I spent a large part of the 2000s trying to catch up with rap groups from the 80s and 90s. Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run DMC, Body Count, Wu-Tang, and of course, the Beastie Boys. I was very reluctant to listen to them at first. When I illegally downloaded Licensed to Ill off KaZaa, it was more out of a sense of obligation then excitement. I didn’t want to like it. I made up other reasons at the time, but it was because they were, like me, white Jews. At this point, one of my requirements for music was that it be the furthest thing from my own experiences as possible. I spent a large part of my time being avoided by the cool, partying kids; listening to music by them just seemed cruel. So I put them away for a few years, which was for the best, really. I needed a couple of years to get ready for Paul’s Boutique.
Paul’s Boutique starts off with “To All the Girls,” a slow beat, something you’d hear off a blaxploitation soundtrack. It quickly jumps into “Shake Your Rump,” the sonic equivalent of a roller coaster. A snare drum cuts in, MCA proclaims that he’ll rock a house party at the drop of the hat, that he’ll beat a body down with an aluminum bat. That little detail of aluminum makes you pay attention. The interplay between him, Ad-Roc and Mike D on the track is liquid, they flow into each other and could finish sentences if they wanted. There’s teasing, constant shout-outs to each other, and you can quickly see what Mark Richardson observed in his brilliant retrospective—that the “Beastie Boys are ultimately a celebration of friendship.” You can certainly witness that on Licensed, but it feels more mature here, like work was put into defining what that friendship means.
What made me pick up Paul’s Boutique in the first place was its back story of the Beasties fleeing New York, Def Jam, and Rick Rubin for L.A., where I happened to be living. While there, they hooked up with producers the Dust Brothers, and were able to convince them to use already-made instrumental tracks as backing rap beats. If Licensed to Ill sought to match rap with 80’s hair metal, the beats for the 1989 Paul’s Boutique feel like a blueprint for the Girl Talk remix culture that would spring up nearly two decades later. You’re never quite sure which of the 104 samples will come next, how exactly the beat will change (although this website helps). It still felt limitless, and was my first true realization of the endless scenarios and possibilities music can create.
There’s still a cockiness to Paul’s Boutique, a smarter-then-thou joking that’s a clear ancestor to Das Racist. There’s also an undeniable, inescapable horniness mixed with bravado, the same type you see on Licensed. But if that album is based around “No Sleep Til (Brooklyn),” then Paul’s is centered around “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” a twelve-and-a-half minute suite that closes the album. For some reason, the 20th anniversary edition of the album splits each of its nine parts into different tracks, which is a shame. Taken all together, they intertwine the type of love for New York that only a self-imposed exile brings, along with their own personal growth. It starts off with a kind of gross description of a triple-team strip down of a girl, but quickly jumps into pure braggadocio and then even quicker into scenes from a cartoon-sized New York, bumping into a trigger happy Bernhard Goetz, funk parties in Jamaica, Queens, and liquor stores pushing porn magazines in seedy parts of Brooklyn. There’s nothing that you’d qualify as serious, but the twelve minutes snowball, picking up new ideas and building into “A.W.O.L,” the last segment which mimics the end of a live show. It then jumps back to the opening blaxspolation opener.
It works as a nice metaphor for their–and especially MCA’s–career. From being a partying jock in License to working towards freeing Tibet, Yauch never stopped changing and growing, letting new ideas build on top of old ones. That type of constant change is rare and special, and easily visible on Paul’s Boutique. So much so that it inspired a 17-year-old me to give License to Ill a second chance. And you know what? Flaws and all, it’s pretty damn good.
David Grossman is a writer currently living in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidmeirrobot.
(photo credit: Thos Robinson/Getty Images)