My First CD Purchase: Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys

How much music in your collection can you remember exactly where you were, and when it was, that you acquired it? As my collection grows and grows (I’ll slow it down in the new year, I swear!), I lose the ability to identify the origin story of most music on my shelves. They don’t all need to have a good story behind them, but there’s always something special when you can make that track backwards in your mind to the day of purchase. The first CD that I ever purchased is a memory that I can easily recall, and that was Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys.

I’ll state that there was one I owned previous to this, and this wasn’t the first album of any format I technically bought (that’s a story I’ll get to in a future post). The first CD in my possession was a single from Canadian rock ‘supergroup’ Alias titled “More Than Words Can Say”, which I won while playing Bingo during French class in elementary school. I think I was pulled in by their pointy-lettered logo that was adorning the disc, leading me to believe it was soundtrack to a Saturday morning cartoon show. It’s not quite the similarly-titled Extreme song that was released the following year, but nonetheless I’m not a big power ballad enthusiast. I listened to this single no more than once.

Swinging back to Licensed to Ill, I grabbed this album with Christmas money I received in 1999. It was at the Zellers in Aurora, Ontario, the town in which where both sets of my grandparents lived and where my parents grew up. I remember purchasing along with the album two Playstation games, Madden 99 and Knockout Kings, back when department stores dealt in re-packaged previously-played games, and prior to the point that people considered video games to be collector’s items. Aside from already having a familiarity with the Beastie Boys through my brother’s cassette copy of Hello Nasty and their entertaining music videos for “Intergalactic” and “Body Movin”, the price pulled me in. It was $12.99, or perhaps a little less, which at the time was fairly cheap. To once again age myself, this was at a point in time where music retail stores would often excuse heightened shelf prices for albums on shoplifters. It was pretty common to see CDs selling for over $20, but as the internet and sites like Napster were emerging around this time, stores couldn’t justify inflating prices too greatly for what could now be found for free.

One fact that did catch me off-guard was that this album was from 1986. Thinking that it was released when I was only a year old was inconceivable. I’d heard “Fight For Your Right” numerous times, and it always sounded fresh to me. I also didn’t realize how old the band was. The photo of the band in the insert had them looking like young pups from what I was accustomed to seeing! This was 1999, putting them in their early to mid thirties. That seemed old to me, but as a thirty-six year old currently, that idea seems so ridiculous now. I wasn’t very well-versed in hip-hop, but that song definitely sounds like an ‘80s track to me now.

Aside from the one song I knew, all I had to judge the album on in the store was the cover, which on first look seemed kind of bland. That was, until I flipped it over to unveil the entire image.

It’s a bit reminiscent of one of those MAD magazine fold-ins that reveals a new image when you look at it from a different perspective. The cover is pretty iconic, especially when you consider there exists at least one major lookalike out there, but it’s not a style in what I tend to associate with the rap genre. Looks like it could have been a remnant from their punk days. The mirror trickery used on the tail of the plane next to the Def Jam logo “3MTA3” certainly has that youthful immaturity. It took me quite a while to notice it, but I don’t exactly rifle through my collection and hold each cover to a mirror.

It makes sense to start discussing an album’s songs from the beginning, and “Rhymin & Stealin” caught on with me instantly with its use of John Bonham’s fat “When The Levee Breaks” beat and the trio’s use of pirate imagery in the lyrics (“..terrorizing suckers on the seven seas, and if you get mad you’ll get capped in the knees..”). It’s a throwback theme for them to have explored, with Ad-Rock having the “If a pirate had a Def Jam flag, she’d be hard on his ship” in the “She’s On It” single from the previous year. When I saw the Beasties in 2007, they busted this track out in honour of International Pirate Day, and I was sure pleased to hear it.

I’m not going to break the album down track-by-track this time, but I’ll say that as a whole the album is sequenced rather well. As one track ends, it seems to slide so well into the next one. There’s a certain sparseness that is present on this album and others that came out in the mid-’80s as the rap/hip-hop genre was exploding in the mainstream. By this, I’m not saying that this era was lacking in quality by any means. It’s more in the song structure, where songs were maybe based around a key sample or two without layering them through multiple tracks. This has the benefit of avoiding potential clutter and giving songs more room to breathe, putting emphasis on the rhymes and lyrics with more minimalistic beats.

You could make the argument that there was a certain sound that a Def Jam album had at that point, and there are times on Licensed to Ill where the band does feel as if they are being built to be a white version of the label’s largest success at that stage (Run-DMC). In fact, the Beastie Boys even used a Run-DMC song (“Slow and Low”) that was a leftover from their King Of Rock record. While originally a Run-DMC creation, the Beastie Boys mention in an anecdote in the Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science liner notes that the one major line they had to change because “I see real well because I have four eyes” lyric wouldn’t make any sense to use seeing that it applied to the spectacle-wearing Daryl “DMC” McDaniels. Instead, they put in the line “White Castle fries only come in one size”, and tweaked a couple other parts to be self-referential.

On the topic of White Castle, the amount of mentions that fast-food chain gets in Licensed to Ill shows the band’s limited ability to spin rhymes at the time. “The New Style”, “Slow Ride”, “Girls”, “Hold It Now, Hit It!”, and “Slow and Low” each mention it. The term ‘brass monkey’ (an alcoholic beverage) gets brought up in four tracks including “Brass Monkey” (obviously), though it is more stealthily referred to as ‘Monkey’ in “Hold It Now, Hit It”. My CD edition didn’t list out the lyrics, and I don’t think other formats would have either, but they wouldn’t look all that impressive if they were included.

One noteworthy issue in which their lyrics would be viewed as worthy of criticism is through their perceived misogynism. Songs like “The New Style” are full of talk of committing adultery and getting lots of females’ numbers and attention, or “She’s Crafty” talking about a negative experience with a girlfriend. And then there’s “Girls” and its listing out of so-called women’s work (“to do the dishes.. to clean up my room.. to do the laundry.. and in the bathroom”) and having “two at a time”. Some of this may in part be them making fun of pick-up culture, inside jokes, or whatever, which I’m more than willing to believe, but not everyone interprets lyrics in the same way. The Michael Diamond and Adam Horowitz-penned Beastie Boys Book even devotes a section to a feminist (Ada Calhoun) discussing their old lyrics and why she was willing to forgive them. It seems like the band has apologized until they are blue in the face about some of these controversial lyrics, and while I’m not a woman, I never took the words at face value. Much of who the Beastie Boys were at the time was them essentially playing characters, with the band opting for an over-the-top stage show (complete with a giant hydraulic penis and go-go dancers) that they seemed to add for what they thought was a harmless laugh. The band began as a punk group just five years prior, released somewhat of a hip-hop-hybrid single in “Cooky Puss” only three years earlier, and saw what could be called their first proper rap single in “Rock Hard” two years back in 1984. There are hints of questionably sexist lyrics on future albums such as in “Hey Ladies”, but it was all a part of the band’s evolution. I acknowledge that this was a trio still just getting their feet wet in the genre, and as time moved along their lyric work would tighten up, they would build greater musical mosaics as they would leave Rick Rubin and Def Jam to collaborate with the likes of the Dust Brothers, Mario C, and Mix-Master Mike in the future.

A few guests appear on this record. Credited on “Slow Ride” are Keene, Tony and Danny for providing horns and percussion on the track. Who is this mysterious trio? They were members of Urban Blight, Keene Carse, Tony Orbach, and Danny Lippman. They must have been tight with the band because Keene would return a decade or so later with trombone on “Song For the Man”. While they may not be very recognizable, the album’s other guest musician should be to many. Rick Rubin brought Slayer guitarist and Def Jam label-mate Kerry King into the studio to lay down a solo. I had heard that King was the lead guitarist on “Fight For Your Right”, but the liner notes simply list him as the soloist on “Brooklyn”. The solo in “Fight For Your Right” felt far too melodic for King’s playing style, and sources such as the Wikipedia page and random message boards claim he did it in spite of no reference to it in the booklet. I haven’t spotted much concrete to say who did it, but it may have been Rick Rubin or an anonymous collaboration. Besides, if King and the band allegedly didn’t get along, why would he bother giving them two different solos? Then again, I recently found the following Toronto Star article from around that time where Kerry King says he did play on “Fight”. Could they have scrapped his part, because he should have received credit otherwise, right?

The noise solo on “Brooklyn” is prototypical Kerry King, and is much more fitting because it is the most metallic track on the record in a few ways. The track got its name from No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith, the Motorhead live record. The video for “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” even shows the band posing as a metal band only to flip the gig into becoming a rap show in what can be described as a trojan horse. The song also seems to take its cues from Motorhead’s “We Are The Road Crew”, with lines like “Another train, another plane, another bottle in the brain” fits the pattern of much of the Motorhead song (“Another town, another place, another girl, another place..”).

One of the more notable facts about this album is that the band never played the album’s biggest song “Fight For Your Right” after 1987. I really don’t blame them for wanting to distance themselves from a big song. Many artists get that way in fear that they will become a one-hit wonder or be accused of trying to coast off it. For many years, Radiohead wouldn’t play “Creep” out of a similar discomfort of the song. The Beastie Boys apparently didn’t even think of the song as a single, and had little say in whether or not they would be shooting a video for it. A good live performer won’t have you leaving their concert wondering why they didn’t play this song or that song, and since the Beastie Boys put on great live shows throughout their existence, not many truly missed it.

Do I have any favourites on this album? Ask me tomorrow and my answer will differ, but today I’ll choose “Rhymin & Stealin”, “Paul Revere”, “Time To Get Ill”, and I’ll dare to say “Fight For Your Right”. I think it’s a pretty consistent album, with no highly notable low points calling out to me. Licensed to Ill stands in sharp contrast to the band’s album that followed. If I were to offer a quick summary, it could be a blend of frat-boy imagery with much of what was in existence on the Def Jam label. And as much as I dig this album, a very strong case can be made that Licensed To Ill is the worse of all Beastie Boys albums. I don’t think they truly made a bad album, just different ones, with perhaps their instrumental The Mix-Up standing out as one of those somewhat surprising decisions. To this day I can still put this CD on and have a fun time hitting those rhymes that get me to chuckle and smile, just as I can with the Beasties’ records that followed. That’s really enough for me.

I’ll take it, warts and all.

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