Beastie Boys – Licensed to IllDef Jam, 1986
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2012
The first track on Licensed to Ill is like a pocket of history: past, present, and future rolled in one. “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” is the future of music and the same old shit all at once and that’s why it’s fucking brilliant. I’m not a hip-hop head by any means. I wholly admire and respect the genre, but when it comes to pick out a record to listen to I veer into my indie rock comfort zone. And I wanna stop that. I wanna love hip-hop because I know it’s lovable. And I know for a chalky white boy like me, the Beastie Boys are a sort of gateway drug.
It’s feels almost taboo to acknowledge that fact. The Beastie Boys made it OK for white boys to like hip-hop and not look like out of touch chumps. The Beastie Boys do. Not. Give. A. Fuck. And that’s what makes it OK. And that’s also what paved the way for the horrific rap-rock boom in the late 90s/early 00s with Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and all that bullshit, but the aim of the Beastie Boys was true. In college I wrote a 30 page paper about the white man’s historical co-opting and commercialization of African-American music. It was the one of two papers I wrote in college that actually bettered me as a person. And it changed the way I thought about music. The crux of the paper was the fact that the band TV on the Radio were considered an oddity since they were a predominantly African-American band playing rock music. How the fuck did that get to be weird? And somewhere down the line it’ll be weird for black dudes to rap one presumes if history repeats itself (which it tends to do).
But then you’ve got “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” which borrows the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” and yet has that rap-over-rock Rick Rubin production that Jay-Z used way down the line on The Black Album. Musical history is complicated. Just like any relationship you’re likely to be involved in, things are never as easily defined as you think they should be. So maybe it’s a moot point to question the authenticity of white rappers since ideally, we’d live in a colorblind culture but at the same time diversity is a highly prized attribute of any society. So where is the line in the sand? And the answer is probably just who cares as long as everyone is treated equally.
Licensed to Ill is as much of a social document of the birth of white-boy hip-hop as it is a goddamn fantastic record. I picked this up at work because it was so cheap and despite somehow never truly listening to the Beastie Boys outside of the songs that had videos on MTV, I knew it was an important album. It’s brazen as shit and really doesn’t sound like anything else from the period. At least nothing that I can pinpoint. I mean, all the notable songs are sequestered to the back half of the album WHO THE FUCK DOES THAT?! The fucking Beastie Boys did it just because. You’ve got songs that are ubiquitous in our culture—“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party),” “Brass Monkey,” “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”—and this album still sounds fresh as shit. Wholly legit. Which is bizarre. It could so, so easily be a fucking joke and it just manages to be everything at once without sounding like a mess. I mean, sure it’s a mess. It’s cluttered with influences from all over but it’s the sort of organized mess that is prized when it comes to albums these days. A beautiful confusion that somehow reaches a greater truth we mere mortals can only look in upon but never achieve (unless they try really, really hard I guess. Don’t wanna rule it out because great, exciting, envelope pushing music is being made every day and will be until people get sick of music which will maybe hopefully not but maybe be sooner than we think). The cumulative effect of Licensed to Ill is this: The class clown is way smarter than you think, and while you never expected a party album to be intellectually stimulating and groundbreaking, it happened and the world is a strange, kind of fucking awesome place.
Oh yeah, and "Slow and Low" is probably the best song on the rekkid.