The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill is the kind of album that it’s impossible to listen to the first time without thinking you already know what you’re going to hear. Almost everyone has heard “Fight for Your Right,” “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Brass Monkey,” and your local classic rock station might be fond of “She’s Crafty,” “Girls” and “Paul Revere” as well. Based on these culturally omnipresent singles, you may have already reached the conclusion that the Beastie Boys’ debut album is a big dumb party album for big dumb frat boys, far inferior to later Beasties albums like Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head.
The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill is also the kind of album that goes into the locker room and smashes your preconceived notions, along with your glasses.
I have this album to thank for getting me over my fear of rap. You know that rockist friend of yours who refuses to give Public Enemy, Eminem, Kanye West, etc. the respect they deserve? Give them this album. It beautifully straddles the line between rock and rap, something no group has done as well since. Full of classic rock guitar riffs, Led Zeppelin drumbeats (“When the Levee Breaks,” anyone?) and some of the easiest to recognize samples in rap history (I mean, a whole song is based on the “Low Rider” hook, for Pete’s sake!), this is hip-hop for people who don’t like hip-hop. Come to think of it, it’s hip-hop for people who do like hip-hop, too.
The Beasties have always been masters of sampling, and on Licensed to Ill, Ad-Roc, Mike D and the late, great MCA created 13 unique, hard-hitting musical foundations for rhymin’ and stealin’ over. The album’s overall sound is a funky fusion of thick guitars, horn blasts, scratches and sick beats (“Paul Revere” and “Posse In Effect” still knock me out every time). No album gives me a better adrenaline rush; clearly, Licensed to Ill has earned its reputation as a guaranteed party-starter.
The best part of the album, though, is the fresh interplay between the three MCs. Each one has a distinctive voice, and while they’re playing caricatures of stereotypical bad-boy frat-rappers, their sexism, drug and violence advocacy, as well as multiple references to White Castle, Brass Monkey and “pulling out the jammy,” are somehow funny and entertaining. For every butt-dumb line like “the girl is crafty like ice is cold,” “my posse’s getting big and my posse’s getting bigger” and “I come from Brooklyn 'cause that's where I'm from,” there’s three or four jokes or retorts so out there you can’t help but laugh. It’s hard to play favorites, but I particularly like “The New Style,” featuring zingers like “I'm never in training / My voice is not straining / People always biting and I'm sick of complaining” and “Spent some bank / I got a high powered jumbo / Rolled up a wooly and I watched Colombo.” And when the beat drops? Forget it, man. You’re hooked.
The best part about Licensed to Ill is that it remains a thoroughly enjoyable listen no matter how many times you play it. There’s just so much going on, you’ll never know all the awesome rhymes, beats and samples by heart, so there’s always something to surprise you with each spin. There are better, more artistically accomplished albums in my collection (Paul’s Boutique, for one), but nothing’s more fun than Licensed to Ill. Just trust me on this one.