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Rockin’ mics and Bridgin’ GAPS

Licensed to Ill, a Retrospective

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.young Beasties

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.

rrIn 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.

The braggodocious feel carries fully through the opening third of the album with “Posse in Effect” providing a sense of individual introductions, “She’s Crafty” showcasing the group’s penchant for story tracks, and “Slow Ride” providing its memorable take on War’s “Low Rider”. “The New Style” is perhaps the best track of the opening, straight old school dopeness with drums that knock. The song samples label-mate Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” (“there it is”), which is then subtly referenced in Mos Def’s 1999 song “Hip Hop”. It also contains one of the sickest beat switches of any song, preceded by a Beastie Boys line so memorable they sampled it 12 years later for the song “Intergalactic”.

The second third of the album plays like half of a Greatest Hits collection, starting with the goofily misogynistic “Girls”, followed by a pair of anthems in “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” and “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”. Much has been made of the way the Beasties’ homage/mockery of high school rebellion was taken to heart by drunken college kids, but the hard-edged guitar (played by Slayer’s Kerry King) suggests that the rebellious spirit is not complete farce. Long hair, loud music and hypocritical parents are venerable staples of the teenage struggle for independence. It’s in the “fight” that the joke is revealed. At a time in Hip Hop when there were groups like Public Enemy actually fighting for real rights the concept of fighting for a right to party was intended to be a transparent farce. The spirit of the song, the only one on the album without samples and drawing on the band’s earlier hardcore, live instrument background, is simply too strong to be ignored, turning it into the type of party anthem that some believe the Beasties intended to mock.

“No Sleep Til Brooklyn” takes its name from the title of Motorhead’s album ‘No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith’, which was written on the front of their tour bus in reference to the English city where they would end their tours. For the Boys from New York the image perfectly suited their song about the rock ‘n roll lifestyle.

“Tour around the world, your rock around the clock
Plane to hotel, girls on the jock
We’re trashing hotels like it’s going out style
Getting paid along the way cause it’s worth your while”

The song “Paul Revere”, which tells a fictional, violent story of the meeting of the three Beasties, was written collaboratively by Adrock, Rev Run and DMC. In the following video clip, Adam Horovitz (aka Adrock) tells the story of Rev Run running down the street as they waited outside the 42nd St. recording studio, wildly yelling about a new track (skip ahead to the 4:19 mark to hear the story).

The line that Run was rapping is a take on the opening lyrics to Double Trouble’s “Stoop Rap” and over the following couple hours Adrock would fill in the rest of the tale sitting there on the NYC stoop. The track is also known for its drum line, famously recorded backwards. While some would like to give credit to Rev Run for this move, Russell recounts it more as happy accident than creative choice. “Paul Revere”’s beauty is in its simplicity, acting a bit of a reprieve from the two power anthems before it, telling a tale whose gun-toting swagger is matched only by the silliness of an unnecessary horse named Paul Revere.

full album cover

The cover art for Licensed is a clean bright image of the tail of a plane with a Beastie Boys logo painted on it. It is a somewhat innocuous image at first glance, other than the marking 3MTA3, which reads as EATME when viewed in a mirror. The tail is only half the image, though, as the back cover opens up to show the full plane which has crashed into the side of a mountain (drawn to resemble an extinguished joint). It is a rock ‘n roll trope, the image of a musician’s private jet crashing, and for an album full of larger-than-life, trashing-the-hotel room irreverence it paints that crash as simply part of the ride.03brass-monkey

The album hits its final big hit note with “Brass Monkey”. Predating Courvoisier, Seagram’s gin and Ace of Spades, the Monkey makes its mark as one of Rap’s most memorable product placements. For those that don’t know, Brass Monkey is one of the first premixed cocktails sold in liquor stores (dark rum, vodka, and oj). We don’t really know if the Beasties are referencing the cocktail or its homemade cousin (half an Olde English 40 oz combined with oj) but the result is a close companion to “Fight for Your Right” from two tracks earlier, celebrating their party lifestyle with their favorite drink.

The album closes out with two tracks, the first of which, “Slow and Low”, certainly has a concluding feel to it as the drum is stripped down and the echo on the vocal allowed to fill the space. “Time to Get Ill”, which might seem more appropriate at the beginning of an album called Licensed to Ill, gives one final punch from each of the Boys while showcasing the production with more samples than any other song on the album. It’s almost as if with this track they’re saying, “Well now that we’ve properly introduced ourselves, it’s time to get ill”. The album closes but doesn’t really conclude and when “Time to Get Ill” hits its final note the listener is left fully expecting the party to continue, a rare quality among popular music.

This article from allmusic.com gives a succinct summation of Licensed with this line:

“There never has been a record this heavy and nimble, drunk on its own power yet giddy with what they’re getting away with.”

Perhaps it was the sense of newness to what they were doing that provided the group and its super-producer the freedom to create their punk-flavored masterpiece. Rick Rubin may not have invented the Rock-Rap fusion genre (a good topic to debate in another column), but he certainly is one of its strongest contributors and his partnership with the Beastie Boys provided the right outlet at the right time for his cross-over experimentation. Would the Beasties have been what they were if they had never met Rick Rubin, if they had never signed to Def Jam? Possibly not, but Def Jam probably wouldn’t have been the same wild success they were either without the trio of white Jewish emcees. But that’s the marvelous thing about the way art and an art form develops: there is no right or wrong way for it to evolve, it only does so naturally and organically, pushed in various directions by the artists that come along with new sounds and exciting ideas. The Beastie Boys grew from odd roots and remain a truly unique group within Hip Hop with a style all their own but whose influence on the genre is undeniable. They are one its oldest and most revered icons, a genuine connection to the Old School, as well as one its biggest commercial successes and the first glimpses of their burgeoning genius are on display throughout their debut. It is their irreverence that is their secret weapon, from their Ill beginnings right up until today.

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