Hidden Gems: Beastie Boys’ “Aglio E Olio” EP

Each week, we take a look at some obscure or overlooked entries in the catalogs of music’s big names. MAGNET’s Bryan Bierman focuses on an album that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks in favor of its more popular siblings. Whether it’s new to you or just needs a revisit, we’ll highlight the Hidden Gems that reveal the bigger picture of our favorite artists.

The Beastie Boys have always been a punk band. Though they’re primarily known for their hip-hop output, the group started out in the early hardcore days of New York City. What began as a joke among a few friends from various bands culminated in the first Beastie Boys EP, 1982’s Polly Wog Stew, featuring Adam Yauch on bass, Michael Diamond on vocals, guitarist John Berry and drummer Kate Schellenbach. After Berry left shortly thereafter, 16-year-old acquaintance Adam Horovitz took his place, and their next release would begin their road to hip hop. 1983 single “Cooky Puss,” featuring a prank call to a local Carvel Ice Cream backed by a funky beat, became an underground dance hit, although it also began as a joke. (This will be a common theme throughout their career.) Signing to the upstart Def Jam Records in 1984, the Beasties began making rap music that simultaneously celebrated and poked fun at the young genre, though they would do so without Schellenbach, who had since left. After the release of 1986 classic Licensed To Ill, the three MCs—now Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA—were superstars, taking rap places it had never dreamed of going, especially white suburbia. They matured and experimented on each subsequent release, blending sounds and lyrical references hip hop had never seen, keeping their humor while growing in popularity. Even though it was a different rhythm, the Beastie Boys have always followed the creed made famous by the Minutemen: “Punk is whatever we made it to be.”

By the time Ill Communication came out in May 1994, the band was bigger than ever, selling out arenas worldwide. Though they flirted with it in the distant past, a few songs on Ill Communication saw a return to their thrashy punk stylings, including “Tough Guy,” “Heart Attack Man” and, to an extent, “Sabotage,” possibly their most famous hit. For a group that become known for playing the part of drunken frat boys—most famously in Rolling Stone’s original review of Licensed To Ill, “Three Idiots Create A Masterpiece”—they took big risks that for the most part paid off, artistically and commercially. On a break from touring in mid-1995, the Beastie Boys headed into the studio with live drummer Amery “AWOL” Smith, a longtime friend and ex-member of Suicidal Tendencies, to begin work on what would become their fifth album, Hello Nasty. The boys had been spending their free time in California, where they now resided, but as the sessions took place in New York City, they eventually moved back to the old neighborhood. Perhaps it was this hometown feeling that caused them to reminisce of their past punk days, but during these recording sessions, the band went off on a “tangent,” described by Ad-Rock in a 2007 interview with Entertainment Weekly: “We were trying to decide what to record, and we started recording hardcore songs.”

The result was Aglio e Olio, an almost 11-minute blast of hardcore that pleased old fans, baffled some new ones and was given a small release on their own label, Grand Royal. Eight songs for five bucks, Aglio e Olio was available on CD single and seven-inch vinyl. On tracks like “Square Wave In Unison” and “I Want Some,” there’s the obvious influence of Bad Brains, a band they worshiped and opened for in their younger days. (MCA would later go on to produce Bad Brains’ 2007 album, Build A Nation.) AWOL’s drums hit hard and fast, though “Square Wave In Unison” shows off some odd time signatures, while Mike D’s vocals and Yauch’s bass flare up with distortion.

Bad Brains isn’t the only band that made an impression on the band, as the influence of Minor Threat, JFA, and Reagan Youth lurk throughout the EP. “Believe Me” and “You Catch A Bad One” doesn’t sound like one of the biggest bands in the world, but a bunch of kids in their basement banging out Jerry’s Kids’ covers. What makes this all even more surprising is that around this time they actually played shows with a bunch of kids in their basement.

Since the group wanted to play some of the new material live, they performed at various small clubs starting in 1995, only they weren’t advertised as the Beastie Boys, but instead billed themselves as Quasar, unbeknownst to the audience. The first show was held November 22 at Coney Island High, a legendary (and now defunct) punk club on St. Mark’s Place. Since nobody knew who Quasar was, when the band took the stage to “Egg Raid On Mojo” from Polly Wog Stew, those who realized that this was, in fact, the Beastie Boys were shocked to say the least. The band ripped through their 19-song set featuring a wide range of their hardcore history, including covers of Circle Jerks and X-Ray Spex. These secret Quasar shows would continue sporadically across the globe over the next few years, everywhere from giant outdoor festivals to fans’ basements, even performing onboard a boat in the harbors of Sydney, Australia. The band would wear increasingly ridiculous costumes, from old sailor suits and powdered wigs to orange jumpsuits emblazoned with the Quasar Electronics logo. Unfortunately, the Quasar company sent the band a cease and desist in 1997, ruining the fun for everyone. Fortunately, the recording of Hello Nasty was just about finished, becoming another giant hit in 1998.

Though Hello Nasty started with writing punk songs, the album didn’t feature any—presumably, Aglio e Olio got it out of their system. Though they still occasionally play songs from their early hardcore era, the Beastie Boys haven’t performed any of the Aglio e Olio material in years. For a band that has a lot of peculiar side projects (Country Mike’s Greatest Hits, BS 2000, Big Fat Love), the EP and Quasar period is sometimes glossed over, but it’s still one of their strongest “tangents.”