Two years in the making, Licensed to Ill is a hip-hop salute to three bad brothers from New York showcasing their rise to stardom accompanied by the soundtrack of a generation. It is not, as some have dubbed it, a ‘Beastie Boys musical’ considering the Venn diagram of people who like the Beastie Boys and those who like musicals must have a very small overlap.
The show is a mix of live music and DJ-ing which started way back in history with Adam Horovitz, Mike, Adam Yauch and Michael Diamond as they become Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D. Les Miserables it is not. It time-travels from the trio’s punk beginnings in the small clubs of New York City in the early 80s to becoming the international legends of rap who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
As a devoted fan of the Beastie Boys, I was keen to sample this intriguing project.“I think the main thing that inspired us was the Beastie Boys’ sense of fun, it was hip-hop that didn’t take itself too seriously,” says Adam El Hagar, producer/writer and MCA (Adam Yauch) in the production. “All their videos and interviews are hilarious or brilliantly theatrical, so we felt it really lent itself to a show.”
True to this, the show is a frenetic journey with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm and some audience participation thrown in. It gets off to a slightly uncomfortable start as this is a small venue and three white boys are rapping Ch–Check It Out in a rather up-close-and-personal environment. However, the talent of the performers and their attention to detail soon dissipates any misgivings that may have been prematurely felt.The aforementioned attention to detail is something of a pleasure for those viewers in the know. From the gleaming white Adidas high-tops to the Stuyvesant High School Physical Ed T-shirt, nothing is left to chance. Even the recreation of the Fight For Your Right video features an old-school wall phone to scream the chorus at… although there was no sign of the 12” rubber dildo with which MCA hits himself over the head.
Sadly, the iconic Sabotage faced the cut in the final production despite promo shots showing Simon Maeder as Alasondro Alegré/Mike D, Daniel Foxsmith as Vic Colfari/Ad-Rock and El Hagar as Nathan Wind/MCA.
“The thing about sabotage and the cop thing is it only works if you know the Beastie Boys really well, so we found that some people didn’t understand that part of the show,” says El Hagar. However, the cameo appearance of Nathaniel Hornblower (who had all the ideas for Star Wars, apparently) is surely more obscure than the fake moustaches and aviator glasses of the Sabotage cops? “We are trying to figure out how to get it back in though so it still works with the story.” Along with the elusive Intergalactic, we can but hope.
Regardless of the tracks used, the Beastie Boys are hardly known for their straightforward lyrics yet Maeder, Foxsmith and El Hagar skip over the words as if it’s second nature. Each has perfected the tone and quality of their counterparts without a hint of a fluff anywhere. Last year saw intense song rehearsals as well as studying videos of the respective members in order to get the vocal and physical mannerisms. The rendition of Sounds of Science definitely shows the hard work and dedication that went into this aspect of the show. El Hagar comments, “I think one of my favourite parts of the show is getting to highlight how brilliant and creative the Beastie Boys’ rhymes are, and allowing the audience to really listen to the lyrics at close range.”
While there are many laughs along the way – particularly the very imaginative portrayal of Def Jam head honcho Rick Rubin (and several other members of hip-hop royalty) courtesy of DJ Tope Mikun – it goes without saying that there isn’t much of a happy ending to the Beastie Boys’ journey. In 2012, Adam Yauch lost his battle with cancer and the remaining members vowed that the Beastie Boys would not continue as a group, as a promise to Adam Yauch. Licensed to Ill deals with MCA’s impending and eventual departure is a very compassionate way and indeed brings a lump to the throat. It’s very poignant and brings the perfect end to a brilliant show. What’s even more touching is that there is a jar on the way out with MCA’s picture on it. Donations into this jar go towards The Adam Yauch Foundation – established to support the causes he held dear and to help the lives of others.
The flyers state that ‘this is an unofficial production’ as the Beastie Boys were always adamant that their work would not be used for commercial gain (see their various lawsuits with companies such as GoldieBlox). However, according to El Hagar, the Beasties and their management have known about the show for a couple of years. Perhaps, in the near future, we might even see it being performed on Broadway but, for now, it’s No Sleep Till Camden.
“We just hope that it reaches the potential that we think it has, and we hope one day Ad-Rock and Mike D will be in the audience!”
Licensed to Ill is on at the Camden People’s Theatre until 12 Dec 2015. Box office: 0207 419 4841.