Licensed to Ill:  The Beastie Boys’ Breakthrough Album

Licensed to Ill: The Beastie Boys’ Breakthrough Album

If rock, rap, and punk were ever to have a baby, then the result was always going to be the Beastie Boys. While the establishment might have seen them as overprivileged frat boys, they carved an important swathe in music, laying down the foundations for other rock/rap hybrids, the like of which hadn’t been seen since Run-DMC’s ground-breaking collaboration with Aerosmith.

One the face of it, the Beasties are an impossibly unlikely trio to enter the world of hip-hop. White, middle-class, and predominantly Jewish, their credentials for joining the rapping ranks would appear to be insanely lacking. However, while skewing our perceptions of what music could be, the Beastie Boys managed to bring humour into the mix – something that saw their lifespan continue beyond their big hits.

From Young Aborigines to Beastie Boys

Beastie Boys – Outdoors with DJ Hurricane, 1987. Click on the image to find out more and buy this print.

The Beasties began life in 1978, in New York, as the Young Aborigines. At that time, the punk scene was about to pass the torch on to the burgeoning New Romantics and hair metal bands. However, punk had also cleared the path for other genres, including ska, goth, and goth-rock. These were the sounds that influenced Michael Diamond, John Berry and Kate Schellenbach.

However, one vital name is missing from the roster: Adam Yauch. It was Yauch’s idea to form (what was considered to be at the time) a hardcore band. With the Young Aborigines having disbanded, Yauch was free to approach Diamond, Berry and Schellenbach with an idea that was to encompass the punk spirit and all of their respective musical tastes.

The story goes that the ‘Beastie’ part of the band’s name is an acronym, standing for ‘Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Inner Excellence’. This ghost was laid to rest in 2007, when Diamond and Yauch described the idea as “an afterthought” that struck them, shortly after the group was christened.

Cooky Puss

While synthesisers and pop-flavoured metal were hogging the spotlight, hip-hop was already making waves on the underground scene. The founding members of the Beastie Boys absorbed this new sound into their palette and began experimenting with rap, set against classic rock hooks and riffs.

While this might sound terribly grand, it’s worth remembering that the Beasties were little more than teenagers. In 1983, a friend of a friend managed to blag the band a couple of days in a studio that was generally used to record commercial jingles. On day one, they tried recording some covers and a few original tracks. After discovering that their sound wasn’t quite what they hoped, they used the second day to experiment with rap. The result was Cooky Puss, the Beasties’ first single and which featured a prank phone call. Horowitz remembers this with some shame, asking “Can I formally apologise right here and now? I’m sorry.” However, it was his schoolboy sense of humour that was to inform some of the band’s biggest hits.

Adding to the Mix

As rap started to gain more purchase, the embryonic Beasties decided that they needed a DJ to add authenticity to their sets. A mutual friend introduced them to a DJ from Long Island: Rick Rubin. For the time, Rubin was more than qualified: he had decks and an extensive record collection. With him spinning the vinyl, the Beasties were able to rap over established songs and fine-tune the bratty, screw-you lyrics that were to become part and parcel of their image and sound.

Rubin and Simmonds

Beastie Boys – In a Black London Cab, England, 1993. Click on the image to find out more and buy this print

Rubin bumped into producer Russell Simmonds at the wrap party of TV show, Graffiti Rock. Simmonds was there, having produced the formative Run-DMC and the Treacherous Three. Rubin remembers that Simmonds was “was five years older than me, and he was already established in the music business. And I had no experience whatsoever. So even then he was the face of hip hop, even before Def Jam he was the face of hip hop.”

For Simmonds, the encounter was more than a meeting of great minds; it was an opportunity: “ I saw Rick wanted to start a record company as an independent company, as opposed to some distribution deal, and it made sense. I put the money in with him — it was only a few dollars — and the first record, “I Need A Beat” sold so well. And it was not the sales of the records; it was the sound of the records that inspired me to be his partner. He’s a great producer and I thought, “We can do a lot together.”

Licensed to Ill

Under the auspices of Rubin and Simmonds, the Beastie Boys supported the likes of Public Image Limited and Madonna. After releasing Rock Hard, they went to work on what was to become their ground-breaking album, Licensed to Ill. One of the biggest-selling albums of the Eighties, it has sold around 25 million copies worldwide, and features their most well-known song, (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)

However, as any rap aficionado will know, there’s more to the genre than music. Image is vitally important to rappers and, until now, the Beasties hadn’t quite settled on the look that would define them.

Check out the Burst Gallery’s collection for images of the band in their heyday.

For Simmonds, the early days were a bit of a mess: “They came and they wanted to be rappers, so they wore red shiny sweat suits — red Pumas and red sweat suits — and I thought it was better when I saw them in their punk band — they had a punk band — and the way they dressed, in those outfits.” However, as a satellite member of the Beasties, Rubin saw it differently: “Yeah. We definitely had tracksuits. It was fun and funny, and it was really because we liked the whole culture and wanted to be part of it.”

It was Diamond who cemented the Beasties’ look and gave them added notoriety. Having stolen the badge from a Volkswagen, he wore it as a medallion in their first video, giving rise to a sudden crimewave, in which VW badges were ripped from cars, as young rap fans tried to emulate their heroes. According to Horowitz, “all of a sudden, we were the Sex Pistols.”

Beyond the Breakthrough

Beastie Boys – On a Lisbon Rooftop, Portugal, 1998. Click on the image to find out more and buy this print.

The Beastie Boys went on to release seven further albums, including Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. While they are all, for the majority, critically acclaimed, none of them have had the same impact as Licensed to Ill. Whether it was about the time and the place, there are few that could have predicted just how this frat-rap trio would affect rap and hip-hop, in the future.

What do you think?

Licensed to Ill might be their biggest, but it might not be the one you think is best. If you think we’re off the mark, drop us a line and let us know why. In the meantime, Burst Gallery’s collection is stuffed with prints of one of the most notorious bands to come out of America. Have a look here.

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