Popdose Flashback: Beastie Boys, “Paul’s Boutique”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '89

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When Licensed to Ill shocked everyone by becoming the biggest-selling rap album of all time (until MC Hammer snatched the title a couple years later), no one expected the Beastie Boys to have a second act. Their juvenile frat-boy schtick didn‘t exactly scream “staying power,“ nor did the novelty of white dudes rapping.

Twenty years later, the Beasties are legendary pioneers who will probably be inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in a year or two, but ’twas a time when people thought that Paul’s Boutique, the Beasties’ 1989 sophomore effort, ended the band’s career. After all, Licensed to Ill spent weeks at #1, while Paul’s Boutique didn’t even crack the Top 10. The album was deliberately non-commercial — way too dense to get anywhere near pop radio. However, in the two decades since its release, Paul’s Boutique has been acknowledged as a modern classic, not to mention the best album in what has become a legendary career. Its use of samples was nothing short of revolutionary, raising the eyebrows of more “traditional” hip-hoppers, who suddenly found themselves intensifying their crate-digging for the perfect beats to slice and dice. The album also can be credited with paving the way for modern-day cut and paste heroes like Girl Talk.

So, let’s backtrack a bit. After the phenomenal success of Licensed to Ill, the Beasties — King Ad-Rock/Adam Horovitz, MCA/Adam Yauch and Mike D(iamond) — found out they were being royally fucked by their label, Def Jam, and after some litigation, were freed from their contract and wound up signed to Capitol Records. Parting ways acrimoniously with their original producer, Rick Rubin (who catches a sideways diss on the track “Car Thief“), they split from their NYC homebase and headed west to L.A., hooking up with newbie production team the Dust Brothers. That California sunshine (and more than likely, that California bud) obviously paid dividends, because Paul’s Boutique is one of the biggest artistic steps forward a band has ever taken between first and second albums. Despite the fact that the album was recorded on the Left Coast, Paul’s Boutique practically reads as a love letter to the Big Apple. From the 808 thump of “Hello Brooklyn” (later resurrected as one of Jay-Z’s many odes to the borough) to the various local references on “Stop That Train” (both part of the astonishing 15-minute medley “B-Boy Bouillabaisse“), this album is so New York you can almost smell the piss on the sidewalk on the corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets, where the cover photograph was taken.

Until Biz Markie got the pants sued off of him by Gilbert O’ Sullivan in ’91, sampling was more or less a free-for-all. The Beasties and the Dust Brothers took full advantage of what must have been one hell of a record library. Paul’s Boutique contains what must be hundreds of craftily woven-together snippets, from songs by just about every artist you could possibly think of., from The Isley Brothers, Bob Marley, Sly Stone and Johnny Cash to what sounds like moaning from a porno flick. The samples aren’t wholesale loops — not in that Puffy-style beat-jacking way that has become commonplace. The Beasties and the Dust Brothers created new pieces of music by stitching together fragments of hundreds of songs (you can find a complete list on paulsboutique.info) in a way that was unmatched by any other rap album that came before it. Hell, the only hip-hop album since to come even close to Paul’s Boutique’s sonic onslaught has been Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. It certainly blew my 13-year old mind the first time I heard it. Hell, it still does today.

Topically, I’d suppose you could say that the Beasties matured slightly, if you consider going from violating women with Wiffle ball bats (on Ill‘s “Paul Revere“) to beatin’ dudes down with aluminum bats (on this album’s “Shake Your Rump“) progression. Seriously, though, while the Beasties’ main subject matter is still themselves (closely followed by girls), they take time out for character studies (the rockabilly-singer-turned bum “Johnny Ryall“), throwing eggs (the “Superfly“-sampling “Egg Man“) and even throw in a “racism is schism on the serious tip” on the cautionary tale “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” following in line with hip-hop’s then-growing social consciousness and foreshadowing their future as politically correct spokesmen. Additionally, the Boys continue one mission started with Ill — the crusade to spout forth every single pop culture reference they can think of, from referencing Doris the Pinkosaurus (Flintstones fans represent!) to boasting that they‘ve “got more rhymes than JD’s got Salinger” to “got more hits than Saduharu Oh” to rhyming “fuck this” with “Dick Butkus.” Pop culture paid the Beasties back when the instrumental version of “Hey Ladies” found itself being used as the jingle for Long Island-based furniture store Coronet. Even though their skill set as emcees is slightly above average, the Beasties entertain with their old school round-robin rhyming style (juxtaposing Yauch’s husky rasp against the nasal Mike D and the even MORE nasal Ad-rock) and witty punchlines.

It all comes back to the music, though. What still dazzles after two decades (and this album has aged quite well) is how cohesive it is, considering that it should sound like someone playing mix-and-match with a sampler (well, that’s what it was…). From the hillbilly interlude “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” to the outrageously funky “Hey Ladies,” there’s not a dull, or substandard, moment on the entire album. Although they’ve had bigger hits since, nothing the Beastie Boys have recorded in their nearly three decades together even holds a candle to Paul’s Boutique, one of the most unique and bold albums (never mind rap albums) of its time.