Thirty years ago today (11/15), Beastie Boys released their debut album, Licensed to Ill. With the album, the trio of Jewish 20-something Manhattanites established themselves as unlikely hip-hop pioneers.
Michael “Mike D.” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz formed Beastie Boys in 1983. After starting as a hardcore punk band, they transitioned into a hip-hop trio, joining the new label Def Jam Recordings. The label was helmed by Rick Rubin, who started it in his dorm room. Russell Simmons soon joined him to run Def Jam and manage bands. (Before License to Ill, the Beasties opened for Madonna on The Virgin Tour. Fun fact.)
This debut album received widespread critical and commercial acclaim upon its release in 1986 and is considered one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. With its heavy sampling, aggressive instrumentals and clever lyrics, the album helped hip-hop evolve into more of a narrative genre. Its punk and rock n roll influences were evident; the blending of genres combined with the Beastie Boys’ specific style would go on to influence many artists. In fact, Eminem lists the album as one of his favorites.
“The influence is massive, Licensed to Ill, in terms of how much it altered what the audience looked like and what the landscape looked like for hip-hop, the doors and opportunities that it opened,” Debatable host Alan Light said on Feedback with Nik Carter and Lori Majewski. Light should know, he wrote his college senior thesis paper on the group.
Licensed to Ill was the best-selling rap album of the 1980s and the first rap album to top the Billboard album chart, incredible feats for a hip-hop group consisting of three white guys. The Beastie Boys never attempted to hide their whiteness or use it as a gimmick within a genre dominated by black artists. If anything, they poked fun at their whiteness, rapping about their experiences with school, living with parents, girls and other topics that set them apart from other mid-’80s rappers. They were innovators, not imitators. Ultimately, it was their originality and skills on the mic that appealed to wide audiences.
“They’re like the Jackie Robinson of hip-hop. They paved the road across the United States of America,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D. said. “Run-D.M.C. set it up for them, but when they came in, it was like do or die and the Beastie Boys made that claim by just being themselves. When they rhymed, they rapped about things that they were familiar with and that kept them safe.”
Fun tracks like Paul Revere, (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) and No Sleep Till Brooklyn showcased the Beastie Boys’ unique and irreverent style. Their manager and label rep Simmons respected their ability to find their own place in the world of rap instead of directly imitating other artists.
“They made these records that were kind of like them: honest expression, fun. Beastie Boy records that were rap records,” Simmons said. “It was a great thing because they loved rap. They had their own version of it and their legacy is that they expounded on what was already hip-hop and made hip-hop a little broader and speak to more people. That, in turn, helped rap and rap artists become more accessible and acceptable. As Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys both expanded rap, rap expanded as well.”
The Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, just the third rap group to receive the honor. That same year, MCA died of cancer. Mike D. and Ad-Rock decided not to continue the Beastie Boys out of respect for MCA.
The Beastie Boys are hip-hop legends with a legacy that can’t be touched, and it all started 30 years ago with Licensed to Ill.
“They affected a lot of people, and I’m very proud of the legacy that they’ve created,” Simmons said.
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