Walking a tightrope between satire and frat-boy idiocy, Licensed to Ill bestows an almost mythic grandiosity to the spoils of youth, adorning its three Beastie Boys with a harem of wenches, flowing goblets of Olde English and bellies full of the Colonel’s chicken. Certainly some of this pomposity is hubris, and the Boys realize the inherent absurdity of the act, masquerading as pirates, drifters and outlaws, quick to bed your girlfriend or break your glasses. There’s nary a sign of conscience or high-minded pretension, but the group dynamic and stubborn sincerity are gleefully confrontational, drawing reference points to everything from Schooly D to AC/DC to The Three Stooges. This eclecticism is birthed from New York City’s cultural melting pot and the vision of whiz-kid producer, Rick Rubin, who abetted the Beastie Boys in sparking a deep connection with millions of like-minded delinquents, yearning for limited supervision and maximum destruction.
Sounding like a collision between power chord bombast and basement electronics, Rick Rubin’s production work bears the crunchy thickness of distorted, atonal bass repetition and precious little nuance. His vision is tailored to fit the unique lyrical interplay of the group, lowering the volume to reveal the big punchline or setting off blaring machine gun beats to mirror the fervor of the team’s “Ra Ra Ra” group cheer leading. Samples even parallel the storytelling, taking horns to the red-light district for “Brass Monkey” or lending juvenile toy piano to the schoolyard mock-sexism of “Girls.” This isn’t to say that Rubin is partial to making sample-based music, leaning more in personal taste to New York hardcore and working-class blues rock like Aerosmith and Motorhead. Lucky for him, the Beasties cut their teeth as gleefully-sloppy punk rockers, helping “c*** of the walk” tough guy rants like “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” ring with truth and ease their transition from one musical genius to another.
Think of “The New Style” as initiation and proper introduction. Ad-Rock ushers in the future of the form like he’s reading of the fight card, steeped in echoes and enveloped in hushed silence. MCA counts off backwards, foreshadowing a wave of robotic, preset cymbal and tinny, homespun 808 thump. Rubin adds metal lick dissonance and abrupt breaks to the mix, further hardening an already brutish force. The Boys rhymes are spit out with a hurried intensity, as if some unseen force looms over, threatening to pull the plug on their mics. MCA is at once the best linguist and most metaphorical, alluding to higher artistic aspirations by comparing his popularity to Picasso’s capacity for painting. Ad-Rock loves to accentuate his “Noo Yawk” accent, particularly at the end of each bar, straining his vocals to an aggravatingly high-pitch that perfectly compliments his egotistical flights of fancy. Mike D may not pack MCA’s skill or Ad-Rock’s sheer volume, but he’s best with a witty quip, taking a laugh-out-loud jab at Jimmy Page’s sex life that would be slightly offensive, if it weren’t such an acid-tongued potshot at the worst indulgences of rock stardom.
That’s not to say that Licensed to Ill is free of hedonism, even if said hedonism is done with a s***-eating grin. The Beasties would spend most of their career reforming the image created on this LP, eventually conforming to a rigid standard of tolerance, sexual equality and healthy living. Maturation is expected with age and most of their early infractions are forgivable, especially when seen as harmless teenage rebellion. If anything, Ill benefits from this feral recklessness, birthing a cross-breed of Hip Hop’s arrogance, punk’s ardor and pop culture’s triviality. Their eclecticism bulldozed through preconceptions about the genre, while stretching its vocabulary toward more obscure reference points, rarer sample fodder and knottier similes. Taking offense is to be expected, but we must sacrifice our “good taste” at the altar of artistic innovation.