For the next three weeks at the Camden People’s Theatre in north London, you’ll find a show with a little story to tell about three bad brothers you know so well.
‘Licensed To Ill’ is an unofficial musical paying tribute to the 5 Borough’s finest: Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D, better known as the Beastie Boys. It’s a show as inventive, colourful and playful as the music the band themselves made, condensing the lives of the three members into 90 minutes of gags, puppets and rap montages.
The play was written by Simon Maeder and Adam El Hagar, who play Mike D and MCA respectively. They’re joined by Daniel Foxsmith as Ad-Rock and Tope Mikun as a whole cast of supporting characters, from Mixmaster Mike to Russell Simmons and Reverend Run – he even voices the shaggy-haired Muppet head who fills in for Rick Rubin. Part of the joy of the show is watching how the chameleonic Mikun manages to inhabit so many varied characters from the history of hip-hop – right back to Kool Herc’s arrival in New York.
I sat down with Maeder and El Hagar after their third ever performance of the show, and asked why they think the story of the Beastie Boys lends itself to comic theatre.
“I think it’s great that we’ve got this cartoony world, because there’d be no point telling this story straight because it’s the Beastie Boys” says El Hagar. “Mike D was interviewed last week and somebody asked him, after ‘Straight Outta Compton’, how he’d like to be remembered. He said “some sort of cartoon like South Park.” I think that’s great, because our show is so silly. I’m glad we’re doing it in a way they might approve of.”
“It’s a style that fits,” adds Maeder.
One potential criticism of the show is whether three white guys are best placed to tell the story of the history of hip-hop, but the creators argue that’s why they chose to make the Beastie Boys the focus of the show.
“That’s why we wanted to do it through their eyes,” says El Hagar. “They got into hip-hop in a very natural way.”
“They became friends with people who were making hip-hop, and then they started making it too and became very good at it,” adds Maeder. “Nobody would question their place in the hip-hop world. We wanted to tell that story. There’s many stories you can tell about the history of hip-hop. This was ours.”
The other strand of the Beastie Boys story that ‘Licensed To Ill’ really brings out is the way that Adam Yauch, aka MCA, evolved as an artist before his untimely death from cancer in 2012.
“There’s not many hip-hop artists who would do what MCA did. He’d win a video award and then talk about the Middle East,” points out El Hagar.
“That’s a journey we wanted to explore,” says Maeder. “MCA became a political activist and an intellectual. It’s an incredible story, and a very sad one, and we’ve done our best to approach his side of the story with reverence and respect.”
The play concludes with verbatim performances of Adam Yauch’s YouTube announcement of his cancer diagnosis and Beastie Boys speeches from the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and Adam Yauch memorial park. “That was our way of rounding off the story with their words,” says Maeder.
Did they consider finishing the play before his death? “That was an option,” says El Hagar, “but we wanted to tell his story, which was so amazing. We have a couple of mutual friends with Ad-Rock, so we know how sensitive it is. We didn’t make up any scenes that we don’t know about.”
Those mutual friends haven’t given them any indication whether Ad-Rock and Mike D have responded to ‘Licensed To Ill’, but the creators are hopeful they’d approve. “This show is still unofficial, but from what I’ve heard that’s the way they like to keep things,” says El Hagar. “We’ll see what happens.”
“The Beastie Boys are well-known for being opposed to their music in being used, but we’re not Pepsi,” adds Maeder. “Nobody’s getting paid here. Nobody’s earning any money, everyone’s doing it for the love. It’s punk theatre. We’re doing it because we love their story and their music.”
Maeder also argues there’s a sort of precedent for the play in the Beastie Boys’ own use of other artist’s work as samples: “When they were making ‘Paul’s Boutique’, Mike D apparently was in the car with Tim Carr of Capitol Records. Carr turned to him and said: ‘Is this The Beatles? You can’t use this, you’re going to get sued!’ Mike D’s response was: ‘Yeah, but how cool would it be to get sued by The Beatles?’ That was their attitude, so we’re not worried about getting sued by the Beastie Boys.”
If Ad-Rock and Mike D do ever come to see ‘Licensed To Ill’, you’d imagine they’d get a real kick out of it. Granted, there are occasional moments when the show doesn’t quite work – a few of the musical sections go on too long, lifting you out of the story and depositing you instead at a tribute band concert – but if you’re a fan of joyous theatre or the music of the Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed To Ill’ is whatchu want.