Music History

Nostalgia Item #1: The Beasties Boys’ Licensed to Ill Turned 30

I remember when the record arrived at CFNY back in the Spirit of Radio Days. We were aware of the Beastie Boys for one reason: the video for their 1985 “She’s On It” had become a staple on the old CFNY Video Roadshow.

If I’m honest, we treated the Beasties as a goofy frat-boy novelty act. And when Licensed to Ill came into the building on November 15, 1986, the reaction was…muted. Okay, if I’m honest, it was almost hostile.

“MORE rap crap?”

“A whole album of this shit? Why?

“Is the music department on crack?”

The opening of these video was typical of the reaction the band got at first.

To be fair, we rap and hip hop was still very much in its infancy. A lot of the staff just didn’t get it yet and were more inclined to play the new synth-based 12-inch imports. But the station’s audienced quickly made it known that we were wrong. DEAD wrong. And they were right.

With its mix of beats, rhymes and guitars, Licensed to Ill became the first rap album to reach #1 on the album charts. It would go on to sell over 10 million copies, mostly to suburban kids. For them, it was their introduction into hip hop culture. Once they began to understand, rap and hip hop embarked on a multi-cultural rocket ride that’s still going on today.

Playboy has this look back.

The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill turns 30 this week. Produced by Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin, it’s the New York trio’s bratty 1986 debut, most famous for “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)” This was before they’d become Tibet freedom fighters and renounced some of the juvenile lyrics that are on full display on Ill. Even casual fans can probably remember lines like, “I did it like this / I did it like that / I did it with the whiffle ball bat.”

They were hip-hop outsiders, and not just because they were white; they’d been playing punk rock until recently. But while some may dismiss Ill as a gimmicky time capsule of the Reagan era, it deserves a second look. The Beasties were more than oversexed twerps drunk on cheap beer. In fact, they were gangsta rap progenitors.

That’s the conclusion I came to after interviewing dozens of hardcore rappers for my book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. It’s clear that essential early acts like N.W.A, Ice-T, and the Geto Boys wouldn’t have been what they were without the Beasties’ influence.

“The Beastie Boys are dope,” MC Ren of N.W.A told me. We met up two years ago at the Hard Rock Hotel in his adopted hometown of Palm Springs, and we’d paused our interview so he could admire a Beasties’ lyric that was immortalized on the wall (“I’ve got more spice than the frugal gourmet” from “Finger Lickin’ Good”). “Their first album, man that shit was classic.

N.W.A, of course, single-handedly elevated gangsta rap into a marketable hip-hop subgenre, selling three million copies of their 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton. And while their sound might at first seem a world removed from the mainstream-friendly Beasties, MC Ren wasn’t the only fan within N.W.A. Before N.W.A, Ice Cube was in a trio called C.I.A., who were basically Beasties knockoffs. On their 1987 EP Cru’ In Action! (produced by another future N.W.A member, Dr. Dre) they copied Licensed to Ill’s rhyme patterns, used samples from the album and employed similar turns of phrase on songs like “My Posse” and “Ill-Legal.” “C.I.A. was a Beastie Boys rip-off,” said Alonzo Williams, a mentor to the group.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38165 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “Nostalgia Item #1: The Beasties Boys’ Licensed to Ill Turned 30

  • I love the Beasties, and I get why this album was important, but it’s weak compared to the brilliant work they evolved into doing later. It’s to the Beasties what ‘Pablo Honey’ is to Radiohead.


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