The Beastie Boys broke into mainstream consciousness with their 1986 album Licensed to Ill. It was a somewhat silly and juvenile record in many respects and the group subsequently, in the glare of fame’s embrace, played up to the image created by the record: at one point they allegedly destroyed a hotel room by trying to use a shower as a water tank; Ad-Rock was arrested in Liverpool for assault after their 1987 show there descended into a riot; their stage show involved a gigantic, inflatable phallus.
But as soon as they had appeared, they seemingly faded back into the ether – another one hit wonder pop group, gone forever. Or so we thought at the time. In 1989, the Beasties did something genuinely unexpected. They re-appeared with an album called Paul’s Boutique, which just happened to be a). nothing like the first album, either lyrically or stylistically and b). also just happened to be one of the greatest albums ever made by anyone, ever.
Paul’s Boutique is like a feast for the brain; almost more like a great novel than a great record. It’s the only hip hop album I would ever recommend a non-hip hop fan listen to. The samples are amazing, almost dementedly inventive, not to mention totally undoable in the modern era’s legal framework around such things. For instance, one song on the album entitled “Sounds of Science” is composed of almost nothing but Beatles samples. Back in 1989, such things were financially possible – these days, the samples would costs millions, quite literally. That’s the thing about Paul’s Boutique: it’s not just that it sounds great, but it is a completely unrepeatable achievement.
Lyrically, this was the record that established the Beastie’s main calling card, that being oblique popular culture references thrown at you hard and fast, and usually paired with a couplet that made you laugh at the comparison between the two competing lines (my favourite on the album being: “I’m all updated on the hip hop lingo/my favourite New York Knick was Hawthorne Wingo”). Japanese baseball players, obscure Blaxplotation movies and Jamaican patois are all referenced at random. It compliments the brilliance of the sampled music supporting it, itself a compendium of obscure yet brilliant snippets from across the musical spectrum, perfectly. At one point, they manage the almost impossible feat of taking a portion of an Eagles song and making it funky.
The album ends with a 12 minute track called “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”, which is sort of like the hip hop equivalent of side two of Abbey Road. It contains amongst other things, the best reference to Napoleon Bonaparte in the history of artistic endeavour (no mean feat), Bob Marley explaining why session musicians aren’t ideal to use for reggae (“Ya explain to musician. Him knew it, but him can’t do it”), and the best use of Kool and the Gang in terms of sampling ever (again, no mean feat). It’s a perfect ending to Paul’s Boutique, underlining the album’s ambition.
It wasn’t a commercial success. But I don’t think their re-emergence as a massive band of almost cult-like devotion (I once almost got killed at a Beastie Boys concert, when the band came on and people lost their minds, like some sort of Beatles thing but with moshing involved) could have been conceivable without Paul’s Boutique. In other words, Check Your Head was the album that got them back to platinum status, but without Paul’s Boutique it would have had no context and thus I don’t think would have been accepted. Sort of like how John Travolta’s comeback in the 90s would never have been possible without Pulp Fiction.
Anyhow, the album is a real gem, history aside. It straddles well their inflatable penis on stage days and their later, Free Tibet political correctness, to come up with a free flowing vibe they never quite recaptured ever again. Have a listen, whatever your viewpoint on hip hop as a genre.