It’s hard to believe, but the Beastie Boys’ debut record Licensed to Ill just turned 30 years old. Producer Rick Rubin has said that he never expected it to sell more than 25,000 copies. We all know now how wrong he was, as the record went on to be one of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time.
The Beastie Boys’ roots stretch back to 1978 when Michael Diamond (aka Mike D) started an experimental-hardcore band called The Young Aborigines. Adam Yauch (aka MCA) replaced the original bassist in 1981, with Mike D taking over vocals and Kate Schellenbach on drums, and the band changed their name to the Beastie Boys.
They earned spots opening up for punk legends like Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys, and the Misfits. The 1992 Beastie Boys track “Skills to Pay the Bills” references this period of the band’s history in Mike D’s line “I’m the original Young Aboriginal/Continued evolution of an individual.”
— Beastie Boys (@beastieboys) November 15, 2016
The following year, Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock) replaced original guitarist John Berry after Horovitz’s band The Young and the Useless opened for a Beastie Boys show. The band then recorded their first ever single, “Cooky Puss”, plus an EP called Polly Wog Stew, which was also the band’s first foray into rap and hip-hop.
British Airways illegally used part of the track “Beastie Revolution” in a TV ad, leading the Beastie Boys to successfully sue the company for $40,000. The money was used to rent their apartment at 59 Chrystie Street in NYC’s Chinatown, where the band lived, rehearsed and recorded. This is where the band honed their sound and almost fully transitioned to a hip-hop act after the success of “Cooky Puss”. Kate Schellenbach left the band in 1984 and was never replaced, leaving the legendary line-up of Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock to carry the torch.
The band realized that to put on a proper rap concert, you needed a good DJ. They ended up hiring a student from NYU who also happened to be an aspiring record label owner. That guy’s name was Rick Rubin, who was about to launch Def Jam Recordings and wanted to produce the Beastie Boys first album. After opening shows for Johnny Rotten, RUN DMC, and Madonna, the Beastie Boys had their first hit with “Hold It Now, Hit It” making Billboard’s national R&B and Dance charts. Rubin’s production famously featured elements from both the rock and rap worlds, sampling everything from Led Zeppelin to Slayer, to Kool & the Gang and Schoolly D. This was partially responsible for an explosion in the Beastie Boys’ popularity among fans of both genres.
They recorded and released Licensed To Ill in 1986. They embarked on their first world tour shortly after its release, which was peppered with its fair share of controversial moments including an infamous riot at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool which culminated in the arrest of Adam Horovitz.
The album launched what would turn out to be a long, fruitful career for the band. It made history as the first rap LP to ever top the Billboard album chart. It remains one of Columbia Records’ fastest selling debut albums ever, reaching certified platinum status in just under three months. Rubin’s estimate of 25,000 album sales was a bit off-target, as the record ended up selling over ten million copies in the U.S. alone. Licensed To Ill re-entered the charts in 2012 after the tragic death of Adam Yauch, a testament to how many people the Beasties had reached in their storied career.
Take a quick look back at history being made on Indie88’s This Week In Music History.