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.

Beastie Boys

Paul's Boutique

US Release: 1989-07-25
UK Release: Import
Label: Capitol

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.

Previous entries:

* "To All the Girls"/"Shake Your Rump"

* "Johnny Ryall"

* "Egg Man"

* "High Plains Drifter"

* "The Sounds of Silence"

* "3-Minute Rule"

* "Hey Ladies"

* "5-Piece Chicken Dinner"/"Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun"

* "Car Thief"

* "What Comes Around"

* "Shadrach"

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.