The Classics Series:
Beastie Boys- Paul’s Boutique
FOLLOWING my previous assessment of Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut…
it is time to look at another American effort. From Rage Against the Machine’s Los Angeles-based political statement of intent: across to a love letter to New York from one of the music world’s most enduring and stunning bands. Like Rage Against the Machine- and their mesmeric debut effort- Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique was a revelation upon its release- although most of its acclaim have arrived retrospectively. Upon its release; critics were a little muted and not sure what to make of it.
In 1986, the ‘Boys unleashed their debut cut, License to Ill. The 13-track album was self-reverential and celebratory: a testament of the joys of life; the experimentation of sound and making music that differed from what was out there. At the time of its release; there was nothing like License to Ill: nothing that was as daring and instantly memorable. Not many bands- until this point anyway- had fused Hip-Hop and Metal sounds together. The way Beastie Boys dropped Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath into their witty and juvenile jams would have been risky- were it not for their expertise and skill. Backed by Rick Rubin- whose guidance and experienced helped define the record- Beastie Boys’ comedy, joy and energy ensured the album exploded and resonated. Regarded by some critics as one of music’s finest creations- as aspersion that is hard to refute- music had unearthed rare geniuses.
Three years after their debut arrived Paul’s Boutique: arguably Beastie Boys’ finest album and a work of art few critics recognised upon its release. Maybe it was the scope and sheer ambition that scared many: the plaudits and positives were not as forthcoming (as with License to Ill). Regardless; time and sensibility have rectified this oversight: Paul’s Boutique is celebrated as a masterpiece of sound collage experimentation and sheer mastery. More sample-heavy than its predecessor- the entire album is longer and adventurous than License to Ill– it saw Beastie Boys change direction and refocus. Licence to Ill had that commercial appeal and was more direct. By contrast; Paul’s Boutique was more freewheeling with greater creative depth. Housing themselves in L.A. – having relocated from their beloved New York; exiled from their producer, Rock Rubin- the boys were already been seen as one-hit wonders. This mounting pressure and sense of dislocation would ruin lesser acts. It was a scary time for the band (in 1988) but that pressure and lack of expectation saw them come together to create something majestic.
Bringing in Dust Brothers- who went on to work with artists like Beck- and their sample mastery: there was renewed confidence and intention in the camp of Beastie Boys. In total- throughout the recording of Paul’s Boutique– over 100 songs were sampled. The band feared the dense sonic ambitions would not allow room for their patented rhymes and braggadocio. Songs like Shake Your Rump– one of the finest on the album- had those heavy beats and busy guitar lines. The boys feared adding vocals would ruin the track- the song was planned as an instrumental- but upon the insistence of the Dust Brothers, rhymes and vocals were added in. The partnership of producer and band spurred the creative process and lead to huge revelation and new meaning. After the uncertainty that followed License to Ill– not sure if a second album was required- nobody could have predicted Paul’s Boutique and what it did to music.
If critics were tepid upon its release; the subsequent years saw the album gain legendary status: it was certified double-platinum in 1999 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums ever. Rolling Stone ranked Paul’s Boutique as their 156th best album (in a poll featuring 500 albums) of all-time. A record that celebrated U.S. junk culture and saw a reinvention if the camp of Beastie Boys. Those slick and sharp rhymes- the wit and genius displayed had reached its peak on this album- were matched with huge beats and impressive braggadocio. The bravado and swagger Beastie Boys brought to the table was only one side (of an incredible creation). The sampling was far-flung but everything hung together: every element and layer fitted seamlessly into the nuanced and hugely addictive music.
In today’s climate- and if a band were in danger of being one-hit wonders- the sophomore album would be a rather nervous affair. I have seen many bands go through this- where the hell did London Grammar get to?!– and produce a second album that demonstrated fear and a distinct shelf-life. I do not think there is a band around (today) that are brave and talented enough to pull off a trick like Paul’s Boutique. The fact there aren’t any bands as strong as Beastie Boys- will we ever see such an immovable force arrive?!- is a rather telling fact. The New York group were definitely a one-of-a-kind and we shall never see their like again. Paul’s Boutique could only have been made at a certain time and the fact it got made at all- considering the mess that proceeded it- is remarkable. What is even more remarkable is the confidence and consistency that runs through it. Beastie Boys are a band who has made few average/poor records: Paul’s Boutique boasted sharp lines and compositions that revealed their scope and potential across multiple listens. Getting into hot water with sampling- artists like Gilbert O’Sullivan took umbrage at being sampled- was just another obstacle that could have tarnished such a magnificent record.
As it stands- and given the reputation the album has collected- these ‘hurdles’ could never damage such a historic work. Take the songs on their own merit: Shake Your Rump is an oft-played and head-spinning assault that shows Beastie Boys ready and primed for the fight. Sampling Ronnie Laws and Harvey Scales into the jam: that is only the start of the magic the album holds. Egg Man showcases Beastie Boys’ observation and knife-edged humour- “I looked out the window and seen his bald head/I ran to the fridge and pulled out an egg”- saw Sly and the Family Stone augment the fury, fun and frivolity of the song. It is near-impossible to assess all the songs fairly- there is so much packed into every track- and it takes repeated investigation to take it all in. Minimalism (High Plains Drifter) sits effortlessly with grand ambition (the nine-songs-in-one spectacular, B-Boy Bouillabaisse): there are no weak moments and you have an album that is still being studied and scrutinised today- some seventeen years after its initial release.
Today’s music culture means we may never see anything like Paul’s Boutique. Sampling is more expensive and less accessible: it is easier to put samples into the mix; the litany, litigious and limitations have priced many musicians away from such experimentation. Whilst some of our best and brightest- Kendrick Lamar; Jamie xx in particular- employ samples and show mobility within their genres: you imagine they would sound even richer if sampling was not such a minefield. Granted, Kendrick Lamar and Jamie xx are two wonderful (and hugely different) artists who blend genres, themes and sounds into kaleidoscopic and enormously potent albums. Perhaps the last sample-heavy album arrived in 2000: Australia’s The Avalanches’ self-titled debut (and to date, their only cut) consisted entirely of samples. That album took years of obsessive study and recording to get right and reach the market: the fact there has not been a follow-up perhaps highlights how expensive/problem-laded sampling is.
Since the 2002-2004 regency of British Grime- when Dizzee Rascal and The Streets sparsely employed samples- there have been few artists that have gone as deep as Beastie Boys. Some of the finest-ever albums- from D.J. Shadow and Beck’s best; across to Massive Attack- have used other people’s songs to give weight to their own creations. Maybe Paul’s Boutique was a product of its time- something that we can never recreate- and that is a bittersweet realisation. The 1989-diamond is a wonderful work of art from a band that looked in danger of collapsing. Hugely influential and inspiring- new musicians are still studying the album like it’s a Bible- I hope we get to see a Paul’s Boutique 2.0 arrive in the 21st century. Given the financial boundaries and legal restrictions- it should be so expensive and hard to sample you’d think- that are in place; a lot of creativity is being stemmed and extinguished.
Let us negate and overlook the problems of the modern age: instead, embrace an album that is peerless and utterly magnificent. If you need a record that takes you to wonderful places- tracks that take you across New York and down strange alleys; meeting curious people and embracing life- then go out and buy Paul’s Boutique. It is a record that is even more essential on vinyl: just lie back and let the L.P. get inside the imagination and elicit a wonderful response. Paul’s Boutique easily sits inside my ‘Top 10 Albums’ list because it’s timeless and near-perfect. It may not be the most instant and accessible album- some of the tracks take their time to hit the mark- but that is the very reason it is such a revelation. Songs get stronger and more meaningful with passing years: the entire album becomes more impactful without sounding dated and restrictive. Few record will take the brain and imagination on such a mind-f*** trip. Take yourself back to 1989 and a time when music…
REALLY stood for something.
To All the Girls
Shake Your Rump
High Plains Drifter
The Sounds of Science
5-Piece Chicken Dinner
Looking Down the Barrell of a Gun
What Comes Around
Ask for Janice
Shake Your Rump; The Sounds of Science; Hey Ladies; Car Thief; B-Boy Bouillabaisse