"It's like the universe had this incredible power to affect my ear and make me stay in one place": How an ear infection birthed Licensed to Ill's groundbreaking production and drove the Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin apart

beastie boys
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Rick Rubin is one of modern music's biggest producers, and while he claims he has no technical ability and can't even operate a mixing desk, his contributions to pop, rock and hip-hop have given us some of the most memorable albums of the past 50 years.

One of Rubin's earliest collaborations was with Beastie Boys on their groundbreaking debut Licensed To Ill, a brash, cocksure combination of rap, metal and punk rock that was the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard charts and the second to go platinum in the US.

Though their partnership was instrumental in launching the Beastie Boys' career, making them a household name across the USA, disagreements surrounding Rubin's role in the production of the record, along with unpaid royalties from the Beasties' label (Def Jam, headed up by Rubin and Russell Simmons) would lead to a not-so-amicable split following the album's release. 

Rubin met the Beastie Boys when they were still in high school; the trio would visit the producer in his NYU dorm room, and he was soon performing with the group as their DJ. As time passed, the trio began to generate some buzz around their live shows and - much to their amazement - were invited to open for Madonna on the Like A Virgin tour. This is where the cracks began to show in Rubin and the Beasties' troubled relationship. 

Rubin acted as the group's DJ for the first few dates of the tour, before an ear infection sent him to the doctor's office, who told him that he wouldn't be able to fly without risking serious hearing damage. Rubin was forced to head home, but the Beastie Boys weren't certain whether his ear infection was real, or merely an excuse to bail on the tour. 

Discussing the subject in the Broken Record podcast in 2020 - Ad-Rock and Mike D's first conversation with Rubin in two decades - Ad-Rock admitted that the trio were suspicious of the producer's swift exit, asking Rubin, "did you just not want to do it, or did you really have an ear problem?" Rubin confirmed that he did in fact have an ear infection, telling Ad-Rock that the excuse was "100% true". 

In a later Washington Post interview, Rubin reflected on the exchange. "I'm thinking, wow, this guy doesn't know me at all", he says of Ad-Rock. "It was so shocking to assume that someone would feign an illness to not get to be in the Beastie Boys any more." 

After Rubin left the tour, DJ Hurricane filled in for him, a role that Rubin says he assumed was temporary. "I always assumed when they came back, when we started doing shows again, I was the DJ. Then the first show happened in the tri-state area, and then it was like, okay. Hurricane's the DJ."

Though he was disappointed to find himself replaced, Rubin says that this decision led him to turn his attention towards production. "It's like the universe had this incredible power to affect my ear and make me stay in one place", he says. "That led to me focusing all my attention into production, instead of being in a band, which could have happened. It just worked out, maybe the way it was supposed to."

With his newfound focus behind the boards, Rubin began working on the Beastie Boys' debut album while they headed out on another tour with Run DMC. Discussing the making of the record in the live documentary film Beastie Boys Story, Mike D suggests that at this point, Rubin overstepped the mark by taking control of the album's direction. 

"When we got back home [from a Run DMC tour], we found Rick had gone and finished and mixed our whole record," Mike D says. "It was weird that he just went and did it, without us knowing."

When we started, we were just a band - friends in a band. We never thought of having a producer, or manager, or record label. Then Rick and Russell came along, and they had big ideas

Unexpectedly taking the reins on Licensed To Ill, Rubin seemingly rubbed one member of the group up the wrong way. Mike D says that Adam Yauch, the most technologically inclined of the trio, must have been ticked off by Rubin's headstrong attitude. "Yauch was always into the technical aspects of recording, so I’m sure it must have bummed him out, or pissed him off," Mike D continues. 

"Yauch was into engineering and learning about how to get certain sounds through amps and speakers and microphones and stuff. So Rick taking over as ‘producer’ and not including him was not cool with him."

"When we started, we were just a band - friends in a band. We never thought of having a producer, or manager, or record label. [We] never really thought about the future of things in general. Then Rick and Russell came along, and they had big ideas," Ad-Rock recalls in the audiobook companion to the Beastie Boys Book.

"Things seemed to be going great, so we just rolled with it all. Going on tour, opening for Madonna, and then Run DMC, it was like a dream that we didn’t even know existed for us that had come true. We’d become a big group of friends having ridiculous fun, making music, playing shows, traveling, and getting paid money to not actually have a job. But at a certain point, Rick and Russell started coming up with ideas and making decisions for us."

In the Broken Record podcast, Rubin remembers things differently, recalling Mike D calling him up while on the Run DMC tour and demanding to know why the record wasn't finished. "I remember a heated conversation where you said 'dude [...] we're on tour, why is our album not done?' I said, 'it doesn't just happen. It's not happening because I don't want it to happen. Each of these things arrives as it arrives.'

"We didn't go into the studio every day with the idea of okay, we're gonna make something today. It was more like making beats in the dorm, listening to records, coming up with what a track was going to be. Sometimes it'd be six weeks or two months between songs."

He took our weird rap songs, and he made them sound clean and big and polished - and ready for the radio

Whether Rubin unfairly took control or not, taking the lead on the album's production soon paid off, as Licensed To Ill soared up the charts following its release. "What Rick did was pretty incredible," Mike D says. 

"He took our weird rap songs, and he made them sound clean and big and polished - and ready for the radio. They were more like real anthems, and less like a joke."

Despite the success they found after their release of their debut, tensions between the Beastie Boys, Rubin and Def Jam proved too much to handle. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the label allegedly began to withhold royalties from the album that had just made them famous. 

"We made money from paying shows - big shows, Madison Square Garden shows, but zero dollars for the multi-platinum smash hit Licensed To Ill, the fucking record that a group of friends made together, had intense and real fun making together," Ad-Rock recalls. 

"And now, for whatever reason, one of the friends - the one who is half-owner of the record label, decides that the other three should not receive their earnings for the sales of that record. They did not fucking pay us - Rick and Russell, our friends, Def Jam."

The nail in the coffin arrived when Rubin allegedly suggested that the trio should receive 10% of money earned from a feature film that was in development for The Beastie Boys following their newfound success. "We were talking about the movie, and Rick made a quick comment about splits; he was saying that Beastie Boys would get 10%, and him and Russell would get 90%," Ad-Rock says. "This for real happened.”

For his part, Rubin addressed the disagreement in his Washington Post interview, saying "I don't remember any of that... I don't remember a time when I talked about business. So it's odd, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen. I would say it sounds out of character, but I can't imagine Adam just making that up."

After the Beastie Boys parted ways with Rubin and Def Jam, they went on to sign with Capitol Records and retake creative control over the making of their next record, Paul's Boutique. Produced in partnership with The Dust Brothers, the album was a critically revered, commercially unsuccessful release that's since been described as the "Sgt. Pepper's of hip-hop". 

But that's a story for another day...


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