If you feel a huge disconnect for old school hip-hop because of the dated sound – I can hardly sympathize with you. I, for one, love the classic mid-80’s boom-bap sound with the static layered over the dusty beats and wack rhymes. Give me Kurtis Blow. Give me Whodini. Give me Run-DMC. Give me the old school and I can vibe for days – I pretty much dig all of the essential old school hip-hop records. Except there’s always one that I consider unlistenable and it’s the Beastie Boys debut: Licensed To Ill.
To me it’s not even a rap album, it was a punk album masqueraded as hip-hop because it’s under Def Jam’s label, and future hip-hop mega-producer Rick Rubin is behind the boards.. Its dense rock samples and lack of lyrical maturity turned me off and I could never appreciate it. So when I heard the Beastie Boys sophomore effort was a critically acclaimed, sampladelic masterpiece, I found it hard to fathom. Without even giving it a chance I kind of just accepted I would never like the Beasties.
If you’re like me (and you probably aren’t) then I highly recommend to not give up on the Beasties if all you know is “Fight For Your Right (To Party)”. Yes, your mom probably knows that song, and yes, it’s awful – but she probably hasn’t heard of Paul’s Boutique and trust me, it’s not awful.
In fact, it features some of the freshest beats that have stood the test of time unlike any other from this era in hip-hop. The opener – “Shake Your Rump” – blows my mind everytime I listen. In a time where beats generally relied on one sample looped throughout the entire duration – this was miles ahead. It’s like you’re messing around on GarageBand and throw a million different sounds into one (except this actually sounds good). It’s a fluctuating wave of samples that impressively tie together into a smooth – yet noisy – three-minute track. The different amount of elements and genres that blend into each other is outstanding. You’ll be amazed this came out in 1989.
Another highlight is “Car Thief”. The funk samples are perfectly blended into a dizzying sequence of different tones and atmospheres. Listen for that ‘ahing’ and ‘oohing’ that occurs throughout the verses that blends oh so perfectly with the funkiest guitar possible. Plus, at around the 2:30 mark there’s some huge bongo hits that leads into a part of the beat where the frequency just gets high as fuck and everything sounds all squeaky. It’s a really cool moment.
There’s also the uncanny, eerie sound of “High Plains Drifter”. It’s basically a white boy version of “Gimme The Loot” for all you Biggie fans out there. Don’t worry about the lyrics, though. Listen to those sensual moans that loom over the subtle electric guitar sample. Listen to the buoyant energy in Shadrach if you aren’t sold. That whole “Hey-a hey-a” woman’s vocal sample that occurs throughout the verse – and gets even better with the trumpet in the chorus – is super ahead of it’s time. Just the fact that “Sounds of Science” changes moods on “Bohemian Rhapsody”-type level should be enough to garner your praise, or attention at the very least. Nobody could have ever predicted a hip-hop song as experimental considering the minimalism of essentials like Criminal Minded and Yo! Bum Rush The Show that had come out just two short years prior. In a whole Paul’s Boutique is a vast landscape of different sounds. The direction production-wise that the Beasties take is hugely risky. The move paid off as this was the most advanced use of sampling up to that point in rap. And while it didn’t reap rewards financially it should forever be remembered as a landmark in hip-hop production.
1989 was the year where production was starting to become more appreciated than lyrics in rap. And this album is so well-produced that I didn’t really listen to the lyrics in the beginning. I was pretty mesmerized by the beats and as long as the boys were yelling something, I was cool with it. Upon further analysis, the lyrics are pretty juvenile and basic. They can’t really focus on one specific topic and pull out mediocre one-liners as often as they can. However, the yelling and line sharing adds a certain type of energy and level of entertainment which I enjoy. Musically, this was definitely the most advanced thing to come out of hip-hop at the time by a wide margin.
Production-wise it’s nearly perfect. Even the lyrics are improved over their last effort. It’s the last of the frat-boy Beastie behaviour before they changed their content in the 90’s. The fact that they ended with an awesome album is pretty sweet and it totally got me into them. I have no fucking idea who the Dust Brothers are, but whoever they are, they are some of the best dudes using samples in the history of rap. There were a huge heap of samples used in this and it came at the perfect time considering the sampling rules were basically non-existent or ignored. It’s certainly an odd marriage – frat boys with aspirations to be rockstars making an essential hip-hop album – but as long as the two love each other, it works. For the Beastie Boys and Paul’s Boutique, it sure as hell works.