This month, Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill turns the big 3-0. That’s right, three decades of holding it, hitting it, and fighting for our right to party, and it’s still an absolute rite of passage for hip-hop fans. It’s aged incredibly well, with the bigger singles (of which there’s several) still permeating soundtracks, sporting events and adolescent/teenage mayhem. But as much as we could talk for hours upon hours about their morphing into the fratboy-posteuring before rebounding the other way, or sharing our best recipes for Brass Monkey (one part dark rum and one part vodka stir gently, mix with orange juice and shake well, serve in a highball, NOT O.E. and O.J., they’re messing with you!) we thought we’d explore something different.
Since you’ve probably read, heard and rapped along with “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and “Girls” quite a bit over the last two weeks (not to mention every year you’ve shared a planet with Licensed to Ill), we decided to take a look at five of our favorites of the album cuts. Of all the Licensed to Ill retrospectives, it’s the new style.
“Rhymin’ and Stealin’”
The album opener captures the type of brooding bombast that lays a steady foundation for where the rest of the album goes. The call-and-response over distorted guitars had become their signature Rick Rubin-era sound, and “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” sounds like the exact midpoint between pre-album non-album singles “Rock Hard” and “She’s On It,” having the Boys both at their most focused and most raucous. Keep an ear out for the demo version floating around that contains a touch more crack smoking.
Probably the most famous use of the Zepplin “Ocean” sample, it’s really the first taste we get of longform Beastie storytelling. A detailed, loopy cartoon of a girl who is both very troublesome and alluring, with both being a primary reason for the other, it’s telling that what could be a corny, silly story on paper is made legitimately cool by the conviction in their delivery. On a personal note, my first serious high school girlfriend was a toddler when this album dropped, and told me once that her mother played this album non-stop, so much so that even when she could barely talk, she’d always sing-along with the “the girl is crafty like ice is cold” part. Now, when I hear “She’s Crafty,” I think of her.
“Posse in Effect”
While they all have distinctive voices, this is the first track where we really pick-up on their differing personalities. MCA is the scruff, tough nihilist. Mike D is the dude who’s too cool and slick to care how he comes off. Adrock is the toughest jokester on the planet. When the second verse comes and they repeat each other’s closing word, you hear how distinctly each of them takes on that final word.
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One of the more under-appreciated tracks on the record, “Slow Ride” is one of the strongest call-and-response tracks the Boys embark on. In between the low-rider horns, the speed at which they trade rhymes is anything but slow. Very non-sensical in terms of the song being about anything in particular, it’s about stylistically showing off regardless of structure. It also sounds really, really cool.
“Time to Get Ill”
The album closer. It’s quite the feat to follow up the previous 12 tracks, and you can tell the Boys feel like they have something to prove on it. The tightness of the verses and the controlled-but-experimental use of the adlibs show the Boys at their most comfortable with the recording process. This grand finale that seems to sum-up the entirety of the album that preceded it, the sample-pastiche they rock over in retrospect makes “Time to Get Ill” the logical bridge that connects Licensed to Ill with Paul’s Boutique.