Album: Licensed to Ill.
With the opening track of their debut, the Beastie Boys initiated one of the greatest crossovers in the history of popular music: they turned millions of white punk and alt-rock kids onto music that they’d previously hardly ever heard or even outright dismissed: Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
Right. What can you say about a cultural event like Licensed to Ill? I mean, it wasn’t like Run-DMC weren’t already using the tag-team vocals and hard rock guitars that Rick Rubin & the Beasties deployed all over this record. So yeah, the fact that they were white definitely was a factor in the appeal, and why this record still gets played on the radio decades and decades later.
But it was more than just cultural appropriation, more than just clean, pretty white boys using that dirty black music to make millions. I mean, three white guys rapping could have been a fucking disaster, except for the complete and utter joy that emanated from every stolen beat, lick and syllable.
Whatever else you want to to say about Licensed to Ill, it is inarguably one of the most fun-sounding records ever made.
And because of all that, I think that the Beasties also contributed a key punk rock ethos to hip-hop: the thrill of suddenly realizing that anyone – anyone at all! – could pick up a mic, find a beat, and spit out some rhymes. It wasn’t about being a virtuoso at what you did, it was about expressing yourself however the fuck you wanted, because it was all you ever wanted to do.
This, of course, is all with the benefit of hindsight: all I knew at the time was that “Rhymin & Stealin’” was totally familiar and completely new at the same time, and it was fun to pretend like I was a fucking asshole like the guys in the song. I didn’t really know why they were chanting “Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves,” a gazillion times on the bridge (or whatever), but I loved how the record-scratching took the place of a drumroll at the end of it.
And I had firsthand experience with that assholery: I interviewed the Beastie Boys at KFSR just a couple of months before this album came out. They (along with LL Cool J & Whodini) were opening for Run-DMC on their “Raising Hell” Tour, and since KFSR had been playing the “She’s on It” single, somehow they came down to the radio station for an in-studio interview.
Of course, even in those pre-internet days, their reputation had proceeded them, so rather than trying to control three guys who didn’t give a fuck, I just let them say and do whatever they wanted, and hoped that nobody sent a tape to the FCC. But I couldn’t be pissed at them: if I had the same access to music and drugs and girls that they did, I would have been exactly the same.
Just because you’re young and smart doesn’t mean you can’t be a complete fucking idiot. Trust me on that.
Of course, nowadays, I wish someone had made a tape and sent it to the FCC, because like every single other tape I made of the people I interviewed, that one is long gone.
Official Video for “Rhymin & Stealin’”
My Certain Songs Playlist on Spotify