There is a romantic mystique surrounding the Beastie Boys’ second album that the group probably could not deny. The stories leading up to and involving the recording the album, as well as its anti-climactic aftermath, are almost as powerful as the music itself. 14 years after its release, it still remains one of the best hip-hop albums of all time, and one of the best albums ever made, period.
First, a history lesson. In 1987, the Beastie Boys were the first white boys to make a major dent in hip-hop. They received exposure because they were always seen as white guys doing black music, and many felt they were a joke. Looking back, one might say the media used the Beastie Boys to say that hip-hop as a whole was a fad. It was Madonna who put them on her first tour as an opening act. It was the Beastie Boys who put on Public Enemy as their opening act. All of these small things lead to the force of hip-hop that we know today. Def Jam became a household word, it was a trademark of quality. Regardless of the imagery and pranks they pulled onstage, in interviews, and on MTV (they had their own specialty shows long before there was a Yo! MTV Raps), the proof of their success was in their music and lyrics. When they wanted to party, the Beastie Boys partied. When they wanted to joke and be sarcastic, they were geniuses. When they wanted to show they could compete with the best, well, they borrowed Run’s notebook to do the classic “Slow And Low.” Musically, they got a lot of attention because they weren’t just about the booming beats. They used Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Creedence Clearwater Revival in their songs, which at the time was unheard of. Were they trying to appeal to young white headbangers, or was this the vision of Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Adam Yauch, and Rick Rubin all along?
The album was everywhere, it became much more than just hip-hop. Kids who weren’t listening to rap music got into it for the first time with the Beastie Boys, and with that the following for the music grew. Not only for them, but for Biz Markie, Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, and everyone else. Despite naysayers who said the Beasties were nothing more than a parody, in truth they were telling fans to dig deeper and listen to the MC’s and DJ’s that came before them, they were never about hoarding the spotlight or making fun of their mentors.
At the peak of their success, after the successful “Together Forever” tour with Run-DMC, after sales of over 4 million copies of LICENSED TO ILL, it was reported that the Beastie Boys weren’t happy. They said they were off of Def Jam, and they packed their bags and moved to California. In a normal world this would have been the end of the story, of a hardcore punk band who turned hip-hop, made their millions, and decided to quit and retire, living the good life in the sunsets of Cali. Russell Simmons proceeded to sue the Beastie Boys for breach of contract. The Beasties claimed they were not properly paid. They continued to bad mouth each other in the press, and it seemed the Beastie Boys were going to be another rap music casualty. Simmons announced that he had vocal outtakes of Beastie material that wasn’t used, and had planned on releasing his own album, in order to make sure that his investment was well spent. This was going to come out in direct competition with the album the Beasties said they were working on, so for a short time there was anticipation to see who would come out with the album first, and which one would be better. Would the Def Jam album be better, or could the Beastie Boys, now signed to Capitol, prove they were more than a fluke.
Summer of 1989. MTV premiered the video for “Hey Ladies.” Visually, this was a new Beastie Boys. Or was it? The three MC’s in polyester suits, in a nightclub with disco balls and afro wigs. Aaah, is this a mansion? And the music? What the hell is this Commodores shit? Can this be a hint of what’s to come? Did the Beastie Boys really turn disco? The video immediately made the wrong impression for fans on what the group was about to come with, and many were not having it. There was a sense of humor that very much carried over from the first album, but in a form of music that was beginning to become very visually conscious, the disco vibe of a music video was a turn off. For those of us who were prepared and ready for the ride, July 25, 1989 would prove to be one of the best days in hip-hop history.
“Paul’s Boutique.” In anyway you look at it, either by name, the music, or the album itself, it is an understatement. The album title was dorky. It wasn’t ill, def, dope, or fresh. Could the album really be an ad for a man’s clothing store? Those who bought the album were in for a surprise. If you purchased the cassette, the tape shells were marbeled like old cassette tapes from the 70’s. If you bought the vinyl, you didn’t just get a gatefold, but an 8-panel cover. Had the Beastie Boys had their way, the album would have been released in a much-rumored quadraphonic mix, bringing the old school 1970’s vibe of the entire album full circle. What fans wanted to hear was the music. What they got for the next 53 minutes was a collection of music that continues to influence thousands of MC’s, DJ’s, and producers many times over
Rather than start with big booming drums, it began on a very mellow note, courtesy of Idris Muhammad’s “Loran’s Dance.” It was jazzy and laid back, unlike any hip-hop coming out at the time. We hear MCA dedicating things to the beautiful women around the world, as we hear Muhammad’s drums and Bob James’ electric piano makes its presence on the album. Would this be an indication of what was to come? No.
The drums kick in and we hear Ad Rock say “well I rock this house party at the drop of a hat.” The adventure begins. All three Beastie Boys are passing the mic as they used to, but the spirit is higher than it was three years previous to this. The Beastie Boys had the image of being college boy pranksters, but in “Shake Your Rump” we hear something that was very Sgt. Pepper: “my man MCA’s got a beard like a billygoat.” In less than a minute, the Boys are executing their mission in a major way and offer a response to those who thought they were a one-hit wonder: “you heard my style, I think you missed the point.” And what was the point? The answer my friends, according to the Funky 4 + 1, “it’s the joint!” The music itself was funkier than anything the group had ever done, and “Shake Your Rump” climaxed in a major way after the line “disco bag droppin’ and you doin’ the bump.” After the Sugar Hill Gang sample kicks in, you hear a crowd of fans yelling “ho!” and the group managed to capture the excitement of hip-hop through a silly chant. But when they performed this song live three years later, everybody in the house knew what to do during this moment. I still get chicken skin when I think about how I felt at the Moore Theater in Seattle, being caught up in a crowd where without thought, we all unified and did the chant, jumping up and down, in hip-hop harmony.
As the song fades, does one hear the distant sounds of wind from, nah, couldn’t be? Pink Floyd? Perhaps. “Johnny Ryall,” to this day, still sounds like the most awkward song on the album, maybe due to the guitar samples. As much as it doesn’t fit with everything else, it becomes more perfect as time goes on. The song has the group talking about an old rockabilly musician who years after his peak, they find him out in the streets looking for food and money. It’s the story of many people who seeked rock & roll dreams, were the Beastie Boys putting themselves in the same shoes? Were they trying to tell people that rappers may one day fall into the same traps? At the end, the group offer a cryptic message for those of us who choose to do our research on long forgotten artists: “check… the cool… wax.”
“Eggman” begins with a well known Curtis Mayfield groove, and at first one might think that the song was a reference to The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus.” Instead, it became a song which discussed their stance against racism, and they used a crate of eggs as a metaphor for the world around us:
“Humpty Dumpty was a big fat egg
He was playin’ the wall, then he broke his leg
Tossed it out the window, three minutes hot
In the restaurant, he said ‘blood clot!’
Which came first, the chicken or the egg
I egged the chicken and then I ate his leg
Riding the trains inbetween cars
When I pull out the station, ‘you’re gonna get yours’
Drive by eggings plaguing L.A.
‘Yo, they just caught my little cousin, ese’
Sometimes hard boilled, sometimes runny
It comes from a chicken, not a bunny, dummy
People laugh, it’s no joke
My name’s Yauch, and I’m throwing the yoke
‘Now they got me in a cell’, but I don’t care
It was then that I was caught catching people out there”
Not only did they show us the stupidity of violence, they also did it by not only trading lines between each other, but also incorporating samples to make it sound as if the records are responding to their words. Their records were not only the instrumental backing, now they were having a voice as well. The records were now being used to speak. The moral of “Eggman” became very clear in the song’s last lines:
“You made the mistake, you judge a man by his race
You go through life with egg on your face
woke up in the morning, a peculiar feeling
looked up and saw egg dripping from the ceiling
families, punk rock, the businessman
I’ll dog anybody with an egg in my hand
Not like the crack that you put in the pipe
but crack on your forehead, here’s a towel, now wipe”
The song ends with sounds of a Psycho-tic nature, before you hear a harmonica that could easily come from an old shark movie of yesteryear. We then hear someone cock a gun and it seems the Beastie Boys are about to become gangstas.
The California influence was in effect with “High Plains Drifter.” In song, the group seemed to rip a page right out of “A Clockwork Orange,” where they not only destroy properly, but walk into a convenience store and proceed to hit the employee with a turban with a bag of ice. They continue to do crimes, speed off and eventually get arrested. Being the sneaky bastards they are, they manage to get someone to undo their handcuffs and they’re out again, going to the race track in the hopes of making more money. The crime spree continues. By calling it “High Plains Drifter,” they were probably trying to say that what they’re talking about is nothing but a story, just like in the movies.
“The Sounds Of Science” could easily be one of the first instances of what is known as nerd hip-hop. The first half of the song, using The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” seems to be some kind of school lesson to help teenagers in science class. But there are more scientific lessons to be learned in the second half:
“Time and money for girls covered with honey
you like and aspire to be as cunning
reelin’ and rockin’ and rollin’ B size D cup
Order the quarter deluxe, why don’t you wake up?
My mind is kind of flowin’ like an oil protector
Had to get up and get the Jimmy protector
Went beserk and worked and exploded
She woke up in the morning and her face was coated
Buddy, you study the man on the mic
D, do what you like
Drunk a skunk am I from the celebration
To peep that freek unique penetration
I figured out who makes the crack
It’s the suckers with the badges and the blue jackets
A professor of science ’cause I keep droppin’ it
I smell weak ’cause y’all keep poppin’ it”
If Beastie Boys fans were expecting more tales of late night frat parties, the group weren’t about to feed them a steady diet of stale food. Lyrically, they were showing a sense of maturity that no one was ready for, and in truth no one embraced at first. In “The Sounds Of Science” they seem to be talking about certain ladies of the night, but in “3 Minute Rule,” Ad Rock confronts a lady and he attempts to lay down his science to her, not romantic science, but as a way to help her out of her situation:
“You slip, you slack, you clock me, and you lack
While I’m reading on the road by my man, Jack Kerouac
Poetry in motion, coconut lotion
Had to dis the girl because she got so emotional
Are you experienced, little girl?
I want to know what goes on in your little girl world
‘Cause I’m on your mind, it’s hard to forget me
I’ll take your pride for a ride, if you let me”
“Hey Ladies” may seem to be a celebration of all that is feminine, but take a good listen and you’ll hear what men will do to women just to get in their pants. It’s the gift of gab, the art of the lie, and in the song we hear that in every situation, it ends up being unsatisfactory. It suggests that if we lie to get what we want, perhaps we get what we deserve. Was this the same three guys who once rapped about the wonders of “Girls”?
With the help of a “Five Piece Chicken Dinner,” Side 2 of the album begins in a similar manner to that of “Licensed To Ill,” with a heavy metal-esque track. Unlike the first album, the guitar and bass work in “Looking Down The Barrel Of Gun” were done by Ad Rock and MCA respectively. Once again, the group touch on the ugly world of violence, with various references cultural references to make a point. The point? Our culture is surrounded by violent imagery, and a lot of times we see violence as a way out. It’s one thing to hold the gun, but it’s another to be staring into one.
The Boys weren’t completely puritanical just yet, as they talk through their drug filled purple haze in the smokey “Car Thief.” They discuss some of their legal troubles, and how they all wanted to just escape and go as far away as possible from the source of the problem. They even mention him by name: Rush Rush (a/k/a Russell Simmons). “What Comes Around” continues on their rampage against their former boss, where they say without hesitation “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor/so get that money out of your ass, you whore.”
Courtesy of borrowed sounds from Rose Royce and Sly & The Family Stone, it seems the Beastie Boys are slowly driving away from the problems that had plagued them. “Shadrach” has them looking at their current situation and being proud of what they’ve done and accomplished, with hopes of doing more:
“If there’s a man upstairs, I hope that he cares
If I had a penny for my thoughts, I’d be a millionaire
We’re just three MC’s and we’re on the go
Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego”
Up to this point, the group had pretty much told listeners that they were men who had to grow up. One can still have the passion of a teenager, but logically we all have to reach a point in our lives when we have to leave those stupid tendencies behind. If no one got the point up through “Shadrach,” fans were definitely not ready for what was to come in the next 13 minutes.
In typical classic rock fashion, the Beastie Boys chose to end the album not with a big anthemic song, but a 13 minute, 9 part mini-opera, something no one in hip-hop had ever done or attempted to do. The song starts with them going back to the street where they used to sleep, hang out, live, and play music. They meet up with a woman and discover that perhaps, she’s not a woman at all. From the gritty streets they move to a place where they “Get On The Mic” and it sounds like what it might’ve sounded like during their first rap session, complete with a human beat box and loose turntable work. They get ready to head to The Fever nightclub, and they find themselves riding the D-train towards their destination. We are greeted by the characters on the train, and the listener can easily see and smell what they are experiencing in the car.
Eventually they make it to their station, and make it outside to see more characters. As they make their way up to the streets, MCA somehow reaches a moment of clarity that would hint of the changes everyone in the group, especially Adam Yauch, would be going through in his life. One can say that a lot of what the Beastie Boys are about today originated from “A Year And A Day.” The song was difficult to understand at first since MCA’s voice was surrounded with effects, and it wouldn’t be until the release of “Check Your Head” when fans got a chance to read the lyrics. Those who bought that album could send in for lyrics, and within those papers were the lyrics to “A Year And A Day.” Adam Yauch got his chance to shine with something that comes off more like a diary entry than a rap song:
“M.C. for what I am and do
the A is for Adam and the lyrics; true
So as pray and hope and the message is sent
And I am living in the dreams that I have dreamt
Because I’m down with the three the unstoppable three
Me and Adam and D. were born to M.C.
And my body and soul and mind are pure
Not polluted or diluted or damaged beyond cure
Just lyrics from I to you recited
Arrested, bailed but cuffed and indicted
Enter the arena as I take center stage
The lights set low and the night has come of age
Take the microphone in hand as that I am a professional
Speak my knowledge to the crowd and the ed. is special
For I am the one and I am the master
I am the king and this is my castle
Dwell in realms of now but vidi those of the past
Seen a glimpse from ahead and I don’t think it’s gonna last
And you can bet your ass
I drop the L. when I’m skiing
I’m smoking and peaking
I put the skis on the roof almost every single weekend
Can’t stop the mindfuck when it’s rolling along
Can’t stop the smooth runnin’s when the shit’s running strong
Broke my bindings the lion with wings
Preaching his word in the B. Boy sing
I am one with myself as I turn to The
I prefer the dreams to reality
I prefer my life don’t need no other man’s wife
Don’t need no crazy lifestyle with stress and strife
But it’s good to have turn to be a king for a day
Or for a week or for a year or for a year and a day
Come what may
I’m fishing with my boat and I’m fishing for trout
Mix the Bass Ale with the Guiness Stout
Fishing for a line inside my brain
And looking out at the world through my window pane
Every day has many colors cuz the glass is stained
Everything has changed but remains the same
So once again the mirror raised and I see myself as clear as day
And I’m going to the limits of my ultimate destiny
Feeling as though Somebody were testing me
He who sees the end from the beginning of time
Looking forward through all the ages
Is, was and always shall be
Check the prophetic sections of the pages”
Yauch is immediately awaken from his dream by Ad Rock, who proudly tells his mates that they are back home, in Brooklyn. As they walk the streets of Brooklyn at 3am, the throbbing pace makes it feel as if everything is moving in slow motion. Along the way they meet up with more characters that make this city their home. Now they’re back home, they realize they are faced with the same problems as before, but decide to keep on going until they reached their final destination. At the end, it seems we have reached the same park that was shown in the last segment of the old school movie “Wild Style,” complete with “Good Times” scratches representing the moment. They each give shout outs to all of their friends, and it feels like a homecoming for them, in the place where hip-hop came from. In other words, no matter where they live, they will always call New York City their home. You feel the excitement of the group, and after Ad Rock says “good night Amsterdam,” a go-go sample let’s us realize that we have all been taught a lesson. The entire album built up to this moment, and it’s time for the climax.
Now, the afterglow. The album ends where it began, Idris Muhammad still in the background, and MCA still offering his music “To All The Girls.” I remember the first time I listened to this album, and how I felt after the final fade. I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to react. It was too good, for me it was perfection. This was a thousand times better than “Licensed To Ill,” and I just sat on my bedroom floor, staring at the wall wondering if I actually heard what I just heard.
As a fan of sample-based music, this far surpassed anything I had heard up to this point. The Bomb Squad were creating their Wall Of Noise on albums by Public Enemy, and eventually Ice Cube’s debut solo album. When the Beastie Boys weren’t sure about how to begin their second album, they were told about a group of radio DJ’s who were making their own music. The Dust Brothers were actually in the middle of recording their own album of quirky instrumentals when they met the Beastie Boys. The Boys heard the tracks, and asked if they’d be interested in collaborating. A lot of what is heard on “Paul’s Boutique” is due to the craftiness of the Dust Brothers, and perhaps the sharing of a lot of unknown chemical substances between the two groups. The Dust Brothers brought their style of sample-based productions to the Beastie Boys, a style that was much tighter and organized than what Rick Rubin had done on “Licensed To Ill.” On “Paul’s Boutique” you had beats move into other beats as if they were one song, and you weren’t sure which was which. Or as is the case with “Eggman,” you had the bassline from Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” mixed in with a similar sounding bassline from Tower Of Power’s “Drop It In The Slot.” To most, it sounds like one musician playing the same bass guitar, but to those who study hip-hop production, it was a clever musical reference that matched the two songs together seamlessly.
The Dust Brothers were sampling much more than just James Brown, whose catalog was being raped and pillaged on a daily basis in 1989. One couldn’t buy a record without hearing “Funky Drummer,” “Think,” or “The Big Payback.” Brown’s presence on “Paul’s Boutique” was a full eight seconds, and maybe that was a way to prove that there is much more in the musical world than just the same old James Brown beats. If you listen closely, you may spot sounds from the likes of Loggins & Messina, The Ramones, Issac Hayes, Sly & The Family Stone, Ballinjack, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Cameo, The World Famous Supreme Team, Sweet, The Eagles, The Isley Brothers, Kool & The Gang, and many more. For producers like myself, this (along with the work Prince Paul did on “3 Feet High And Rising”) told us that it was okay to put together those weird experimental mixes, featuring odd records that weren’t hip to begin with. Through the music, it made those unusual records sound as if it was meant to be manipulated in a hip-hop fashion. The Beastie Boys would be heavily influenced by the work of the Dust Brothers, so when they would record their next album, they would go at it on their own. The Dust Brothers would move on with working with artists on Delicious Vinyl, as well as songs for Beck, Hanson, and the Rolling Stones.
Critics loved the album, with “Rolling Stone” magazine giving it a four star rating. It was definitely a critics favorite. “Paul’s Boutique” initially sold 500,000 copies, but was called a failure since it could not match the 4 million copies sold of “Licensed To Ill.” The group had planned on a small club tour, but the tour never happened (some say “poor” sales forced Capitol to pull the plug on the promotion of the album). The only existence of what could’ve been is the live video of “Shadrach.” The fans who stayed true to the group had to wait another three years for them to tour, and to see some of “Paul’s Boutique” performed live.
Some fans may not have bought it, but a lot of rappers and producers did. They were now the white boys that could hold it on their own. Chuck D., who was going to work on the production on the Def Jam “White House” project, took one listen to “Paul’s Boutique” and said he wanted nothing to do with the other project. The “White House” project was never heard from again. Bill Stephney said he bought two copies of the album, so he could analyze the beats wherever he went. For about a year, everyone was taking a piece of the Boutique and making it their own, including Yo-Yo’s “You Can’t Play With My Yo-Yo,” Tony Scott’s “The Chief,” and Terminator X’s “Buck Whylin’.”
Maybe because of “Paul’s Boutique,” it had been said that no one on a major label could ever get away with releasing an album like that again, not with the amount of uncleared samples on it. “Paul’s Boutique,” if released today, would probably cost much more than the price of the 1988 recording sessions. Yet in 2000, Australia’s The Avalanches released “Since I Left You,” which may not have been a hip-hop album per se but it was heavily influenced by hip-hop. Without “Paul’s Boutique,” Josh Davis might not have had the guts to create the masterpiece known as “Endtroducing.”
“Paul’s Boutique” stands out on its own for many reasons. It is an album by a group of men who were considered to be a joke by the mainstream, but loved by those who enjoyed their crafty and humorous lyrics. They were a group who took on success and didn’t embrace it, but rather analyzed it and see how it fit them as individuals. All of this would involve new businesses, marriages, a divorce, and a lot of spiritual enlightenment, especially for Adam Yauch. “Check Your Head” is often viewed today as the beginning of the group’s maturity, but they were doing this three years previous to that. It belongs to an era of hip-hop that many say will never be recreated. It’s the kind of album that, unlike others that are “of its time,” becomes timeless.