Licensed To Ill
Def Jam, 1986
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/16/2005
I'm curious as to whether or not the Beastie Boys of today would condemn the type of album the Beastie Boys of 1986 made. Yes, the Beastie Boys have been politically active, women rights-respecting, Dali Lama-befriending folks for almost a decade, but they still showed some of their prankster edge on To The Five Buroughs. Still, it's doubtful that we'll ever hear the Beastie Boys ever put in a line like "I did it like this/I did it like that/I did it with a wiffle ball bat" on any of their newer releases.
No matter how much awareness the Boys raise to horrific conditions in Burma, they can never erase the sloppy-drunk legacy that was Licensed To Ill. Their major label debut proved a rap album could be a monster hit (even though their biggest hits, "Fight For Your Right to Party" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," were more heavy metal than rap). For many who came of age in the '80s, Licensed To Ill was their introduction to rap (and who better to be the spokesperson of the emerging genre of rap than a trio of white, middle-class, Jewish New Yorkers?).
You can graph the Beastie Boys' maturation by classifying their first three albums by the drugs most likely taken to inspire their inception. Check Your Head was the Beastie Boys' "pot" album. And if Paul's Boutique was recorded in an acid haze, then Licensed To Ill was most likely recorded under the influence of Schlitz, Spanish Fly and any other alcohol you could buy with the change in your pocket. Drunken disregard is the only explanation of kicking your album off with "Rhymin & Stealin." The album kicks off with one of the most sacred drumlines in rock (Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks") and a record scratch pulls you into a beer-stench alleyway where Mike Diamond, Adam Horovitz and Adam Yauch beat you down with repetitive nonsensical lines like "Ali Baba and the forty thieves."
Even though Licensed To Ill was a defining album of the '80s, its broad humor would have seemed in the underground circuit of the 1950s. Take the Big Bopper "doo-wop" harmony of "Girls," the greaser storytelling of "Paul Revere" and the baby-voiced whine of "She's Crafty" and you've got an album that would have most likely been in heavy rotation on Lenny Bruce's turntable. Still, the 1950s probably weren't ready for all of what Licensed To Ill offered, namely Slayer's Kerry King's contribution to "No Sleep Till Brooklyn."
It took Johnny Cash's recording sessions to finally bring many music critics to respect the production genius of Rick Rubin. He made Licensed To Ill sound like a basement kegger -- complete with Mr. Ed samples and the aforementioned pillaging of Led Zeppelin riffs. Rubin was able to keep things light, such as the cowbell-heavy "She's Crafty" and slow things to a molasses crawl like "Slow Ride" and "Slow and Low" and make it all seem totally cohesive.
Licensed To Ill helped introduce millions to Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. The album even created a bit of an overexposure backlash for the band, which resulted in the fairly cool reception that first greeted Paul's Boutique. No matter. The Beastie Boys survived the backlash that came with having the very first rap album to top the charts. While the album did little to convince people that rap was more than a fad, it did help bring a genre that was generally still very much in the underground to the forefront of mainstream culture.