Dropping Names, Cutting Tapes: Beastie Boys – “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”
“B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is one of the great denouements in the history of pop music, a 12-minute suite that gives us a definitive, multifarious view of urban life in the late 1980s.
Here we arrive at the culmination of all the Beastie Boys’ and the Dust Brothers’ insane rhyming and production chops as featured on Paul's Boutique. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is one of the great denouements in the history of pop music, a 12-minute suite in the tradition of the collection of unfinished song fragments that make up the second half of Abbey Road. This final track consists of nine movements, each a distinct little world that could stand on its own but has greater meaning when combined with the others. On “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”, the Beasties give us a definitive, multifarious view of urban life in the late 1980s. Like all great conclusions, it sums up what the Beasties have said throughout the record, but also gives us a renewed sense of curiosity, all while succeeding in leaving us wanting more.
After the danceable “Shadrach”, we get a ten-second track that leads us into the mammoth “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. “Ask For Janice” is simply a ten-second commercial for the fictional Paul’s Boutique, one that never existed in real life. We do get the number to call for “the best in men’s clothing”. This throwaway track does help establish the credibility of the Paul’s Boutique mythology. It grounds the fragments that are to come in reality, even if it’s a made-up one.
“B-Boy Bouillabaisse” proper begins with “59 Chrystie Street”, a brief, comical tale of sexual conquest. After the speaker tells us that he took a girl with long brown hair back to his place only to disrobe her, he ends on a cliffhanger. The final line of the movement is “you know what I saw . . .” The track is notable for having no melodies in the samples. We just have noise and abstract scratching sounds behind the boys’ rapping. It would be an annoying sound to sustain for four minutes, but it definitely works for only one. The sparse, non-melodic textures are continued on “Get on the Mic”, a Mike D. showcase that features a simple human beat boxing track.
The soulful samples of “Stop That Train” are pleasantly abrupt, as the boys get back into their signature narrative mode. They tell the story of taking the D train to Coney Island at four in the morning, while referencing such pop culture items as Dunkin Donuts, Captain Kirk, and Orange Julius. The funky, medium-tempo grooves from an All the People song simulate the sound of the train moving down the tracks. A sampled drum solo transitions smoothly into “Year and a Day”, a song that features MCA prominently. In fact, it might be his standout moment on the record. Drawn from a sped-up Led Zeppelin tune and an Isley Brother’s song, the groove is one of the brightest, most energetic on the album. There’s a unique sense of forward motion to MCA’s rapping as he talks about his superior rhyming skills.
If “Year and a Day” is bright and peppy, “Hello Brooklyn” is by far the dirtiest, darkest movement in the suite. It features a deep, teeth-shattering bassline and a creepily mechanical drum machine. The boys are at their most menacing here, as they talk about “building bombs in the attic for elected officials”. The movement ends with the line “I shot a man in Brooklyn” followed up with a sample from Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”, ". . . just to watch him die”. It’s simultaneously chilling and humorous.
As if responding to the listener telling the boys, “Hey, lighten up a little, will you?”, we have the absurdist “Dropping Names”, featuring a bluesy piano line sampled from a Meters tune and the tongue twister “He thrusts his fists against the post and still insists he sees a ghost”. “Lay It on Me” draws its relentlessly funky bass part from Kool and the Gang’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind”. The boys try to impress girls with awkwardly dorky lines such as “I got more flavor than Fruit Striped Gum” and “I’d like to butter your muffin / I’m not bluffin’ / Serve you on a platter like Thanksgiving stuffin’” .
Following a brief transition that sounds like a commercial jingle -- complete with pan flute and jazz guitar chords (“It’s called M-I-K-E on the M-I-C”) -- we return to the minimalist, non-melodic texture of the earlier movements, a recapitulation of the original theme, if you will. “Mike on the Mic” finds Mike D. once again bragging about his exploits (“I play my music loud because you know it has clout to it”). Quirky New York weatherman Lloyd Lindsay Young provides the final spoken line of the song, “It’s a trip / It’s got a funky beat / And I can bug out to it”. This might just be the most concise summary of the Beastie Boys’ music yet. The show’s not quite over, though. “A.W.O.L.” consists of what sounds like a live recording of the Beasties in concert. We get to say goodbye to each of the group members individually; each of the boys has a shout-out, saying his name followed by the phrase “in the house”. It’s kind of the equivalent of the Beatles’ reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Following “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” proper, we get a very brief reprise of “To All the Girls”, the opening track, complete with a long fade. This inclusion helps contribute to the intense feeling of symmetry we get while listening to Paul’s Boutique.
“B-Boy Bouillabaisse” is such a fitting closer because I’m not sure that any other musicians working at the time could have made it. It has just enough weight to feel important, yet is too goofy to be taken so seriously. Therein lies the key to the massive longevity and success of Paul’s Boutique. The Beasties were always playful, yet never arbitrary with every sample chosen and every rhyme created. Each cultural allusion, whether high or low, had its place in the overall scheme of the record. Paul’s Boutique has new generations running to the dictionary or opening up their Wikipedia app to look up references while shaking their rump to the infectious groove. I understand why, in 1989, the Beasties said “No one really knows what I’m talking about”. In 2012, I think we get it.