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Jews in a mostly black genre, the Beastie Boys are nevertheless one of the only acts making authentic hip-hop, as their classic Licensed to Ill proves

Liel Leibovitz
October 04, 2011
The Beastie Boys, 1987.(Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)
The Beastie Boys, 1987.(Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)

The Arbiter is a weekly column dedicated to revisiting canonical works of art, high and low alike, to reevaluate their merit. All media are considered; none are pitied. As an homage to the greatest Jewish guardian of memory, Marcel Proust, each is rated on a scale of one to five madeleines, with one pastry meaning the work should be forgotten posthaste and five arguing for a spirited recollection.

Some arguments, particularly arguments about race and music and the ways in which they intertwine, are better off stating their premise right away. This is one of those arguments, and its premise is this: The Beastie Boys are not only one of the greatest groups in hip-hop history, but they are also one of the very few that has remained true to the genre’s essence. Far more than other acts with purer street cred—Tupac, Biggie, NWA—the three scrawny Jews from Brooklyn represent what hip-hop is really about.

A brief historical interlude: Born in the Bronx in the late 1970s, hip-hop emerged primarily as a response to two deeply troubling phenomena ravaging the black and Latino communities—gang violence and disco. Isolating and manipulating the percussion breaks of popular songs and then adorning them with speech addressed both these plagues, creating a musical genre that celebrated the superiority of West Indian and African American sounds like dub and soul over disco’s white, withering soullessness, and a genre that also gave desperate young men something to do that didn’t involve guns.

Because so much of the music was played live, in massive block parties, the men holding the microphones and delivering rhymes had to be creative to entertain the crowds. Call-and-response worked nicely, as did talk of poop, sex, and all the other sweetly corporeal things a mass of sweating, swaying people might enjoy while grinding up against each other. In the late 1970s, when hip-hop acts finally began putting out records, they maintained the same playful air. “Rapper’s Delight,” the 1979 single by the Sugarhill Gang that is widely considered to be the first hip-hop release in history, had lines like these:

This young reporter I did adore
So I rocked a vicious rhyme like I never did before
She said damn fly guy I’m in love with you
The Casanova legend must have been true
I said by the way baby what’s your name
Said I go by the name of Lois Lane
And you could be my boyfriend you surely can
Just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman
I said he’s a fairy I do suppose
Flyin’ through the air in pantyhose.

The swagger, the put-downs, the randy glee—such was the sound of the new music.

The Beastie Boys fit right in with this rowdy milieu. They began life as a punk band, and their name, they later explained, was an acronym for Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence. The name says it all: All the Beasties ever wanted was to be loud, playful, rude, cool, fuckable, and fun. Their first album, Licensed to Ill, came out late in 1986, and every track on it was a mission statement for the spirit of hip-hop.

Take “Girls,” for example, still the best musical expression on record of the contradicting emotions—confusion, desire, fear, loathing, and ignorance—young men feel when they start taking notice of young women. Like “Rapper’s Delight” and many other early hip-hop songs, this one, too, is rich with humor and a touch of homophobia, the two blunt tools the budding male sexuality has at its disposal to fight off any hint of limpness. Here’s a representative sample:

I hope she’ll say, “Hey me and you should hit the hay!”
I asked her out she said, “No way!”
I should have probably guessed they’re gay
So I broke north with no delay
I heard she moved real far away
That was two years ago this May
I seen her just the other day
Jockin’ Mike D. to my dismay

Each song on the album was an anthem to stupid virility at its most entertaining, and each managed to capture the gestalt of those early block parties. It’s harder than it sounds: Three decades after its release, “Rapper’s Delight” sounds like a lovable but antiquated piece of music, its energy and vivacity drained by the years; Licensed to Ill, on the other hand, still summons the same stomping sensations it did when I first listened to it the week it was released, 25 years ago, when one’s mother throwing out one’s best porno mag was a problem to which I could very much relate.

Rolling Stone, then, was uncommonly astute when it labeled its review of the album “Three Idiots Create a Masterpiece.” Hip-hop being a party genre, each of its peaks should feel like it was scaled by a moron. Rock can have its gnomic lyrics, folk its political consciousness, and pop its perfect little pronouncements of love, but hip-hop is all about the puns, and the best wordplay is delivered by the most shameless smart-alecks. Few were ever more shameless or smart-alecky than the Beasties, circa 1986.

Then, alas, the music died, or at least changed beyond recognition. A new breed of rappers stuffed meaning into every line. Three years after the Beasties’ first release, Public Enemy released what many consider the greatest hip-hop song of all time, “Fight the Power.” It goes like this:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne

The pundits, the academics, and the other men of privilege entrusted with chaperoning hip-hop into cultural respectability were now ready to see in the still-new form a potent political force, a continuation by other means of the 1960s intersection of music and political protest. To be considered acceptable to mainstream America, hip-hop needed to have something to say; rappers would now be shoehorned into the role that Bob Dylan abandoned when he went electric. Which is why most of my hip-hop aficionado friends refused to consider the Beasties as real rappers; they were too happy, too white, and not political enough. How could they possibly be authentic?

But hip-hop’s political era was short-lived. By the 1990s, the genre was dominated by young men who rapped about violence and who cultivated tough, gun-toting personae. There was nothing political about NWA, say, unless one stretches the definition of political to include any display of disaffection, in which case nearly every hip-hop song is political and nearly none is. The so-called gangsta rappers gave hip-hop not only its most exciting tracks in years but also a legacy of mind-dulling uniformity that never went away. Until this day, anyone taking up a microphone and spitting out rhymes needs, first and foremost, to prove that he or she is tough.

But toughness is not what hip-hop was about. If anything, hip-hop was born out of the spirit of frustration with violence and disaffection themselves, which is why Grandmaster Flash, a founding father of hip-hop, wrote his seminal song, “The Message,” berating young black men for perceiving the gangster life as attractive or glorious. Crime, he argued, only leads to misery and overall decay; the alternative is braving the racism, greed, poverty, and all the other plagues that strike black Americans. To connect with one another, it helps to know how to throw a really great party.

The Beasties, afflicted by none of the evils that burdened Flash and his contemporaries, understood that instinctively, which is why Licensed to Ill contains one of the greatest unappreciated protest songs ever written, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party).” It begins thusly:

You wake up late for school man you don’t wanna go
You ask you mom, “Please?” but she still says, “No!”
You missed two classes and no homework
But your teacher preaches class like you’re some kind of jerk

The sense of frustration is so palpable that anyone who hasn’t completely repressed the memory of being a teenager would immediately feel a pang of recognition. Sure, the Beasties didn’t rap about crime or destitution, but their chief concern on the album—the young soul and its nobly idiotic quest to stave off, for as long as is possible, the forces of adulthood eager to crush it with their stony touch—is every bit as profound and universal. Someone who fights for his or her right to party is someone who recognizes how grim the alternatives of passivity and real violence can be.

Compare the song with Public Enemy’s “Party for Your Right to Fight.” Released two years later as a response to the Beasties, the song sounds every bit as one would expect a politically conscious group to sound when corresponding with three skinny Jews who stumbled onto hip-hop by mistake. The lyrics are full of indignation:

J. Edgar Hoover, and he coulda proved to you
He had King and X set up
Also the party with Newton, Cleaver, and Seale
He ended, so get up
Time to get ’em back

“Party for Your Right to Fight” is not only the lesser song—thankfully, few but the ardently enthusiastic remember it today—but also the less political one. Fighting for your right to party means taking a personal stand in defense of an appealing and considered life choice; partying for your right to fight entails little more than following a prescribed, and largely erroneous, script about all powerful white men being racists and about violent action being the only path to redemption.

It’s not surprising, then, that Chuck D’s partner in Public Enemy, Flavor Flav, is now known primarily as a shriveled former crackhead who trawls the murky waters of reality television in search of female companionship, while the Beastie Boys are recognized for their serious and ongoing commitment to a host of social and political issues like Tibetan independence. Flav, like most rappers, was only ever playing a role, while the Beasties were being themselves.

It’s an existential distinction. In his masterful Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre described a waiter at a Parisian café who goes out of his way to play the part of waiter: He balances trays on his arms just so, speaks in a theatrical voice, and does everything he can to be a convincing server. It’s clear to both Sartre and the waiter that the whole thing’s an act, an affectation, which the philosopher termed “bad faith,” or the phenomenon of succumbing to societal pressure and abandoning one’s own true and authentic self in favor of some silly bit of performance.

When Eric Lynn Wright, the son of a postal worker and a school administrator who growing up dealt drugs but also earned a GED and started a successful record label, turned himself into Eazy-E, and then put out a host of songs about murder, beatings, and misogyny, that’s bad faith. When Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond and Adam Yauch sang about what they liked to do, which was make good music and get drunk and hit on girls, it was the real deal. And never have they expressed their spirit more eloquently than they had in the album’s second-most famous song, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”:

My job’s ain’t a job it’s a damn good time
City to city I’m running my rhymes
On location touring around the nation
Beastie Boys always on vacation

Amen to that. For a genre obsessed with authenticity, hip-hop has strayed very far from its roots, forcing its practitioners to fake it and seeing as a result an ever-dwindling crop of quality music. This is why we now have Drake and T.I. where only a decade ago stood giants like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. And what we need, if we’re ever to save our beloved music, is more artists to remind us, as the Beasties have, that hip-hop is haimish, and that the only way to make it well is to keep it real.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.