Twenty-nine years ago, on November 15, 1986, Def Jam/Columbia Records released the Beastie Boys’ first album, Licensed to Ill. It would soon become the first rap album to top the Billboard charts, staying at No. 1 for five weeks. If that weren’t enough of an achievement, Licensed to Ill also flew out of record stores at a rate eclipsing any previous hip-hop release, eventually racking up sales of more than 10 million copies in the United States alone.
What made this triply historic was the skin color of the three Beastie Boys. Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), Michael Diamond (Mike D), and the late Adam Yauch (MCA) were white kids, the first of any note to work in what had been a predominantly black genre. Only a few years earlier, they’d been playing hardcore punk. To make such a drastic style shift — and be rewarded in an unprecedented way for it — opened the door to charges of bandwagon-jumping and cultural appropriation. It all sounded a lot like what some critics had been saying for decades about another Caucasian usurper of African-American music: Elvis Presley.
The parallels between Elvis and the Beasties are striking. Just as Presley brought R&B into the mainstream in the ’50s by blending it with country, so the Beastie Boys brought hip-hop into the mainstream in the ’80s by injecting it with a heavy dose of rock. By doing this, they not only made the music more acceptable to a wider audience, but they also opened up a path for future generations of artists to follow (read: the Beatles for Elvis, Eminem for the Beasties). And even those who badmouthed Presley or the Beasties for watering down the art of another culture were eventually won over by the transformative power of their work, and by the love and respect they always showed to African-American musicians.
Of course, the Elvis/Beasties analogy only goes so far. Elvis would never have allowed himself to speak on record about women, liquor, drug-taking, and various types of delinquent behavior the way the Beastie Boys do with such barely contained glee on Licensed to Ill. It’s also hard to imagine Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker ever considering the idea of calling an album Don’t Be a F–got (the original title for the Beasties’ debut, wisely rejected by Columbia execs).
Even at the time, most of this bad-boy talk was obvious play-acting to any sensible listener: “I did it with a Wiffle Ball bat” indeed! But when heard along with body-moving beats and the Beasties’ lovably bratty vocal delivery, it sure did sound appealing to many, and soon enough people began taking it seriously — not least the band members themselves.
It all came to a head, so to speak, with a 1987 tour that featured a huge inflatable penis, women dancing in cages, and multiple riots and arrests. Chastened by controversy and lawsuits, the band retreated, re-emerging two years later with a new outlook and a new album, Paul’s Boutique, that was hailed as a hip-hop masterpiece and set the stage for more than two decades of great music to come.
In 1999, writing the sleeve notes for the Beastie Boys compilation The Sounds of Science, Adam Yauch waxed apologetic about this early phase of the band’s career, describing the megahit Fight for Your Right as “a joke that went too far … By drinking so much beer and acting like sexist macho jerks we actually became just that.”
Yauch’s need to repent was understandable and admirable. But nearly 30 years on, it’s easy for anyone to listen past the juvenile misogyny and hear what makes Licensed to Ill such a landmark. The thrilling way MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D toss lines or fragments of lines back and forth to each other like the frontcourt of a hyped-up basketball team; the surprising diversity of the beats — so ’80s-sounding and yet so weirdly modern at the same time in their robotic cool; the audacious use of samples (including three big ones from Led Zeppelin: When the Levee Breaks on Rhymin & Stealin, The Ocean on She’s Crafty, and Custard Pie on Time to Get Ill, the latter coupled with a hilarious snippet of the theme to Mister Ed) — all these things still grab a listener by the ears and infuse the music with a damn near irresistible sense of fun. Which explains both why Licensed to Ill was a groundbreaking success in the ’80s and why it remains a great listen today.