Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Real Deal

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

Print Email
The Beastie Boys, 1987. (Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images)
Related Content

Make Some Noise

Nadav Samin was a nice Jewish boy in Brooklyn who made it big at a key moment in hip-hop history and then walked away to take up Middle East studies. Now it turns out he never really left rap behind.

So Long Nasty

The Beastie Boys grew up, and so did I

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.

The Arbiter

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.

Print Email
Christopher Orev says:

I like your smart celebration of the Beasties, but I think you give short shrift to some elements of Public Enemy. True, their music hasn’t aged as well as the B. Boys’ and Flavor Flav “was only ever playing a role,” but to suggest that Chuck D, the force behind the group, was somehow inauthentic, representative of Sartre’s “bad faith,” seems like a reach, and an unfair one at that. Eazy E? Snoop? Dre? Sure. But Eminem, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, and other hip-hop acts are authentic and still writing, so it’s not as though we’re limited to the Top 40 hip-hop acts. And what about Kanye, an example of “bad faith” that still produces good music?

Well delivered, Liel.

    AllenLowe says:

    oi, where to start? Does anyone who reads the language of those songs really think the Beastie Boys work  is interesting or effective? Sorry, only someone who knows nothing of the African American oral tradition can fail to see that a whole genre that stretches back far before recording history has deteriorated, in hip hop, largely into feckless doggerel. You need to listen to Rudy Ray Moore, Moms Mabley, Mantan Moreland, Pigmeat Markham, and back through the early Southern blues to realize how rich the language can be (as also collected by Howard Odum, and as excavated by Alan Lomax). This is sad stuff – so read Zora Neale Hurston to get an understanding of the methods of oral performance (“one line for the sound, then one line for the meaning” she said). 

    Also, disco as white souless music? The backlash against disco was  a homophobic thing, and there were plenty of soulful BLACK artists who did it with feeling.

    I find all of this depressing, sorry. But you guys need to know more of where this all came from.

      AllenLowe says:

       and I gotta ad – what’s this mishugas about authenticity and not merely
      playing a role? Was Marlon Brando less authentic since his art was in
      personas that were not his?  What is Liel talking about,  Socialist
      Realism? Are novelists lesser artists because they create
      fictions?  geez, in this day and age, does someone really believe this?
      It’s like those crazy old 78 collectors who would sit around and decline
      to judge something until they knew the race of the performer -

Good article. I remember I was working in a small indie record store in 1983 when a friend of mine who’d returned from a trip to NYC with a big batch of underground music put on the turn table the Beastie Boy’s song “Cookie Puss.” It was wise ass and smart with great funk grooves and a strong back beat and rad rhyme sense that cut though all of the dull tranquility out there in the vast wildernesses of the lame stupid dark.

As usual, Liel, this piece is fun to read, provocative and dipshitted. I love the Beasties and totally agree on your five-star (or poker hands or madeleines — WHAT THE HELL ARE THOSE THINGS) review, but you are NOT seriously arguing that AUTHENTICITY gives the Beasties the jump on Public Enemy. The Beasties are awesome because they are smart, hilarious and irreverent (“Got more suits than Jacoby and Myers”? “Which came first, the chicken or the egg/I egged that chicken and I ate his leg”? GENIUS.) But they rule b/c they’re BRATTY, not because they’re authentic. (Though I’d argue that authenticity is overrated. An argument for another time.) They’re responding to a black art form from a nebbishy, entitled Jewish place, which is out-there and funny (much like you) but also chutzpahdik. If “keeping it real” were all hip-hop was about, then you’d have to argue that that guy rapping about the hassles of parking at Costco was a genius. We Hebes get to RESPOND to hip-hop, but we don’t get to drive the conversation. Besides, hip-hop will always evolve — I wouldn’t sound the death knell just yet.

Christopher posted before me and said everything I said more succinctly. I think I hate him.

If I hadn’t already been intimately familiar with the Beastie Boys, reading this article would have made me hate them instantly. Did you really reference Sartre in an article about hip hop?

Hank Essay says:

Good piece, but calling out Flav for being a buffoon to make a vaguely interesting point while ignoring Chuck D, the actual frontman for PE, seems a bit odd and certainly worthy of re-thinking…

bennybenben says:

What kind of vapid liberalism thinks of politics as a “taking a personal stand in defense of an appealing and considered life choice”? Authenticity and politics lead to dangerous consequences. Instead of name dropping Sartre, you should have considered Heidegger.

I feel CERTAIN we are gonna get a Comment of the Week out of this thread. Sartre! Heidegger! Clutch the pearls!

Joseph says:

Hilarious photo! The guy in the middle looks like a guest at a rap-themed bar mitzvah.

I’d actually say Flav was probably more authentic than Chuck D in a way. Chuck was always about presenting himself as a politically radical thinker, but never thought about what he was saying and consequently, was frequently back-tracking for being called out on his lack of thoughtfulness, which only shows how much he was playing a role he never understood.

Chuck D has one of the fullest voices in hip hop ever, whether you like him or whatever. I love Chuck D’s determined vocal delivery. He’s a provocateur which was refreshing back in the late 80’s as corporation creations were over saturating every nation. He was original and out the box, and to this very day Public Enemy still rocks.

yehudah says:

while the beasties are obviously a great band, to front like they are the sole representers of authentic hip hop is not only false, it is offensive and even incoherent.
if part of your thesis is that skin color is not determinative when it comes to making rap music, then why did you have to frame hop hop as a black musical genre in which its majority participants are supplanted and overcome by white musicians?
not only that, but it is not at all clear to the reader that you have any bekius (expertise) in contemporary hip hop. there are scores upon scores of major label and independent MCs who are representing what hip hop is all about.
rap, like any creative genre, is always evolving, and the standards of what is authentic are always changing. i suggest you check yourself, as it were.
not only that, but the beasties would NEVER make the kinds of statements you make in your article, in which you trash public enemy as not being socially conscious. yeah, flav is ridiculous, but chuck D continues to produce and to fight. not only that, but you uncritically quote material from “license to ill” an album about which BB has publicly expressed reservations given its sexist content. the beasties would never try to act like “fight for your right to party” is a song of political relevance.
this article is absurd, as are your racial politics.

Yehudah has it right. Your entire article reeks of ignorance, and that means something coming from me because I love the Beastie Boys. Let me get this straight: You can criticize Eazy-E for not being “gangsta” in real life, ignoring the fact that in all honesty, the Beastie Boys INVENTED gangsta rap. They were the first rap group to rap about robbing people and that kind of criminal activity. Granted, it’s tongue in cheek, like most everything they do, but they still brought it to the table first. Have you ever HEARD Paul’s Boutique? Many (including me) believe it to be their best album. Go listen to high plains drifter. It’s a straight up crime narrative.

And for all you love them for “being themselves” and wanting to party on their debut, you’ve entirely missed the point that the entire album, ESPECIALLY the big top 10 hit singles (which are all you commented on, by the way. No love for Paul Revere?) were songs where they were SATIRIZING the whole frat-boy party animal posture. How is that not obvious to you? Did You just hear fight for your right on the radio and type this whole article without any further thought? Have you ever listened to a Beastie Boys album?

What the hell is wrong with you?

Also, to decry Drake of all people as being a frontrunner of phony sentiment is an incredible exercise in buffoonery. Have you never heard a Drake album? He’s as real as it possibly comes- A young up and coming rapper who raps about being young, coping with fame, and loves lost and found. To listen to one of his albums is to peer into his psyche, plain and simple. I fully believe that in the decades to come his albums will be looked at as defining works of this generation. If you can’t get in touch with that, you need to examine yourself and try it again. You’re doing yourself a disservice and missing out on something good in the process.

T.I. is fake as hell, I’ll give you that. But his stuff is pretty catchy.

The picture is priceless… and so is the genius within the Beastie Boys!

Moshan says:

 Liel nails it again, and tells a few basic truths of how hip-hop has degenerated into oblivion. Beastie Boys carried the early legacy of hip-hop but it became clear that a few, like Public Enemy, couldn’t simply stand their talent (or probably the color of their skin).

Beastie Boys will always be seen as a greater band.

“disco’s white, withering soullessness”

Was disco white? I didn’t know that. And I think you’re wrong.

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Real Deal

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

More on Tablet:

The True Story of Thanksgiving

By Zachary Schrieber — A new historical account was recently discovered. It is recorded here.