The Beastie Boys’ landmark sophomore album Paul’s Boutique is a bit hard for me to write about. It is a dizzying album that I’ve lived with for so long, yet I still feel like I have yet to unlock all of its secrets.
Determined not to go down as one-hit wonders after the media madhouse of the Licensed to Ill album and tour, estranged from their label Def Jam and producer Rick Rubin, the ex-punks holed up in sunny L.A. with producers the Dust Brothers, and created an epic love letter to their hometown of NYC.
More than that: Paul’s Boutique is a mass-media-addled portrait of late-20th-century America. It revels in the ways that low-culture iconography can serve as universally-recognizable signifiers, yet simultaneously be refashioned into something deeply idiosyncratic and personal. It’s all profoundly silly, and effortlessly cool.
For all the work obviously put into it, Paul’s Boutique comes across as a breezily psychedelic record, the sound of thousands of threads of consciousness being expertly woven by consummate channel-flippers (do I mix my metaphors? So too does this album) into a vibrant tapestry encompassing the detritus of 70’s cinema (kung fu movies, blaxploitation films, Steve McQueen and The Man With No Name all make appearances), countless TV and pop culture references, Jack Kerouac and JD Salinger and the Old Testament, and half-baked (or fully-baked, if you catch my drift) philosophizing.
In a weird way, Paul’s Boutique was Quentin Tarantino, before QT was.
The nearly 100% sample-based music shifts under your feet constantly – the Dust Brothers had already completed about half the tracks, intending to release them as club singles sans vocals, before the Beastie Boys convinced them to collaborate on an album; the Dust Brothers offered to strip the tracks down, believing they were too dense to rap over, but the Beasties said no, and instead matched the kaleidoscopic music, beat for (off)beat, with the best rhymes they ever wrote.
Containing up to 300 samples (most fully cleared and paid for, before legal and industry precedents made such a thing logistically and financially infeasible to ever do again) the record is filled to the brim with jokes, musical and lyrical.
If there are two lines that sum up this mind-expanding (and just plain expansive) album, they are:
“If I had a penny for my thoughts, I’d be a millionaire”,
“I got an open mind, so why don’t you all get inside”.
Though not a commercial hit upon its release, the album counted amongst its fans Miles Davis (who said he never tired of listening to it), Chris Rock, and Chuck D. Its reputation has only grown in the years since its release – without its influence, it’s nearly impossible to imagine The Avalanches, or Beck, or DJ Shadow.
Paul’s Boutique – A Visual Companion was created by some Beasties überfans; it contains some of the original music videos, interview footage, and video snippet “samples” of the kind of influences (and in some cases, the sources of the actual samples) that make up Boutique, stitched into full-length album-accompanying video.
It’s an incredible labor of love, and an entirely fitting tribute to not only a great, great record, but to the very idea of cultural sampling/remixing. It’s worth thinking about what we’ve lost out on as a culture, by choosing to handle copyright in the record industry the way we have.
But even if you don’t wish to consider anything so chewy, get out some ‘phones, set aside 53 minutes of your life, and watch this.
(Mostly SFW, though there is some language and brief nudity).
If you’ve never heard the album, you are in for a treat; and if you have, seeing it like this, is almost like hearing it again for the first time.
If the album was/is new to you, what did you think?
If it’s not new to you, what memories do you have of it?
Do you think that U.S. law is moving in the right direction when it comes to IP law, sampled works and remix culture?
For the readers that consider themselves true hip-hop heads: what are your thoughts on the Beasties’ historical place and legacy (my sense is that they are somewhat underrated in the “canon”, for reasons I suspect are tied up in questions of race/authenticity)?