‘Paul’s Boutique’: How Beastie Boys’ Sleeper Hit Redefined Hip-Hop

Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ album was a slow burn at first, but its mind-boggling inventiveness is now hailed as one of the cornerstones of hip-hop.

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Cover: Courtesy of Capitol Records

By the time Beastie Boys convened to record the follow-up to their debut, Licensed To Ill, they’d painted themselves into a corner. That first album boasted rock hooks, hard raps, and explosive singles that helped push the record to platinum status in no time flat. But MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock’s send-up of frat-boy culture threatened to become a self-sabotaging millstone heavier than the Volkswagen chain Mike D wore around his neck.

Three years later they’d left Def Jam, signed with Capitol, and pitched up at The Dust Brothers’ place looking to create a follow-up that would avoid the one-hit wonder tag. As luck would have it, the production duo had been working on a complex patchwork of beats, songs, dialogue snippets, and anything else they could lay their hands on. Beastie Boys saw their future in its gleefully anarchic collage: the basis of what would become Paul’s Boutique.

Listen to Paul’s Boutique on Apple Music and Spotify.

“A lot of the tracks come from songs they’d planned to release to clubs as instrumentals,” Ad-Rock later told Clash magazine in the UK. “They were quite surprised when we said we wanted to rhyme on it, because they thought it was too dense.” The Brothers offered to strip the tracks to their bare beats, but the Beasties demurred and quickly got to work writing additional songs with their new collaborators.

Released on July 25, 1989, and named after a fictional clothing store, Paul’s Boutique (actually Lee’s Sportswear, located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; the vinyl sleeve folded out to reveal a panoramic photo of the corner at Ludlow and Rivington Streets) initially confused punters looking for more of Licensed To Ill’s jock bravado. In the years since, however, it’s been rightly hailed as one of the cornerstones of hip-hop.

Gleefully racing through samples by everyone from The Beatles to Johnny Cash (the album has spawned entire websites devoted to tracing the sources, variously estimated at between 100 and 300 samples), Paul’s Boutique made clear exactly what was possible with hip-hop at a time when the number of lawsuits issued by disgruntled songwriters was on the rise. Though everyone involved is adamant that the samples were cleared, the $250,000 allegedly spent on doing so is nothing compared to today’s licensing fees. Just as soon as the Beasties and co opened the floodgates, they were pushed shut again. It would be impossible to make Paul’s Boutique today.

Beastie Boys - Hey Ladies

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Matching the mind-boggling array of samples is Beastie Boys’ own stylistic range. “Hey Ladies” is a funky, self-satirizing cut that sees the trio at their most idiosyncratically seductive (“Step to the rhythm, step to the ride/I’ve got an open mind so why don’t you all get inside”), while “Shake Your Rump” is the great party-starting single that never was and Miami bass receives an outing on “Hello Brooklyn” (part of the closing 12-minute tour de force that is the nine-part “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” suite). Elsewhere, “5-Piece Chicken Dinner” is a raucous 20-second hoedown that dives headlong into “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”: both a nod to Beastie Boys’ early incarnation as a punk outfit and a signpost towards future high point “Sabotage.”

On “Egg Man” the trio resurrected their frat persona, only to prove how far they’d come with a lyrical dexterity that replaces bullet shells with eggshells in a tale of dumbass street carnage. The track is exemplary of the “bulls__t tough-guy bravado” that Rolling Stone picked up on in a review that conceded it was nevertheless “clever and hilarious bulls__t”.

In his review for Playboy, Robert Christgau said, “In their irresponsible, exemplary way they make fun of drug misuse, racism, assault and other real vices fools might accuse them of.” Fools, indeed. Paul’s Boutique may have been a slow burn at first, but anyone who’d pegged the Beasties as chancers who’d lost the fight for their right to party would soon be shamefaced. To paraphrase the group themselves: dropping the new science and kicking the new k-knowledge, they were MCs to a degree that you can’t get in college.

Paul’s Boutique can be bought here.

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