Graded on a Curve:
The Beastie Boys, Love American Style EP

With the Love American Style EP, The Beastie Boys gave the public a small taste of their new and improved direction. Some ears were ready and many were not, but this twelve-inch contained a tidy morsel of a true hip-hop classic.

In retrospect, Licensed to Ill came on like a ton of bricks. Out of the blue the group just seemed to suddenly be everywhere; on stereos and television naturally, but also in magazines, in car tape decks, as the soundtrack to parties, in the parking lot at school. This level of saturation wasn’t all that unusual, for the same sort of situation happened with Purple Rain, Thriller, Madonna’s debut and Born in the USA. Unless you were a hermit, it was ultimately all music the ears couldn’t escape, particularly in a suburban existence. What made Licensed to Ill feel like such a haymaker was its heightened sense of immaturity and its use (some said hijacking) of a musical form that many observers were still coming to terms with.

The Beastie Boys were generation gap music in its purest form. As expected, parents were indignant; Who raised these ingrates, What has happened to the youth of America, Where are the values, When I was your age we thought Pat Boone was risqué, Why I oughta lock you in your room without your stereo for playing that noise in the house, and in front of your sweet, impressionable little sister at that. How does it feel to feel old?

And while these days it seems that every child of the ‘80s got and dug what the Boys’ were laying down right off the bat, of course that’s not a bit true. Tons of kids were horrified or at least highly perturbed that three unruly youths were besmirching the rep of their peers through constant airtime on MTV. And it’s important to understand that The Beastie Boys were many ears’ first prolonged exposure to rap music, especially in the areas of the country not served by cable TV. And to be accurate, before Licensed to Ill MTV played very little rap music, just like before Thriller this supposedly progressive, groundbreaking entity aired almost no black music at all.

Imagine being fourteen years old and your first encounter with this newfangled thing called rap was three snotty cretins spiking a punch bowl with Spanish Fly and gallivanting with strippers in cages. Heavy metal kids largely disdained rap music for numerous reasons, some more problematic than others, but The Beasties came in for special opprobrium for daring to jack Led Zep and AC/DC. Some punks knew the Boy’s hardcore history and dug their transformation, but other’s thought of them as sell-outs. But the King Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA had a way of growing on people. They were the ying to Run DMC’s yang, after all. Slowly even the stubbornly dubious began picking a favorite, and what originally came off like three loutish buffoons running roughshod over the standards of good taste began taking on the aura of a smartly drawn if blatantly anti-authoritarian concept.

As someone whose rap education began immediately after I realized the early evening cashier in my neighborhood 7-11 didn’t care if I nursed a Slurpee while reading Spin magazine from front to back, my initial impression of Licensed to Ill was decidedly mixed. At first, I thought they were like Elvis Presley. If it seems odd that a high school sophomore in ’86 (three years before “Fight the Power”) would think about Elvis in terms of the Beasties, keep in mind that as a budding music nut I knew all about Sun Records and rock ‘n’ roll’s blurring of the ‘50s color line, and additionally understood exactly where Jimmy Page and ol’ Slowhand nabbed their licks.

As a teen I didn’t own Licensed to Ill. Again, I didn’t have to, for it really was everywhere. I probably heard it in its entirety approximately 100 times both at parties or small hang-outs, and very memorably on those weekend nights while guzzling gasoline on the suburban back roads with friends as everyone rapped along in solidarity.

By 1989 I’d come to accept The Beastie Boys at face value. Yes they were reminiscent of Elvis, and this should be considered an unambiguous compliment. But Licensed to Ill was also very similar to Never Mind the Bollocks, a record that so many people (myself included) over the decades have derided as overrated. That is, until it becomes screamingly clear that no other record is quite like it, its quality is deceptive and its vast importance easy to underestimate.

By 1989 The Beasties had receded quite a bit, and simultaneously hip-hop was all over; Public Enemy’s righteous militance, De La Soul’s laid-back alternative, Eric B. & Rakim’s immaculate technique, Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s insanely catchy party jams, KRS One’s gateway to the ‘90s, and even something not-particularly pioneering like Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” could creep right up and become one of the singles of the year. Licensed to Ill was not quite three years old, and yet the Boys were starting to feel like something a bit worse than just a one-album wonder; they were possibly destined for the status of novelty group.

Well, things obviously didn’t pan out that way. I can still clearly recall walking into my local indie record shop just a few weeks after graduating high school, unsure of exactly where my life was headed but not a bit hesitant over plucking the Love American Style EP off the wall for purchase. To be blunt, hearing it was a necessity. The intriguing cover portended something quite different, but I was fully prepared for disaster. I was however completely unprepared for what I got. As a teaser for the unmitigated, ahead of the curve brilliance of Paul’s Boutique it worked like a charm while also making it immediately clear The Beastie Boys were completely disinterested in playing the stagnating role of rock ‘n’ rap charlatans.

This isn’t to say the trio had completely abandoned their previous persona or the more interesting strategies that came along with it. To the contrary, “Shake Your Rump” is essentially a loose expansion upon the template of “Hold It, Now Hit It,” all about trading smack talking rhymes while a precise barrage of samples helps turn the track into a hook-laden celebration of hip-hop’s then fledgling essence.

To expand, this was not only quite a growth spurt for The Beasties, but through the music of The Dust Brothers a big advance for hip-hop as well. Of course Paul’s Boutique would essay this progression at great length while waiting for so many to catch up to its achievement, but Love American Style laid Paul’s Boutique’s two best-known tracks end-to-end on the A-side like an instruction manual in how to avoid the dangers of the sophomore slump. That it was beyond the ken of so many at the time (“what is this crap?” was a common refrain) actually magnifies its accomplishment.

The A-side’s other cut is “Hey Ladies”, a terrific improvement upon the titular concerns of Licensed to Ill’s “Girls” (with a sly nod to their behavioral forefather Jerry Lewis). And it’s not just that the Boy’s had grown to appreciate women as something other than sex objects and housekeepers while still retaining their libido and sass; “Girls” was exactly the kind of extremely (and perhaps infuriatingly) simple song that a bunch of ex-hardcores (Rubin included) would conjure up.

“Hey Ladies” on the other hand is a deluxe banquet of complex rhyming wedded to some of the most successful disco/funk based hip-hop music ever laid to tape, and so much of the following decade’s retro-‘70’s experience begins right here (with obvious assistance from its music video); getting the munchies while watching a badly duped VHS copy of Dolomite was just around the corner.

And this methodical ‘70s vibe is only amplified by the two instrumental remixes on the flipside, “33% God” and “Dis Yourself in ’89 (Just Do It).” I mean, the former has extended sampled dialogue from the movie Car Wash for Pete’s sake. That both tracks possess their own titles is illustrative of their value; not only do they provide ample commentary upon the songs from which they’re derived, they also totally stand up as works in their own right, with much of the reason stemming from their use of preexisting sources. While certainly not alone in how it elevated sampling as an art form, the music of The Beastie Boys in this era is distinguished as one of the highpoints of the whole aesthetic.

Love American Style was indeed a compact primer in just what to expect from this bunch of freshly liberated artistic free-agents, the group no longer under the thumb and contractual obligation of folks that greatly underestimated their talents and potential for growth. If Paul’s Boutique was initially considered a failure (or more politely, a disappointment) for not living up to its predecessor’s sales figures, it has ultimately proved to be their most successful release in purely artistic terms.

Yes, they made great records later, but listening to Love American Style made it clear as crystal that Adam Horowitz, Michael Diamond, and Adam Yauch were three free men with an acute musical vision and an abundance to say. Hearing it today, its songs still sound incredibly fresh. Twenty-three years ago it sounded like a four-song doorway into hip-hop’s ‘90s renaissance.

Graded on a Curve: A+

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