In 1986, Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell took hip-hop to the Top 10 of Billboard‘s Hot 100 when they teamed up with Aerosmith to remake that band’s “Walk This Way.” But it was their opening act on that tour, the Beastie Boys, who took the fledgling genre even further into the mainstream on their debut LP, Licensed to Ill, which arrived on Nov. 15, 1986.
Prior to its release, the trio had a buzz generating from a few singles that had come out in the past year, “She’s on It,” off the Krush Groove soundtrack, along with “Hold It Now, Hit It” and “Paul Revere.” That summer, while on the road with Run-D.M.C., MTV caught up with them and asked what made their as-yet unreleased record so special.
“The Beastie Boys album includes the most fun on any album – ever,“ replied Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, while Michael “Mike D” Diamond added, “Basically we’re talking about 14 anthems for youth today.”
By the following March, Licensed to Ill became the first hip-hop album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart. It held onto the slot for seven weeks, proving that they were more than just boastful teens.
Having gotten their start as a hardcore punk band on the vibrant New York City music scene of the early ’80s, the Beastie Boys caught the ear of Rick Rubin, who, along with Russell Simmons, would shortly go on to helm Def Jam Records. The second release on label would be the Beasties’ “Rock Hard,” which came out in December 1984 but would be pulled shortly thereafter due to an unauthorized sample of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
Rubin, who DJ’ed for the Beasties at the time, sent them on the Raising Hell tour while he finished mixing and producing Licensed to Ill, which was already coming under fire from distributor Columbia Records. The label nixed the original title, Don’t Be a F—– and, according to Icons of Hip-Hop by Mickey Hess, also forced the removal of “Scenario” and a line in “Rhymin’ & Stealin’” due to references to smoking crack.
One more track was pulled before Ill went to press; a take on the Beatles’ “I’m Down.” Michael Jackson, who owned the rights to all the music in the Fab Four catalog at the time, denied the Beasties permission to use it. That led Mike D to tell an interviewer, per a Los Angeles Times feature in 1987, “What would I do if I met him? I’d unplug his oxygen tent, rip off his surgical mask and spit in his face.”
When Licensed to Ill finally dropped, it sounded like spilled beer and frat-boy chauvinism from three white Jewish boys out of New York. But even the most hardened critics could deny the record’s appeal, especially to white, suburban male teens, who suddenly felt like they owned a piece of hip-hop; a review in the Village Voice was begrudgingly headlined, “Three Jerks Make a Masterpiece.”
“The fact that so many people liked it was really a shock to us, because it’s such an inside album,” Rubin said years later. “There’s so many inside jokes and it’s such a personal album. And it’s ridiculous. The stuff they talk about is really ridiculous, and it entertained us, but we never imagined that it would entertain anyone else.”
Musically, it was an amalgamation of ‘70s bombast and what was popular in black culture. Samples were liberally and equally lifted from the hard rock of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and the funk of Kool & the Gang, the Sugarhill Gang and Slick Rick. Nothing was off limits – the Beastie Boys sampled themselves, label mates Run-D.M.C. and the theme songs from ‘60s television shows Green Acres and Mister Ed.
The real stars, of course were Mike D, Ad-Rock and Adam “MCA ” Yauch. The way they played off one another took what Run-D.M.C. were doing to another level altogether. It was a brew of MCA’s deep and scratchy voice, Ad Rock’s whiny blasts and Mike D’s matter-of-factly prose. And what they were rapping about? White Castle fries, smoking angel dust, dastardly girls who stole from them, what was in their pants and shooting the likes of Betty Crocker.
Controversy still followed them, but surprisingly it wasn’t about their race as the affiliation with Def Jam, where being on a label with LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy helped greatly with their acceptance. Debates still abounded; according to the book Beastie Boys Book Deluxe by Frank Owen, American Airlines thought the plane on the Licensed to Ill album cover looked too much like one of their aircrafts and wanted the record pulled and the image replaced. At that point, the sales were skyrocketing with MTV playing videos for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” and “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” and the clubs spinning “Girls” and “Brass Monkey,” so the label blew the request off.
But who were the Beastie Boys? Were they a parody of rap or real rappers? Hip-hop maestros who delivered “Slow and Low?” A trio making fun of hair metal on “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn?” Or goofy, party-centric meatheads as portrayed in the “Fight for Your Right” clip?
It might have been a mix of all of the above, but as the years wore on, the act distanced themselves greatly from their time with Rubin and immaturity. Two decades later, Ad-Rock penned an open letter to Time Out where he was downright remorseful for how the Beasties conducted themselves on Licensed to Ill.
”I would like to…formally apologize to the entire gay and lesbian community for the s—ty and ignorant things we said on our first record,” he wrote. ”There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity. …We have learned and sincerely changed since the ’80s. …We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology.”