Sunday, March 7, 2010

1987: The Beastie Boys take rap to #1

March 7, 1987: The Beastie Boys made music history by becoming the first rap act to reach #1 on the Billboard charts with “Licensed To Ill.”

In addition to hitting the top of charts, the album stayed there for 7 weeks, and was the fastest-selling debut in Columbia Records history to that point, selling more than 9 million copies.

Originally a hardcore punk band, by the time the Beasties entered into the general public’s consciousness, they had successfully found a way to merge hip-hop and its beats with elements of rock, including metal – Kerry King from thrash-metal gods Slayer even played on the record (lead guitar on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” a goof on the title of Motorhead’s “No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith” album).

Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill - No Sleep Till BrooklynBeastie Boys - Licensed to Ill - No Sleep Till Brooklyn

The Beastie Boys – No Sleep Till Brooklyn (1986)

Produced by Rick Rubin, “Licensed To Ill” is littered with samples from rockers, including riffs and beats from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Steve Miller Band, C.C.R. and others, as well as rap and funk bits from Run DMC, Kool & The Gang, Stevie Wonder, War, and more.

Trivia: The full album cover, front to back, features a Boeing 727 - with "Beastie Boys" emblazoned on the tail — crashing head-on into the side of a mountain. The tail of the plane has the Def Jam logo and the legend '3MTA3', which spells 'EATME' when viewed in a mirror

In general terms, The Beasties’ success did not sit well in some corners of African-American culture; other hip-hop acts had been working for years without mainstream pop chart success, while having hits on the R&B and Dance charts. All of this was in a period when it took Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” itself simply too huge to be ignored, for MTV to begin playing videos by black artists.

Can parallels be drawn between the Beasties’ chart success and that of Elvis’, generations earlier? If not more deeply, than on the surface, at the very least: both artists represented forms of music that were on the edges of mainstream significance and success while having roots in black culture. A great debate can be had on whether or not early rock ‘n roll (in Elvis’ case) and hip-hop (Beasties’ case) needed white artists to achieve such long-lasting impact and success; you can start working on that thesis any time you’d like.

I remember seeing The Beastie Boys, while on Spring Break in Florida, on February 26 - the week before this album hit the top of the charts. The music, the buzz, and the look, was literally everywhere, including my own backyard, while running a college radio station in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Beasties’ concert, at the Sunrise Theatre in Sunrise, Florida, was the first time I’d been to a live show where no one played conventional instruments. A soft-seat theatre, my group had tickets about 1/3 to half-way back, and at some point, I wandered up to the front row to get a closer look. Between the girls dancing in cages and the Beasties' opening, chugging and tossing beers into the crowd, it was a crazy scene.

Things looked pretty much like this:

Beastie Boys - Licensed to Ill - She's CraftyBeastie Boys - Licensed to Ill - She's Crafty

The Beastie Boys - She’s Crafty (1986)