Showing posts with label Beastie Boys. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Beastie Boys. Show all posts

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

There's a fine line between breakdown and breakthrough

A scene from last night's episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Did you catch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia last night?

The Marx Brothers: Terrible people
I did, and I might have laughed harder than anyone in America at it. For the uninitiated, the show revolves around "the gang," a group of five horrible human beings who somehow remain friends. The main characters are bratty, unduly confident siblings Dennis and Dee Reynolds; their stepfather, Frank, a lecherous lowlife; and two other companions: musclebound lunkhead Mac and twitchy neurotic Charlie, easily the show's most complex character. In each episode, the members of "the gang" make reckless, terrible life choices and end up hurting themselves, each other, and innocent bystanders. The characters are largely defined by their negative traits, including vanity, stupidity, and selfishness. Without being too pretentious, I see Sunny as the modern-day equivalent of the Marx Brothers, because those classic comedians of the 1930s also portrayed deeply flawed, often aggravating individuals who treated each other badly and yet maintained a curious camaraderie. These people are loyal and disloyal simultaneously. Like the Marx Brothers,  the members of "the gang" on Sunny never learn anything from their experiences. They simply act upon their instincts, consequences be damned, for their own amusement and ours.

Like most episodes of the series, last night's installment of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia had a self-explanatory title: "The Gang Gets Analyzed." That's exactly what happens in it. The entire episode takes place in the office of Dee's therapist, beautifully played by guest star Kerri Kenney-Silver of The State and Reno 911. The office depicted on the show was very much like the one I visit each week, right down to the soothing artwork and the various knickknacks, and the demeanor of Kenney-Silver's character was very much like that of my own therapist. This was incredible serendipity: one of my favorite shows was depicting events currently unfolding in my own life! Of course, Sunny turned the entire experience into a grotesque farce. The plot had Dee inviting her four companions along with her to therapy so that the therapist could settle a petty dispute: who should wash the dishes from one of the gang's recent dinners? Frank had actually brought the dishes with him and dumped them on the floor of the stunned, yet admirably composed therapist's office. Kenney-Silver then proceeded to analyze "the gang" one by one. Inadvertently, each one ended up revealing a great deal to this woman. Mac is gullible and delusional. Dee is a liar. Dennis is egotistical and condescending. Frank has deep psychological scars from his past. And Charlie? Well, Charlie carries a dead pigeon around with him, which may offer some clue to his mental and emotional state. As per usual for Sunny, nothing is "solved" during the episode. The characters reveal themselves at their worst and then just carry on with their lives. I like that a lot. Too many TV shows offer trite homilies and facile speeches to their viewers. Sunny is just about venting negativity and letting that negativity stand, untouched and unfixed.

All Day by Girl Talk

Meanwhile, I had something of an emotional breakthrough yesterday. In brief, I can feel sadness again! For me, that's remarkable. I've spent the last few weeks not feeling much of anything. It was so gratifying to have an actual strong emotion after such a long period of evenness. And it was the damnedest thing which brought it on, too. I was running to the commuter train station from my office in downtown Chicago. It was a few minutes after 5:00, and I'd just worked a very long, stressful shift. I decided I needed a little music to pep me up, so I listened to my iPod as I ran. The song which came up was a track called "Jump on Stage" by Girl Talk, which is the pseudonym of a DJ named Gregg Gillis who creates long, elaborate audio collages by combining snippets of various pop, rock, hip-hop and soul records in a number of unorthodox ways. It is not uncommon, for instance, for Gillis to mix the vocals of a song from one genre with the musical backing of a song from a completely different genre. "Jump on Stage" is a track from his most recent album, 2010's  All Day (available absolutely free here), and for a few glorious moments, Gillis combines the vocals from "Hey Ladies" by the Beastie Boys with the music from Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." As you probably know, one of the Beasties, Adam Yauch, died of cancer earlier this year. But in the sample from "Jump on Stage," he sounds young and vibrant and alive again, even though all he really says is "hey." Add to this the fact that "Lust for Life," which Pop co-wrote with David Bowie, is about the singer's recovery from heroin addiction. I can't exactly explain why, but the combination of these two songs -- both jubilant, by the way -- had a seismic emotional impact on me. By the time I reached the train, I had tears in my eyes. I thought about trying to fight it, but then said to myself, "Fuck it. Just let it out." It was great to be so sad. Paradoxically, my desire to live was incredibly strong at that moment.

Then, as will happen in a city the size of Chicago, a man dressed like Indiana Jones boarded the train and somehow snapped me back to reality. This was not a costume. You could tell it was his regular, everyday look. I immediately stopped crying and spent the rest of the 40-minute train ride in contemplative silence. If you're curious, here is the track which provoked such a strong response from me. The relevant portion begins at roughly the 5:18 mark.

HEALTH NEWS & NOTES: For those who live with depression and anxiety, sleep can be an issue. Cheap over-the-counter sleep aids usually work for me, but these are relatively weak and may take a couple of hours to work. While I was in the behavioral health center, my doctor prescribed Restoril for me and told me to take it at my discretion as necessary. Let me tell you, this is some serious shit. Restoril will kick your ass. At least it did mine. I was used to taking sleep aids well before bedtime, and I thought I could do that with Restoril, too. But that drug has me sound asleep within an hour. The problem with this is that I might wake up fully rested at 2:00 in the morning, which screws up the rest of my day. So I'm trying to avoid using it unless the "nuclear option" is mandatory. Meanwhile, I'm a little concerned about my lack of physical exercise. I got a lot of exercise over the summer months, but this was almost entirely based around running and walking at a nearby park. When the temperatures dropped, my long walks stopped. I don't think it's coincidental that my depression spiked when the chilly weather arrived. I have to think of an alternate exercise routine. My psychiatrist just told me to join a gym, but I'm not really a "gym" guy. For one thing, I'm very self-conscious about my body and appearance. Plus, frankly, gyms cost money, and I'm a cheapskate. If you have suggestions in this regard, please leave them in the comments section.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Adam Yauch: America Mourns a Beastie

Here is Adam "MCA" Yauch as he would assuredly like to be remembered -- making a prank phone call to the Carvel ice cream company.


Cooky Puss (1983)
This is a very sad day, of course, and I thought it might be fun to revisit one of Adam's lighter moments. This song was the title track from a 1983 EP by the Beastie Boys. Adam was only 19 when this came out, a fact which might give you some insight into the juvenile mentality behind the record. Growing up in mid-Michigan, where there were no Carvel franchises, I was completely baffled by this song when I heard it (around 1987 or so). I was totally unfamiliar with the surreal, low-budget commercials made by ice cream maven Tom Carvel or with his line of character-themed ice cream cakes like Cookie Puss and Fudgy the Whale. Only a few years later, when I saw the entry for Mr. Carvel in the book The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane & Michael Stern, did I begin to make the connection to the Beasties' song. If you listen carefully to this recording, you'll hear that Adam not only mentions Cookie Puss but also a couple of holiday-themed spin-off characters: Cookie O'Puss (an Irish fellow for St. Patty's Day) and Cookie Chick (a baby chick for Easter). Imagine my surprise when I did a Google Image search for "Cookie Puss" years later and discovered that the cake in question looked familiar! That same eerie, smiling face was visible in the liner notes of the Beastie EP! Suddenly, it all made sense! 

For the curious among you , this composition is credited to Adam's co-Beastie, Adam Horowitz, and legendary indie rock chick (and former Beastie drummer) Kate Schellenbach. And that guy talking about what his real name is? That's comedian Steve Martin, his voice sampled from a track called "My Real Name" off the Wild and Crazy Guy LP from 1978.

Cookie Chick
Cookie O'Puss