From White Castle to the Nile: Burger Chain VP Talks Beastie Boys' 'Licensed to Ill' on Album's 30th Anniversary
Three decades after being repeatedly referenced on their debut, White Castle exec Jamie Richardson discusses the brand's relationship with the legendary trio.
Run-D.M.C. might've spent one single chilling in a KFC, and Ice Cube may have prominently endorsed Burger King as his date-night dining establishment of choice, but no fast-food relationship in '80s hip-hop ran as deep as that of the Beastie Boys and White Castle.
Despite their later reluctance to have their music associated with any kind of advertising, the then-enfants terribles of New York rap-rock were more than happy to give their preferred cult-favorite burger chain a virtually unprecedented amount of real estate on their classic 1986 LP Licensed to Ill. The Beasties name-drop the restaurant on a staggering five of the blockbuster debut's 13 tracks: "I chill at White Castle, 'coz it's the best" ("The New Style"), "I can always make 'em smile / From White Castle to the Nile" ("Girls"), "Got the ladies of the '80s from here to White Castle" ("Hold it Now, Hit It"), "We went to White Castle and got thrown out" ("Slow Ride") and "We got determination, bass and highs / White Castle fries only come in one size." ("Slow and Low").
In celebration of the union between band and brand -- which celebrates a milestone anniversary today, as Licensed to Ill turns 30 -- Billboard talked to White Castle VP Jamie Richardson, a major music fan in mourning over the death of Leonard Cohen at the time of our Friday conversation ("He was one of the absolute greats"). Richardson discussed how and why the association between the two pop culture fixtures has remained strong over the years, expressed his wish to induct the Beasties into White Castle's own Cravers' Hall of Fame, and shouted out his favorite Castle-related reference on Licensed -- even if the lyric itself is no longer accurate.
Do you generally know how long White Castle’s been cognizant of their connection with Licensed to Ill? Were they in touch with the Beastie Boys back in the mid-’80s?
There wasn’t a lot of contact that I was aware of. I think it really genuinely happened pretty organically. And at the time, I think we might have been a little bit aware [of the references]... I remember being part of the new business pitch [when I started there] back in ‘93, and we were aware at that point, as the agency folks. And it was always just one of those fun things where we’d make lists of Celebrity Cravers, and back in the day, the standard bearers were, like, Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor. So it covered the whole range.
But I do remember in those early days of putting those lists together, the Beastie Boys being on the list, as terms of fans of the brand. We opened our first Castle in New Jersey in 1929. We’re still family-owned after all these years, so we’re not franchised -- all the restaurants are company-owned. So that kind of leads to its own folklore too. Because people in the restaurants would say “Oh yeah, [the Beastie Boys] used to come in here! They used to come in this Castle!”
Kid Rock, actually, every year in Louisville -- I don’t think he did this last year, but apparently three or four years in a row, they had this big fireworks thing. And Kid Rock goes to Castle No. 7 -- that’s right on Broadway, downtown Louisville -- and says “I’ll buy everybody all their food if I can get mine first.” So he buys the place out. And it’s become kind of a legend, but really, it’s happened.
Do you know if there’s ever been any kind of outreach between the brand and the group, trying to get some kind of official endorsement?
Y’know, they haven’t. We’ve tried to do outreach, and boy, it would be awesome, if this [interview] kind of led to that. Because we want to honor them, and induct them into the Cravers’ Hall of Fame.
We have one Rock and Roll Hall of Famer in the Cravers’ Hall of Fame, Alice Cooper. We inducted Alice two years ago, and he came to our home office, and instead of Inside the Actor’s Studio, we did Inside the Cravers’ Studio. Same format. So we asked him what he wanted to hear if White Castle existed in heaven, what he’d want to hear when he reached the pearly gates. And he said, “Can I have some Pepcid AC?” It was awesome, man.
But we’d love to induct the band. We’re small, we’re not big like Mickey D’s or these other places. We’ve done outreach to agents, but we get their names from, like, the IMDB database online -- send them an email and hope we hear back. So I’m sure there’s probably better ways to go about it. But we would love to induct them into the Hall of Fame.
I guess the Beastie Boys have always been kind of protective about their image, and they’ve been pretty sparse over the years with endorsements in general.
And we respect that. That’s the authenticity piece of it that, candidly, as a smaller kind of fighter place, like we are. We just want to serve our neighborhoods and communities.
Do you think it’s become part of the White Castle brand over the years, that you have this unofficial spokesman that’s been such a major fixture in youth culture?
I think we’re really fortunate in that we get to be that oasis that attracts creative souls. And the Beastie Boys are certainly emblematic of that. And in the same year, a little bit before Licensed to Ill came out, The Smithereens had “White Castle Blues” out. And actually, I absolutely believe this -- this is my [Tri-State] triumvirate -- because you’ve got the Beastie Boys, The Smithereens, and then you’ve got Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz, the screenplay writers who wrote Harold and Kumar [Go to White Castle], who grew up in New Jersey, going to White Castle there. There’s a radiating center of something good there.
The thing of it is, I really do think that we attract people because we don’t try to be something we’re not, and at the heart of it, that’s what art really is about. Being authentic and being true to your craft. That’s what they’ve certainly done over the years.
Are you personally a fan of the Beastie Boys?
You know, I’m such a fan of White Castle, I honestly can say I became a fan of the Beastie Boys because of Licensed to Ill. And I’m still searching for it on vinyl. And the reason I became a fan, really candidly, is because I know the White Castle references were on there. So it was kind of like exploratory work. That was my introduction.
To me, the sadness is, without MCA… that was a triumvirate, those three. And I respect that they’re dedicated to his memory, and not trying to do something without him. I think that’s pretty cool.
And do you think it’s something that’s still associated with White Castle to this day? Does it come up among the execs, or do fans reference the lyrics still?
Yeah, absolutely. The Beastie Boys references, it’s not something that people talk about every day, but definitely if you look at our social media and other things, people know it, and they reference it. Fans of the Beastie Boys make the connection. And it’s become emblematic, and I think there’s something freedom-seeking in it. Because that album was really liberating, in that way. I think it was about that [feeling of] “Time for Me to Fly,” post-REO [Speedwagon], in a totally different way.
And I think that’s what we’ve represented for people. That transition from teenage years to young adulthood, whatever it is. Kids are taken to other chains to eat when they don’t have a choice, and it’s pre-packaged, and it’s the kids’ meal. When you come to our place, you can sit down and devour a crave case. You can go there after maybe it’s been a later night, or swing by in the morning if it’s a much later night. And I think that we give that permission, that’s gonna be welcoming for whoever, whenever. And I think that as a result, people do associate the songs from the Beastie Boys with us.
The food is certainly where the physical nourishment comes from. But more importantly is the spiritual, emotional, whatever kind of nourishment you want to call, where there’s that… something that happens. We’re not trying to be something we’re not, and I think that’s what great music, great art is about.
Do you have a favorite White Castle reference on the album?
The one that I love is “White Castle fries only come in one size,” on “Slow and Low,” because to me that’s it. That’s who we are. And since then, we’ve gotten different sizes for fries, [though] I don’t think we feel like we’ve really been untrue to our ultimate calling -- we responded to our customers and gave ‘em more sizes. But that to me is so emblematic of what’s unique about us. We’re marching to the beat of our drummer, and I think they captured that there.