30 Years Ago: Beastie Boys Rhyme and Steal Led Zeppelin Samples on ‘Licensed to Ill’
Beastie Boys became unlikely trailblazers in 1986. For its debut LP, Licensed to Ill, the New York trio made the first rap album to ever top the Billboard chart. Yes, the first time hip-hop scaled the pop album charts, it was because of three white punks.
The Beasties were punks in both senses of the description. They were brash and bratty (to put it mildly) and they had also started as a hardcore punk band, when the members – Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Adam “MCA” Yauch and Michael “Mike D” Diamond – were still in their teens. As the three became interested in hip-hop, they began rapping at their shows in a simultaneous embrace and parody of the genre.
A couple years before Beastie Boys would release their first album, they met New York University student Rick Rubin while seeking a DJ to back them as MCs. Rubin wasn’t too adept at mashing and mixing different records, so he’d just play the diverse styles of music he liked back to back – a Kurtis Blow single followed by a Led Zeppelin album cut.
“Rick definitely came from a whole AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Long Island, like, rock background,” Diamond said in The Beat documentary. “He, pretty much … introduced it to us. Because we kinda came from punk rock … ‘forget about that s---’.”
Rubin was forming Def Jam Recordings with Russell Simmons and sought to produce the Beasties. His vision was to match classic-rock samples with the trio’s snotty rhymes, which he achieved on the group’s first Def Jam single, “Rock Hard,” by employing part of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” on the backing track. The Aussie rockers didn’t give their permission for such use and the release had to be withdrawn.
However, the Beasties and Rubin continued undeterred, using a whole swath of hard-rock samples on the group’s debut full-length. On different tracks, the New Yorkers wove snippets of music by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Clash and Black Sabbath. In the meantime, Rubin also brought together Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith for a revamp of “Walk This Way.” But his most popular sample choice at that time was one of Rubin’s favorite bands, Led Zeppelin, whose recordings appear at least three times on Licensed to Ill.
“We got real into it, and into the idea of Led Zeppelin having beats,” Diamond said.
The impact was apparent from the first moment of lead-off track “Rhymin & Stealin,” which rode John Bonham’s titanic thump from “When the Levee Breaks,” albeit in a scratched-up rendition. Reportedly, they didn’t have a sampler when they recorded the track, so Rubin and the Boys had to loop it on a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Listen to Beastie Boys' 'She's Crafty'
Later on the album, Jimmy Page’s riff from “The Ocean” became a reprise on “She’s Crafty,” and a slice of “Custard Pie” was stuffed into “Time to Get Ill.” Unbeknown to the members of Led Zeppelin, their music helped launch hip-hop’s first blockbuster crossover LP, following its release on Nov. 15, 1986. The famous samples played a major role in the Beastie Boys’ brand of rap becoming accepted by rock fans.
“We were having concerts where there were black groups and white groups performing onstage,” Diamond said. “You had black kids and white kids coming together in a way that they probably never would have for any other group at the time.”
With Licensed to Ill, the Beasties earned fans of all races and tastes. Even the critics liked the record, with the Village Voice declaring, “Three jerks make a masterpiece.”
They did earn the scorn of one famous fan. When Axl Rose bumped into Horovitz at a Los Angeles house party in 1988, he told the Beastie to stop ripping off Zeppelin. The surviving members of the British band were notified about the Beasties’ use of their music, although they didn’t sue the group. Page later said of the trio’s use of his recordings, “I guess I felt it was a compliment.”
Because of the Beastie Boys’ affection for Zeppelin, the hard-rock legends’ back catalog became a treasure trove for hip-hop artists from Puff Daddy to Ice-T. The Beasties continued to borrow from Led Zeppelin too, on 1989’s sample symphony Paul’s Boutique, an album that changed the landscape for sampling and hip-hop.
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