Paul’s Boutique: An Appreciation

by Misha Lepetic

“If you explain to a musician he'll tell that
he knows it but he just can't do it”
~ Bob Marley

Pauls_bigIt's hard to imagine that the Beastie Boys released “Paul's Boutique” around this time, 25 years ago. Even more astonishing is the fact that I recently had two separate conversations with members of the so-called Millennial Generation, which resulted in the extraordinary discovery that neither person had even heard of “Paul's Boutique.” Now this may make me sound like an ornery codger complaining about how the young folk of today are illiterate because they have never heard of (insert name of your own pet artist). But taken together, these two events require me to submit a modest contribution to keeping the general awareness of “Paul's Boutique” alive and well.

What makes “Paul's Boutique” so extraordinary and enduring? The sophomoric effort by the brash NYC trio debuted in 1989, and was the much-anticipated follow-up to “License To Ill.” But instead of a new set of frat party anthems along the lines of “Fight For Your Right (To Party),” listeners were treated to a continuous magic carpet woven out of a kaleidoscope of samples. Romping over this dense, schizophrenic bricolage, MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D traded lightning-quick call-and-response rhymes that embraced the usual MC braggadocio but at the same time drew on a vast range of sources and styles. The effect, to this day, is a delirious sort of aural whiplash.

No one is clear on how many songs were actually sampled, although the number is certainly well over a hundred. The exegesis of both samples and lyrical references is a time-honored tradition, too. Around 1995, one of the first sites that ever made me think the World Wide Web might be a good idea was (and continues to be) the Paul's Boutique Samples and References List. When studied, Torah-like, alongside the Beastie Boys Annotated Lyrics and the record itself, one begins to appreciate the catholic taste of both the rappers and their producers, the inimitable Dust Brothers, who would go on to provide much of the genius behind Beck's seminal “Odelay” album a few years later.

A few examples from the lyrics and the music should serve to illustrate this diversity. Who would think that when the petty grifter protagonist of “High Plains Drifter” is arrested and “thrown into a cell/With a drunk called Otis” that the reference is to Otis, the town drunk on the “Andy Griffith Show”? And how can combining Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the jazz stylings of Gene Harris to create the groove for “What Comes Around” be anything but reckless? How about referencing Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone school of composition (“Only twelve notes a man can play”), or mashing together no less than four Beatles songs to create a new one (“Sound of Science”)? And for those who grew up in the New York area around that time, it is a treasure trove of nostalgia, for example with the boasts that they've “got more louie than Phil Rizzuto” and “got more suits than Jacoby & Meyers” (remember those infomercials about home loans and divorce lawyers?).

What's remarkable about this is not just the variety, but also the insistent lack of purpose. There is no conceit that really unifies the album. In contrast, consider De La Soul's “3 Feet High And Rising” – released a few months before “Paul's Boutique” – which carried a similar density of both pop culture lyrical references and sample-heavy textures. But “3 Feet High And Rising” was arguably the first hip-hop album to use a skit (in this case, a game show) to create a framework around which the rest of the album was structured, and despite its own diversity of sampled sources there was a genteel, accessible flow to the entire record.

BackOn the other hand, “Paul's Boutique” exhibits a merry sort of disregard for the expectations of its listeners, with jarring shifts in mood and timing – for example, a jokey, extended banjo sample lifted from the movie “Deliverance” is decisively crushed by a subsequent combination of samples from Mountain and Pink Floyd, forming the introduction to “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun.” There is no transition whatsoever to ease the listener, like a record scratch, a door closing or any such sonic signifier. At the same time the transition is also utterly devoid of artifice; its suddenness forces us to reconsider our intention as listeners. Am I supposed to be chortling, or gravely nodding my head? The heaviness of the groove is initially supported by rhymes of equally heavy subject matter – and then completely undermined when we are informed that the protagonist is

On a mission
A stolen car mission
Had a small problem
With the transmission

Essentially, “Paul's Boutique” is 54 minutes' worth of exactly this sort of unbridled, priceless anarchy. There is a peerless sense of play in action here. The first time you listen to the album, you will probably catch about 10% of it. And 25 years later, I'm thoroughly pleased that I'm still picking up new details.


The surprising bit about “Paul's Boutique” is that as it has aged, it has only gained in stature, and, if I may say so, grace. But it didn't start off that way. Capitol Records had committed over a million dollars and eighteen months in top-shelf studios only to see its investment bear little initial fruit, both in terms of critical and listener reception. Soon enough, Capitol's executives were keener to promote a new Donny Osmond record. As a result, there was little promotion and no tour in support of the record (although the record release party footage is pretty entertaining, with skywriting, flag-raising, a Dixieland band and plenty of b-boy banter, starting at 15:34). And yet, ten years later, the album had gone double platinum; by 2003, a Rolling Stone survey of the 500 greatest albums had ranked it at number 156.

In hindsight, it's clear that “Paul's Boutique” happened to drop at the midpoint of what has since become known as ‘golden age of hip-hop.' Every genre experiences a period when it is essentially being innovated into existence, and every release has an outsized impact on the pathways of its future evolution. It's something akin to the Cambrian Explosion, where life burst forth in thoroughly unexpected and variegated ways. In hip-hop, this period lasted approximately from 1987-1993. Indeed, both “3 Feet High And Rising” and “Paul's Boutique” have been crowned the “Sgt Pepper of rap,” but there were many, many other examples, including Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr and more.

But all golden ages must come to an end, and a strong candidate for hip-hop's Ragnarok was the 1991 lawsuit, Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., which poured cold water over sampling practices in hip hop (Biz Markie was the defendant in this case). Even prior to that decision, De La Soul had been sued by The Turtles in 1989, and settled out of court for a reported $1.7 million. In contrast, and perhaps due to the alacrity of Capitol's lawyers, all the samples on “Paul's Boutique” were cleared for about $250,000, a sum that would be considered laughably trivial today. But in 1989 it was still unclear whether hip-hop had any staying power. Once it became evident that the money machine was just getting started, the limitless creativity that the sampling revolution had inspired became an obvious target for litigation.

In fact, to this day De La Soul has not been able to clear all the samples on “3 Feet High And Rising” in order to allow online sales to go forward on iTunes, et al. Last February, as an act of defiance, and in commemoration of their own 25th anniversary, the group resorted to giving away its entire catalog for a period of 24 hours. (For a fascinating overview of the vibrant state of remix culture and the dispiritingly overwhelming forces arrayed against it, please devote 30 minutes to watch Andy Baio relate his own experience in the matter.)

LetitbeastcolorHowever, litigation is not the only factor ensuring the essential unrepeatability of “Paul's Boutique.” Consider that 1989 was at the threshold of the digital era. Digital samplers existed but were very expensive and could only store minimal snippets of sound. All editing was still done on tape, using X-Acto blades and Scotch tape. So one must concede that, as madcap as the record may sound today, this was done with great intentionality and care. It's instructive to contrast this with the mashup artists of today. Thanks to digital editing and the ease with which producers can time-stretch samples and edit their placement in a mix (virtually on the fly) there would seem to be no limits, and mashup culture has indeed seen a thousand flowers bloom. But I'm not the first to maintain that rules, restrictions and boundaries can have a salutary effect on creativity, whether these constraints are imposed on us by our equipment, source material, or anything else. In particular, the limitations created by equipment in the early period of hip-hop and electronic music in general led artists to push their kit to the edge, and sometimes past it. The net result is the naissance of a genre, bursting with possibility.

As an example, a current producer who is exceptionally popular is Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. Gillis has developed an aggressive, party-oriented sound that mixes rap a capella vocals with pop, rock and even heavy metal backing tracks (check out a recent effort, “All Day“). Given the preceding discussion, this sounds promising. On the surface, Gillis's work follows much of the “Paul's Boutique” playbook: a refined sound with lots of twists and turns, unexpected juxtapositions and an encyclopedic mastery of several genres. And from a technical point of view, Gillis's work is very, very smooth. But I am disappointed. Perhaps it is because the vocals are taken from hip-hop well past its aforementioned golden age; the subjects are weary and familiar (partying, materialism, narcissism, etc). But there is also, for lack of a better term, a relentless homogeneity in his work. No matter how well the samples fit together, that's the extent of it – and this is something that is true for most mashups in general. A good example is found on the irreplaceable Who Sampled website: Gillis sampling, among other things, “Hey Ladies,” the first single from “Paul's Boutique.” Here Gillis takes the Beastie Boys' vocals and jams them on top of the Misfits' “Lust For Life.” To me, the result is jump-up-and-down party music, whereas the original “Hey Ladies” has a languid, funky feeling that takes its time but nevertheless delivers just as much, if not more, sampling variation. Simply put, the music breathes better. (I should also add that Gillis has not been sued to bits by this point, a fact that is utterly mystifying to me; but good for him.)

Beastie-boys-muralOthers have approached the opportunity of “Paul's Boutique” completely differently. In 2012, DJ Cheeba, DJ Moneyshot, and DJ Food collaborated on a remix of the album, and released “Caught in the Middle of a Three-Way Mix,” constructed entirely out of the original songs that were sampled. But these three DJs, themselves masters of the medium, have achieved something really remarkable. The closest analogy I can come up with is when scientists take anX-ray of a masterpiece of painting, revealing the layers that exist beneath what has been familiar to us for so long. The result is a sort of aural palimpsest, and it is exhilarating. In a sense, we are provided a glimpse of the process that brought “Paul's Boutique” to fruition, and we can appreciate anew all the work that went into cherry-picking only the most relevant moments from a galaxy of existing work.

Perhaps for the best, the Beastie Boys never tried to match the dense style of “Paul's Boutique.” Their next effort, “Check Your Head,” saw them move away from collaboration with the Dust Brothers and towards a more homegrown approach. The sample-driven paradigm yielded to a vastly stripped down approach, with the trio playing instruments on the vast bulk of the record. But “Paul's Boutique” remains unequalled, and it's with an almost giddy anticipation – and perhaps even a sense of privilege – that I'll be introducing a few young folks to its joyous meanderings. Gather 'round, children.