Nineteen eighty-nine. Only 10 years after the Sugarhill Gang introduced the world to hip-hop, a genre of music only previously heard by a small group of urban kids. About 15 years before a Pittsburgh DJ named Greg Gillis (AKA Girl Talk) would create art using only samples from other people’s music. Almost 70 years after T.S. Eliot set the world on fire with The Waste Land, a modernist collage of literary allusions and broken images expressing the anxieties and complexities of modern life. Just three years after three white, upper-middle-class Jewish kids released Licensed to Ill, a record that broke through to the commercial mainstream while earning kudos from critics for its original, sardonic brand of “frat-rap”.
Indeed, 1989 was a pivotal year for American music. The Beastie Boys moved from the underground Def Jam label to the mainstream Capitol Records. They got rid of producer Rick Rubin, who helped them establish themselves on Licensed to Ill, and picked up the Dust Brothers. They left New York City for the more commercial climes of Los Angeles. In the process, they created a landmark, epic work of true originality and importance.
Paul’s Boutique represents everything that rap music can be at its most thoughtful, its most playful, and its most complex. It’s a postmodern amalgamation of sounds from every aspect of both “high” and “low” culture. It liberally references songs, books, TV shows, history, philosophy, art, and religion. It draws samples from an overwhelmingly diverse collection of musical treasures, everything from the Beatles to bluegrass, from classic soul to early hip-hop, from jazz fusion to movie soundtracks. It’s become a cliché to point out that the record could never be made today for commercial sale, given our litigious times and the high cost of samples.
This record is worth discussing in detail, for one thing, just because there’s so damn much to talk about. Each of the album’s tracks contains enough samples and cultural allusions to keep pop archaeologists busy for decades unearthing all of the treasures buried within the layers of sounds. Indeed, Paul’s Boutique has probably been analyzed on more chat rooms, message boards, and blogs than the Dead Sea Scrolls. The album’s sonic density might be one of the reasons it didn’t receive universally glowing reviews upon its release and took a while to catch on commercially. As fun as Paul’s Boutique seems in our post-Information Age era, in 1989 nobody had heard anything quite like it.
The sonic and lyrical complexity of Paul’s Boutique, though, doesn’t begin to fully explain why it is now rightfully considered one of the greatest records of all time. It’s a masterpiece for similar reasons as the aforementioned Waste Land. Its fragmented images and sound–rather than seeming like a random assortment of odds and ends–adds up to something meaningful. Listening to this’ record, you get a remarkably unified feeling for urban life in 1989. Paul’s Boutique is like a great short-story collection in which intriguing characters, intricate plots, and timeless themes emerge.
The fact that the Beastie Boys (in collaboration with the Dust Brothers) created this cohesive narrative out of samples from other works should not be held against them, but rather should be viewed as one of the superb artistic achievements of the past few decades. The Beasties aren’t just dropping names and pasting together bits of cut-up tape for the hell of it. They’re creating a skillfully executed statement that is both universal in its appeal, and temporally and geographically specific in its detail.
The films of Quentin Tarantino, the television show Family Guy, the ironic hip-hop of Das Racist and Childish Gambino–all of these pop culture artifacts owe something to Paul’s Boutique. Given the Beastie Boys’ ubiquitous importance in American music and culture, it came as no surprise when it was announced in December that the group would finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Thus there’s never been a better time to give another close, critical listen to their magnum opus, the apotheosis of their long, illustrious career.
For an album full of such sound and fury, one that is considered epic in its scope and ambition, Paul’s Boutique sure starts in a pretty unassuming manner. The minute-and-a-half-long “To All the Girls” consists of only one main sample from jazz drummer Idris Muhammed’s “Loran Dance”, featuring keyboardist Bob James. The Fender Rhodes gradually fades in, soon joined by Muhammed’s relentlessly mellow groove. It’s by far the most chill sound on the whole record. Obviously, the Beasties hope to ease the listener into the LP.
The lyrics scan as a kind of pre-book dedication, in this case to a plethora of women of different nationalities and geographic locales, including girls from Brooklyn, France, China, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Jamaica, the Upper East Side, Brazil, the American South, and Puerto Rico. The Beasties are shooting for something universal, hoping that their music will speak far beyond their immediate NYC milieu. The causal misogyny and adolescent sexuality that peppers Paul’s Boutique–even if presented satirically at times–is present right from the start, since the only two professions for women the Beasties recognize are “the topless dancers” and “the stewardesses flying around the world”.
From the opening drum-roll (a sample lifted from Alphonze Mouzon’s “Funky Snakefoot”), it’s clear that the quiet, mellow vibes of “To All the Girls” are being cast aside. “Shake Your Rump” opens abruptly with a bang and the Beasties are off to the races, demonstrating the kind of dorky bravado that makes them so beloved. The juxtaposition of lyrics about such macho actions as running from the law, getting arrested at Mardi Gras, and rocking the mic with adolescent outbursts about picking your nose and having bad breath from eating too many onion rings establishes the tone for the whole record. Sure, the Beasties talk about some pretty hard-core, violent things at times, but they aren’t meant to be taken too seriously, not when they reference such a motley crew of pop culture items as The Brady Bunch, Fred Flintstone, and a dance move called the Patty Duke.
“Shake Your Rump” establishes Paul’s Boutique as a record that, if nothing else, is going to just be plain old fun. The funky groove is consistent throughout, taking samples from the likes of James Brown, Bob Marley, and Ronnie Laws. It’s probably the most danceable track on the whole record. It’s like Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Roc are reassuring us that no matter how dense or weird the textures on Paul’s Boutique might get, they’re going to give us something to hang on to. If the song’s title is a command to the listener, the Beasties make it pretty easy to follow.