Via Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker:
In the summer of 1986, I lived in Manhattan near Union Square with my first girlfriend in a duplex owned by a very trusting and foolish adult. In August of that year, my friend Tom Cushman gave me an advance cassette of “Licensed to Ill.” The liner was red letters printed on a white J-card, with either the Def Jam logo or Columbia’s or both. I was as obsessed with the fact of that cassette as the music. We knew somebody on a major label? And it was the Beastie Boys? This was a band whose 1983 single “Cooky Puss,” which is often described as the Beasties’ first “rap” single, is an extended, semi-capable funk vamp over which Mike prank calls a Carvel ice-cream store and somebody scratches a Steve Martin album (and the first Beasties E.P.), not capably. The single is about as commercial as a bag of dead spiders. It also represented the New York we grew up in, where a club like Danceteria would show loopy homemade videos on C.R.T. monitors and dance records were whatever records the d.j. decided to play while you were dancing.
But something happened to the Beasties, and New York. While we were off at college, the goofs had connected with the producer Rick Rubin. (Some Beasties momentarily attended college before deciding to drop out and accidentally change the world.) “Licensed to Ill” presented us with a can of question marks. When did they gain access to handguns? When did they start smoking angel dust? When did they start hitting girls? WHAT. (And you could just sample a Led Zeppelin record? That was O.K.?) When “Licensed to Ill” hit the world, at the end of 1986, it was like an April Fools’ joke that lasted a year. America apparently wanted to hear backward TR-808 drums and samples of Trouble Funk records. Or maybe they liked white kids rapping over loud guitars about partying. O.K.—hold on. Maybe it wasn’t a mystery. “Cooky Puss” was a joke for New York. “Licensed To Ill” was a joke for America. Or on America. It was hard to tell.