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‘Licensed to Ill’ at 30: How Three Bratty White Kids Influenced the Creation of Gangsta Rap

‘Licensed to Ill’ at 30: How Three Bratty White Kids Influenced the Creation of Gangsta Rap: Waring Abbott / Getty

Waring Abbott / Getty

The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill turns 30 this week. Produced by Def Jam cofounder Rick Rubin, it’s the New York trio’s bratty 1986 debut, most famous for “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)” This was before they’d become Tibet freedom fighters and renounced some of the juvenile lyrics that are on full display on Ill. Even casual fans can probably remember lines like, “I did it like this / I did it like that / I did it with the whiffle ball bat.”

They were hip-hop outsiders, and not just because they were white; they’d been playing punk rock until recently. But while some may dismiss Ill as a gimmicky time capsule of the Reagan era, it deserves a second look. The Beasties were more than oversexed twerps drunk on cheap beer. In fact, they were gangsta rap progenitors.

That’s the conclusion I came to after interviewing dozens of hardcore rappers for my book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. It’s clear that essential early acts like N.W.A, Ice-T, and the Geto Boys wouldn’t have been what they were without the Beasties’ influence.

“The Beastie Boys are dope,” MC Ren of N.W.A told me. We met up two years ago at the Hard Rock Hotel in his adopted hometown of Palm Springs, and we’d paused our interview so he could admire a Beasties’ lyric that was immortalized on the wall (“I’ve got more spice than the frugal gourmet” from “Finger Lickin’ Good”). “Their first album, man that shit was classic.

N.W.A, of course, single-handedly elevated gangsta rap into a marketable hip-hop subgenre, selling three million copies of their 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton. And while their sound might at first seem a world removed from the mainstream-friendly Beasties, MC Ren wasn’t the only fan within N.W.A. Before N.W.A, Ice Cube was in a trio called C.I.A., who were basically Beasties knockoffs. On their 1987 EP Cru’ In Action! (produced by another future N.W.A member, Dr. Dre) they copied Licensed to Ill’s rhyme patterns, used samples from the album and employed similar turns of phrase on songs like “My Posse” and “Ill-Legal.” “C.I.A. was a Beastie Boys rip-off,” said Alonzo Williams, a mentor to the group.

Def Jam / Columbia

Def Jam / Columbia

“Beastie Boys were innovators to the West Coast,” added rapper J-Dee. “Licensed to Ill came out of every Suzuki truck and Volkswagen. ‘Paul Revere’ was the jam.” J-Dee divided his time between South Central and Compton growing up and was a member of Ice Cube’s spin-off group Da Lench Mob. J-Dee and I spoke last year from the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, where he was serving time for a 1993 murder.

And it wasn’t just N.W.A and their affiliates. Houston horrorcore trailblazers Ghetto Boys (the spelling of "Ghetto” would later change) mined the Beasties’ sound on their first album, 1988’s Making Trouble. Soon afterward they reshuffled their lineup to feature now-legendary spitter Scarface—who kicked off his career as a DJ playing Beasties’ songs. The group’s lyrics proved so abrasive that their own distributor Geffen refused to put out their self-titled 1990 album–that is until their producer Rick Rubin, having previously worked with the Beasties, found an alternative distribution channel.

Another titan in West Coast gangsta rap was Ice-T, who kicked off the movement in L.A. Before him, hip-hop there was soft, serving as a soundtrack for robot-style pop-lock dancing. Even Ice-T himself, though he engaged in jewelry heists and ran with Crips, had previously been caught up in it, donning a tight T-shirt and studded belt in the 1984 movie Breakin’. But he upset the status quo with his 1986 song “6 ‘N the Morning,” which shocked listeners with its lyrics about pimping, police evasion and gunplay.

Where did Ice-T find inspiration for the song? As he described to me, it was written after he and a friend named Randy Mack had been listening to the Licensed to Ill track “Hold It Now, Hit It.” The song’s raucous lyrics inspired Mack to suggest Ice-T drop the pretty-boy façade and start portraying the street lifestyle he was actually living. “Man, fuck that other shit,” he said. “Take off the costume, and just go in there the way you normally are.” Ice-T took the advice to heart, and his outfits and attitude grew increasingly fierce, from “6 'N the Morning” to O.G. Original Gangster to “Cop Killer.”

Of course, other hip-hop artists influenced the gangsta rappers. Run-DMC were particularly beloved, and their 1983 song “Sucker M.C.s” was one of the first to employ the hard, drum machine-driven beat later employed by Philadelphia rapper Schoolly D on his 1985 track “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?,” which is considered the first gangsta rap song. Slick Rick was another New York act imitated by the West Coasters, and Public Enemy’s sound is all over Straight Outta Compton.

Still, the Beasties’ overwhelming influence is impossible to ignore. It may seem strange that three middle-class Jewish kids barely old enough to drink could inspire a hardcore, anti-establishment movement on the other side of the continent, but give Licensed to Ill another listen. It’s actually much harder than you remember.

First track “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” quickly escalates to a threat–“if you’ve got beef, you’ll get capped in the knees” and elsewhere the album features teacher smacking, underage girl seduction, booze guzzling and all manner of misogyny. It’s true that Mike D and Ad-Rock have relatively high-pitched voices, ones that might not seem very gangsta. But they actually helped set the stage for another rapper with an unorthodox vocal instrument: Eazy-E, the leader of N.W.A. His squeaky raps came off as mildly disturbing; the contrast between his voice and the cruel, reckless deeds he described made them sound more sinister.

Eazy-E, as you’ve probably guessed by now, was another huge fan of the Beasties. He showed this on the song that ignited his career, “Boyz-n-the-Hood.” Produced by Dr. Dre, “Boyz” pays homage to the group by sampling from “Hold It Now, Hit It,” as well as in less direct ways. Lines like “I gotta get drunk before the day begins / And my mom starts bitching about my friends” seem inspired by “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)” lyrics like “Livin’ at home is such a drag / Your mom took away your best porno mag.”

**The Beastie Boys with Run-DMC**  MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The Beastie Boys with Run-DMC MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

As for Dr. Dre—he may have been the biggest fan in the bunch. When he set down to construct Eazy-E and N.W.A’s early songs, he plundered Licensed to Ill mercilessly, using samples from more than half of the tracks. N.W.A’s “8 Ball" alone samples three Licensed to Ill songs, “Fight For Your Right,” “Paul Revere” and “Girls.” But its most memorable Beasties’ reference is in its opening line, rapped by Eazy: “I don’t drink Brass Monkey,” he notes, adding that he prefers 8-Ball, aka Olde English 800 malt liquor. (As I discovered in my reporting, Eazy didn’t actually drink at the time, and was known to fill his 40-ounce bottle with apple juice when performing.)

Dr. Dre was far from alone in his appropriation. Licensed to Ill track “The New Style” has been used with absolute abandon. According to the site WhoSampledWho.com, it’s been sampled 240 different times, including by hard-edged rappers Ice-T, Ice Cube, C.I.A. (twice), Eazy-E, N.W.A, D.O.C, Just-Ice and Esham. While “The New Style” is probably most famous for Ad-Rock’s line, “mmm-drop!” practically every moment of the song has been repurposed by someone.

Of course, sampling is what hip-hop’s all about. The genre was built on a foundation of previously published music, and the Beasties gave as good as they got. Like their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique—regarded today as a groundbreaking sonic masterpiece—Licensed to Ill chopped up many others’ tracks and has earworms constructed from already popularized melodies. “Girls” sounds suspiciously like the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” But the budding gangsta rappers who heard Licensed to Ill weren’t just inspired by the Beasties’ sound pastiche; they were inspired by the attitude. Those scrawny Northeasterners were DGAF before anyone knew what DGAF meant, and that spirit informed gangsta rap. The confidence to say and do what you want, regardless of whom you might offend? That’s gangsta.

After Licensed to Ill and continuing through the death of MCA in 2012, the Beasties’ image has done a total 180. They experimented with veganism and embraced feminist ideals. Ad-Rock is married to Bikini Kill frontwoman and riot grrrl progenitor Kathleen Hanna. Of course, the gangsta rappers have changed as well. Ice Cube was on Sesame Street not long ago, and Ice-T stars in a Geico commercial where he confuses people by sitting next to a lemonade stand. It’s a whole new middle-aged ball game for these once-subversive artists.

But while gangsta rap like Straight Outta Compton still sounds raw, powerful and even shocking today, Licensed to Ill maintains a certain innocence and naiveté. In an era of widening racial division and endless war, it’s almost refreshing to think back to a time when your greatest calamity was when your mom threw away your best porno mag.


Note: The headline of this article has been changed.

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