Thirty years ago, three emcees from New York soared to greater heights than a Boeing 727. ‘Licensed to Ill’ is the 1986 debut album of the Beastie Boys, an album that will always help to remind those constantly seeking out music’s many technicalities that to be great, all an album needs to be is entertaining. And you’re looking at one of the most entertaining albums of all time right here. Let’s take a look at ‘Licensed to Ill’, from weakest track to best track.
#13 – Slow and Low
“It’s never old school, all brand new,
So everybody catch the bugaloo flu”.
A key, shouty hook and a barrage of braggadocios bars that might have a modern battle rap enthusiast sighing, but for the most part, ‘Slow and Low’ is in such good fun that it at least makes for a pleasurable bit of anti-digression.
#12 – Posse In Effect
“I got a girl in the castle and one in the pagoda,
You know I got rhymes like Abe Vigoda”.
Not a bad song by any means, but a clear representation of the Beastie Boys and not much else. ‘Posse In Effect’ is a flurry of ego boosts propped up by a greased-up Rick Rubin drums and horns cut. Even at its weakest, ‘Licensed to Ill’ is still a blast.
#11 – Slow Ride
“I got gold, I got funky,
I got the new dance they call the Brass Monkey”.
The most generous sample on ‘Licensed to Ill’, War’s ‘Low Rider’ chops through the track constantly, almost intentionally uncreatively. The lack of shame is enjoyably unmerciful, it’s pure Beastie.
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#10 – Time to Get Ill
“Went outside my house, I went down to the deli,
I spent my last dime to refill my fat belly”.
‘Licensed to Ill’ is a very important album for the sampler. Its closing track, ‘Time to Get Ill’ ends up becoming the most no holds barred example of beautifully ridiculous sampling, to the point where Rick Rubin may as well have just made his own sound collage. It’s a great note to end on, even if part of said note contains the theme song to ‘Mister Ed’.
#9 – Hold It Now, Hit It
“Sipping pints of ale out the window sill,
When I get my fill, I’m chilly chill”.
A pretty damn popular track that survives on the album’s main merit; the quirky near-perfection of the Beastie Boys’ execution living in tandem with Rick Rubin’s famous production methods. It’s a multi-dimensional sample-heavy track, with references to White Castle, drinking, and reminding the audience what your name is. Again, it’s pure Beastie.
#8 – Girls
“And I can always make them smile,
From White Castle to the Nile”.
The biggest change of pace that ‘Licensed to Ill’ takes is ‘Girls’ – an Ad-Rock-led slight-call back to the Isley Brothers’ ‘Shout’ – and even more ‘Animal House’ than that song. It details Ad-Rock’s yearning towards a particular member of the female sex who in turn only has feelings for MCA and subsequently (spoiler alert!) Mike D. It’s a lot of fun, even if somewhat sexist with some of the choices of words. The later feminism of the group at least allows the boyishness of this track to fall back on its novelty value.
#7 – She’s Crafty
“D pulled me over, said “hide your gold”,
The girl is crafty like ice is cold”.
Led by its pummelling sample of ‘The Ocean’ by Led Zeppelin, ‘She’s Crafty’ details the misfortunates that have occurred due to the craftiness of one particular woman. The track hits home with that slammed-down drum track and its quirky lyrics that are slightly less offensive than a few other songs on ‘Licensed to Ill’ that explore relationships with women. It’s also one of the best songs for those amazing, typical Ad-Rock / Mike D deliveries – “from the back of her heh-heeaadddd”.
#6 – Brass Monkey
“Brass Monkey, that funky Money”.
Combining one’s enjoyment of cocktails with 808s comes in full force on ‘Brass Monkey’. With its signature brass hook, its overall danceable groove and its head-first dive into hip hop memorability, it’s the party track that actually wanted to be a party track. ‘Brass Monkey’ is the victory song of the sophomoric drunkard, and within the context of the album, that’s a mighty fine thing.
#5 – (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)
“Your mom busted in and said, “what’s that noise?”
Mom, you’re just jealous, it’s the Beastie Boys”.
The party anthem parody that became a party anthem. Well, what did you expect? It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s self-destructive, it’s the Beastie Boys song everyone knows. The faux rebellion of the track is very key in the overall lyrical structure of ‘Licensed to Ill’ – it allows us to know when MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D are and aren’t joking. Let’s face it, the albums paces itself on its sense of humour and this song’s bridge section that simply contains the word “party”, is the greatest joke the Beastie Boys ever told.
#4 – Paul Revere
“Here’s a little story I’ve got to tell,
About three bad brothers you know so well”.
Possibly the most unique song from ‘Licensed to Ill’, and definitely the one with the most talking points. ‘Paul Revere’ is an Old West-themed track, led by Ad-Rock, that sees the three rap over a reversed-percussion beat – pretty crazy, no? It’s the most far out the production on ‘Licensed to Ill’ really gets without bursting through the stylistic bubble that would allow it to sound like something from ‘Paul’s Boutique’. The song is also fairly controversial for some of its lyrical content that could easily be seen as being misogynistic – “the sheriff’s after me for what I did to his daughter” – a risky section that shamefully hints at assault, despite unapologetically being delivered perfectly by Ad-Rock in a style that combines rapping and singing.
#3 – The New Style
“Down with Ad-Rock and Mike D and you ain’t,
And I’ve got more juice than Picasso got paint”.
“Four and three and two and one, and when I’m on the mic, the suckers run” – the basic-come-obscene introduction of the second track of ‘Licensed to Ill’ that suddenly launches itself into a fast-paced first verse with single in-and-out, distorted guitar chords and mass bearings of ego. The main sections of the song are tremendously basic, beat and performance-wise, particularly when compared to pretty much everything on ‘Paul’s Boutique’, and it works so well. There’s a Beastie Boys trademark present – a final section that sees the beat “mmm drop”. The outro section then deliciously details the simplicity of hanging out with a lot of beer, girls, cursing and a twenty-four automatic. My word…cursing…what must their parents have thought?
#2 – Rhymin & Stealin
“Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about,
I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out”.
What an amazing introduction to an album – ‘Rhymin & Stealin’ aligns everything notable about the record and the Beastie Boys in general and pours it into an ‘ill’ collection of pirate references. The beat is simply a heavy, booming sample of John Bonham’s drumbeat from ‘Led Zeppelin IV’s’ ‘When the Levee Breaks’, so there’s the ‘larger than life rock sample’ base covered. It’s a great, odd opening track, full of bombastic one-liners and stylistic qualities that let the listener know that while this track encapsulates what ‘Licensed to Ill’ is all about, there’s still a lot more to come.
#1 – No Sleep Till Brooklyn
“My job ain’t a job, it’s a damn good time,
City to city I’m running my rhymes”.
One of the greatest rap rock songs ever produced? Maybe. It’s certainly one of the most influential, allowing the connection between the two genres to grow, creating a platform for Rage Against the Machine, and in turn, the good, the bad and the ugly of the nu-metal that Rage influenced. Kerry King’s guitar solo squeals its way into the track, adding new definition to the hard rock foundation, blueprinted by the famous power chord riff. It’s a well-designed, purposefully heavy ‘80s rock sanctuary of a song, and that’s why it’s so influential. The flow of the three rappers might be the best and most consistent here than in any other song on the album, while what they lacked in emcee chops they certainly made up for in humour, it’s hard not to consider those two traits to be intertwined here, particularly when all three members race into the second verse together with “another plane, another train, another bottle in the brain”. The ‘ode to New York’ format would be revisited later on, but this track turns that pro-NY state of mind into an empire.