Appreciations: Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)

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I’m not going to tell you, in the wake of Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death on Friday, that I was a huge Beastie Boys fan. The truth is, I haven’t thought about them in years. But for people of a certain age, and I happen to be of that age, the act’s 1986 breakthrough album Licensed to Ill is certainly a musical milestone. Pretty much everyone that I knew had and loved the record, and I’m guessing that just about everyone of my generation, fan or not, had at least one memory run through their heads when they heard the news.

By 1987, when I discovered this record, I was firmly entrenched in metal. You might have been able to get me to grudgingly acknowledge that Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, which had also come out in 1986, was a pretty good album due to the presence of Aerosmith and the hard-rocking title track. (Something about that line about having the head of the devil and throwing it at you.) But for the most part, I was convinced that rap was crap, and the kids driving the low-riding trucks with the big bass speakers annoyed me to no end. Some things don’t change.

The first song that I heard from Licensed to Ill was “Fight for Your Right,” which had some hard rock guitars and a punkish attitude and wasn’t too much different from some of the stuff I was listening to at the time. I was at the local Walmart with my parents one night and wanted to get it, but they were in a hurry and wouldn’t let me go back to the electronics department. Perhaps it was fated for me to have the record, though, because in a very strange turn of events, they went to the store a few days later and bought it for me as a surprise. They never bought music for me. Even stranger, they decided to give it a listen on the way home. They came in and handed me the cassette with their noses turned up and making noises about how awful it was, which was a good enough endorsement for me.

I soon discovered that the whole album was not like that song, but there was enough to keep me interested. They used the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” on “Rhymin’ & Stealin’” and, of course, Slayer’s Kerry King played a guitar solo and appeared in the video for “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn.” The presence of King alone had to rub a little metal cred off on these guys, right? I mean there are few more metal people on the planet than Kerry King.

Oddly, though, I wasn’t stuck listening to the tunes with heavy guitars and Sabbath and Zeppelin samples. Some of my favorite songs ended up being the pure hip hop tune “Paul Revere” and the disco-flavored “Brass Monkey,” which surprised even me.

The Beasties really didn’t stick with me after this record. There was less rock on the follow-up, and I drifted away. I had another brief fling with them years later when they released the song “Sabotage,” but for the most part, they were lost to my listening from the early 1990s on. Licensed to Ill has remained in my CD collection, though, and when I popped the disc in last night, I was surprised that I remembered most of the songs and lyrics even after all these years. Some of the stuff, I kind of rolled my eyes at in 2012, but there’s still enough there to make it a damned enjoyable record.

No, these guys didn’t change my outlook on music. With very few exceptions, I still dislike rap, and I still believe that music should be made by real people with real instruments. But they did open me up to at least exploring rap and hip hop occasionally when something about an artist struck me as interesting, and they’re probably the main reason that there are a few hip-hop CDs scattered around my collection today.

I’m sure there are better people out there than me to talk about Yauch’s legacy – people who know his music inside and out and can wax poetic about his contributions to music. My memory of MCA though, will be belting out “Fight for Your Right” with friends at more than one high school party, and for those good times alone, Yauch deserves to be remembered. I think I’ll go crank it up and sing along in his honor right now.

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