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DISCO AND DUST
An Ode To The Beastie Boys' Hip-Hop Classic
BILL WOOD | FEBRUARY 6, 2022
During a recent trip to Manhattan, I made sure to visit several important landmarks; the Empire State Building, Wall Street, Madison Square Garden, Grand Central Terminal, and the corner of Ludlow and Rivington. What in blazes is on that corner that puts it on the same tier as those other locales? Well, it's the location of the cover photo of one of my all-time favorite records, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. I wasn't going to miss it for the world.
I still remember listening to Paul’s Boutique for the first time in 1989 and being utterly blown away by the psychedelic production, the inspired sampling, the tongue-twisting rhymes. The sound was so innovative and fearless, I was telling everyone within earshot that this was the future of music. As it turns out, Paul's Boutique was not the future of music. Not only did the album alienate many longtime fans, but it represented a recording feat that will most likely never be recreated. I’ll explain later, but first, let’s time-warp to the '80s and revisit the rap scene leading up to the release of this epic LP.
In 1986, the Beasties released their landmark debut, Licensed To Ill. The album was an instant classic, creating a worldwide legion of fans and going on to sell over 10 million copies. Thanks in large part to MTV, the Beasties were catapulted seemingly overnight from novelty act to headliner. But the scene had changed considerably in the three years following the release of Licensed. Artists such as KRS-One and Eric B and Rakim were setting new standards for hip-hop in the late '80s, moving rap away from rudimentary b-boy rhymes and crossover rock collabs and into more complex musical territory. Rap was developing a new identity, a new consciousness.
And then there was Public Enemy, one of those rare musical acts that were so far ahead of their time that they made every artist that came before them seem like dinosaurs. Run-DMC were rapping about sneakers, PE were rapping about revolution. They discarded catchy guitar hooks in favor of dissonant air-raid sirens and boiling pot kettles. Every rap record prior to (PE's sophomore album) It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back sounded like a b-boy skills contest, but Nation upped the ante. PE didn't fight for their right to party, they partied for their right to fight. They urged their fans to WAKE THE HELL UP, and in doing so advanced the boundaries of hip-hop by such a margin that there was no way of going back to the days of Paul Revere. What were three lone Beasties to do?
For starters, they ditched NYC for LA, Def Jam for Capitol, and Budweiser for... other worldly pursuits.
It’s evident from the kickoff that Paul’s Boutique is a stylistic 180° from the Rick Rubin-produced arena rock of Licensed. Whereas Licensed opens with John Bonham’s swaggering brontosaurus beat, Boutique opens with a soft fade of MCA’s gravelly voice coolly narrating over a smooth R&B organ. He’s no longer a snot-nosed delinquent, he's a world-weary midnight DJ fueled by coffee and cigarettes. If the opening salvo of “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” is a musical kick to the gonads, “To All The Girls” is a relaxing shoulder massage. Just when we start wondering what is going on here, a frantic drum roll slices through the mellow grooves and we're on our way.
“Shake Your Rump” gets the party started with Adrock, MCA and Mike D holding absolutely nothing back as they bob and weave their way around a minimalist dance beat with newfound lyrical aplomb. "Like a pimp I'm pimpin' / got a boat to eat shrimp in / nothin' wrong with my leg / I'm just a b-boy limpin." Another line finds MCA hitting the detonate button on his former record label; "a puppet on a string / I'm paid to sing or rhyme". Oh yeah, they're back.
For my money, this is the most lyrically inspired the Beasties ever have been or ever would be, the literal peak of their literary genius. Tom Thumb, Chuck Woolery, Vincent Van Gogh and Saduharu Oh all get name-checked… within the same song. Awakened social commentary abounds; “I figured out who makes the crack / it’s the suckers with the badges and the blue jackets”. “Eggman” is a return to their schoolboy prankster personas, recounting the tongue-in-cheek tale of “drive-by eggings, plaguing LA.” Smack dab in the middle of this juvenile story, the bass drops out as the trio raps in unison, “you made the mistake and judge a man by his race / you go through life with egg on your face.” The coda of the otherwise buffoonish "Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun" reminds us that "racism is schism on a serious tip." These are surprisingly profound statements coming from a group whose biggest hit to date was "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)," the first step toward the social and political awareness that would eventually define the Beasties' mantra, This mantra eventually led to the group omitting some of their earlier politically-incorrect songs from their setlist altogether, including a number of selections from Paul's Boutique.
Although they're barely in their mid-20s and still capable of delivering their trademark potty-humor, it's shocking how just much the Beastie Boys have matured on Paul's Boutique. They've stopped complaining about discarded porno mags in favor of name-dropping Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac and JD Salinger. There's plenty of room for self-reflection in between the trademark detention room gags. "Space case cookie / I discover who I am / I'm a dusted old bum / a hurdy-gurdy man." On "Shadrach," they compare themselves to three biblical Hebrew figures. MCA reminds uptight hippie parents of the newer generation, "I'm just chillin', like Bob Dylan." Licensed To Get Even More Ill would be a reasonable expectation for a sophomore Beasties LP, I'm fairly certain no one saw this coming. I sure didn't.
Lyrics aside, a newfound musical influence immediately becomes apparent. Barely a decade removed from the testosterone-fueled “Disco Sucks!” furor of the late '70s, this former hardcore NYC punk trio are bound and determined to pay homage to the most decidedly un-hip musical genre of the previous thirty years (new wave didn’t fare much better). By discarding the ham-fisted power chords and moving discotheque into the spotlight, they directly challenge the knuckleheads who grew up with Licensed To Ill as the soundtrack to toga parties and fraternity hazings. It's a major reason why Boutique never came close to matching the sales success of their debut, but let's face it; those fans were never going to understand "Johnny Ryall" anyway.
Another recurrent album theme appears on the opening track, the clearing of a bong load. Indeed, Boutique is fueled by three factors; disco, drugs and The Dust Brothers. The dance floor influence permeates the record, and the video for the single "Hey Ladies" is a bit of Saturday Night Fever-inspired brilliance. Numerous drug references are littered throughout; angel dust, ecstasy, cocaine, elephant tranquilizers, hash, and most importantly, pot, pot, pot, all earn a nod. If Licensed is the drinking album of the '80s, then Boutique is every bit its pill-popping equivalent. Less obvious but equally relevant is the knob-tweaking wizardry of The Dust Brothers, their ingenious mash-up of beats and sampling define Boutique’s dense sound as much as the three MCs on the mic. In this delirious world of genre-defying soundscapes, country bear jamborees devolve into doom metal dirges, nursery rhymes shake hands with The Beatles, high-hats are supplanted by ping-pong balls. It's a spaced-out sonic planet where anything seems possible.
I mentioned earlier that the sound design of Paul’s Boutique will never be replicated, and here’s why. The group and their label paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 for licensing rights on Boutique, no small sum in 1989. Listen closely and you’ll uncover the Dust Brothers intricately-layered samples everywhere; a one-second kick-snare fill that any studio drummer could easily replicate is actually lifted from Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” James Brown—the most frequently sampled artist of the early hip-hop generation by a wide stretch—adds his two cents (“ain’t it funky brotha?”). A James Brown sample is certainly no stretch for a hip-hop LP, but The Ramones? Johnny Cash? Loggins and Messina?!? There are loops buried deep within these grooves that I haven’t even heard yet, there’s no way a licensing coup like this could happen in the modern recording era. It would simply be too cost-prohibitive.
After the success of their first album, I remember one befuddled rock critic complaining that he couldn’t determine whether the Beastie Boys were the next Sex Pistols or the next Village People. Fortunately, Paul’s Boutique proved that they were neither, and future records would cement their legacy as one of musicdom’s most entertaining and endearing acts. - BW
[A footnote to fans looking to visit the "real" Paul's Boutique in NYC: It doesn't exist, it never did. The panoramic cover photo wasn’t even shot in Brooklyn as the song "Ask For Janice" suggests, it was shot in Lower Manhattan near Chinatown. The stores there today bear little resemblance to the album cover, but there is an awesome Beasties mural on the side wall. That corner has been officially named "Beastie Boys Square" by the city.]