RZA, Wyclef Jean, Andrew W.K., Santigold and more talk to us about the Beastie Boys’s seminal LP.
When the Beastie Boys released “Licensed to Ill” in the fall of 1986, it was as if they ripped a pin from a grenade and threw it into the center of the music industry. As you drop the needle on the LP’s opening track, “Rhymin’ & Stealin’,” you’re greeted with the familiar drum start of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” but instead of getting the iconic harmonica solo that busts open the “Zeppelin IV” track, your ears are assaulted by the off-key shouting of three kids from New York:
“Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about / I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out.”
Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock declare their intentions to fuck shit up right from the get-go and, with the 13 sample-and-scratch heavy tracks on the LP, they revolutionized the world of hip-hop and rock.Featuring massively popular singles like “Fight for Your Right (to Party),” “Girls,” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and slow burning deep cuts including “Slow Ride,” “The New Style” and “Time to Get Ill,” “Licensed to Ill” continues to be one of the most successful hip-hop albums of all time and has been cited as a major influence on so many artists — from Beastie Boys contemporaries to bands that weren’t even born when the album came out.
Here, we’ve gathered a bunch of those friends, fans and collaborators together to discuss what made that first LP so special, their personal memories with the record and why each song will stand the test of time. No mutiny here.
“Fight for Your Right (to Party)” paved the way for me and for many other people to sing, in a very straightforward nature, about this kind of celebratory attitude. I think that all other songs that mention the word “party” owe an extraordinary debt and gratitude to that song. And even though they’re much more specific about and more detailed in their lyrics about what partying [means] to them, just the fact that they acknowledge this word as a verb really.
There’s definitely a call to arms/group chant/sense of camaraderie to the Beastie Boys song. Again, I can’t really imagine having been able to do what I do in my very small way if that song didn’t exist. It’s a fantastic use of guitar and a more rap-oriented delivery but it sort of transcends both rap and rock music — and it’s an anthem. [“Fight for Your Right (to Party)” is] a song that people who might not even consider themselves fans of the Beastie Boys [know and love]; it’s a song that transcends genres and age groups.
It’s also quite a strange song — the rhythmic delivery of that chorus with its dropouts and the way the drum till comes back in — it’s not easy to sing along with and instead of that turning people off, it keeps people on their toes always trying to figure out how that kicks in. I still don’t understand it in the best way. It’s like wanting to be able to learn this little part of a song that’s just impossible to learn for some reason. There’s something quite mysterious and magical about the music within this deceptively simple song. And I think that, again, it makes something like my very pathetic attempt to add to that party cannon — I guess pun intended — even more humbling because they’ve done something that even as familiar as it is, it remains fresh and new and challenging and strange.
Beastie Boys “Licensed to Ill” was one of the first CDs I owned. I thought it was funny because they looked like adults, but they acted like mischievous, smart teenagers … and they kind of sounded like Gilbert Gottfried rapping. (Also, this album was my first exposure to Led Zeppelin, which is sampled all over it.)
As their career developed, the Beastie Boys ended up changing culture for people my age — welcoming in outsiders and bridging together the worlds of punk, skateboarding, hip-hop, art and indie rock. I think it could be said from today’s perspective that not even Nirvana has been as influential as the Beasties. And it all started with “Licensed to Ill.”
I first heard “Licensed to Ill” maybe a week after it hit the streets. I was a young DJ and bought any record from Def Jam or Profile Records. My favorite song back then was “Brass Monkey.” What made it a classic [track] was the music production, which included samples from some of the best breaks a DJ could find in his crate. Also, what [made “Brass Monkey” stand out] was the uniqueness of the lyrical approach — to me it was fun, zany and youthful. It felt like they weren’t trying to be the best MCs, but they were having the most fun.
I don’t remember the very first time I heard the Beastie Boys, but I think it was around the time their “Fight For Your Right” video came out, and I was an instant fan. So much so that, for the next few years, I tried to convince so many of my friends that we should start our own “all girl Beastie Boys” (whatever that means!). I even paid to make a VHS video at the mall where I got to perform the song with my friend while random objects flew around behind us in space. (It was really advanced technology at the time!) I can’t believe my Dad lost that video.
I loved how fun they were; they were funny and cool and their energy was so punk rock. I didn’t know much about punk at the time, but I know now that’s what I loved so much about them.
[“Licensed to Ill”] was one of the rare albums that literally just blew everyone’s mind because it was so fresh sounding, they were so fresh looking and it was so legitimately genre blurring. It was also an album on which every song was great! I honestly have so many favorites like “Fight For Your Right,” “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and “Brass Monkey.” Funny thing is, as an 11-year-old, I didn’t get what half the songs were about. Of course I thought “Brass Monkey” was about a monkey, and I always really identified with “She’s Crafty,” it was one of my faves and I really felt a sense of ownership when I sang this one. I had no idea what it was about because I never really listened to lyrics that much other than the chorus. I was just a little kid. I thought it meant the girl was like clever and creative and made stuff, like crafts, and I was really down with that!
I remember this record came out and everyone loved it. I was already down with [the Beasties] from their 12-inch records, especially “Cooky Puss.” My greatest memory of this record is playing high school baseball and it blasting on the bus with the whole team singing “Fight for Your Right.” When we heard they were touring with Madonna, no one could believe it. I miss the old un-PC version of the B-Boys, who were close friends of mine, especially Mike D.
The first thing I thought when I heard “Licensed to Ill” for the first time was hip-hop fusion. What I love about that album — and its legacy — is the eclectic range, the engineering, the production and how the vocals just gel together. To me, the perfect fusion of hip-hop and rock was “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” — it opened my ear up to a new sound.
“Licensed to Ill” came out just a little under two years before I was born, so I very much missed the massive commercial hype around the record — I would have heard “Fight for Your Right” in my car seat and later on while watching VH1 Pop-Up Video, but, because I missed the genesis of the record, I have only taken part in the album’s deserved phase as a historical piece.
[The track] “Time To Get Ill” is interesting to me because it not only sets up a lot of what would come on “Paul’s Boutique” — which I don’t think would have been put out if not for the commercial success of this record — but also because it sets up conventions that would shape sample music in the early 2000s. Steve Miller Band drum breaks, “Mr. Ed” and “Green Acres” samples and the Billy Preston take are each great examples that I think define that later sample-collage-style of music that was bridging popular music with more underground records by using only little Plunderphonic samples of each. I remember when I used to teach computer music classes at Brown during the summer (when I still lived in Providence), I always devoted a large part of a lecture to the Beastie Boys and this record [in particular] because it always led to 16- and 17-year-old [mental] light bulbs going off in ways that I had difficulty accessing in any other way.
Records that feel inspired by “Licensed to Ill” like “Since I Left You” by The Avalanches and [DJ Shadow’s] “Endtroducing” took those core ideas and ran with them — albums that much later, I grew up with. [“Licensed to Ill”] bridged acoustic and electronic music in ways which I would have had no context for growing up where I did, and I think this record is positioned as a key bridge in the history that led to the lot of music that shaped what I do today.
PAPA’s Darren Weiss
When I hear “Slow and Low,” it has the same visceral effect as catching a whiff of perfume that instantly brings you back to a crush in a simpler time — where life seemed to be in Technicolor. Things move the way they ought to, all the punches and kisses fall in the right place. With opening lines like “It’s never old school all brand new / So everybody catch the bugaloo flu” [the track’s] like a nursery rhyme, so it’s immediately familiar and warms you up, but still makes you feel funky and badass.
“First you move your legs and then your arms / It’s not fast and nervous this dance is calm.” It’s just like hokey pokey, but the tone and deliverance feels dangerous, fun and curt. It has the insatiable simplicity of Rick Rubin’s genius combination of thick, distorted guitar with that beat that just makes me want to fucking jump rope and play hopscotch. “Slow and Low” is still so fresh sounding to me. Even with the dated production style, it makes me feel like I just got out the shower, put on a fresh pair of white sneakers and can just glide through a filthy New York City scene in slow motion and a smile on my face.
XYLØ’s Chase Duddy
I was about 10 when “Ill Communication” came out, which was the age I started to have my own music collection separate from what my parents [listened to]. My older sister and I watched MTV every day after school and “Sabotage” was a huge hit. This was how I became a [Beasties] fan.
I specifically remember going to Warehouse Music on Ventura Blvd in Studio City, California, to buy “Ill Communication.” I must have had a gift card from a birthday or something, [but] I most likely bought “Licensed to Ill” [as well that day] because of its legendary cover. I remember that record changed how I viewed music. My dad was a huge Led Zeppelin fan — that’s all I remember him listening to in the car. When I heard “She’s Crafty,” with the sample from [the “Houses of the Holy” track] “The Ocean,” my mind was blown open. I hadn’t heard anyone ever do anything like that. I was kind of confused at first, but it opened me up to realizing that there are no limits in music.
Well I actually have a funny story about that album — my parents gave my brother and I records when we were growing up. Like, they gave us each one CD and one year, my brother got “The Wedding Singer” soundtrack and my parents gave me “Licensed to Ill” and it’s funny because at the time I remember being really bummed that I didn’t get “The Wedding Singer” soundtrack! But in retrospect, “Licensed to Ill” is a much better record. Not that “The Wedding Singer” soundtrack isn’t great though …
I had two older brothers who listened to the Beastie Boys, so I kind of knew about them that way when I was a little kid. But then I remember watching a clip on MTV or VH1 of them playing live and it looked like the most fun of any band I’ve ever seen live. They were just jumping around, going crazy and it looked like so much fun.
It’s crazy that they were around that early in hip-hop. They were like one of the first hip-hop groups and they blazed the trail, but they were just white Jewish kids from New York? Then they proceeded to play instruments and make such interesting beats and play it all live. And, really, they had it all, they were funny — like those early days of them just goofing off and then they got really, I don’t know, they do it well — that balance of goofing off and partying and also being like this is important for some reason. I don’t know why, it just always felt that way with them.
The first time I heard “Licensed to Ill,” I was 8 or 9 years old. I remember riding to practice with my friend and his dad, who was our coach, would always listen to gangsta rap, but this day was different. He played this album, but specifically “Paul Revere” and it blew my mind. I had never heard a story be told in such a way. I think it mesmerized me because of how the beat was reversed but still had that scratching, loop and drums that made it slap. It’s my favorite song on the entire album. I felt like at this moment and years following, I knew I wanted a dope crew of fools like that down for a random bar stickup!
The first time I can remember listening to “Licensed to Ill” was around 7 years old when I was visiting my oldest brother in Sacramento. He was a huge Beasties fan and didn’t believe I was familiar with them at all. I loved the song “Brass Monkey” as kid — probably because it felt like they were just rapping about funky monkeys.
It’s really hard to have a favorite song because some are just too good. I always listen to [“Posse in Effect”] before shows to get me hyped up. It’s so raw and Ad-Rock’s voice is polarizing. The lyrics are easy to sing, they make you want to scream them out. They make you want to rebel.
“Posse in Effect” is a favorite of mine. Being in a rap group I understand how fun it was making that track. Going back and forth keeping the energy up is what creating with your homies is all about. The studio had to have been electric. The last part “You’re a fake wearin sucka who’s gold got rusted / Cheaper than a hot dog with now mustard,” gets me hyped every time. That song is a good time.
“Licensed to Ill” is a classic because of that feeling it gives you every time. No matter the setting or mood, play that album and it’s inevitable everyone starts to get a little rowdy. Three dudes working cohesively to bring a party to your speakers at your leisure. Rick Rubin killed it on the production and the Beasties blew it out the water. Seven singles. One album. Classic.
Interpol’s Paul Banks
I was 8 when “Licensed to Ill” came out. My older brother and I were instant fans of “Fight For Your Right.” It was the first wild music I’d heard on the radio — rebellious, raucous, anti-establishment and fun. We knew all the lyrics.
The album is classic because virtually every track is familiar to us now. Every track broke into and formed part of the fabric of our culture. I don’t have a favorite because it’s too hard to choose … but I’ll go with “Fight For Your Right” since it has a guitar solo and really is probably one of the most effective, effortless genre fusions ever. Punk rock and rap. Beautiful.
Music was more free at the time of “Licensed to Ill.” You could use samples from other bands and the Beastie Boys were the ones who really started it. Now it’s too complicated in the music industry to make albums like this anymore. We first heard this album when we were young kids. “Licensed to Ill,” “Rhymin’ & Stealin'” in particular, was a shock — like the plane that’s on the cover.
The only time I saw the Beastie Boys in concert, the first of three openers was a dog show. Then Talib Kweli did a set. And then the Beasties did the rap thing and the punk rock thing and it was one of the best shows I’d ever been to. That is basically their career in a nutshell: Equal parts silly, always with an ear to the ground and a mix of rap and rock music that somehow never feels stale. They were always awesome. Nobody hates the Beastie Boys.
There are so many songs and moments on this record. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” riff; the one-two of “Girls” and “Fight For Your Right”; that twisted sax sample on “Brass Monkey.” I could go on and on. But I think the song that stands out the most for me — one with some of the most memorable and hilarious Beasties rhymes on any track in their discography — is “The New Style.” “I’ll steal your honey like I stole your bike”? C’mon!
Having said that, there are definitely some complicated and uncomfortable lyrics on the track that, even from a jokey perspective, haven’t necessarily aged well, but it’s such a perfect example of the Beasties style that would be refined, experimented with, and perfected over the years that it’s almost easy to forget how new and fresh these sounds were when they first dropped. You can put that on wax.
AWOLNATION’s Aaron Bruno
There are so many things I remember when “Licensed to Ill” came out — their voices exploded to me and they just sounded so rowdy and nasty in the best way … I remember the sensation I got when I heard it in a proper car because, now this was the ’80s of course, and my older brother had some friends who put bazooka tubes and what not in their car with amps under their seats in order to hear the subs right. And I’ll never forget the moment when I first heard it there — it was overwhelming for sure.
“Paul Revere” is the best — I memorized every single lyric to that song and I would recite it over and over. I just think the story is great, the beat is great, it’s lighthearted …They just have so much fun at all times and they’re a punk band! They just got away with anything they wanted to do. They were a punk band from Brooklyn and they became great rappers and became so influential and they were just screaming in some ways. They sounded so great and so dangerous, yet so lighthearted. You could party to them, you could get pumped up by them, you could make love to your lady by them and you could smash a beer on your head to them. They’re genreless to me.
So I was only 4 years old when Beastie Boys released “Licensed To Ill.” Had they appeared as a musical guest on “Sesame Street” that year — still a life long goal of mine — maybe I would have fanned up early. But they didn’t, so baby goth “The Batty Bat” song was more my speed.
But in 1993, I got my proper introduction [to the Beastie Boys] via my middle school’s lip sync contest. “Brass Monkey,” as performed by the boys who later became the punks I knew in high school, left me confused and excited. What the hell is a brass monkey? What the hell is this kind of music?
At that point, I had my parents’ records of ’50s-’70s and my adoration for contemporary pop music as key informers. I hadn’t really heard hip-hop yet. I was into the “New Jill Swing” of TLC and SWV, but had no concept of its time and place.
It helped that I had a crush on the main star of the number, Nick Rogers, but ultimately the music was enough. It was unabashedly fun, loud and obnoxious — things I wasn’t. I later picked up the cassette from Rasputin’s in San Lorenzo, California. In my Walkman it became the soundtrack of every track practice warm-up until I got a Discman in high school. At that point it joined the ranks of thrifted masterpieces in my 1981 silver Volvo.
Later on, when I became more of a music junkie/coveter, I found out about Beastie Boys’s hardcore punk roots. They went from opening for Bad Brains to touring with Madonna (still a lifelong goal of mine).
The significance of three Jewish kids becoming massive then mainstream in the rap world did not escape me.
I read their late ’90s apology for the misogynistic and homophobic lyrics on “Licensed to Ill,” and realized my own culpability in glossing over them.
I continued to listen to their subsequent albums. The instrumental “The In Sound From The Way Out!” was a crucial aide in teaching myself the drums.
The relationship between Kathleen Hanna and husband “Ad-Rock” as documented in “The Punk Singer” made me cry.
I once tried to drink a 40 ounce King Cobra with orange juice, but it made me vomit immediately. I had then, and have now, all the Brass Monkey I need.
RIP Adam “MCA” Yauch.