After two days of intense metal, who would have thought the relatively soothing sounds of the Beastie Boys would bring me down from the ledge, but that is exactly what happened. My appreciation for this group evolved much more so in the 1990s, and when “Licensed to Ill” was first released, I didn’t give it a ton of consideration other than knowing the hit single “Fight for Your Right” like everyone did. Perhaps if I had known that the first three songs, as well as the last one either sampled or referenced Led Zeppelin, I might have paid attention more closely. Listening to it all again was a hilarious and happy reunion with these talented and unusual dudes from New York. “Licensed to Ill” is the #192 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Featuring Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz (I always struggled to tell these two apart vocally), and the more distinctive raspy tone of Adam “MCA” Yauch, they perfectly blended punk disregard with a strong seasoning of New York attitude in a mixing bowl with hip-hop beats and a sincere affection for White Castle. The album kicks off with Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” drum opener crushing the beat for “Rhymin & Stealin”, blended with the guitar riff from “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath, and on the next track, “The New Style”, we uncomfortably hear that “If I played guitar I’d be Jimmy Page, The girlies I like are underage”. Doh. I think what has helped me really grow to love their sound is living on the east coast for most of my adult life, with plenty of time spent in and around New York. It is a one-of-a-kind town, with a one-of-a-kind sneer, and as they say, if you know, you know.
That attitude keeps overflowing on “She’s Crafty”, opening with a Zeppelin riff from “The Ocean”. A simple song with basic beats, the production here, once again courtesy of Rick Rubin and Def Jam, is top notch and extremely infectious. The beat slows down and gets heavier on “Posse in Effect” and “Slow Ride”, which samples “Low Rider” by War. “Girls” is a remarkably elementary keyboard melody line that is equally comical. One of the things I love about the Beastie Boys is that it feels like these three guys could just be three of your buddies from middle school who put a tune together for the talent show, especially if you happened to go to middle school in Brooklyn or Queens.
“Fight for Your Right” is an absurd but phenomenally popular party anthem that still surfaces frequently 35 years later… “Oh mom, your just jealous, it’s the BEA-STIE BOYS!” The New York sound rolls on with “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, another classic from this album. The laughs just keep coming on their tribute to the infamous “Brass Monkey”, and “Slow and Low” is another slow jam rocker. Side two ends with “Time to Get Ill”, with one last Zeppelin sample, this time from “Custard Pie”.
“Licensed to Ill” was the first hip hop album to reach number one on the album charts, setting the stage for a lot more, both from the Beastie Boys and the much larger movement of hip-hop surging in parallel. My most favorite Beastie Boy tracks still come from their later work, but it was great to revisit this smash and remind myself how many classics came from a single album. Sadly, we lost MCA in 2012, and the other two have been content to celebrate their legacy and not try to awkwardly extend this trio in absentia. Their place in music and hip-hop history is rock-solid, just like this entire album.