The other day, I professed my love for the Beastie Boys with a tribute to their 30-year legacy. The one album I did not discuss in detail was their most important, as I felt it needed a special tribute of its own due to the sheer magnitude of its overall historical impact.
Licensed to Ill was released on November 15th, 1986. The album introduced hip-hop to the masses and became the first album of its kind to reach number one on the Billboard charts. To date, it has sold over 10 million copies in the United States alone and has left a lasting legacy many albums of a similar nature cannot boast.
Licensed to Ill spawned seven singles—which is unheard of—and made the Beastie Boys into overnight superstars. Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D never looked back following their initial rise to fame thanks to their debut album, which started the group down a path that made them icons. In fact, they were even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the Beastie Boys’ game-changing debut album, Licenses to Ill.
Rhymin’ & Stealin’ tells the listener right off the bat that the Beastie Boys are not your typical rap artists. Here, they incorporate their earlier punk attitude and sound and blend it with their new hip-hop style. The trio’s sound and how they could easily bounce rhymes off of one another was something fairly new at the time.
She’s Crafty is known best for the Led Zeppelin riff from The Ocean incorporated into the song. The mixture of classic guitar riffs with the savage beats and rhymes became what the Beastie Boys would become known for. While not one of the seven singles released, I feel that this song could have been just as big of a hit.
Fight For Your Right is the biggest and most recognizable hit the Beastie Boys ever released, even to this day. Sabotage may come close, but this takes the cake. What was originally conceived as a diss to frat boy/party boy anthems, became such a huge hit that those were the exact people who wound up loving the song more than anyone
No Sleep Til Brooklyn is my favorite track off the Licensed to Ill album. It was my favorite 30 years ago and remains my favorite to this day. The boys even managed to get Kerry King from Slayer to play the instantly recognizable guitar solo and riffs on this one. Like most of the songs on the album, the Beastie Boys are just bouncing rhymes off each other about their hometown borough without any deeper meaning. This common theme from the group would eventually change as the band matured and stopped being the party boys they were known for on this album.
Paul Revere got its start when the Beastie Boys were waiting outside Run DMC’s studio for producer Rick Rubin. There, Run DMC started shouting “Here’s a little story that I got to tell,” and the rest is history. This song tells the story (not true, by the way) of how Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA met with MCA playing around with a drum machine and looping stuff on tape in reverse. These were the days before digital sampling and show just how ahead of the times the Beastie Boys were.
Hold It Now, Hit It was the very first single off of Licensed to Ill. This song is what hip-hop was in the 80s in the most traditional sense. The song started the Beastie Boys’ ascent to fame, as samples of earlier hip-hop songs were laced throughout the song, showing that the Beastie Boys could hang with the best of them.
Brass Monkey goes back to more silliness. It’s funny to me as a fan to see the span of the Beastie Boy’s career and how some of these silly songs have now become classics. However, their later work in the early 90s was probably the most exciting for me. Nevertheless, Brass Monkey uses that 808 drum machine again for the cool beats that are layered throughout this song about a drink aptly named the Brass Monkey.
Slow and Low goes back to adding some guitar riffs, this time courtesy of the song Flick of the Switch by AC DC. Along with a sample by the Sugarhill Gang, this song could have been another hit single on top of the seven released. A cool side note is that the guys in Run DMC and Rick Rubin co-wrote this one with the Beastie Boys, and you can really hear that Run DMC sound within this track.
What’s the time? It’s Time to Get Ill! Mike D told Stephen Colbert many years later that the song is about urging someone to abandon their inhibitions as opposed to acting badly. This is a great album closer, as after hearing License to Ill, you really do feel like it’s time to get Ill.
Licensed to Ill is doubt one of those vinyl records that you put on the turntable and listen to from the very beginning to the end without ever feeling like you have to “get through” one song to the next. This album blew me away as a 9-year-old just getting into different styles of music. As a result, this album has never left my collection and it remains there in its original form.
I’m overjoyed to add the 30th Anniversary Edition, made from the original master tapes in 180-gram vinyl, to my collection and will continue to play this incredible album for another 30 years.
It will be a lot of fun to sing Brass Monkey at 65. I urge you to get this hip-hop classic and discover the Beastie Boys at their earliest (and arguably one of their best stages) in their long career. RIP MCA, and thank you for the legacy you left behind with Mike D and Ad-Rock.