Counterbalance No. 119: Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’

Beastie Boys
Paul's Boutique

Mendelsohn: The Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique marks only the fifth hip-hop album we’ve encountered on the Great List thus far. Each hip-hop record has had its own personality but none of them compare to the wacked-out sensibilities that went into making the Beasties’ 1989 magnum opus. This record wasn’t political like Public Enemy, it wasn’t grounded in the same humor as De La Soul, and where Dr. Dre and N.W.A were pushing tales of socioeconomic hardships and violence, the Beastie Boys were mining non sequiturs like outer space prospectors riding a technicolor patchwork space ship built by the mad scientist production team of the Dust Brothers.

I didn’t think it would take us this long to get to Paul’s Boutique, Klinger, I really didn’t. If there was ever album that deserved a spot in the Top 100, I would have thought it would have been this one. Dismissed as a commercial and critical failure at its release, the only people who understood how good, just how far ahead of the curve the Beastie Boys were may have only been the Beastie Boys themselves, and probably their hip-hop peers who wished they had been the ones to tap the Dust Brothers for those crazy beats. But who can blame the critics and the music listening public? Paul’s Boutique sounded nothing like the Beastie Boy’s previous effort, or like anything else out at that time. It was too dense, had too many layers to dig through—between the over abundant samples and the esoteric lyricism that referenced everything from pop culture, history, art and more, it was a lot to digest.

Even today, it’s hard to categorize Paul’s Boutique, let alone the Beastie Boys. But then, I don’t want to pigeonhole this record. I love it far too much to do it that disservice. It’s one of the only records that I’ve completely internalized but still hear something new every time I drop the needle. My question is, Klinger, what do you hear?

Klinger: That’s all about right, but before this turns into a contest over who can say the nicest things about Paul’s Boutique, I do have to stress that having been there I remember it a little differently. The Beastie Boys’ first album, Licensed to Ill, came out my senior year of high school. And I hated it. I was something of a classic rock snob, and not only were these guys keeping young people from enjoying the cerebral strains of Jethro Tull (I know), but I also read somewhere that one of them was dating Molly Ringwald.

By the time Paul’s Boutique came out, I was well into college. I had kind of forgotten about them when a buddy of mine popped the tape into the player. I was blown away. Paul’s Boutique made reference to all sorts of cultural touchstones that extended well beyond its samples, other names I hadn’t heard in quite some time. Sadaharu Oh, Welcome Back Kotter, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry—it was fascinating. Over time, I come to suspect that the Beastie Boys were some kind of Trojan Horse that bum-rushed dimwitted teen bedrooms and started talking to them about Jack Kerouac and making them watch Dolemite.

Mendelsohn: As luck would have it, I was one of those teenagers. This record opened up a whole new world to me. It wasn’t just the literary and movie references that grabbed me but the musical template that it laid down that became so formative in regard to my appreciation for all types of music. Up to that point I had been on a steady diet of rock (classic, alternative, and hard) and metal. The sounds on Paul’s Boutique showed me a way into other forms of music. My love of hip-hop and electronica stems directly from this record.

So the question remains, if I love it and you love it and everybody else seems to love it—why did it takes us this long to get to Paul’s Boutique?

Klinger: Well, I think a lot of your more “serious” critics shared some of my initial disdain for the Beasties, so Paul’s Boutique got kind of ignored when it first came out. I recall that it wasn’t until some time later that the album started getting its critical due. And who knows? Maybe I’m applying my own revisionist history when it comes to remembering the way this album exploded my head space. But I don’t think so. Paul’s Boutique made it easy for collegiate suburban kids to make their way into a genre that had heretofore been pretty much optional. And as we started talking about with The Chronic, this album—and the Beastie Boys in general—added greatly to our ironic (and post-ironic) appreciation of what had been the detritus of popular culture. This is a transformative LP in many ways, but you might not grasp that from their general wiesenheimer tone. Look “Hey Ladies” (and especially its video)—I can assure you that this marks the point where we stop making fun of the ’70s and start embracing that decade’s beautiful willful stupidity.

Mendelsohn: You make a good point about the critics not taking the Beastie Boys seriously. I don’t think there is any way to go from being viewed as frat rock party hounds to intellectual word smiths between the span of two records.

I think it’s also worth noting that the Beastie Boys are a bit of a musical outlier when it comes to the list. They were too rock ‘n’ roll to ever be fully embraced by the hip-hop criterati, but they loved hip-hop far too much to ever be taken seriously by the rock criterati. Being so far outside the realm of either genre seems to be this record’s, and by extension the Beastie Boys in general, major stumbling block when to comes to true critical acceptance. And that’s a shame, because Paul’s Boutique is one of those records that should endure and certainly stands the test of time. Yes, they fully embraced the sounds of the ’70s, but as I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, most notably The Chronic and Beck’s Odelay, the re-appropriation of those sounds is more about a celebration of the music they loved than it was about a calculated move. Maybe I’m just missing context since my view of the 1970s comes pre-filtered by the likes of the Beastie Boys. Regardless, it’s hard to argue with the finished product.

Klinger: That’s true, but I’d say that on Paul’s Boutique they’re still a good bit removed from being intellectual wordsmiths. There’s still quite a lot of rambunctiousness here, and a lot of it is downright grubby. “High Plains Drifter” and “Car Thief” are just two of the places where the boys live out their outlaw fantasies (complete with some serious, albeit clever, hard drug references in the latter).

Mendelsohn: Maybe I overstepped with “intellectual”, but “clever” is definitely a good way to describe what the Beastie Boys are doing. Even when they are being rambunctious, I always get the sense that it’s completely tongue-in-cheek. I’d also like the note, that where most hip-hop to this point dealt with the realities of being an outlaw, the Beastie Boys were moving into a much more abstract area as they spun these tales of fantasy, pushing the bounds of hip-hop and opening up the genre to greater creativity and deeper thought much the way the Beatles introduced abstract love to the mainstream music of the 1960s with Rubber Soul‘s “The Word”.

Klinger: Meanwhile, I’ve had a few discussions with people over the years who actually prefer 1992’s Check Your Head — or 1994’s Ill Communication — on the grounds that Paul’s Boutique was less about Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA than it was about the Dust Brothers. While I see their point to a certain extent, I just can’t see my way past the joy of discovery that’s woven throughout this disc. In 1989, I found myself thrilled by the lyrical and musical touchstones that I recognized immediately (the Beatles mélange throughout “Sounds of Science” leaps to mind, of course), and over the years I’ve found myself taken aback by some piece I hear somewhere that I remember first hearing on Paul’s Boutique (the Funky Four Plus One’s “That’s the Joint”!) And that’s a big reason why I keep coming back—you keep hearing new things. And that’s groovy.

Mendelsohn: This album is as groovy as they come. And it’s true that without the Dust Brothers, this record would not be nearly as good, but I think in many cases, the production is the final piece to the puzzle. The Beastie Boys needed to up their game and found the perfect vehicle in the Dust Brothers’ densely eclectic beats. I’m not surprised that there are people who would prefer the more organic rhythms of Check Your Head and Ill Communication but neither of those records, while superb in their own right, can hold a candle to the sheer scope, lyrically and musically, that is present on Paul’s Boutique.

Klinger: Indeed, and you and I could sit here all day shooting quotes back and forth at each other and comparing obscure samples that we’ve picked up on, but I suspect that might get tedious for all those folks out there in Internetland. Maybe it’s best to just knock it off with all the cogitating and settle in with one of the all-time great party records—one that makes your brain work a bit even while you’re nodding your head.