A couple of Facebook posts last night cheerfully proclaimed the 30th Anniversary of The Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill.” That’s mostly right, I guess … the album was released in 1986, although it came out on November 15, not the end of February.
I remember “Licensed to Ill” being a phenomenon when I was a freshman at Longwood High School — reverence for it transcended a lot of high school subcultures. (And at Longwood, I think those subcultures overlapped considerably more than your typical John Hughes film would suggest.) The preppie kids loved the album, the jocks loved it, and a lot of the honors kids were into it too — not to mention just mainstream kids and random weirdos like me. My favorite song was “Brass Monkey;” I was thrilled whenever it was played at parties. (I can’t feature it here, as there are no authorized videos of it online.)
This album had what I remember as a unique vibe to it in 1986. People online call the Beastie Boys “the first white rappers.” I don’t know if that’s true. (Some people said the same thing about Vanilla Ice only four years later). And I’m guessing such a distinction shouldn’t be important. But the Beastie Boys were different.
Previously, rap was perceived only as a kind of counterculture art form for disaffected, young, urban African-Americans. The Beastie Boys were a rap group specifically with which suburban white kids could identify. I hope I’m not saying anything politically incorrect here — of course we all realize that any music can be appreciated by anyone, according to their tastes. (People are occasionally surprised when I myself can recite the Geto Boys as easily as W. H. Auden’s poetry.) And all sorts of kids in the mid-80’s liked Run-D.M.C. and The Fat Boys — they just didn’t have the huge, visible mainstream appeal that the Beastie Boys had.
The Beastie Boys had a wider appeal. Their music was irreverent — they sang about “Girls,” liquor, and the “Right to Party,” in a manner suggesting that they’d probably never been altar boys. They were drunken, pot-smoking malcontents, and expressed some not terribly progressive attitudes toward women. Yet it was perfectly natural, or culturally expected, to hear them blasted at a parentally approved, non-alcoholic party for young teenagers at a suburban, middle class home. The same preps who wore “Ocean Pacific” and played with hacky sacks also played the Beastie Boys. So did some kids in Key Club and the honors classes. A couple of cheerleaders I knew had crushes on Mike D. And it never seemed unusual or ironic, like that time when a nearly all white, suburban crowd chanted along to Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx” at a Longwood Junior High School dance.
For some reason, the Beastie Boys’ broad fan base was never really evident among the student body at Mary Washington College — although The Jerky Boys and the Geto Boys both had their share of fans there. I don’t remember them being played once. I think maybe it was because that small southern college subculture leaned so heavily on classic rock and the new “alternative,” with new wave and punk having strong, visible minorities of fans. (Man … if I had a dime for every time time I heard The Allman Brothers in college, I could have paid off my student loans a day after graduation.)
Strangely, I wound up listening to “Licensed to lll” the most often about two decades later, when I was in my mid-30’s. I was going through two weird phases in my life. The first was a newfound love of hip-hop and rap, because I am a weird guy, and I’m always late to the party with these things. The second was a bizarre, temporary sense of financial responsibility. I was constantly saving money. (I think maybe I wasn’t eating right or something. It didn’t last.) But I was constantly listening to old or cheap secondhand CD’s, instead of buying new ones or one of those newfangled mp3 players. (At the time, the iPod’s antecedents seemed just too high-tech and opulent to me.) So there was always a leather case of 80’s and 90’s music CD’s riding shotgun with me in my 1992 Ford Taurus.
I was driving frequently between Whitestone, Queens and my girlfriend’s apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, rocketing up and down “the 278,” the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The Beastie Boys were my miscreant co-pilots; “No Sleep till Brooklyn” was both a kick-ass song and situationally apropos. I played the album constantly, along with L.L. Cool J.’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and the “MTV Party To Go Volume 2.” Then I’d swap those out with Toad the Wet Sprocket’s more mellow, sensitive “Fear,” just to remind myself that I really was just a softspoken college boy who’d grown into a nerdy thirtysomething (“nerdysomething?”).
I found out recently that Adam Yauch (the Beastie Boys’ member “MCA”) died of cancer. This happened four years ago, I just hadn’t heard. For some reason, it was especially unsettling to learn that a rebellious entertainment figure from my teen years had died from an illness that I usually associate with people older than me. I never loved the Beastie Boys as much as I loved U2, Depeche Mode or Tori Amos, but I found it more troubling than I would have expected. I’m not sure why, but I’ve decided not to dwell on it.
At any rate, if you still love Ad-Rock, Mike D. and MCA, you can play the embedded videos below. But you absolutely should pull up “Brass Monkey” on Youtube to get your full 80’s vibe on.