Beastie Boys as Chroniclers of Life Itself, pt 1: License To Ill

January 17, 2011


Heh heh. The call numbers say “eat me” backwards. Heh heh.

A couple weeks ago I re-purchased Licensed To Ill, The Beastie Boys’ first album for the first time since buying the cassette when it first came out.  “Whoop-de-do,” you say?  Well, yes as a matter of fact: Whoop-de-do.  I’m a huge Beastie Boys fan, but have always retroactively ignored the first album because in part the band itself made such efforts to distance themselves from it to be seen as serious artists, and also because it was just so incongruous from the rest of their work.  Recently, though, the band has made several overtures toward acknowledging – and, let’s be honest, lightening up about – their ridiculous, gimmicky, juvenile, misogynistic, naive, derivative, and totally fun album (more on this later).

Listening to it again for the first time in years, it got me thinking about their role in contemporary music, but also in the story of our own growing up.  So, I’m offering now my examination of how this is so, on an album-by-album basis.

You’re welcome.

License To Ill – Adolescence.

The album was an enormous success, of course, but it was seen largely as a gimmick – idiot party music.  With benefit of hindsight, you can really see the promise of the craftsmen to come, but on its own?

Which is where I begin.  Who among us would want to be judged on our behavior, our beliefs, our actions as teenagers?  Personally, I keep waiting for the day when I’m not perpetually embarrassed by my beliefs and behavior of 5 years previous.  But your teenage years?  Oof.  That’s prime ground for naïve arrogance, plagiarized creative expression and clumsy, primordial sexuality.  Enter License to Ill.

The first track, “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” finds its entire foundation on the drum beat from Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, and its guitar part from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.”  Sampling is hardly unique to them, or this album, and it’s certainly been shown time and again that sampling can be creative expression, but this is taking two of the most distinctive, well-known riffs in the entire history of rock and roll and just… using them.  Not tweaking, or looping or re-contextualizing… just playing them.   This to me is the essence of 95% of our creativity when we’re teenagers.  Someone does something we like; we imitate it and say, “Look what I did!”

This is not to be excessively derogatory.  I come to praise the B-Boys, not to bury them.  That’s what’s happening in our teens – we’re trying to find a voice, and imitating the voices we like.  It’s through this process that we find ourselves.  There is sampling through the album (on the last track they use the instantly recognizable riff from CCR’s “Down On The Corner,” though this time with more style), as there would continue to be through all of their albums, but within their choices here we see how young they really are.  Simply, you get the sense that they simply haven’t heard that much.  What saves it is the pure joy they seem to have in using them – it doesn’t even seem as though they’re trying to cash in on the sound, like so many who would come after them.  The whole album is a testimonial to the anarchic, solipsistic ecstasy one can feel in the finest moments of adolescence.

The lyrics on the album show their growing talent, and there are moments that (again, with benefit of hindsight) really show the beginnings of their ability to weave lyrics so beautifully, and tracks like “Posse In Effect” in plays almost like a rough draft of something that would fit easily on the later Check Your Head album.  Many of the lyrics are dumb (“Because you’re pud-slappin, ball-flappin, got that Juice”), many are just not quite there (“I’ve got a girlie in a castle and one in a pagoda; you know I’ve got rhymes like Abe Vigoda”  Wha?).  Many are a lot of fun, but we can almost always see the basic youth there.  “Man, livin’ at home is such a drag” can only sound like a legitimate complaint to a very age-specific, very economically-specific set of people.  But to that small, whiny group?  Testify, brother!

Trying soooo hard to have an identity

The song “Girls” sounds like it feels to be suddenly flooded with hormones – desperately horny and you’re not even sure why, or what to do about it (in this case for heterosexual boys, but certainly translatable to any adolescent whose sexuality awakens like Godzilla climbing out of the ocean).

I could easily go song by song, but this doesn’t seem the time.  So, to sum this up… one of my favorite things ever said about the filmmaker John Hughes was that his films weren’t our teen years as they were, but as they felt.  That’s how this album plays – listening to it is what our adolescences should have been.  But its also not the album of the men who were going to come, it’s something transitory, formative.


An album that, like most of us regarding or own embarrassing, self-centered, imitative adolescence – they would disavow for years and years afterward. Looking at them at the time, was there any doubt that they were going nowhere?  That they were a funny gimmick who were going to burn out and wallow in their own juvenilia?

But of course that isn’t what happened, is it?  Instead they did what no one ever expects a teenager to do.  They started growing up.

Next time: Paul’s Boutique – striking out on one’s own.

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Site in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, but sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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5 Comments on “Beastie Boys as Chroniclers of Life Itself, pt 1: License To Ill”

  1. Barton Clements Says:

    Wow! I learned so much about this group of young men and about the blogger. When and how did you become so knowledgable about this subject? I am so impressed.


  2. WorstProfEver Says:

    I stand by ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’, but that’s because I used to listen to it while grading late in the night…


    • Byron MacLymont Says:

      I actually wrote about “No Sleep” in a more comprehensive, song-by-song analysis, but it was running so long that I figured I’d cut it until… something. But, yeah, I’d put that one as a song that really gives a simplified sense of their musicianship to come.


  3. sj Says:

    I wish you’d finish this series.



  1. A Short Eulogy For Adam Yauch of The Beastie Boys | The Byronic Man - May 5, 2012

    […] a vacuum.  Now I wish I’d kept at it.  If you’re interested, here’s my dissection of their dopey first album, and the transformative second […]

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