Beastie Boys continued to build their fan base, touring alongside high-profile acts like Madonna, Public Image Ltd., Fishbones, as well as hitting the road with Run-DMC, Whodini and LL Cool J on the "Raising Hell Tour." Rolling out additional singles like "She's On It," which was included on the Krush Groove soundtrack, the Beastie Boys entered 1986 with a wave of momentum. Other singles like "Hold It Now, Hit It," "Paul Revere," and "The New Style," all made waves on the underground and club scene, as the Beastie Boys began cultivating what would shape up to be Licensed to Ill. Released during fall of 1986, Licensed to Ill positioned the former punk-rockers as hip-hop frat boys, as opposed to b-boys, which put them in stark contrast with much of their rap counterparts.
The Beastie Boys' lighthearted party-boy image was solidified with the MTV hit "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" The song was a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the kind of juvenile hard rock that had become the norm on video channels in the mid-80s; typified by songs like Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" and "Bang Your Head' by Quiet Riot. Their beer-swilling image separated them from other hip-hop acts at a time when hardcore hip-hop had overtaken the party raps of the genre's earliest days. Hip-hop crashed the mainstream at the height of the crack epidemic and Reaganomics, and the "yes, yes y'all" fun-and-friendly rhymes of acts like Kurtis Blow had given way to trunk-rattling aggression via Run-DMC and LL Cool J, and emerging acts like Boogie Down Productions.
The Beastie Boys' combination of rap and rock wasn't without precedent; Run-D.M.C. had risen to mainstream superstardom by combining the two genres on hit songs like "Rock Box," "King of Rock" and "Walk This Way," all of which featured live guitars and landed the iconic trio from Queens on MTV and on the cover of Rolling Stone. Run-D.M.C.'s multiplatinum third album Raising Hell, released just six months prior to Licensed to Ill, was a major breakthrough for hip-hop and set the table for Ill's success. But the Beasties image and sound made them more relatable to the midwestern rock fans that were buying Motley Crue and Iron Maiden albums. Building on what he'd done with Run-DMC on Raising Hell, Rick Rubin went even further to emphasize the Beasties' heavy rock influences; with Kerry King of Slayer playing lead-guitar on "No Sleep Til' Brooklyn," and samples from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Clash, and AC/DC. The subject matter was akin to slapstick pranks and boyish hijinks.
Deep cuts like "She's Crafty," an ode to girls that are nothing but trouble that you can't live without; "Posse in Effect" which features the three New Yorkers going for broke, and the album closer "Time to Get Ill" are flawless. Although released prior to Licensed to Ill, addictive cuts like "Hold It Now, Hit It" and "Paul Revere" are both regarded as transcendent compositions and both have lived on to be cited by the staunchest of rap fans, critics, and artists as essential tunes. The impact of "...Fight for Your Right (To Party!)" would help the album post what were unprecedented sales figures at the time.
It would be criminal not to put Licensed to Ill, or the Beastie Boys themselves, in the upper echelon of hip-hop greats. LL Cool J, who also gave a speech at the Beastie Boys' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction described their impact perfectly:
"The Beasties brought something new, pure and great to the game. They brought obnoxiousness, they got a tune of fresh humor, and they proved once and for all that rap can come from any street, not just a few." And with the leaps and bounds that hip-hop, as a culture, have made in its wake, including its status as a dominant force in mainstream America and pop culture, Licensed to Ill is an undeniable game-changer that took hip-hop to heights unforeseen.