So it’s not the strongest debut in the history of music. But it’s not the worst, either, and maybe shouldn’t be left out of the pro-side of the discussion when arguing about The Beastie Boys’ legacy. Sure, there’s the infamous misogyny, the countless references to Budweiser and partying, the general Bacchanalian attitude. There’s the Madonna tour that followed, and The Beasties’ subsequent Stockholm Syndrome, in which the corrosive power of cheap nightly beer wore away the patina of irony that’s supposed to coat the entire project. There’s the album’s gross legacy, which manages to include late-nineties rap-metal and latter-day party-rockers LMFAO. But that legacy also includes “99 Problems,” and the album contains the seeds (both lyrical and musical) of Paul’s Boutique and all that followed it: one of the strangest, most innovative bodies of work in hip-hop.
There’s never been a better career-opening lyric than the one that kicks off this record: “Because!/Mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about!” It’s our first-ever encounter with that canonical whine and that strange way of ending lines on a slight vocal uptick. It’s a justification before any accusations have even been lobbied. It’s (why not) an ontological explanation of the record’s many, many crimes against humanity: its license to ill. But it’s also, and this is the key, an allusion to another work. The three Beasties would build a career out of their ability to spin together references, would in fact take it to the next level on Paul’s Boutique and craft an entire album out of recorded references, tweaking them and rewriting their contexts. Two minutes after that shout-out to the H.M.S. Bounty, Joe Strummer’s sampled voice appears and announces that he fought the law, but The Beasties pull the plug and change the result: I cold won.
But that opening line works on another level, the same level on which most of Licensed to Ill works. It rocks. It’s a great throwaway rock lyric, nearly nonsensical but charged with affective power, a shade more rational than “Ah-wop-bop-aloo-bop.” Licensed to Ill’s best moments come when it gives itself over to its own silliness: Ad-Rock shouting “YO BABY WATSUP” in “Brass Monkey,” the delivered-in-earnest declaration that “White Castle fries only come in one size” in “Slow and Low,” the backing Beasties (and what sounds like Biz Markie) messing up their runs in “Girls.”
Ah, “Girls.” The “A Man Needs A Maid” of the MTV Generation. “Girls” is as much an inverse of the Neil Young song as can be possible, not a millisecond of it to be taken seriously, a joke all the way down to its bom-bom faux-doo-wop core. It’s the moment when Licensed to Ill’s program of ironic skirt-chasing and gun-popping is at its most transparent. It’s an immature joke, sure, even if it’s meant to be a projection from the mook-rockers who would be filling the floor at Beasties gigs a few months later. The joke doesn’t always go down so easy, particularly when there’s no charm in its being told: at times the glee with which The Beasties rap seems to come more from the subject itself than from the mockery they’re trying to make of their targets.
And of course, there’s the problem of diminishing returns. At times, Licensed to Ill sounds dated, which is more the fault of the particle-board construction of the backing tracks than the rappers themselves. Those guitars that open “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” would be trapped in 1986 even if the song hadn’t become ubiquitous, while the crunch-chords that power “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” don’t fare much better. Oddly, the album’s hip-hop samples still sound fresh. “The New Style,” which mixes in the still-great “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” sample made famous in Run DMC’s “Peter Piper,” is formally innovative, Ad Rock flipping the song over on that “Mmm–drop?” and giving it over to a whooping crowd. The minimalist back-masking in “Paul Revere” is practically an American standard at this point.
That latter song holds in it all of Licensed to Ill’s legacy. The song is perhaps best known for the line about the Wiffle ball bat, but it’s worth noting that, despite the song’s associated baggage, The Beasties never stopped playing it live. It’s not a case of the group pandering to the audience–if anyone would delete a major hit from their playlists for socially conscious reasons, it’d be The Beastie Boys–but a testament to the song’s power; that Ad Rock long-ago changed the offending lyric is a testament to his and the group’s evolving consciousness.
Appropriately enough, I got my copy of Licensed to Ill at The Mushroom in New Orleans, a head shop/record store half a block from Tulane’s campus. I picked it up the day before my nineteenth birthday and remember a vague combination of thrill to find The Beasties and disappointment that it was Licensed to Ill. I also have a memory, blessedly fading, of putting it on when I got home and dancing on a rented table (stone sober, too, believe it or not). However many owners this album’s had, it was originally purchased by a girl named Tamara Martin, who drew all over the sleeve. Her favorite member of the group was M.C.A., on whose cheek she drew a blue-ink-lipstain, and near whose head she drew a gun firing a bullet.