When Licensed to Ill dropped 28 years ago this week (11/15/86), it was a turning point not just for the Beastie Boys, but also for Rick Rubin, for Def Jam and for Hip Hop as a whole in many ways. The Beasties had hit the NY music scene a few short years before as members of two different hardcore punk bands and the genre that would become Hip Hop was still growing under the care of its first generation of Titans.
It was the song “Cooky Puss”, mostly an experiment in sampling centered around Adrock’s prank call to Carvel Ice Cream laid over drums and bass, that got the attention of then DJ Rick Rubin. With a background in hardcore and metal and a passion for all kinds of music then burgeoning in the NY club scene, Rubin’s super-producer powers began to bubble below the surface as he joined the group for a series of gigs and parties as DJ double-R. From there they would join Godfather Russell’s Def Jam ranks, go on tour with Madonna, gain the friendship and tutelage of Run-DMC and begin crafting an identity that remains singular and unique. Punks, not in the graduated, complicated sense that had evolved through the 70’s British rock but the half-drunk, slacker, don’t-give-a-fuck type made up not just the Beasties identity at their inception but a bassline for their characters even as they would grow and evolve through their career.
Amidst their on-stage antics, the tongue-in-cheek degree of that persona is perhaps the Beasties most distinct characteristic, their sense of humor their backbone. It’s tough to know half of what the BB’s are referencing in their lyrics, some of it NY slang, some of it simply Beastie inside quirks. Goofy-but-serious, they provide themselves a certain lyrical latitude with lines like
“I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda,
And you know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda”
But the important point is that these lines hit. Discernible or not, goofy or whatever, that punch is a quality the Boys’ vocals never lack.
In the middle third the album gets turned up a notch with a quartet of their biggest hits (“Girls”, “Fight for Your Right”, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Paul Revere”) followed by a fifth two tracks later in “Brass Monkey” which itself went gold as a single. Certified platinum less than three months after its release, still one of Columbia’s fastest selling albums, Licensed was certified 9 times platinum in 2001, good for sixth-best selling rap album of all time. In many ways, the story of Licensed is as much about Rick Rubin as it is about the Beastie Boys. His influence is the first sound one hears when the album begins, with the familiar and distinct drum of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” comprising the beat for the album’s first track “Rhymin & Stealin”. It’s difficult to know if Rubin’s choice of song is poetic irony given Zeppelin’s own derivation of the track from blues musician Memphis Minnie’s 1929 song. He would then add the guitar from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” four bars in for a dynamic combination. The LZ sampling comes back two tracks later on “She’s Crafty” with a rip from “The Ocean”. These tracks were at the forefront of the development of the technique as “sampling” and these uses of popular rock music only aided in opening up the genre to a wider (read: white) audience.
In this article from Vulture earlier this year, Rubin talks about the effect Licensed had on sampling’s evolution:
“Licensed to Ill changed everything. In those days, this was really before samples clearances. Nobody even knew how to do that stuff. During the making of Licensed to Ill, the sampler got developed. In the earlier songs for the album, there was no sampler, and everything where it seems like a sample is either DJ’ed in with records, or a tape loop around the studio, which was kind of cumbersome and complicated. Sampling didn’t really exist yet. So the idea that you could clear a sample, or a sample was something you could use on a record, that all came later. So they’re very renegade records.”
Though split from their roots and Rubin by that point, the Beasties’ sampling work on their second album Paul’s Boutique would be a landmark in the artistic and legal ramifications of one of the staples of the art form.
As Licensed opens with the aforementioned thump of Zeppelin’s drums on “Rhymin and Stealin”, the Beasties come with a heavy tone of their own, brash and (mock) threatening with lines about “terrorizing suckers on the seven seas”. From the very opening the Boys lay claim to the brashness, the bragging, the larger-than-life style that somehow feels reminiscent of a stomp from a Run-DMC adidas. There’s no mistaking that the newest members of Def Jam intended to make a statement:
“Most illingest B-Boy, I got that feeling
Cause I am most ill and I’m rhyming’ and stealin’”
And yet somehow lines like the one above are delivered (and received, for that matter) with the same seriousness as
“My pistol is loaded, I shot Betty Crocker
Sent Colonel Sanders down to Davey Jones’ locker”
And that right there is the secret ingredient of the Beastie Boys.