Licensed to Ill is a riotous 75 minutes in the oldskool land of hip-hop as lived by the Beastie Boys. An experience somewhere between off-the-wall musical theatre and a live basement tribute gig, barely a breath is taken as Adam El Hagar, Simon Maeder and Daniel Foxsmith re-enact MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock’s journey from humble beginnings as a punk rock band in 80s New York to the notorious hip-hop superstars they are infamously known as today – egged on by Tope Mikun, variously their live DJ, producer and agent.
Landing in Southwark Playhouse after a sell-out run at Camden People’s Theatre and a UK tour, the tracksuit-clad foursome perfectly capture the spirit and creative force of the Beastie Boys – and their absolute refusal to take themselves too seriously – producing a contagiously fun-filled performance.
The audience are literally drawn into their raucous onstage antics, as unassuming ticket holders are invited up to be the video extras in a remaking of the Fight for Your Right video. The tiny cast schizophrenically switch characters and consistently nail the pitch and tempo of the New York rappers’ unique sound. The low-fi stage setup relies heavily on the relentless energy and uninhibited action of the four actors to create and recreate scenes, but also serves as an apt reflection of the DIY aesthetic that characterised the spoof-like videos of the band.
Beyond the silliness, the show doesn’t put too finer point on the Beastie Boys’s undeniable influence on hip-hop, each of their homemade innovations causing yet another revolution in the genre and opening it up to new audiences – and paving the way for artists such as Eminem. The play doesn’t shy away from the barriers the group’s unapologetic style faced along the way: being booed off Madonna’s stage as support act, rejection by some as white artists in a black music genre and realising their own fan base perhaps “don’t get the joke”. We see their run-ins with music labels, their first dabblings in sampling setting off legal battles “with everyone except the Beatles” and everything drawing to a sudden close with MCA’s death in 2012. But, like the band, all this is permeated with an infectious sense of humour, continually impressive musical prowess, and a feel-good message.
Licensed to Ill is a brilliant nostalgic re-run of the Beastie Boys’s place in hip-hop history for those who know it, and an enlightening education for those who don’t – there’s no need even to like the genre to get caught up in this particular rendition of it. This tribute to a legacy is like the Jersey Boys on acid. A charm-filled blast.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 5th December 2016.
Photo: Helen Maybanks
Licensed to Ill is at Southwark Playhouse from 30th November until 24th December 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Licensed to Ill here: