September 20, 2016

SWAN | Legitimization or Appropriation?

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2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Beastie Boys debut album Licensed to Ill, and in commemoration, the work will be reissued on vinyl, which is set for release on October 14. Licensed to Ill was wildly popular when it was initially released in 1986, and has since been certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). A quote by Chuck D of Public Enemy is included in Def Jam’s press release for the reissue: “The breakthrough of Licensed To Ill in 1986 paved the road legitimizing Rap to its USA masses… This record also expanded HipHop diversity allowing Public Enemy’s Takes A Nation to be its antithesis.”

Chuck D’s words here pose an interesting question: what exactly does it mean to “legitimize” an art form to the “masses” of fans in America and the western world? The answer to that questions seems to vary and possess its own degree of complexity. However, the case of Licensed to Ill is relatively simple. At the time of its release, the rap genre was still in a state of infancy; if the somewhat arbitrary founding date of rap is assumed to be September 1979 with the release of “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, then the genre had not aged even a full decade. In the time preceding Licensed, rap flourished in primarily African-American cultural communities. Artists like RUN-DMC and Kurtis Blow perfected the musical and production aspects of rap, while individuals like Grandmaster Flash explored the social commentary that can be achieved with the genre. “The Message,” a song by Grandmaster Flash that represents the tribulations of city life as a black American, is perhaps the best example of early “reality” rap. Just as this socially potent facet of the genre began to develop, three white guys from New York City created and released an album that is entirely devoid of potent racial commentary, instead opting for themes of partying and misogynistic sexual pursuits. Nevertheless, Licensed to Ill is musically captivating and millions of people embraced the Beastie Boys and their music. As Chuck D mentioned, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back can be thought of as a type of antithesis to the Beastie Boys’ work; it is highly political and a unique product of black discontentment. In this sense, Licensed to Ill is indeed a case of cultural appropriation as it plucked the best parts from rap music and left behind the components of the African-American experience. This is not to say that Licensed was entirely palatable; its themes and the Beastie Boys’ subsequent tour were offensive to many. However, with Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys did manage to convert an artform that was inconceivable to American masses into something that was more tangible and only tastefully offensive.

Perhaps this is the general algorithm when it comes to “legitimizing” an art form to any larger group of people. An emerging creative medium often holds a great deal of personal significance to its pioneers, one that is rooted in a discontentment with the status quo. When another party emulates this new sound, the original affinity can be replaced with less polarizing notions in order to gain a broader fan base. Yet, does this process always have to specifically entail cultural appropriation? Not necessarily. “Legitimization” can simply occur when a genre stops being unfamiliar and assumes some stability. The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s is often lauded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time because, like Licensed, it finally allowed its genre to become widely accepted, and thus harmless as an art form. (The “borrowing” by the Beatles of Indian musical elements on songs like “Within You Without You” is certainly noted.) Likewise, The Clash’s London Calling served to integrate punk rock into the musical palates of the masses, and represents a clear departure from the alienating grittiness of other bands like the Sex Pistols or the Damned. A more recent example might be the ever increasing popularization of EDM music; originally of a more underground notoriety, the genre gained a massive following only when artists incorporated it into their own forms of popular music.

Maybe it would be wrong to assume that the mass popularization of a new genre entirely annuls its artistic potency. In the case of Licensed to Ill and Takes a Nation, it is important to note that the latter was released two years after the former. Thus it is completely possible to assert that the Beastie Boys’ initial success allowed later groups like Public Enemy or N.W.A. to gain their own platforms and fame. In every case, the additional diversity allows for an influx of different nuances, spawning ever more artists and music.

Nick Swan is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected] Swan’s Song runs alternate Mondays this semester.