The Beastie Boys‘ Licensed to Ill arrived amongst a wave of revolutionary rap artists making incredibly important albums in the mid-1980s. Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show were all monumental in their assertion that hip hop was not only more than a passing fad, but that it should be taken seriously as an art form.
Licensed to Ill was not among them. Instead, Mike D, MCA, and King Ad-Rock, along with producer Rick Rubin, made what essentially turned out to be the first parody rap album. The three white boys, none of whom were of legal drinking age at the time, took turns making references to Budweiser, woolers, and porno mags in their exaggerated nasally flow behind Led Zeppelin samples. Songs often took place in school or on the streets of New York because these were teenagers singing songs for teenagers. They knew that they couldn’t compete with the gravitas or grit of their contemporaries, so they went for ridiculousness instead.
Despite turning hip hop into a joke just as it was getting major critical respect, The Beastie Boys wound up making songs so infectiously fun that they were embraced along with their more serious contemporaries. ‘(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)’ was an MTV staple, while ‘No Sleep ’til Brooklyn’ and ‘She’s Crafty’ could be heard in frat houses all across America. Three Jewish punk rockers from New York wound up being three of the biggest rap stars in the world.
Today, Licensed to Ill is as much of a time capsule as any rap album of the era, and perhaps even more so. Created before sampling laws cracked down on major copyright infringements, the obviousness and basic composition of the arrangements only serves to endear them to the Beasties uniquely Caucasian delivery. But the real throwback nature is in what The Beasties rap about. Many of the references and slang terms employed by the group never escaped the ’80s, and today they can be a confusing aspect of the album to anyone under 50.
So we’ve gone through all thirteen tracks on Licensed to Ill and picked out some of the more head-scratching topics, whether they be repeated slang terms, slightly outdated cultural references, or just frequent touchstones from a band that was never afraid to get overly goofy. If you need something to help you decipher The Beasties’ legendary first LP, here’s the Licensed to Ill dictionary to help guide you through.
The ‘Licensed to Ill’ dictionary:
The legendary actor is known for his roles in The Godfather, Barney Miller, and constant jokes regarding reports of his death while he was still alive. The Beasties were always ones to throw in pop culture references to people who didn’t have much business being featured in a rap song.
The Beasties reference of choice, roughly 30 per cent of Licensed to Ill is just alcohol references. These include Miller, Budweiser, Old Crow, Brass Monkey, Heineken, quarts, sixes, brew, martinis, 40s, Chivas, Old English beer, Moet, and Thunderbird wine.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
One of the many tales from Arabian Nights, this reference also works as a double entendre for stealing alcohol (more on that below).
Most prominently featured in the song of the same name, a Brass Monkey is a cocktail usually containing rum, vodka, and orange juice.
The centre of the universe, and The Beastie’s home base. MCA has a castle there.
The commanding officer of the HMS Bounty when its famous mutiny occurred. Part of the opening track ‘Rhymin and Stealin’ chronicles the mutiny.
Slang for cheating.
A fictional Hawaiian detective was famous for his films in the ’30s and ’40s. He was often portrayed by an actor in yellowface.
Cheech & Chong
Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, a comedy duo originally active from 1971 to 1985.
The Beasties loved them some KFC, mentioning the brand in ‘Slow Ride’ and ‘Hold It Now, Hit It’.
The Beasties often bragged about their ability to perfect some ridiculously 1980s-centric dances, including The Smurf, The Popeye, The Jerry Lewis, and The Bugaloo Flu.
Slang for good, hot, pleasurable, etc. Also, the group’s level, Def Jam Records.
Two blocks in Manhattan just off of Times Square on 42nd street, known for grindhouse theatres, pornographic cinemas, prostitutes, and drug dealers. When New York City began to get cleaned up, The Deuce largely disappeared.
Rick Rubin, the band’s DJ and producer.
Angel dust, slang for the hallucinogenic drug PCP.
Character from 1950s television show The Hooneymooners portrayed by Art Carney. Not to be confused with Edward Norton.
The Gong Show
A 1970s television show hosted by Chuck Barris that presented an assortment of alternative talents.
Slang for a gun or weapon.
Guitarist for Led Zeppelin who was sampled on ‘Rhymin and Stealin’ (‘When the Levee Breaks’), ‘Time to Get Ill’ (‘Custard Pie’), and ‘She’s Crafty’ (‘The Ocean’). The specific reference in ‘The New Style’ references Page’s relationship with underage groupie Lori Mattix.
Slang for crack cocaine.
Central talking horse character from the eponymous 1960s television show.
Mutiny on the Bounty
A mutiny that occurred on the HMS Bounty on April 28, 1789 led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian. Later turned into a number of film, including one starring Marlon Brando.
Stand up comedian and actress who often used purposefully cheesy rhyme schemes in her work.
The dinner of champions, when the Colonel’s Chicken is unavailable.
A hotdog brand known for its stands around New York street corners.
A city in New Jersey that pales in comparison to Manhattan or Brooklyn.
Also known as “taxin'”, “ragtag”, “jackin'”, or “skeezin'”
An aphrodisiac created by grinding up the titular beetle that can often prove poisonous.
American actor known for his roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Too Close for Comfort, and Caddyshack.
The Beasties should have gotten some money from the American fast-food chain restaurant White Castle, which is featured prominently on a number of songs throughout Licensed to Ill as a place to eat and hang out.
A marijuana joint that is laced with another drug, often crack cocaine or PCP.