Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Adventures In Rap #8: Licensed To Ill

Growing up as I did in the proverbial cave, the first Beastie Boys album I ever heard (and probably, by extension, the first rap album I ever heard) was their second one, Paul's Boutique. But for the vast majority of listeners, Licensed to Ill is the album through which the public first became acquainted with the charms of MCA, Ad Rock and Mike D. Many members of my generation can sing along to every word of "Girls," "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" and "Brass Monkey" while proudly hoisting their red Dixie cups in the air. But not me. I am a Paul's Boutique kind of guy. So once I finally listened to Licensed To Ill, I thought, "This is the Beastie Boys album that everybody knows by heart?"

Knowing what I know about rap now, I can see why Licensed To Ill became such a big hit at the time. In 1987, rap was barely capable of putting out memorable singles, let alone memorable albums. In that respect, Licensed To Ill must have been the strongest rap album released up to that point, aside from possibly Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell. Each song, I think, has something interesting going for it; there isn't exactly any filler. But in 2008, it's apparent that Ill is saddled with cheap '80s production and embryonic sampling techniques in a way that later rap albums (and later Beastie Boys albums) are not.

Don't get me wrong, Licensed To Ill definitely upped the sampling ante considerably. While early rap was certainly no stranger to borrowing, for the most part the borrowed hooks and licks in songs like "Rapper's Delight" and "Planet Rock" were performed on new instruments in a new way (a practice that later became known as "interpolation" rather than sampling). But on Licensed To Ill the Beasties sampled directly from the source. In fact, when I first heard this album, I jokingly told a friend that the artist credit might have been more accurate if it had read "Led Zeppelin - as remixed by the Beastie Boys." Copyright laws are also gleefully flaunted in the case of The Clash, Black Sabbath, CCR, War, Billy Preston, and Mr. Ed. Yet compared to the sampling onslaught on Paul's Boutique, the technique as used here is tame.

So for me, Ill is more interesting as history than as music; I can appreciate the album's innovations without really wanting to listen to it all that much. Ill is also quite significant for a reason not explicitly connected to its music. It's been said before, but it's such a useful comparison that I might as well regurgitate it: The Beastie Boys were to rap what Elvis was to rock 'n' roll. They made it OK for white suburban kids to like hip-hop. By sampling Zeppelin and Sabbath instead of James Brown and Sly Stone, by rapping about Colonel Sanders and Abe Vigoda instead of homelessness and crack, and most of all, by being white, they probably quadrupled the size of rap's audience. Many at the time accused the Beasties of cultural piracy, but not too many in the rap community itself. As Darryl "DMC" McDaniels says in Rolling Stone:

The first time we toured with the Beastie Boys was the Raising Hell tour in 1986: Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. We were playing the Deep South -- Crunkville, before there was crunk -- and it was just black people at those shows. The first night was somewhere in Georgia, and we were thinking, "I hope people don't leave when they see them." But the crowd loved them, because they weren't trying to be black rappers. They rapped about shit they knew about: skateboarding, going to White Castle, angel dust and mushrooms. Real recognizes real.

Indeed, because they were white, I don't think the Beasties had quite as many legitimate political grievances as their black peers did, so they naturally took a more absurd and abstract approach to the genre. I doubt anybody had heard rap lyrics like these before:

I got rhymes galime, I got rhymes galilla
And I got more rhymes than Phillis Diller

Spent some bank, I got a high powered jumbo
Rolled up a wooly and I watched Colombo

However, delightfully random pop culture references such as the ones above are more the exception on Ill than the rule, as they would be on Paul's Boutique. Licensed To Ill is like the A Hard Day's Night to Paul's Boutique's Sgt. Pepper: sure, it's better than what passed for a good album in its day, but it pales in comparison to what eventually followed. Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes that "Licensed To Ill reigns tall among the greatest records of its time." Yeah, but what's it competing with? The Joshua Tree? Bad? Give me an album that reigns tall among the greatest records of any time. Like Paul's Boutique.


Peter Matthew Reed said...

I want a copy of your 3 volumes of rap history. I can paypal you the money if you copy it and post it to me. My email address is Let me know if this is possible!

Little Earl said...

Uh...I know Yoggoth has a copy. I think I gave him a copy with the explicit purpose of passing it along to you guys. You're not still in the States are you? Worst comes to worst I can just mail it to you on a physical disc. That would probably be easiest.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

That's what I want. I am not in the States.