Earlier this year, as a part of a promotional effort for Hot Sauce Committee, the Beasties premiered a long-form video called Fight for Your Right Revisited, a celebrity-studded romp — featuring Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Elijah Wood and John C. Reilly, among others — that serves as a send-up of the group’s rambunctious Licensed to Ill–era personas.
Twenty-five years after the release of that landmark debut LP, the Beasties still seem slightly embarrassed by the period — or at least how the irony of their act was lost on their sudden mass audience (it’s the only one of their albums not to have received the deluxe reissue treatment yet).
Still, Licensed remains a significant entry in their canon: It was the first rap album to top the Billboard charts, has sold more than 9 million copies to date and regularly crops up on all-time greatest album lists and polls.
The group’s success during that halcyon ’86–’87 season was sudden and unlikely, but it came on the Beasties’ own terms. “I don’t think we’ve ever tried to gain acceptance from anybody, whether it was the hard-core punk community or the rap community,” Horovitz says. “We kind of always did what we did.”
That included playing up their decidedly cartoonish personas. The now-infamous Licensed to Ill tour — which featured women dancing in cages and crude stage props — drew outrage throughout the U.S. and Europe. The Beasties quickly became the scourge of tabloids and parents’ groups on both sides of the Atlantic. “We were purposely acting a certain way,” Diamond says. “Like, ‘Ha, ha, wouldn’t it be funny if we sprayed beer everywhere?’ At a certain point you’re over that, but the [audience] isn’t. And we’re looking around, like, ‘What’s going on here?’ In a way, it was a repeat of our hard-core experience, but on a much bigger scale.”
By the end of the Licensed period, the Beasties themselves had tired of the goon act and were ready to move on — much to the chagrin of their label. “We had zero interest in continuing to do what we were doing,” Diamond says. “That’s honestly why we had a falling-out with Def Jam; we didn’t want to go right back out and do that same thing.”
Splitting with Def Jam and signing with Capitol Records, the band decamped to Los Angeles, joining forces with production team the Dust Brothers to craft 1989’s sample-heavy masterpiece Paul’s Boutique. It was the start of a new era for the Beasties, and they would spend the next two decades defining and redefining their art with albums like 1994’s Ill Communication and 2004’s To the 5 Boroughs.
“Ultimately, that whole situation coming out of Licensed to Ill forced us to become very insular,” Horovitz says. “It made us really figure out what we wanted to do. We did, and then we were on to a whole other thing.”
With the release of the new album, the anniversary of Licensed to Ill and their annual appearance on the list of finalists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it would seem that the band would be comfortable considering its place in the musical pantheon. But Horovitz and Diamond immediately slough off any serious talk of a musical legacy.
“I just hope that in certain places, like candy stores, liquor stores and bakeries — but old-school bakeries, the ones that still sell black-and-white cookies — in those kinds of business establishments, it would be nice if we were respected,” Diamond says.
With that, they’re back riffing with each other, keeping straight faces as they lob outlandish ideas around.
“Actually,” Horovitz says, “I’ve been thinking about this trend of celebrities making premium vodkas. Well, we should make a low-end vodka, a real crap vodka, and call it Beastie Boys — but only make it in the little bottles and sell them on airlines. Only on American Airlines. It would be half the price of any other brand.”
“Now, that,” Diamond says, nodding his head, “that would be a legacy to be proud of.”