1986: "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" by The Beastie Boys

50 Years of Hip-Hop
Hosted by Larry Mizell, Jr.

Roddy Nikpour revisits 1986 with the track “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” from the Beastie Boys’ debut album.


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Roddy Nikpour revisits 1986 with the track “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” from the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill. A couple of young white guys from New York entered the growing hip-hop scene with two signature elements: quick rhymes shared between the MCs and beats that paved the way for rap rock. 

Written and produced by Roddy Nikpour. 

Support the podcast: kexp.org/50hiphop 

Read a transcript below.

The Beastie Boys is made up of Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock, who are rappers and instrumentalists with roots in punk

In 1983, they experimented with a joke record called Cooky Puss. It was a rap EP that mostly served as a platform for joking around with a prank call. The instrumentation blends what they’ve already been doing as punk rockers with emerging techniques in hip-hop: scratching and sampling. 

Long story short: British Airways used a song from the Cooky Puss EP, the Beastie Boys sued, and that money helped launch their career. The Beastie Boys took their cheeky bro energy and turned it into their first studio album three years later: Licensed to Ill. 

The themes across this album are right about what you’d expect from three young men in their early 20s: partying, drinking, and girls (which we’ll address a bit later). 

Hip-hop was just over 10 years old at this point, meaning that there was plenty of room for innovation, which is exactly what they brought across Licensed to Ill. The Beastie Boys were so successful, in fact, that their earliest tours were with Madonna, Public Enemy, and even other pioneers in rap rock like Run DMC. 

The Beastie Boys were living the dream — and they knew it. So, they wrote a song about it. 

No Sleep Till Brooklyn is an ode to their success as touring musicians. And remember, this is a song off their very first studio album; they’d put out seven more albums throughout their career. At this point, though, the Beastie Boys weren’t just resting on their laurels — they were chillin’ real hard on them. 

This song exemplifies two key elements that make the Beastie Boys’ sound unmistakeable: 1) instrumentation and 2) rhyming style. 

Let’s start with the instrumentation. They seamlessly blend the sound of an 808 kit with their hardcore heritage. What makes this track extra special is that it features a special guest on guitar. Thanks to connections through their shared producer, the track features shredding from Kerry King (of the metal band Slayer). 

The other element that makes the Beastie Boys stand out is that they tripled-down on their quick alternating rhymes. They’d switch MCs verse by verse, line by line, and sometimes word by word. This fast-paced call-and-response practically begs for audience participation. 

At this point, it’s worth noting that all three members of the Beastie Boys weren’t just party-minded dudes with old-fashioned ideas toward women. They’re also white. (Mind you, they weren’t the first white rappers, and they certainly won’t be the last. For example, you have House of Pain, Eminem, and Macklemore, just to name a few.) 

Make no mistake: Black people invented every prominent genre of music in the United States — namely, jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. As white people often do, historically, they’ve stolen these genres and flooded the marketplace, making it all too convenient for the average listener to forget about their Black origins. 

Fast forward to hip-hop, another genre born of the ancestry and modern experiences of Black people. Over the last 50 years, it’s become a space where white artists have also found commercial success. 

Now, I think it’s fine for white people to participate in hip-hop, but it has to be their own experiences. Like all styles of music, authenticity is at the heart of it. Here’s one way to look at it: According to MTV, the great rapper Rakim says: “It’s about skills, not your background. You spit your rhymes, and that's all that matters.” 

And what’s authentic for the Beastie Boys? Spittin’ rhymes about being rowdy, clowning around, and partying hard. 

In retrospect, some of their lyrics really don’t hold up. For example: I like to believe that, as a society, we’re past the idea that disrespecting women somehow makes you sound cool. So, it wasn’t long before the Beastie Boys heard their critics and even offered an apology in their song “Sure Shot” in 1994. 

After a long, successful career, the Beastie Boys disbanded in 2012. Founding member MCA had died of cancer at just 47 years old. Still, their impact reaches far, especially when it comes to influencing other artists with their vocal style. 

Also, if you’ve ever been part of an improv troupe or theater production, there’s a warm-up game called Beastie Rap. In so many words, that’s where you work within a rhyming scheme and try to finish each other’s sentences. 

Even if you’re not a frat bro, you have to admit that the Beastie Boys have earned a place in rap history. After all, they did get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thanks to their vocal delivery, their use of rock instrumentation, and their beastly party-hard mindset.

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