November 1986: When Beastie Boys Crash-Landed with "Licensed to Ill"

beastie boys Licensed to Ill
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(Def Jam)

In the summer of 1985, Madonna was the biggest act in music. Hitting the road for her first major run, The Virgin Tour, the singer had the clout to pick pretty much anyone she wanted as her opening act. She chose the Beastie Boys.

At the time, the fledgling outfit only had one album: the independent 1982 Polly Wog Stew EP. When they opened for Madonna every night of The Virgin Tour, the group was met with waves of boos from fans perplexed by the sight of three scruffy white rappers making obscene gestures and talking about Paul Revere.

More than a year after the tour with Madonna, on November 15, 1986, Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, and suddenly it all made sense. The latest signing on the Def Jam Records, Beastie Boys followed in the tradition of label-mates LL Cool J, Run DMC and Public Enemy by being larger-than-life characters. Beastie Boys were unique in that their persona was obnoxious Jewish kids from New York.

Packed with the utmost in political incorrectness and an onslaught of offensive lyrics, Licensed to Ill would revolutionize rap by taking it straight to the heart of the American suburbs. The band's bratty, anti-authority appeal was the flip-side of the same sentiments and cartoon-ish delivery found in big rock bands of the era like Twisted Sister and Van Halen. Rap wasn't just an African-American thing any more.

The album was an immediate hit, soaring out of record store shelves at a pace that would catapult Licensed to Ill to the #1 spot on March 7, 1987.

The group would go on to spin out a dizzying seven singles from the album, the last one being the goofy "Girls" in May 1987.

Given the album's politically incorrect tone and general offensive, it's a legacy the band has had to grapple with over the years. So much so that rapper MCA was moved to address it on the song "Sure Shot," from 1994's Ill Communication, with lyrics that apologized for the homophobia and sexism of their past.

 

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