“They were, without a doubt, the smartest bunch of really arrogant kids I had ever met. I was like, ‘They’re too smart not to pull it off.'” – David Berman, former Capitol Records president
It’s an undisputed classic and a landmark in sampling now, but Beastie Boys‘ second studio album, Paul’s Boutique, wasn’t always that way. In fact, to many, it was considered a failure upon its release in July 1989. Not long after the album’s release, the rap group 3rd Bass would publicly burn the Beasties in their track “Sons of 3rd Bass” – “dropping “Screamin’ ‘Hey Ladies’/Why bother”. To be fair, they had a point. “Hey Ladies”, the album’s first single, barely scraped the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40, and the album itself only peaked at #14 on the Billboard 200 and even worse, #24 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Top Albums chart. (That means there were 23 hip hop albums in 1989 that sold more copies in Paul’s Boutique‘s best sales week. How many hip hop acts that were active in 1989 can you even name?) But MCA, Ad-Rock, and Mike D had a bigger play. The band intended for the album to be discovered by crate diggers like themselves, rather than the same people who bought Licensed To Ill, and despite some reservation from those associated with the album – including its producers – the plan worked. Creatively, it reenergized the band, opened their door to contractual freedom, and set the stage for an entire genre of music, now known as mashup. Paul’s Boutique was everything that Licensed to Ill was not, but more importantly, it was a tribute to the the discovery, creation, and sharing of music.
An important thing to note about Paul’s Boutique is that prior to its creation, the future of the Beastie Boys as a musical group was far from clear. While Licensed to Ill was a commercial success, the Beasties were viewed primarily as a reflection of their biggest hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)”: juvenile, fluke-y white rappers who were just as boneheaded as the frat boy characters they played in the song’s video. And the band knew it. The song was a parody of party anthem songs that dominated radio at the time, but much to the group’s chagrin, the vast majority of their fans didn’t pick up on the joke. (To be fair, having a 10-foot inflatable penis and women in cages as their onstage decorations wasn’t helping their case.) Furthermore, at the end of the tour cycle for Licensed to Ill, the band were in contractual dispute with Def Jam Records, separated from their original producer (a then not-quite-famous Rick Rubin) and away from their native New York City due to Adam Horowitz’s filming commitments in LA for the movie Lost Angels. At the time, there was no concrete plan for a second Beastie Boys album because to get out of their contract with Def Jam, they’d essentially have to break up. Despite being one of the most commercially successful rap groups – white or black – of the day, the future of the Beasties was not promising.
But that all changed one day when Mike D was – what else – out looking for a good time. He called up one of his friends, the LA club promoter, DJ, and Delicious Vinyl owner Matt Dike. Matt Dike one February afternoon in 1988. Dike said to come on over, he was hanging out with some friends and they’d all listen to some music and maybe partake in some substances. Dike’s friends were Mike Simpson and John King, also known as the Dust Brothers, who hosted the hottest hip-hop show in Southern California. The duo’s shows featured all of the newest hip hop records, but the coolest part, of all things, was the music in the background of the PSAs. A blend of sampled funk, rock, and hip hop songs woven into each other – in a style later known as mashup – played behind the PSAs. And thanks to some crafty timing from Matt Dike, it also happened to be what was playing when Mike D came to the apartment. After hearing the tracks, Mike D asked who made these tracks that had just blown his mind. When the (slightly nervous) Dust Brothers answered that it was they who made the song, Mike D only had one response: “Can I buy that?”
Fast forward to a few months later, and the Beasties and the Dust Brothers were holed up in Dike’s living room – that’s right, Paul’s Boutique was made in someone’s living room – with engineer Mario Caldato Jr. and hundreds of vinyl records. After showing some of the early tracks to Capitol Records A&R man Tim Carr, the esteemed Los Angeles label were convinced they had potential superstars on their hands and, despite an array of lawsuits from Def Jam waiting for them, signed the Beasties to a two-album, guaranteed $3 million deal. But it definitely wasn’t because they thought the Beasties had another hit in their back pocket. Capitol thought they had a Sgt. Pepper’s-style masterpiece, something that avoid impacting current musical trends by bypassing them completely. It wasn’t just unusual that the Beasties were making hip hop records without drum machines and boom bap production, it was insane. Using a J.L. Cooper PPS-1, the Beasties and the Dusts were layering sample on top of sample on top of sample, with no parameters and no rules other than the song had to sound cool. Drawing from the vinyl collections of the Beastie Boys, the Dust Brothers, and Matt Dike, the group repurposed sounds from anyone and everywhere. Jazz drummers. Early hip-hop. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. Movie soundtracks. The sound of Matt Dike ripping from a bong. At one point, as a sly in-joke, they even sampled “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)”. In the end, anywhere between 100 and 300 songs were sampled – for legal and artistic reasons, the exact list and number will likely never be revealed – across the album’s 53 minutes.
To understand why Paul’s Boutique is so influential is to understand that the group’s retromaniacal tendencies also doubled as their most progressive. Hip-hop had evolved some since its inception in 1970s New York City, but it had been mostly static for the past few years. Although there were certainly some groups pushing the genres boundaries – De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest immediately come to mind – the formula for a hip-hop track was fairly cemented: a hard 808 beat played while a rapper unleashed swift rhymes laced with braggadocio and wordplay. As opposed to the guitar and piano-led compositions that dominated the musical landscape since the advent of rock and roll, hip hop was the next step forward in American music. That’s why Paul’s Boutique‘s willingness to draw from and subsequently repurpose the past was so groundbreaking. Obviously, musicians have drawn inspiration from other music for ages, but the voracious, omniphilic way that the Beasties went about it was so unlike anything in hip hop, or any other genre for that matter. Granted, the technology that was at their disposal certainly facilitated the album’s creation, but it wouldn’t have been made without a huge knowledge – and love – of music. It’s telling that part of the album’s creative process was just the Beasties and the Dust Brothers hanging out listening to records and kicking it. Every time Paul’s Boutique sounds like a group of friends having the time of their lives, it’s because it is. It’s not a group of musicians trying to sell records, or keep up with their contemporaries, or prove anything to anyone. It’s a document of bunch of young twentysomethings going through the music they loved and saying, “Isn’t this great? Let’s make something great too.”
The ultimate vindication of Paul’s Boutique is its enduring influence. As an element of musical composition, sampling is more prominent than ever, even though it often ends up being financially expensive for the artists sampling (see: Biz Markie, Sam Smith). Because of the result of Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., an album composed like Paul’s Boutique will probably never see a wide, legal release ever again. (In 2011, author Kembrew McLeod and copyright lawyer Peter DiCola estimated that Paul’s Boutique would cost $20 million if they could even get the countless legal permissions.) But the album’s singularity only underscores how Paul’s Boutique was the undeniable facilitator for so many musical works. In a world without Paul’s Boutique, no one is waiting for the second Avalanches album because the first one doesn’t exist. Girl Talk is still an engineer. Glee would probably still have made it to air, but with more straightforward covers and fewer painfully forced mashups. To be clear, the Beastie Boys and Dust Brothers certainly didn’t invent sampling, but they undoubtedly blew its doors wide open, leading to a path that listeners are still journeying through twenty six years after Paul’s Boutique first opened for business.