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On This Day in Music... March 7, 1987: The Beastie Boys' 'Licensed to Ill' Becomes Hip-Hop's First No. 1 Album

The Beastie Boys notched a hip-hop milestone when 'Licensed to Ill' topped the Billboard album chart 37 years ago today.

beastie boys
Source: MEGA

The Beastie Boys in 1987, the year they unexpectedly became chart-topping superstars.

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“Three Idiots Make a Masterpiece.”

So read the headline on Rolling Stone’s review of the Beastie Boys’ debut LP, Licensed to Ill, which became the first ever hip-hop album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 on this day in 1987.

Considering the near-universal acclaim that the group now enjoys, and the fact that its members would subsequently go on to release one of the most innovative hip-hop albums of all time, found a film distribution company specializing in boundary-pushing indie films and documentaries, and almost single-handedly introduce Gen X American youth to the Tibetan independence movement, dismissing the Beastie Boys as a trio of idiots might seem wildly uncharitable today.

And yet, to be fair, that is a completely accurate — even profound — description of Licensed to Ill.

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beastie boys
Source: MEGA

Beasties Mike D and MCA with DJ Hurricane in 1987.

The Beastie Boys’ journey from downtown punk rock scensters to groundbreaking hip-hop superstars was an unusual one, and one that could only have happened in the freewheeling stylistic melting pot that was New York City in the early- and mid-1980s. Middle-class Jewish kids from Brooklyn and Manhattan, the Beasties — Adam "MCA" Yauch, Michael "Mike D" Diamond and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz, plus drummer Kate Schellenbach, who would later form Luscious Jackson — released a ramshackle punk EP called Polly Wog Stew in 1982, and cut their teeth with gigs opening for hardcore royalty like the Bad Brains and the Misfits. But they were certainly familiar with the exciting new musical style that had recently made its way from the Bronx down to Manhattan. In 1983, they tried their hand at hip-hop with a novelty single, “Cookie Puss,” which was built around a delightfully idiotic prank call that Ad-Rock made to a local Carvel ice cream shop.

As one might expect, the single didn’t exactly receive much radio airplay, though one student at New York University loved it, and played it constantly on his weekly show for the University’s campus radio station. That student, Rick Rubin, soon struck up a friendship with the group, volunteered to be their DJ, and invited them to join the record label that he and fast-talking Queens impresario Russell Simmons had just recently founded in his dorm room: Def Jam.

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beastie boys run dmc
Source: MEGA

The Beastie Boys with early tour-mates Run-DMC.

Now a trio, the Beasties quickly released their debut Def Jam single, "Rock Hard," in 1984. Putting together their first full-length was much slower-going, however. While Rubin’s earliest efforts as a producer had been minimalist in the extreme (he famously preferred the credit “reduced by Rick Rubin” to “produced by”), on Licensed Rubin sought to stretch himself with a variety of novel techniques. There were backward samples (“Paul Revere”), experiments with faux doo-wop (“Girls”), roller-coaster beat switches (“The New Style”) and rap-metal hybrids that were simultaneously of-their-time and years ahead of it (“No Sleep till Brooklyn” featured a guitar solo from Kerry King of Slayer, who had just become Def Jam’s first non-hip-hop signing). Combined with the three MCs’ perpetually overlapping rhymes and stupid/clever punchlines, the group’s new songs offered an intoxicating blend of sophistication and crassness.

Finding the appropriate way to sell the new group was a different story, however. Now managed by Simmons (who was tailed at every step by his young protege, Lyor Cohen), the Beastie Boys embarked on their first arena jaunt in support of fellow NYC chameleon Madonna, and played to plenty of blank stares from the audience. A subsequent tour with Run-DMC was far more successful, and having the implicit co-sign of hip-hop's first genuine superstar group helped the Beasties gain greater acceptance with fans who otherwise might have given these three white pranksters a permanent side-eye.

Licensed to Ill was finally released in November of 1986, and began its gradual journey into mainstream ubiquity. A video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" started to gain heavier and heavier airtime on MTV, with the song eventually rising into the top 10 of the Billboard singles chart. That track, and several others, also took up residence on rock radio, exposing the Beasties to millions of previous rap-skeptics. By March of the next year, Licensed finally accomplished what no other hip-hop LP had ever managed, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (The album it knocked off the top spot: Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet.)

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Of course, the fact that hip-hop attained such a historic commercial breakthrough thanks to an all-white group certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. In his definitive history of the business of hip-hop, The Big Payback, author Dan Charnas recalls a letter to the editor published in Spin in 1987, which ripped into the magazine for making the Beasties the publication's first hip-hop cover stars, accusing the magazine of racism and "lack of familiarity with nascent Black musical forms." The letter writer, incidentally, was a close associate of Public Enemy, another Def Jam act...who happened to be on tour with the Beastie Boys at the time.

Summarizing the knotted racial complications surrounding the Beasties’ ascendency, Charnas wrote:

“The Beastie Boys were a white group with a Black DJ, managed by a Black man and his white Israeli-American lieutenant. Their Black-sounding hip-hop records were produced by a white man, and promoted to white radio programmers by a Black man. They owed their careers to the endorsement of a Black rap supergroup; and the white MCs now crusaded for a new pro-Black political rap crew whose Black friend had just dissed the white rappers in print."

To their credit, the Beasties were sensitive to these critiques. They were also, eventually, receptive to criticism of their debut album from feminists, many of whom took issue with the often puerile lyrics on tracks like "Girls" and "Paul Revere." (Whether Licensed should primarily be heard as a gross display of frat-boy chauvinism, or a sly parody of it, is a debate that rages to this day.)

For all the album's success, the Beastie Boys never gave Licensed a more-of-the-same sequel. Breaking with Rubin, Simmons and Def Jam, they signed to Capitol Records to make their follow-up, 1989's Paul's Boutique. Unlike Licensed, it was not a commercial success. However, its impossibly dense sample work and formal daring made it a creative landmark of the genre, and it's since emerged as the far more highly-regarded work.

The Beastie Boys further distanced themselves from their lunk-headed Licensed personae as the years went by (all three Beasties would go on to marry accomplished, feminist-identifying women), finding plenty of success with a more mature, enlightened alt-rock/rap sound in the 1990s, as Licensed songs became scarcer and scarcer on their set lists. Before long, the "three idiots" of that Rolling Stone headline had become widely respected elder statesmen, and so they would remain until the death of MCA in 2012 brought down the curtain on one of hip-hop's most remarkable and unlikely careers.

beastie boys sxsw
Source: MEGA

The Beastie Boys, older and wiser, unite at SXSW in 2008.


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