It occurred to me a few days ago that Paul’s Boutique, the second full length album from the Beastie Boys, was released twenty-five years ago. That seems pretty mind-blowing to me. The fact that it’s still referred to as a breakthrough record and a hip-hop milestone just adds to the brain-busting.
We all know the popular sequence of events – the Boys, three NYC former hardcore punkers, started listening to nascent hip-hop records and switched allegiances to the new scene. They cut a few EPs and got the attention of uber-producer Rick Rubin and Def Jam Records. Rubin helmed the sessions for their debut, Licensed To Ill, and with plenty of radio play and a high-rotation video on MTV (“Fight For Your Right To Party”), they quickly became (in)famous. The tour to support the album was dogged with controversy, though I suppose the trio didn’t do themselves any favours – such as having a giant inflatable penis on-stage (there’s a ‘Spinal Tap’ joke in there somewhere).
After the dust settled, the Boys were somewhat richer, but also viewed as frat-boy goofballs and, as Public Enemy and (in 1988) N.W.A. both claimed hip-hop’s forefront, a bit of a joke. Tensions rose with the Def Jam honchos over contract obligations and they left Def Jam and New York, which was seen as near-treasonous at the time. Once they were set up in California at their new digs (cheekily called “The G-Spot”), they started creating demos of new jams.
Through the club party scene and hip-hop connections, the Boys met engineer/producers The Dust Brothers and Matt Dike, who would go on to produce “Paul’s Boutique”. Dike convinced them to sign with Capitol Records (which would prove fortuitous – especially with the Beatles samples used on the album). Recording sessions began in summer 1988 and continued sporadically into early 1989 – with the trio bouncing between NYC and L.A.
The tracks themselves are a psychedelic mixture of sound effects, rock/soul/reggae samples and the Boys’ own lyrics, which themselves are filled with pop-culture references, self-deprecating humour and in-jokes. As much as they’d grown since “Licensed”, they hadn’t completely ditched the juvenile hijinks – as evidenced by “59 Chrystie Street” (the first segment of “B Boy Bouillabaisse“, an extended suite which closes the album). There’s also a line in “High Plains Drifter“, “…knuckle-head Delhi tried to gyp me off the price/so I clocked him in the turban with a bag of ice…”, which wouldn’t fly too well in these overheated-PC days, I suspect.
They do balance those out with some more positive quips, like “You make the mistake to judge a man by his race/You go through life with egg on your face“, from “Egg Man” and “…get hip, don’t slip you knuckleheads, racism is schism on the serious tip…”, from “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun“. Speaking of the latter, it’s the hardest-hitting and most cacophonous track on the record. Combining the beat (though heavily compressed and flanged to throw it into overdrive) from Ocean‘s “Put Your Hand In The Hand” (ironically, a Christian-flavoured pop single from 1971) and a snippet of Pink Floyd‘s “Time” – the Boys shout lyrics about having “homeboys bonanza to beat your ass down” and going on “stolen car missions“. While you could say that they were taking their cues from P.E.’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, “Looking Down…” has it’s own fierce menace and in it’s own way, is just as bad-ass as anything put together by The Bomb Squad or Dr Dre.
The album was released in July 1989, to little fanfare. “Hey Ladies” was released as a single and had an accompanying video shown on MTV, showing the Beasties wearing funky 1970s apparel. The punters who were expecting “Fight For Your Right – Part II” were dumbfounded and were of the opinion that they’d lost the plot. The record tanked shortly after and was dismissed as a misstep.
Some, like myself, thought it was a step in the right direction and indeed, when the Boys returned in 1992 with Check Your Head, a lot of the experimental feel of “Paul’s Boutique” remained (just not as sample-heavy and a bit more stream-lined). Def Jam countered “Paul’s Boutique” with their own Beasties-lite group, 3rd Bass. Ironically, while 3rd Bass dissed the Boys on their debut record, The Cactus Album – the album seemed to be made from the same template – loads of samples interwoven into the mix. The Boys ended up having the last laugh, as 3rd Bass split after two albums and MC Serch‘s (the lead MC) solo record, released in 1992, sank without a trace.
Soon after “Check Your Head”, “Paul’s Boutique” was suddenly looked on as a force to be reckoned with. Re-appraisals appeared from the hipper quarters of rap fandom – cemented in place by the time Ill Communication was released in 1994. Ten years after it’s release date, “Paul’s Boutique” was being called a hip-hop classic and an ingenious re-invention of a group. The record fully deserves its accolades – of the ‘class of ’89’, only it and De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High And Rising showed what could be accomplished through sampling and clever rhymes.