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Top 10 | Essential Listens | The Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill

Posted by Matteo Middlemiss

Selling over 10 million records, Licensed to Ill by The Beastie Boys is an all time essential listen. Bridging genres and developing ones of their own, they are a group underpinned by sonic revolution.


When The Beastie Boys opened for Run DMC they only had an EP and as single to their name. They walked out to a crowd who hadn’t come to see them and wasn’t really interested in hearing a few white guys rap. By the time their set was over, they hadn’t just won the crowd, they had cemented their right share that stage with the biggest names in the genre.

Unlikely Beginnings

The Beastie Boys didn’t start as one of the greatest rap groups of all time. To be frank, they didn’t even start as a rap group. Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz began their musical stylings in punk music. Diamond and Yaunch, along with friends John Berry and Kate Schellenbach formed a hardcore punk band called The Beastie Boys and achieved some success. After sneaking into clubs to jump on stage, the band was noticed by people in the scene and opened for acts like Dead Kennedys and Misfits at iconic venue like CBGBs.

When Berry left to work on other musical projects, friend of the band, Adam Horovitz joined. When Schellenbach then left,  the group began to make the transition from punk rock to rap and minor success with a track called Cooky Puss. Based around a prank call made to an ice cream shop, the track required a DJ to be played live and the band asked their friend and NYU student Rick Rubin to help. He obliged but would later leave to form a record label called Def Jam who then signed the trio. Rubin would go on to become the co-president of Columbia Records and is considered one of the most important producers of the past 30 years.

Now going by their MC names, Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock were gaining underground notoriety as one of the most interesting bands to catch. A fusion of that angry punk sound with the influence of hip hop and rap, it was new and fresh and people were engaged.

slateLicensed to Ill

In 1984 the band released their single Rock Hard which gained them some recognition in wider mainstream music. They started to support much larger acts like John Lyndon’s Public Image Ltd., Madonna and Run DMC. The musical range of these artists really underlined the difficult to categorise nature of the group’s sound. They were punk rap with a clear pop edge. It wasn’t really something the audience had seen then.  

In 1986 The Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill. It went on to become the biggest selling rap album of the 1980s and became the first rap album to reach number 1 on the Billboard charts. It spawned a host of singles and sold over 10 million copies.

The band took the album on a global tour and where once they were having to win their audience over, now they were megastars and they knew it. With little regard for safety or taste the band’s tour was marred by arrests and ended in the infamous Liverpool gig that ended in the arrest of Ad Rock. The tour was filled women in cages, giant mechanical penises, riotous behaviour and an actual riot.

Three Decades of Licensed to Ill

Album after album, The Beastie Boys reinvented their musical style. They refused to consolidate their identity behind a consistent sound, but instead reflected it in their attitude and mentality. Similarly to more recent examples like Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, the band’s subsequent albums were initially questioned by fans and critics and its only with time that people saw them for what they were; a movement in sound but not in ethos or ability. Many fans want artists to produce more of the music they love but often, the most interesting artists, seek to produce music they love. This can make a new sound jarring on a first listen but can grow in its appreciation overtime. 

Remaining one of the most successful rap albums of all time, Licensed to Ill continues to inspire new artists today. The band’s disregard for the conventions of the genre, and clear challenge to its expectations, have led to a host of directly attributable developments. Undeniably laying the financial foundations for Def Jam Recordings to go on to become one of the most influential labels in hip hop and rap, the band has also been linked to the inception of the rap rock genre.

Their influence has been stated by artists like Jay Z and Eminem, with Eminem citing the importance of not only the band but Licensed to Ill specifically, but they were also instrumental in the progression and sound of countless other artists. There is little chance that artists like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Rage Against the Machine and arguably System of a Down, would exist without The Beastie Boys. Their genre bending sound and huge popularity paved the way for these groups and Licensed to Ill is key in that progression. Three privately educated Jewish Americans are not your first thought for either a punk band or a rap group, but The Beastie Boys challenged expectations with their work making it undoubtedly an essential listen, and what better example of that than their breakthrough record.variety


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Photo images courtesy of Slate magazine, Rolling Stone magazine and the album cover is from udiscovermusic.com.

Topics: Flame Tree Pop, Flame Tree Music, rap music, hiphop

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