When I look at this title, even typing it into the subject bar up there, I get this sinking feeling of “oh no, not Licensed To Ill“, because I think about all the songs that I have to hear every single day on the radio. Any album that contains not one but four songs that are still frequently played on the radio has to be horrible right?
Well, here’s the thing. I have been known to be very hard on the radio, mainly because I am forced to listen to it, but since my daily shift became a 6am-?? schedule, I have been forced to listen to the “New Rock Alternative” and its earliest morning talk show, which, prepare yourself… is actually good.
It’s basically an every-man radio guy (Jason) and an English girl (Deb) arguing about nonsense for 4 hours between the horrid songs and even more horrid commercials (except for one where Gene Simmons talks about Dr Pepper, that commercial is a golden treasure). The thing is, the show is just different enough from all the other “typical” radio talk shows I’ve heard to be interesting. Yeah there are Simpsons/Family Guy clips all the time, the show is interrupted often before it even starts, and of course it’s the damn radio so one wants to claw one’s ears off between chats, but the chats are good because you’ve got a guy who’s anything but an “old pro” (read: he’s roughly my age and doesn’t effect a stupid radioman voice while playing boing noises and well ok he does play noises) and the girl is English so her accent is adorable and her mannerisms charmingly repressed. The interaction between them feels genuine and entertaining, more often than not. In fact, I even tuned into to the show on a Friday when I was off work (the first time I’ve willingly turned on the radio in my life!) So I guess my point is, you can blindly go along with your gut instincts and hate something just because it’s bad, but occasionally, if you look at it with an open mind and a willingness to find the exceptions to the rules, you can come out on top, or at least a nice comfortable place in the middle.
Which brings me to this shining golden turd:
A question that has plagued me for years is “why oh why did I buy this album years ago at Wal*Mart?” Thing is, I was frequently depressed at the time since I worked there and all, and I found myself doing many irrational but harmless things, like apparently buying albums on a whim and expecting them to be any good.
Once every few years, however, I play the album just to unravel the mystery and see whether there’s any saving grace to the thing. Indeed, the beats are interesting and there’s a lot of variety, and one can’t help but at least feel amused at the Beastie Boys’ rapping style. Basically one of the three dudes starts a rhyme using the same vocal rhythm every time, and the other guys either join in on the last word, or one of the others takes it from the last note and raps the next line, kind of like a musical hot potato. This particular album features all the cheesy noises of 80′s rap with Led Zeppelin samples interspersed throughout.
However, this particular album also features a rather juvenile set of lyrics that range from the poetic (“We did it like this, we did it like that, we did it with a wiffle ball bat”) to the quixotic (“I’ve got rhymes like Abe Vigoda”). There are myriad references to drugs, alcohol, and girls throughout. In fact, that leads me to one of the songs I most hate, “Girls”. Starting with a fake xylophone arpeggio that basically plays the tune to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers, which may be the song’s inspiration, the song will go down in history as one of the most annoying songs ever recorded. Hard to believe it was partially written by Rick Rubin, eh?
Oh yes, the hobo-esque producer who helped re-ignite Johnny Cash’s career was the producer for this and only this album in the Beastie Boys’ discography. It’s true that he is considered one of the best producers that Hip Hop has ever seen, and he produced the most successful albums of my favorite artist’s career, but I just can’t proclaim my undying love for the fellow because of stuff like this.
Then, of course, we have the album’s other radio hits (“Girls” is one), and they’re practically in order on the album’s “B-side”. We start with “Fight For Your Right”, a party hit that you just can’t have a party without, love it or hate it. Then it’s “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn”, the band’s tribute to metal I guess (featuring guitar work from the Slayer guy, another band Rubin was producing at the time).
Then there’s a bit of a reprieve in the form of “Paul Revere”. It’s possibly the objectively worst song in the bunch (the beat is apparently so bad it had to be played backwards), but it’s always been my favorite. Why? Because I heard it on the radio around the age of 13, and at the time thought it was hilarious. It’s a decent enough song lyrically, as long as one listens to it with an attitude of not taking it seriously at all. It tells a tender story of friendship, love, and betrayal, but ultimate ends with redemption, and beer.
Actually I think “Hold It Now, Hit It” is still played on the radio on occasion. I dare not listen to find out, though. It’s actually a pretty fun song, if not a little draggy.
Maybe I only think that way because the next track, “Brass Monkey”, is so gol’dern terrible that anything seems pleasant in comparison. From the terrible horn sample to the reprehensible chorus, there is nothing one can forgive in this song. The song actually hates you, and wants to do you and your family harm, and to let it have its way is considered a sign of weakness in all major cultures.
“Slow And Low” is actually a cover of a cancelled song from Run D.M.C.’s second album that the Boys wanted to record for their own album. It actually is quite good, definitely a worthy reward for hitting the skip button “Brass Monkey” instead of just turning the whole album off.
The last song, “Time To Get Ill”, is also fairly interesting, if for nothing else, than the sheer amount of samples used just to set up lines like “I’ve got more rhymes than Phyllis Diller”.
Honestly, the songs I skipped are generally pretty good too, and don’t get me wrong, I actually do like The Beastie Boys. Their later albums are much better, and in the grand scheme of things, there are much worse albums out there, especially in the 80′s. The production is very well done, the songs constructed with a great degree of care, and those irritating radio hits actually are very entertaining if you’re willingly listening to them and not just trying to drown them out while at work or a party containing white people. Overall, it’s a good album that sucks.
So what have I learned in listening to Licensed To Ill once again, despite the presence of all those terrible (yet undeniably catchy) hits? Well, I guess I have learned that, though you may not like something because it sucks, sometimes it’s not all bad, and you can delude yourself into thinking of yourself as more matured and open-minded for admitting that some things, like morning talk radio and the Beastie Boys’ first album, are things you can mostly tolerate.
(This blog post brought to you by 3 days of sleep deprivation, an unusually forgiving attitude about a certain radio show I’ve recently warmed up to, and Thundercloud Subs, may they burn forever in Hell for their jingles.)