‘Paul’s Boutique’ — From Bust to Best

‘Paul’s Boutique’ — From Bust to Best

The Beastie Boys’ rise was the antithesis of slow and low. Chalk it up to raw talent, innate charisma, luck, white privilege — or all of the above.

Between their late teens and early twenties, MCA (the late Adam Yauch), Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) and Mike D (Michael Diamond) went from a budding New York hardcore band dabbling in rap (see 1983’s “Cooky Puss”) to international rap fame — from openers for Run-DMC to co-headliners. Their Def Jam debut, Licensed to Ill, was the first rap album to chart No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum three months after its November 1986 release.

Massive album sales and tours, however, didn’t shield them from the critical scorn and purported financial exploitation that led to a cross-country move. Still, the fallout of all that inspired a conscious reinvention that saw the creation of their second album: 1989’s Paul’s Boutique. A commercial disappointment that was initially neglected by the group’s record label, the album also received middling reviews upon its release. Today, though, Paul’s Boutique is rightly regarded as a landmark achievement in sampling — and one of the group’s best albums.

Despite the success of Licensed to Ill, critics seemed less than impressed by the Boys. They often derided the Beasties as an obnoxious  comedy act,” Run-DMC poseurs cashing in on the rap-rock sound. (The durags didn’t help.) Naysayers characterized the beer-fueled antics, irrepressible horniness and degradation of women in their music (and live shows) as earnest immaturity instead of thinly masked satire. (It was likely somewhere in the middle.)

The “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” video could have been called a documentary and no one would have blinked. With that single alone, unwittingly or not, three ex-punks were credited with creating the soundtrack to the execrable acts of fraternity pledges who probably found Andrew Dice Clay insightful.

Rolling Stone granted the Beasties some self-awareness, but their review of Licensed to Ill attributed the visceral, speaker-frying hybrid of concussive percussion and searing rock guitar entirely to Rick Rubin, despite the fact that the Beasties are listed as producers. If their scores on Kool Moe Dee’s infamous “Report Card” reflected the views of the Beasties’ peers, those who shared stages with the group also gave them a low passing grade.

Amid the critical backlash, Def Jam was, according to the Beasties, withholding royalties from Licensed to Ill as a punitive measure. The label wanted a sophomore record, but the group wanted a break after a year-plus of touring. “They did not fucking pay us — Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons], our friends, Def Jam,” Ad-Rock wrote in 2018’s Beastie Boys Book.

There are differing accounts of how the Beastie Boys wound up recording the majority of Paul’s Boutique at the small, Hollywood apartment of the late Matt Dike, co-founder of the now-iconic Los Angeles label Delicious Vinyl (Tone Loc, the Pharcyde, Young MC). Ultimately, the Beasties were captivated by the instrumentals they heard from Delicious Vinyl affiliated producers the Dust Brothers (John “King Gizmo” King and Mike “E.Z. Mike” Simpson).

By 1988, they had split from Def Jam and moved to L.A., signed to Capitol for millions, and rented a mansion in the Hollywood Hills in hopes of making a record that would erase, or at least distance them from, the frat bro image.

“I think that they were focused on not being a one-hit wonder and breaking away from the popularity and the fanbase that the song had garnered for them,” Mike Simpson told KEXP in a 2015 interview. “They really wanted to reinvent themselves and make a statement that they were more than ‘Fight for Your Right (to Party).’”

For the past three decades and for all eternity, all talk of Paul’s Boutique rightfully begins with the beats. The Dust Brothers took the thundering walls of disparate sounds pioneered by the Bomb Squad on Public Enemy records (e.g., It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and dialed back the dissonance while dialing up the funk.

In the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike, who was present for and influenced many recordings, the Beasties had found true musical kinsmen — people whose eclectic tastes went beyond the rap and rock that had informed Licensed to Ill. Rubin’s beats on that album almost sound primitive by comparison.

“They’d grown up listening to many of the same records, so they were into it,” Simpson told KEXP. “It seemed to be a good match.”

Those records became Beastie-tailored collages, a collection of beats composed of (literally) hundreds of samples pulled from funk and soul (Curtis Mayfield, Rose Royce, Zapp, Kool & the Gang, the Meters), rock (the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix), rap (Funky 4+1, BDP, Run-DMC), reggae (Pato Banton, Scotty) and more. Drum breaks, bass lines, guitar riffs, vocals from rap records and radio commercials — nothing was off limits. The Dust Brothers and Beastie Boys expanded the horizon and parameters of sampling further than anyone thought sonically or technologically possible in 1989.

Capitol reportedly paid between $200,000 and $300,000 to clear as many samples as they could, but there are undoubtedly more left uncleared. The sum is paltry considering the amount rap artists would later pay for a single sample. It’s proof that the beats on Paul’s Boutique could have only existed in the era before sweeping and expensive (and arguably incommensurate) copyright litigation forever hamstrung the genre.

The only 1989 rap record that approached sampling with the same scope and playfulness was De La Soul’s Prince Paul-produced Three Feet High and Rising (which did result in a lawsuit).

There’s a fan-run website devoted to textually cataloging every sample (and lyrical reference) on Paul’s Boutique. If that’s not sufficient, you can visit WhoSampled to play the exact bar(s) the Dust Brothers and the Beasties looped. Hearing the pieces of music in isolation affirms the artistry required to make them fit together, to make them virtually indivisible.

For a test case, you needn’t look any further than “Shake Your Rump,” which is essentially the first song on the album. (“To All the Girls” is an intro.) There are four different drum breaks, but it never sounds like they’re from different records. Instead, they come off like brilliant tangents or improvised solos. If no one told you that the rubbery, undeniably funky bass line came from Rose Royce’s “Yo Yo,” you might think it was also from the same song sampled for the main drum break (Harvey Scales – “Dancing Room Only”).

The sounds on every beat, whether that’s the infectious Commodores riff on “Hey Ladies” or the multiple Beatles samples on “The Sounds of Science,” become inextricable parts of the whole. It’s as if each beat were a house made of vinyl, a structure that would collapse without the support of each interlocking bass line, drum fill and vocal sample embedded in dust-coated groove.

One of the main reasons the beats on Paul’s Boutique work so well is that the Beastie Boys were equally unpredictable, trading punchlines and shouting them in unison with an effortless polish and fluidity not present in the more rigidly delivered verses of their debut. Together, they weave in and out of each other, in and out of the drum breaks, like the Showtime-era Lakers on a fastbreak.

They don’t just rhyme around the esoteric vocal samples, the samples become part of the rhyme schemes, part of their hooks. They converse with them. The combination of their three distinctive voices, although grating to some, packed the collective bravado necessary to compete with the dozens of sounds playing in unison.

Lyrically, Paul’s Boutique was a marked leap forward for the Beasties. Largely jettisoning the Licensed to Ill narratives that played like an X-rated version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, they had begun to find the right mix of high and low brow. Literary references to Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger appear on the same album with similes about The Flintstones and The Brady Bunch. With odes to egging people (“Egg Man”) and songs that seemed to glorify grand theft auto (“Car Thief”), it’s clear that they hadn’t abandoned all hijinks.

There were also still plenty of lines about their sexual conquests (e.g., “Hey Ladies”). But then there are songs like “Johnny Ryall,” which makes a mythic figure out of a homeless man who lived on Mike D’s block (“He’s no less important than you working class stiffs”).

Even in the more ridiculous songs, like “Egg Man” and “Car Thief,” the Beasties work in sharp one-liners that combat racial prejudice (“You made the mistake and judge a man by his race / You go through life with egg on your face”) and contemptible politicians (“All the wife beaters and all the tax cheaters / Sitting in the White House pulling their peters”). They were no longer posing — they were maturing.

By most metrics, Paul’s Boutique flopped. The album was certified gold two months after its release, but that was a dramatic drop-off from sales of Licensed to Ill. Following a seismic company shakeup (also read: firing and hiring) at Capitol, new employees declined to push the record. According to Ad-Rock’s account in Beastie Boys Book, the company was so concerned with pushing a Donny Osmond record that they didn’t even ship enough copies to the Tower Records down the street from the Capitol building.

Critically, it fared marginally better than Licensed to Ill; it got a negative review from The New York Times, but also an astute, largely adulatory one from Spin that seemed to grasp the artistic intent of everyone involved.

In 30 years since its release, Paul’s Boutique has become an undisputed classic. The album is now over 2x-platinum, and Rolling Stone ranked it #156 on their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. Forever renowned for its sonic innovation, it’s an equally important milestone in the arc of the Beastie Boys’ career. They refined their comedy, significantly pared down the misogyny and occasionally injected their lyrics with social insight.

It marked the beginning of their maturation, the emergence of another new style, the one they would perfect and reimagine in different, equally progressive sonic contexts for decades after.

(Photo credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

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