The debate over whether sampling in hip-hop was art or theft was raging in 1989, when the second album from the Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique, was released. With lawsuits flying when brief, barely-recognizable snippets showed up in rap songs, the free-for-all era- when a producer could combine a Sly Stone bass line with a Led Zeppelin drum break without the musicians’ permission - was rapidly coming to a close.
No one knew that Paul’s Boutique would one day be regarded as the last, delirious blast of the golden age of hip-hop sampling. And with Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death on Friday likely heralding the end of the group, Paul’s Boutique remains firmly in place as the Beastie Boys’ most funky, off the wall and totally unexpected artistic achievement.
Though it was critically lauded on its release, Paul’s Boutique was otherwise viewed as an expensive, poorly-conceived follow-up to the three New York pranksters’ platinum-selling debut, Licensed To Ill; the frat boys who worshipped Licensed’s rap-rock juvenile delinquency ignored Paul’s in droves. Sales tanked immediately, and the Capitol Records executives who signed the Beasties to a two-album deal (the group had left Def Jam in frustration over unpaid royalties) were run out of the company on a rail. If it hadn’t been for the grassroots success of their third LP, Check Your Head, we might never have heard from the Beastie Boys again.
For the group, though, and for Yauch in particular, the making of Paul’s Boutique was the beginning of their transformation from punk kids wrecking shop to the responsible, right-on fighters for social justice they later became. Living in the Mondrian hotel and working in an L.A. studio with production duo the Dust Brothers (already famous for tweaking a Van Halen sample into the riff for Wild Thing, a hit for pop-rapper Tone-Loc in 1988), the Beasties turned inside jokes, obscure references to everything from dancehall reggae to sports trivia, and their own self-made mythology into scatterbrained lyrical pretzels.
In their world, the old guy who sat on the stoop outside Mike D’s New York apartment was a folk hero ( Johnny Ryall); likening their situation with Def Jam to a biblical trio who were thrown in a furnace ( Shadrach) was okay; and eggs were for throwing at anyone and everyone ( Egg Man).
As the group reinvented themselves, Adam Yauch was dropping hints of even bigger moves they would make. It was his Barry White-esque crooning on the intro to the album, To All The Girls, that let listeners know that the seventies revival was in full effect. Amid all the samples, two tracks, 3-Minute Rule and Looking Down The Barrel of a Gun, were built around Yauch’s basslines, foreshadowing the group’s move back into playing live instruments in the nineties.
In Dan LeRoy’s essential book about Paul’s Boutique, he describes how Yauch went from being the heaviest drinker and most extreme prankster to a devoted Buddhist and fighter for Tibetan freedom. Buried in the album-ending medley B-Boy Bouillabaisse was “Year and a Day.” It was a fast-rapping psychedelic account of the usual antics, such as skiing while high, but curious couplets stuck out: “And my body and soul and mind are pure / Not polluted or diluted or damaged beyond cure.” Dust Brothers member Mike Simpson claims that Yauch kicked the others out of the studio to record the song. Yauch later cited it as a turning point in his spiritual evolution.
Taking and transforming existing art to create new work isn’t particularly controversial any more -today you’d be hard pressed to find an art gallery without a collage, or a pop hit on the radio without a sample from another tune. But the incredible synergy between the Beasties and the album’s producers made the album more than just a crazy mess of disparate influences; it was a cohesive work that presented a strong enough identity that the Beasties could shed their Fight For Your Right To Party image and build something new. Paul’s Boutique was like the Rosetta Stone of Beastie Boys fandom - it let you into a whole insular but fascinating world that, unlike the one they inhabited during the Licensed To Ill years, the group would never tear down; instead, they expanded and built up the vibe for the rest of their time as a group.
Of course, if you still need someone to explain it, the instructions are in the radio commercial for clothing store “Paul’s Boutique” that gave the album its name: Call 718-498-1043, and ask for Janice.