“Hey Ladies” is the most famous track from Paul’s Boutique, the one most widely known by the general public, even by those who are not Beastie Boys enthusiasts. It only reached #36 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but was notable as the first single to chart in the top 20 of both the Hot Rap Singles and Modern Rock Tracks. Its disco-era inspired music video, complete with a cowbell-playing hand popping out of the ceiling, became a 1980s cultural touchstone, a campy, fun, retro-infused promo that solidified the Beasties’ reputation as rap music’s greatest jokesters. On “Hey Ladies”, the Beastie Boys prove that their hip-hop collage approach to making tunes is applicable to the four-minute single format, and can yield a track that is both technically accomplished and danceable.
From the beginning, we notice how self-assured and “absolute” the groove is. With samples from the likes of the Commodores, Kool and the Gang, and Cameo, “Hey Ladies” might have the funkiest feel on Paul’s Boutique. Unlike several other tracks from the record, this one doesn’t vary that much rhythmically or incorporate asymmetrical, abrupt shifts in tempo (see “The Sounds of Science”, for example). Even as the sonic texture changes—during the famous “cowbell solo”, for instance—the relentless beat goes on. It’s not surprising that “Hey Ladies” was chosen as the record’s lead single, for its consistency makes it especially danceable.
Just because the tempo and groove of “Hey Ladies” hold steady doesn’t mean that it’s not a song of great complexity. The Beasties are dropping names and cutting up tapes just as much as ever. Bits of lyrics from “Funky President” by James Brown, “War” by Edwin Starr, and “Hush” by Deep Purple, among others, are dropped precisely into the track to contribute (sometimes ironically) to the song’s meaning. The shaky, goofy-sounding line “She thinks she’s the passionate one” from Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” serves as a self-deprecating reminder that the Beasties aren’t taking their own bravado too seriously.
In fact, given that as the lead single “Hey Ladies” formed the first impression many had of Paul’s Boutique and the post-Licensed to Ill Beastie Boys, it’s important to note how much irony is present in the track as a whole. Sure, the overall message of the tune (like so many of the Beasties’ songs from this era) seems to be that the boys are really, really good with the ladies. Every woman the boys see are a potential sexual conquest waiting to happen (“I’ll bring you back to the place and your dress I’m peeling”). They’re ridiculously confident in their own abilities and physical appearance (“Me in the corner with a good looking daughter / I dropped my drawers and it was welcome back, Kotter”). They have the ability to sweet-talk anyone (“The gift of gab is the gift I have”), especially those women who aren’t especially intelligent (“Educated? No. Stupid? Yes”). However, their machismo is apparently based on falsehoods (“I’m telling her every lie that you know that I never did”). We get the impression that we’re listening to the tales not of experienced travelers who have been around the block a time or two, but rather goofy adolescents who make up crazy stories in the locker room.
In a way, the faux-masculinity motif that has been ubiquitous more recently in pop culture (see Flight of the Conchords songs like “Crying” and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” and Saturday Night Live digital short “Dick in a Box”, for example) stems from the Beasties’ mock-heroic tunes of hyperbolic sexual exploits. The line “There’s more to me than you’ll ever know” seems prescient, given that the influence of “Hey Ladies” and other songs like it has reached further than anyone could have predicted in 1989.