Wednesday, December 13, 2006

20 Years of License to Ill

Has it really been 20 years since that impossibly heavy levee-breakbeat first erupted from my speakers, since I first heard that nasal whine of "Becaaaaaaauuuse...?" Yes, it has, and to this day, listening to that rowdy disc brings back a flood of memories of wild, beer-soaked nights, crazy drunken exploits, rounds of shouting "WoahWoahWoahWoah WoahWoahWoah WoahWoahWoahBrooklynWoahWoah!" From the moment it first hit our ears, there was a recognition not only of great music, but of a set of kindred spirits, obnoxious teenagers with more energy than they had means to expend, howling into the New York night so loudly that we, down in the southern reaches of Florida, could hear them and howl back. This was music by, for and about hoodlums.

It's amazing to think that 21 years ago, I had no interest in hip hop. Not that I disliked it--the few times I'd heard rap records, I'd enjoyed the tongue-twisting staccato of the lyrics, and the electronic flourishes that had been popular on rap records in the wake of "Planet Rock"--but I was so obsessed with heavy metal, punk and 60's rock that I didn't really have room for anything else. Then I heard Run DMC's "Kings of Rock" (actually, my friend Dan pointed it out to me, arguing that "Any band that rhymes 'Every jam we play, we break two needles' with 'There's three of us, but we're not the Beatles' is cool"). This was a rap song propelled along by heavy metal guitars, which I thought was pretty cool, and while I didn't go out and buy the album, it did put Run DMC on my radar enough that when I read in SPIN (still in its early days and pretty good) that they had recorded a rap version of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, I got curious. On my next weekly visit to the cool record store (Record Bar in Ft. Pierce, which was managed by Disorderly Conduct/Foul Existence bassist Scot Lade, who had turned it into the hip punk record store for the area) I asked Scot about it. I was hoping I could get him to play it in the store, but being the natural born salesman that he was, he knew he had me on the hook, and could use my curiosity to reel me in. "Oh yeah," he said, "it's really cool. The song right before it ends with a drum beat, and then they mix it into the 'Walk This Way' beat, it sounds awesome." I couldn't stand it any longer, so I put down the money and bought a copy.

When I got it home, I listened to side one all the way through, and sure enough, that moment at the end of "My Adidas" when the drums go "do do DIP do dododoDIPdo, do do DIP do dododoDIPdo, do DIP dododo DIP, do DIP do do do DIP" was beautiful, and "Walk This Way" was a great recording. On my second listen through, I got into "It's Tricky," with its bouncy, uptempo beat and catchy chorus ripped from Toni Basil's "Oh Mickey." Third time through, I really started to hear the more purist hip hop track "Peter Piper," kicking the album off with a high-speed tongue twister and syncopated beats and bells. Eventually I flipped the record and heard the bouncy novelty track "You Be Illin'" and the title track, a much better rap-metal fusion than "King of Rock" (although I would later find out that their best attempt at this hybrid was "Rock Box" on their first LP). As I kept listening, I noticed how hard and percussive "Proud to be Black" was, and how cool that bit of falsetto in "Hit it, Run" sounded. In other words, I started to understand hip hop.

About that time, there was a piece on The Beastie Boys in SPIN, and I had an immediate reaction to it. They seemed like annoying assholes, these obnoxious white guys posing in their stupid Puma sweats. I was sure I hated them. When my friend Mike began talking about them, I told them they sucked. Then he produced a mix tape from a friend of his with a bunch of hip hop on it. And it had a Beastie Boys track on it, and Jesus, that song blew me away. Just knocked me out cold. Such a heavy track, I couldn't believe it. The next day I was at the flea market, and asked John, the guy selling records, if he had any Beastie Boys. I really didn't expect him to say yes, but he pulled out a 12" single, the B-side of which was called "Slow and Low." I wondered if that was the song I had heard. I had assumed that it was called "Let it Flow" or "Let Yourself Go" or something, but when I took it home and played it, that was the one. The A-Side, "She's On It," was a more upbeat, rockin' song, but "Slow and Low" was the one I couldn't get enough of. But hearing the whole album, the mix of styles, the flow of the songs, it was just an awesome piece of work.

License is completely of that moment, but at the same time, I don't think it's aged a day. They were clearly ripping off Run DMC's sound (although the contrast between MCA's gruff, Clint Eastwood voice and Mike and Ad Rock's nasal sneers added a nice touch), but they were coming from the opposite side--not rappers picking up rock moves, but rockers adapting to rap, and they took with them the dynamic song structures and album structure of rock. Where Run DMC's tracks often seem to trail off, designed to be mixed into the next track at a club or block party, the Beasties' tracks build to climaxes and end abruptly.

License is practically a survey of rap styles around in 1986, with Rick Rubin providing the perfect instrumental tracks for each. There's Miami bass on "Brass Monkey," Slick Rick-style storytelling on "Paul Revere" (where Rubin recognized the time to give the vocals space in his arrangements, although the backwards drum track is a nice touch), and gangsterisms throughout the album at a time when the only gangster records in existence were Ice T's "Six in the Morning" and Schooly D's earliest singles. In fact, one of two songs that had to be left off the record was a gangster track--does anyone know the title? I know it contained the line "Shot homeboy in the fucking face." If anyone has that track, I'd like to hear it. I do have the other censored track, a semi-cover of The Beatles' "I'm Down" which copyright owner Michael Jackson supposedly refused to clear. It's pretty silly, and I'm glad that the album ends with "Time to Get Ill" instead of this.

The Beastie Boys - I'm Down (mp3)

I'm also glad that they got talked out of calling the album Don't Be A Faggot.

I also find a parallel between the Beastie Boys' relationship with License and my own view of that part of my life. At one point, they seemed to have rejected it completely, so embarrassed were they by the asses they had made of themselves. Later, they seemed to come to some peace with it, accepting that period of acting like assholes was simply a part of growing up, even if they still seemed a little embarrassed by it. And that's pretty much how I feel about my own life between the ages of, um, about 15 and 21.

My top 10 albums of 1986:

1. TIE: Run DMC- Raisin' Hell
Beastie Boys - License to Ill: I actually like the Beasties' album better, but at that point they were really building on the groundwork that Run DMC had been laying for three years (ie, straight jacking Run DMC's style), so they share this spot.
2. Sonic Youth - Bad Moon Rising: the first truly great SY album (in what would be an amazing 6-album streak). It took me years to fully appreciate this. On first listen, the album's climax, "Death Valley 69" (still one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded) blew me away, and I found the whole album interesting, but it would be a long time before I could really penetrate the sounds, and come to a full understanding of what they were doing. Even better now on CD, with the awesome bonus tracks!
3. The Meatmen - Rock n Roll Juggernaut: if I was making this list in January '87, this would have been number 1. Like a funnier and better version of Spinal Tap, a thunderous sendup of excessive, macho, misogynist heavy metal. "Rock n Roll Juggernaut," "True Grit" and "Come on Over to Mah Crib" are as hilarious as they are hard-rockin', while "Centurions of Rome" and "Turbo Rock" try to keep a straight face while goofin' on Judas Priest. Side 2 loses momentum with some lame comedy skits (although I do love the bizarre gay sex fantasies conjured in the polka "Dich Streudle"), but regains it's footing for the climactic "The Sweetest Kittens Have the Sharpest Claws," which describes what would have been Russ Meyer's best movie if it actually existed.
4. REM - Life's Rich Pageant: from a Murmer to...well, not a scream, but a voice singing full and clear. REM enters the second phase of their career with this album, and while I don't love it as much as the more obscure, abstract stuff on their early albums, there are some of their best moments here, like the build to the solo on the pastoral "Flowers of Guatemala," the bridge on "Fall On Me," and the abstract poetry of "Swan Swan H" blooming into the pop perfection of "Superman."
5. Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper - Frenzy!: the term "psychotic rock n roll" gets used to describe a lot of unworthy shit, but this is the real thing.
6. Metallica - Master of Puppets: Metallica kept making the same album over and over, but this was the best version.
7. They Might Be Giants (s/t): I probably didn't hear this until early '88, but even then it seemed to come out of nowhere. Almost too catchy--after one listen, every single song was stuck in my head for days.
8. Butthole Surfers - Rembrandt Pussyhorse: not their masterpiece, but all their stuff from this period was amazing. I think of this as their mellow, pot smoking album.
9. The Flaming Lips - Hear It Is: the first band to non-ironically mix classic rock with punk? I don't know, great album.
10. The Jazz Butcher - Bloody Nonsense: this Robyn Hitchcock-influenced pop album caught my attention with goofy numbers like "Death Dentist" and "The Devil is my Friend," but it's off-kilter pop songs like "The Human Jungle" that really stick with me. Always brings me back to one night when I drove aimlessly around my town listening to the cassette trying figure out where my life was going.

Honorable Mention: Frank Zappa - Jazz From Hell: actually one of my favorite Zappa albums, it should really be on the list. Here's some other stuff I remember listening to:

Slayer - Reign in Blood: "Auschwitz! The meaning of pain! The way that I want you to die!" I have no desire to listen to this all the way through, but man, "Angel of Death" fucking kills me.
XTC - Skylarking: Checked this out of the library recently, and I had forgotten what an amazingly solid pop album it was. Treasured for the lazy "Summers Cauldron/Grass" and the atheist anthem "Dear God," but I'm really groovin' on "Earn Enough For Us" now.
Violent Femmes - Blind Leading the Naked: surprisingly great record, covering eclectic styles from punk to blues to ballads and brimming with sexual and existential angst (same is true of Hallowed Ground, by the way). This is another one that "takes me back."


Blogger Ben MirĂ³ said...

Excellent write up, man.

I smell a "What's Left" of Tougher Than Leather. Or someone's wearing English Leather...either/or.

12/20/2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

I caught the very end of that once. It ends with them saying something like "Watch your back, cuz Run DMC will be there!"

After Tougher Than Leather and Disorderlies, the next Def Film was going to be the Beasties in a haunted house comedy called Scared Stupid. Apparantly, Yauch even finished a screenplay for it.

12/24/2006 9:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home