The Internet has been both a blessing and a curse for musicians. Digital piracy has been a problem plaguing the industry and affecting the income for artists for over two decades. While that is a serious problem, some of the blame can be placed on the major labels for putting out inferior products and ignoring the myriad of styles and sounds that can be found online. Our technology has become increasingly sophisticated and the powers that be have yet to catch up to it. I remember being in college ten years ago and having to find time to go to the library to go online and research things. Now, I can reach for my pocket oracle and find out the answer to every question that pops in my head.
Being the great equalizer that it is, the Internet has become a great venue for even the most obscure musicians. Not long ago, if an aspiring musician wanted to share their latest demo or mix tape then they had to make the time to hit the streets and record store. Now, you can upload everything to the cloud and share a link on your social media feed. I find that so fascinating and, frankly, time and cost effective. More people have more time and more access to the tools needed to find their voice and deliver it to the masses. However, like the Metro on a Saturday night, the Internet is becoming more crowded. More people are clamoring for what little attention is available. So, it becomes imperative for an artist to make a big and lasting statement.
I like big inaugural statements in music. The energy and passion behind them is incredibly powerful. When a band puts out their first album, I like it to be ambitious as if they’ll never get this chance again. And before the Internet age, it was much harder to buy yourself a redo. It has become easier to go back to the drawing board with minimal loss of time and resources.
Recently I was talking to a friend about the great debut albums; the big opening statement that builds the foundation for an artist’s potential legacy. Most artists get to that point by their second, third, or even fourth studio album. A few artists might take years to achieve that goal. However, very few artists land it the first time. A few albums came up. Appetite for Destruction. Led Zeppelin I. Ten. Horses. All great albums that I love.
In 1986, Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys dropped and forever changed the landscape of pop music. Before they would become known as pioneers of fresh, genre-bending beats, they had the reputation of being nothing more than drunken frat boys. Their lyrics were misogynistic and violent, and their stage presence was beer-soaked and chaotic. This would be something the band would change by 1989 with their masterpiece Paul’s Boutique. But until then, it was all about the brass monkey.
I truly love the Beastie Boys. Though not every album was a stroke of pure genius, I do not feel as though they ever released a bad album. While Licensed to Ill was certainly not their best album, it is holds up well and deserves a place in the pantheon of great debut albums.
Before 1986, the Beastie Boys released a few singles, EPs, and even contributed to a motion picture soundtrack. During this time, they were transitioning from a punk rock band to a hip-hop group. Even at beginning of their career, they were experimenting with taking different forms and creating something truly unique. This was a time before Pro Tools and computer sampling. Everything was done using analog. Your heart had to be all the way into it, or it wasn’t in it all.
“Rock Hard,” a single released in 1985, is a declaration of war on wax. Sampling AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” looping in a drum beat, and vocalizing their badassery, the Beastie Boys came in loud and ready to shake things up. Reminiscent of Run-D.M.C.’s single “King of Rock” which came out the same year, “Rock Hard” features booming percussion, clever use of the sample’s guitar licks, and tight rhymes. Ad Rock, MCA, and Mike D take turns on the mic and with their signature tough Brooklyn attitudes, command respect. The new kings or rock have arrived and you better kneel, or else you’ll get a boot in your ass.
“Rock Hard” is not the band’s best single, but it is one of their most overlooked. When compiling the compilation album The Sounds of Science in 1999, the band couldn’t get clearance from AC/DC to include the single. Members from AC/DC stated that they didn’t endorse sampling. The Beastie Boys retorted that they didn’t endorse people playing guitars. After 15 years of solid gold hits, the band still had the same ferocity towards authorities that challenged their art. These were three guys who worked hard to stake their claim, and no one was going to take that away from them. Perhaps if they came about at a later time when hip-hop became easier to make, their punk rock attitude wouldn’t be as fierce.