Alan Light: Fight For Your Right

When Def Jam released Licensed to Ill in1986, the Beastie Boys got down with no delay, turning the then dorm-room serviced rap imprint into a full-fledged powerhouse label with their frat boy antics, all the while helping to establish Hip-Hop as a worldly phenomenon with pop cultural clout.

Compiling a timeline of the three white MCs from Brooklyn in his book The Skills to Pay the Bills: the Story of the Beastie Boys, veteran music journalist Alan Light tackles the Beasties’ hi-jinks through an oral history of the group as told through the years by their contemporaries, friends, and even from the group members themselves. Here, in this candied interview, the former Editor-In-Chief of VIBE, Spin, and, Tracks magazines, speaks on the heavy impact of the group, as well as the Hip-Hop publishing industries. Ch-check it out. How much has the Beastie’s being white played into their popularity? What set them apart from other old school pioneers, if not their color?

Alan Light: Where you really saw the color difference was taking the record out to radio, and certainly at that time taking it to MTV, because Licensed to Ill is no more of a rock record than Raising Hell was or Radio was. Where they were invited to participate where black artists were not invited, that made a huge difference to the beginning of their career in that way. I think what distinguishes them is who they are, and what their background was. Race is a part of that, but being NYC kids with a certain exposure to pop culture and the arts was so central to what their writing was about. But what was it about them?

Alan Light: Several times in the book, people say what was always been cool about them was that they never pretended to be anything they weren’t. From the very beginning, you knew who they were, they didn’t pretend that they weren’t middle-class or better white kids who had these experiences, came out of punk rock the way they did, and had this relationship to Hip-Hop. I think that what people responded to from the beginning was that degree of honesty in their presentation and in their rhymes. Do you think that, besides color, it was their sense of humor that helped them become more widely accepted? Do you think it hurt their popularity with black audiences?

Alan Light: I don’t think that it did. People didn’t see them as fakes or posers. They saw them as these bugged out white kids, and they thought it was fun and funny. And they toured with Run-DMC and they were obviously accepted within the artists’ community. The core Hip-Hop audience, the black audience, was cool with that. That’s why they have the first number one Hip-Hop album of all time. I mean, that’s why everything came together into such a phenomenon for Licensed to Ill, because it came from both sides. But how credible did that make them?

Alan Light: I think that there’s always skepticism within the Hip-Hop community when a white act gains prominence, because there’s always that sense of ‘Okay, here we go, this is where the white artist comes in and takes this away from the black artists,’ but Hip-Hop is so obsessed with credibility, and for better or worse, with keeping it real. Could a white artist or act rise up today and not be considered a parody?

Alan Light: Eminem did, you know? I think that for white artists there are unique opportunities and there are unique challenges. There’s no question that there are still media opportunities that are more open to white artists than to black artists. I think that radio is the most blatant example of that. I think it’s virtually impossible for black artists to cross that line; I think it’s possible for the right white artist to do that. Eminem can get played on K-ROCK, but Jay-Z can’t. There’s a lot more that you need to prove as a white act that you belong in that world, that you’re valid, that you’re not just somebody’s creation. Are an act like the Beasties even considered Hip-Hop anymore, with every outlet consolidating everything into niche-specific subcategories?

Alan Light: If you make a record with three guys rhyming with a DJ, I think that it’s Hip-Hop. Whether it’s the kind of Hip-Hop that gets played on Hip-Hop radio, there’s a lot of kinds of Hip-Hop that doesn’t get played on Hip-Hop radio. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t belong in the category. [The Beasties had] those Green Lantern mixtapes. It’s not like nobody in Hip-Hop is checking for anything that they do. I think that it’s a challenge for anybody who’s of their age, their generation. The new Public Enemy record, that’s not getting played on Hip-Hop radio either. You address this in your book, but does writing on the Beasties’ career mean that they’re over?

Alan Light: I don’t think that it necessarily does. I don’t think that they can go forever and ever, but I don’t think that they’re done. I certainly expect that they’re going to make another record. I mean, if they make another record, I have no idea exactly what it’s going to sound like. That’s always pretty exciting to say. It’s a decent time to do this book without saying that means it’s all over and that there’s nothing left to say. With the release of this book, as well as the high-profile releases of both Ethan Brown and Jeff Chang’s Hip-Hop titles, are publishing houses just starting to realize the importance of documenting this cultural movement?

Alan Light: There’s always a lot of resistance to [whether] kids who listen to Hip-Hop [will] buy books. But I edited a Tupac book that I worked on right after he passed and it was a New York Times bestseller, and would’ve gone higher except that we underestimated on the first printing—we had to go back in and order more books. My answer was if they think it’s cool, they’ll buy it. They’ll spend 26 bucks on a two-disc; they spent it on All Eyez On Me when that came out, so why wouldn’t they spend it on a book as long as they thought that it was actually worth their time? As a former magazine editor, what do you think The Source can do to—

Alan Light: Ugh. …to recover from the alleged corruption that ran rampant during the Benzino/Mays era?

Alan Light: I [couldn ’t] imagine them recovering with [that] team in place. What this new executive board is trying to do is to burn it down and start over again, but I think that there’s been such incredible damage to the name and the reputation that they would have to make it clear that there’s a new sheriff in town. I can’t even imagine Dave and the team that’s been there could possibly do that. I can’t imagine people being willing to do business with them, with this many contracts unfulfilled and payments not met, and issues not mailed, and just really basic magazine-making stuff not being taken care of. I don’t think that there’s a way to have a viable business unless they convince people that it’s really a new era. Are you amazed as to how people were actually still buying the magazine?

Alan Light: I think that a lot of people out in the world just don’t pay attention to the industry and the media ins-and-outs. I mean, if you’re a kid and you read The Source ‘cause you know to read The Source, you may have gotten turned off all the Benzino stuff and all of the Eminem stuff or whatever, but you were just responding to that as a reader, not cause you know what’s really going on inside. But the problem is they were losing readers just from that! It’s not like everything was all fine, and they were hitting their numbers and there’s just this beef, scandals, and corruption that are going on. It was also that this business was falling apart anyway, because readers were seeing what this was all about: ‘What’s going on, and why are we as readers being dragged into this?’ Have they done irreversible damage to their legacy, in your opinion?

Alan Light: I have an immense amount of respect for what Dave was able to do at that magazine. I think that any of us who have had anything to do with publishing in the Hip-Hop community do. He pulled it off, he built a real business. Obviously, he got too caught up. Probably the answer is he should’ve sold when he was getting those really good offers that he was getting a few years ago, and figured out what the next chapter should be in his life because that’s just got to be just too much of a high stakes game.