Beastie Boys licensed to ill album coverBryget Chrisfield explores a favourite record which spelled the lift-off to cultural stardom for an important act. This month: Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill (1986).

Until Hot Chip blew our collective faces off with their extraordinary cover of Beastie Boys’ Sabotage – pretty faithful to the original, with Alexis Taylor effortlessly adopting the Beasties’ irate/screechy vocal delivery and surprising us all – during their awesome Australian shows in March this year, we had almost forgotten about the New York hip-hop trio.

Licensed To Ill, the debut album by Beastie Boys, dropped when I was in HSC and could often be heard blasting from our common room. (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!) was obviously a favourite and we just loved hanging out the windows shrieking along, especially with the school-themed lyricism: “You missed two classes, and NO HOMEWORK!” This track was also a perfect selection to crank out when your mum was giving you the sh-ts: “Mom you’re just jealous it’s the BEA-STIE BOYS!” And whenever someone asked for the time post-Licensed To Ill’s release, our favoured response was: “TIME TO GET ILL!”

Beastie Boys’ aforementioned Diamond-certified set became the first rap record to top the Billboard album chart (where it remained for seven straight weeks) and is the best-selling rap record of the ‘80s. Licensed To Ill also pushed rap onto rock radio – and into the mainstream – thanks to its canny use of samples. According to WhoSampled, album closer Time To Get Ill features 14 samples, from artists as diverse as Creedence Clearwater Revival (Down On The Corner), Kool & The Gang (Funky Stuff), Barry White (I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More Baby) and AC/DC (Flick Of The Switch).

Irreverent and obnoxious, the unabashed enthusiasm of Beastie Boys was further amplified by their anarchic film clips, which immediately received high rotation on MTV. Their image also informed the evolution of streetwear and sneaker culture; circa Licensed To Ill, the Beasties pretty much mimicked the leisurewear and clean sneaks look of Run-DMC. Baseball cap sales skyrocketed thanks to Beastie Boys, who often experimented with placement that made peaks jut out at quirky angles. Then came wearing a massive VW hood ornament around one’s neck on a chunky gold chain, which saw some Volkswagen dealerships offering free replacements to customers due to an increase in thefts.

beastie boys

Beastie Boys chasing Madonna with water pistols backstage on the 1985 Virgin tour; Beasties with Run-DMC, 1987

“The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs,” Rick Rubin, who produced Licensed To Ill, has pointed out. “As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.” Rubin – himself a metalhead – formed Def Jam Records with Russell Simmons and pretty much spearheaded the rap-rock movement. Before Licensed To Ill, Rubin produced Raising Hell by Run-DMC; this Queens hip-hop duo ushered in rap-rock two years earlier with Rock Box (produced by Simmons and Larry Smith). And Run-DMC receive songwriting credits on Licensed To Ill: they originally recorded Slow And Low as a demo (with Rubin producing) and Joseph “Run” Simmons came up with Paul Revere’s opening lines (“Here’s a little story I’ve got to tell about three bad brothers you know so well…”).

Since Rubin was simultaneously producing Licensed To Ill and Slayer’s Reign In Blood, he recruited Kerry King to play lead guitar on the Beasties’ raucous hit No Sleep Till Brooklyn. King also appears in this song’s accompanying music video – a glam-metal parody – sporting a gorilla suit. Even this Beastie Boys song’s title is a spoof (on Mötörhead’s No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith).

Licensed To Ill’s gatefold cover artwork – a Beastie Boys-branded airplane crashing into the side of a cliff – incorporates a Mad Magazine-style fold-in that transforms the artwork into a burnt-out joint. Also, when held up to a mirror the plane’s number plate reads, “Eat Me” – so Beasties!

beastie boys licensed to ill

Often dismissed as a novelty act by hip-hop purists, Beastie Boys could be considered rapping jesters, sure, but they were always in on the joke; Rolling Stone’s favourable review of Licensed To Ill ran under the headline “Three Idiots Create A Masterpiece”, but whatever you think of Beastie Boys’ geeky, horny-frat-boy rap, their arrival on the scene transformed hip-hop’s possibilities, in both look and sound.

The Beasties’ sense of humour was permanently front-and-centre, and they celebrated the art of scratching. The 13 tracks on this album play out like a mixtape, beats varying wildly – Brass Monkey is built from a Wild Sugar brass sample; Girls utilises a drum machine beat, simple electronic keyboard riff and doo-wop BVs (reminiscent of The Earls’ 1962 hit Remember Then) – but the trio’s tag-team weaving rhymes ensure cohesion. Each Beastie boasts a distinctive voice and they often finish each other’s sentences or alternate the syllables they spit: Adam “MCA” Yauch (RIP) supplies the low, raspy timbre, Michael “Mike D” Diamond’s pipes are high-pitched and nasally, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz’s tone sits somewhere in the middle (he takes lead vocals on Sabotage).

When he was just 14, Diamond started the hardcore band that morphed into the first incarnation of Beastie Boys (rounded out by Yauch, guitarist John Berry and Kate Schellenbach on drums) and they went on to open for bands such as Circle Jerks and Bad Brains. Schellenbach (who later joined Luscious Jackson, an all-girl group that would become the Beasties’ Grand Royal label’s first signing) has said: “Whereas other bands – just as awful as the Beastie Boys – would actually believe they were good, for Mike and Adam the whole point was to be terrible and admit it.”

Horovitz was in another punk band, The Young And The Useless (who played Beastie Boys covers) around this time, and replaced Berry – who had started making a habit of turning up to rehearsal strung out on meth – in the Beasties in 1983. When the Beasties were looking for a DJ, one of the contributing factors to Rubin getting the gig (under the moniker DJ Double R) was his bubble machine. After that, Rubin bought the three Beastie Boys their trademark matching Puma trakkies, while Schellenbach was away for the weekend. The story goes that Schellenbach rocked up to Area (a Manhattan nightclub) one night and bumped into the trio – sporting their matching ensembles – and immediately sensed she was out of the band, but no one formally sacked her (which all Beasties Boys members have since acknowledged was “sh-tty”).

“Rick’s influence was really hard to deal with,” Schellenbach has told journalist Alan Light. “Everybody in our crew was very open and not sexist at all, and Rick was this piggish guy from Long Island, or wherever the hell he was from. He was really sexist and homophobic, and they were all getting into his persona because they thought he was cool. And they were also getting into what they thought a hip-hop group was supposed to act like, grabbing their dicks and talking about girls. It was very disappointing and alienating.”

Although typical at the time, the offhand sexism in these early Beastie Boys lyrics is impossible to ignore (e.g., “We ragtag girlies back at the hotel/ And then we all switch places when I ring the bell”). In fact, the working title for Licensed To Ill was ‘Don’t Be A Faggot’ (WTF!?) and Horovitz issued the following apology in 1999: “I would like to… formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record, 1986’s Licensed To Ill. There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity… We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology.”


If you dig Beasties, you should check out…

LL Cool J
During the early days of Def Jam, Beastie Horowitz was given the task of sifting through the demos from aspiring rappers which constantly arrived at Rubin’s NYU dorm room for Def Jam’s consideration. One such eager and ambitious rapper was LL Cool J. “If it wasn’t for Ad-Rock I might still be sending in those tapes,” the now-legend wrote in his 1998 biography I Make My Own Rules. “My man Adrock: Good lookin’ out, baby!”

Public Enemy
Given that their debut LP Yo! Bum Rush The Show dropped on Def Jam the following year, Public Enemy’s first record was most likely funded by the money that Licensed To Ill brought in for the label. As Yauch told writer Danny Weizmann: “It’s crazy because we brought Public Enemy on the road and showed them to America.”

Following Yauch’s death in 2012, Eminem acknowledged in a statement: “I think it’s obvious to anyone how big of an influence the Beastie Boys were on me and so many others.” Em also appropriated the Licensed To Ill artwork for the cover of his 2018 album, Kamikaze.