Three white Jewish kids form New York in the 80s having a crack at rap. If there were ever ingredients for a gimmick, that was it. Add to that a punk rock sensibility when it comes to backing tracks, and on paper, Beastie Boys really shouldn’t work. Yet here we are, 30 years later, with one member sadly gone, and their name is synonymous with hip hop as one of the most revered or respected.
The distorted guitars, the nasal yell, the anarchic energy. Everything about that description makes Rhymin and Stealin sound like straight up pun rock. But Ad Rock, Mike D and MCA add their Run DMC inspired duelling rhymes and delivere their signature sound, fully formed and icon ready with the opening track on their debut album.
A sound that continues on The New Style. Although here, the guitars are pulled back and the 80s hip hop record scratches are cranked up. The two approaches are then perfectly combined for She’s Crafty. And while the rhyming structures might not be the most complex, the fun these three dudes have building a story and interweaving with each other’s vocals more than makes up for the lyrical simplicity.
The first real change up and hint of experimentation in Licensed to Ill comes with the salsa beats and horns of Slow Ride. It’s a weird juxtaposition that matches this quirkier beat with a more aggressive delivery form the three MCs. It’s also a reminder of just how young the Beastie Boys were when they made this record, with references to school teachers and classroom punishments.
The quirk is turned up to 11 with the glockenspiel and doo-wop backing vocals of Girls. And if a line about finding a crush, “jacking Mike D to my dismay” wasn’t gonna stand out already, it certainly does when backed up by a dancing glock. Then comes Fight For Your Right and No Sleep til Brooklyn, maybe you’ve heard of ‘em?
Hold It Now, Hit It. is the first song on Licensed to Ill to feel kind of inconsequential and tacked on. The beat sounds like the demo built into a shitty Casio keyboard, and by this stage, each member has introduced themselves and each other several times over on earlier, better songs. So sound wise, content wise, there’s really nothing here that comes close to anything else on the album.
Luckily, it’s immediately followed by the schizophrenically awesome Brass Monkey. Like the band itself, this song shouldn’t work. It’s too weird, too disjointed too deliberately awkward and herky jerky. But I’ll be buggered if it isn’t awesome.
Slow and Low, by itself, in isolation is firmly in the inessential Hold It Now, Hit It category. But when seen as an extended intro to album closer, Time to Get Ill, it retroactively serves a lot more of a purpose. With its pop culture samples of things like the Mr Ed theme and a hook from Credence Clearwater Revival, topped off with the a signature trade off vocal delivery, these last two tracks are a great one-two punch to sum up everything that makes Beastie Boys and License to Ill modern music icons.