Thursday, June 27, 2013

Joe's Record Collection: The Beastie Boys and De La Soul were on the cutting edge of nostalgia, if that's possible

In 1989, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul took hip hop someplace it hadn't been before -- the past.

The records: Love American Style EP (Capitol Records*, 1989 - V-15483); Buddy & Ghetto Thang (Tommy Boy, 1989 - TB  943)
* The Capitol logo is altered to read "Beastie Boys Records"
The artist(s): The Beastie Boys; De La Soul

Love American Style EP
History: The Beastie Boys were coming off an incredible high in 1989 when they recorded Paul's Boutique, their sophomore release on Capitol Records. Their first full-length rap LP, Licensed to Ill (1986), had been a mammoth #1 hit in America, selling nine million copies and becoming the first rap album ever to top the Billboard charts. After half a decade as a punk and experimental band, the Beasties were now among the most popular acts in the country. The key to their success had been following the lead of Run-D.M.C., who had combined rap with heavy-metal-style guitars on singles like "Rock Box" (1984), "King of Rock" (1985), and their genre-bending Aerosmith collaboration "Walk This Way" (1986). The Beasties took this even further with the party-hearty frat anthem "Fight for Your Right," a Top 10 smash which was closer in spirit to mid-1980s hair metal like Motley Crue than hip hop. Their album, too, relied heavily on rock and metal samples, particularly Led Zeppelin, in addition to the funk and soul songs which normally provided the foundation on rap records. The first sound listeners heard on Side One of Licensed to Ill, in fact, was John  Bonham's pounding drum intro from the Zeppelin classic "When the Levee Breaks." Commercial expectations were high for the follow-up album, but the Beastie Boys were not interested in repeating Licensed to Ill. Instead, Paul's Boutique was a heady, densely-layered sound collage, its lyrics jam-packed with arcane cultural references and in-jokes. The Beasties announced their new direction with the Adam Bernstein-directed video for "Hey Ladies," the first single from the album. Gone were the sneakers, jeans, and ballcaps of the "Fight for Your Right" era. In their place were vintage 1970s leisure suits and platform shoes. They'd ditched "rock & roll" image and sound, too. "Hey Ladies" was built around a sample from "Machine Gun," a 1974 funk single by the Commodores. Initial commercial reaction to Paul's Boutique was underwhelming, and the commercial triumph of Licensed to Ill was never to be repeated, but the quirky 1989 LP had a long shelf life, eventually becoming widely acknowledged as a modern classic. Instead of burning out quickly as a one-joke fad, the Beasties enjoyed two more decades of productivity and success, and their second album was the first step in that new direction. Their Love American Style EP, characteristically named for a campy early 1970s TV series, is an interesting artifact from the Paul's Boutique era, when the Beasties were paradoxically looking forward by looking back. Nostalgia for the 1970s was still a fairly novel concept at the time. The decade had not yet been strip-mined for parody and imitation quite yet.



Buddy & Ghetto Thang
Meanwhile, that very same year, a Long Island hip hop trio called De La Soul was offering the American public something radically different than anything it had ever seen from a black hip hop act. Rap had its gangsters (N.W.A., Ice-T), its politicized crusaders (Public Enemy, KRS-One), and its braggarts (LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane), but it didn't have whimsical, nerdy pacifists like Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and P.A. Mase. That is, until De La Soul's debut LP, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out in 1989. The fact that the album took its name from a Johnny Cash lyric was indicative of just how different it was from everything else in hip hop at the time. The press was quick to label De La Soul as hippies and their music as "hippie hop," but the group bristled at this snap judgment and said so in their first hit single, "Me, Myself, and I." Like the George H.W. Bush-era Beastie Boys, De La Soul's sound was rooted in the wacky, tacky 1970s more than the dippy, trippy 1960s anyway. For example, "Me, Myself, and I" was built around a groove from "(Not Just) Knee Deep," a 1979 track by Funkadelic from their Uncle Jam Wants You album. The album's first song, "The Magic Number" was a take-off on "Three is a Magic Number," a 1973 educational tune from the animated Schoolhouse Rock! series. And "Eye Know" borrowed heavily from "Peg," a 1977 Steely Dan number. In short, the trio raided their parents' record collections in search of soundbites with no regard for the usual "rules" of hip hop. This wasn't the only way they broke the mold either. While hip hop is famous for its "beefs" -- often-violent rivalries between acts (think Biggie vs. Tupac) -- De La Soul joined like-minded rappers Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, and A Tribe Called Quest in a mutually-supportive collective called the Native Tongues. Several members of the Native Tongues, in fact, guest star in the extended remixes which appear on Buddy & Ghetto Thang, a maxi-single release of two standout tracks from 3 Feet High. The record stores at my local mall, the Genesee Valley, didn't carry vinyl EPs, so I purchased both the De La Soul and Beastie Boys records during one of my family's occasional visits to Detroit's Greektown district which at that time had some slightly hipper, more eclectic disc boutiques. At the time, it blew my mind that these groups were issuing alternate, remixed versions of their songs that weren't included on the regular albums. "What will they think of next?" I wondered. This was before pop culture became one big remix, of course.

All Music Guide says: (Beasties) Three stars. No full review. [link]; (De La Soul) No review, just a generic listing. [link]

Was it a hit: (Beasties) Tough to say. "Hey Ladies" hit #36 in America and charted in Germany, the Netherlands, and New Zealand as well. But according to this discography, the extended play single was only released as Love American Style in "several territories." The EP did reach #76 in England, so it was a minor hit in at least one country. (De La Soul) Nope. The Buddy & Ghetto Thang maxi-single does not appear to have charted anywhere. But "Buddy" did appear as the B-side to "The Magic Number," which hit #18 on the R&B charts, #27 on the club charts, and soared all the way to #7 in England.

Choice excerpt from the liner notes: (Beasties) Love American Style EP has no notes to speak of, but the credits on the back cover list Adam Yauch's alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower as the photographer and Ricky Powell (memorably name-checked in the Paul's Boutique song "Car Thief") as a photo assistant. (De La Soul) Buddy & Ghetto Thang is similarly note-less, but the words "Real Dan Stuckie" (a silly, made-up slang expression frequently used by De La Soul in those days) plus the initials "CG" and a peace sign are etched into the inner groove on Side A. Many records have writing etched into the vinyl; generally, it's just the catalog number but some acts like to use that space for personalized messages. "Weird Al" Yankovic did this habitually in the 1980s, hiding little jokes like "Don't forget to eat your broccoli!" on his vinyl albums for eagle-eyed fans to discover. Try doing that with an MP3!

Robert Blake as TV's Baretta
The listening experience: (Beasties) Revelatory. The Beasties were always big proponents of vinyl ("I'm still listening to wax/I'm not using the CD," they would later attest on "Sure Shot"), and Love American Style EP shows why. The format is inordinately kind to their intricate, bass-heavy music. Side One contains the album versions of two tracks from Paul's Boutique, "Shake Your Rump" and "Hey Ladies," and even on my rather primitive system, these songs pack a wallop that my iPod can't touch. Side Two consists of two very worthy instrumental remixes. "33% God," its very title a reference to the 33 1/3 RPM speed at which vinyl records are played, is an extrapolation of "Shake Your Rump," while "Dis Yourself in '89 (Just Do It)" extends the groove of "Hey Ladies." Both tracks on Side Two are opportunities for the Beasties to shoehorn in even more soul, funk, and hip hop samples and get more mileage out of the ones they've already appropriated, like the theme song from Baretta. Why these two fun little tracks were not included on the Paul's Boutique reissue a few years back, I do not know. (De La Soul) Enjoyable, if a little repetitive. The EP contains three incarnations apiece of "Buddy" and "Ghetto Thang" -- the standard LP versions plus remixes presented with and without their lead vocals. The extended version of "Buddy," a double-entendre-filled sexual anthem, is a lot of fun. De La Soul use their extra disc space to add a feisty verse by Monie Love (who offers the often-ignored female perspective on sex), a little playful repartee with Queen Latifah (who speaks with a Puerto Rican accent for some arcane reason), and few more eccentric samples, including a chldren's record extolling virtues of the dictionary and a cool little quote ("In order to make his cavegirl smile, he had to improve his whistle style!") from Disney's 1953 short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. "Ghetto Thang" does not benefit much from the remix treatment, however. The song is De La Soul's serious look at inner city strife, and the spare, no-nonsense beat used on the LP version suits it perfectly. On this EP, though, the rather somber vocals are overlaid on top of a funky "party" groove, and the disconnection is jarring. The two instrumentals may prove valuable to DJs and freestyle rappers, but they're not too compelling as standalone recordings. One last note: I'm not sure if Capitol used higher-quality vinyl or what, but these records are of the same vintage and have endured similar treatment, and Love American Style EP still sounds crisp and clear while Buddy & Ghetto Thing is scratchy and dull.

Overall grades: (Beasties) A-; (De La Soul) B

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