Iain Ellis talks with John Schaefer on WNYC’s Soundcheck. Listen to the interview here: Humor as a Weapon
Over 20 years and still “rhymin’ and stealin’,” the Beastie Boys are the quintessential postmodern pirates. Transitioning from hardcore punk to rap in the mid-‘80s, the Beasties—like other rappers—were charged by old school critics with being plagiarists, with being talentless thieves whose idea of creativity was to steal (sample) others’ work. (Indeed, the prosecution might add that there is nearly as much Led Zeppelin on their debut album as there is on Houses of the Holy.) Suffice to say, their subversions of rock’s principles of authenticity and originality were rarely greeted warmly. Even within the hip-hop world itself, the band was summarily dismissed as pirates, just one more example of white interlopers “stealing the blues”—and getting rich in the process. Such rap “nationalism” was pervasive in the ‘80s, if somewhat ironic considering the sampling nature of the form. Another perspective that tagged the band as pirates came from the band itself. In “Rhymin’ and Stealin’”, the first song from their first rap album, Licensed to Ill (1986), the Beasties proudly announced their manifesto of intent in the opening lines: “Mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about / I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out.”
Besides subverting the basic myths and tenets of rock authorship, the Beastie Boys quickly established their own identity within the rap genre. They were not afraid to play the enemy within, often mocking the macho strutting of harder rappers and stretching the collective imagination of the genre with out-of-the-box rhymes and references. Few thought so at the time, but when one revisits their two ‘80s albums—Licensed to Ill (1986) and Paul’s Boutique (1989)—today, one hears some of the most revolutionary, original, influential, and hilariously funny music in the history of rap and American popular music.
Proud New Yorkers, the Beasties were initially one of many punk-oriented groups who saw and sought a common cause with the city’s burgeoning hip-hop culture in the early ‘80s. But whereas the Clash and Blondie merely flirted with the new form, these pirates jumped ship from punk. Sounding like Bad Brains in early 1984, after hooking up with producer Rick Rubin, they were sounding like a rap act by the end of the year. Of course, one of the distinguishing elements of the band was that they brought their punk attitude, irreverence, style, and humor with them, such that the early musical results consisted of rap with a discernible punk (and metal) edge. In early shows their punk theatrics were on full display, too. Their first tour (supported by Public Enemy) caused a stir when the band adopted a large inflatable penis as a primary stage prop and when they cajoled their audiences with Johnny Rotten–type provocations. Their label, Def Jam, though, were content to tolerate such mischief, as Licensed to Ill stormed the charts, hitting number one on its way to becoming the biggestselling rap album of the decade.
The centerpiece of Ill was the faux-rebel anthem, “Fight for Your Right (to Party).” Its video became a staple of MTV, while the song became a fixture of frat-boy parties around the nation (and beyond). Its Animal House mayhem (reflected in the lyrics, music, and video) was (like the Boys themselves) silly on the surface, but quite crafty in construction. Essentially, the song was an ‘80s update of the kind of generation gap songs once popular in the 1950s from acts like the Coasters, Hank Ballard, and Chuck Berry. Besides its standard parent-child issues of hairstyles and homework, the Beasties spiced up the lyrics with such lines as “Your mom threw away your best porno mag.” Such references were just daring enough to create an aura of youth rebellion, and just innocuous and cheeky enough to be subsumed into the mainstream pop world. This capacity to bridge the hip and the wholesome via humor has been a marker of the band’s subversive strategies throughout their career.
Elsewhere on Ill, the band play out the standard dozens humor of ‘80s rap but consistently undercut it with unlikely references and ridiculous “disses.” “I got more juice than Picasso got paint,” they boast in “The New Style,” before launching into a series of juvenile boast-couplets that comment more upon their own wimp-persona than on the credibility of their threats: “Girlfriends with boyfriends are the kind I like. / I’ll steal your honey like I stole your bike.” These lines are more “Weird Al” Yankovic than New York street rap; they are internally subversive, wry comments undermining the tough street rhetoric of the “serious” rappers. The
PMRC crowd found the Beasties to be less than innocent, however, pointing to their lyrics of violence and gunplay. But clearly, theirs is the violence of a Three Stooges sketch, and gun references such as the following from “The New Style” are preposterous in context: “I’ve got money and juice—twin sisters in my bed / Their father had envy so I shot him in the head.”
The Beastie Boys have grown increasingly politically conscious in their more recent output—particularly since 9/11. This greater maturity has not come at the expense of sacrificing their sharp humor, though, as their online-only 2003 antiwar song, “In a World Gone Mad”, reveals. Besides being one of the few expressions of dissent from within the music industry (or beyond) to the Iraq invasion, the song is unsparing and courageous in its indictments, particularly considering the chilled, almost McCarthyite environment of that time (as the Dixie Chicks can testify to!). “You and Saddam should kick it like back in the day / With the cocaine and Courvoisier,” quip the Boys. The song has a neo-hippy “peace and love” vibe that has always been at the band’s core; its pleas for reason, restraint, and resistance to fear-mongering were rare at that time on the national stage. Hitting us with a classic malapropism, they proceed to force the following pointed rhyme: “Now don’t get us wrong ’cause we love America / But that’s no reason to get hysterica”.