One of the most common observations about the Beastie Boys’ classic Paul Boutique, which turns 25 this year, is that it’s an album that could never be made again, thanks to the way sampling laws have changed. But that assertion deserves some qualifiers.
Sampling law has obviously come a long way since the mid ’80s, when the Beasties bit big chunks of Led Zeppelin with impunity on their debut, Licensed to Ill. As early as 1988, when they had decamped to California to make Paul’s Boutique with the production team of the Dust Brothers, Matt Dike and Mario Caldato, there was an awareness that the landscape was changing. “I thought that the more samples you had, the less sample clearance you’d have to do, because you just couldn’t differentiate one from the other,” the band’s A&R man, the late Tim Carr, told me some years ago. “So that was the theory in play. It was like Jackson Pollock.”
That’s not a bad description of Paul’s Boutique, a dizzying canvas filled with color and quotations — both musical and verbal — that constantly reveals new facets, and remains the group’s magnum opus.
But it’s also true that, in the past quarter-century, copyright law has been flouted regularly —through the explosion of remix culture, mash-ups and the charmed career of Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. So maybe the better way to view the samplescape of Paul’s Boutique is less as a closed door and more as a gateway for all that’s followed.
[For Whom the Cowbell Tolls: 25 Years of Paul's Boutique (66 2/3 Press), by Dan LeRoy and Peter Relic, is available as a Kindle ebook through Amazon.com. — Ed.]
The High-Art/Low-Art Godfather
Tim Carr, who got the Beasties signed to Capitol, was a brilliant man who understood immediately the collision of high and low art the group was attempting on the album. He'd been part of the early-'80s downtown New York scene that spawned the Beasties, back when rappers and graffiti artists were rubbing shoulders with punks and modern classical musicians and gallery owners. This Big Apple bouillabaisse produced one clear spiritual godfather to the Beasties' finest hour.
Carr pointed out that hip-hop, prior to Paul's Boutique, revolved around "a small, select set of breakbeats, that you fucked with at your own risk." So the "wrong genre" samples of songs like "Johnny Ryall," which repurposed folkie David Bromberg's "Sharon," were a revelation in 1989. But this ethic can be traced back to Malcolm McLaren's 1983 album Duck Rock, which might just be a more important cultural artifact than anything by the Sex Pistols. McLaren will forever be associated with the birth of punk, thanks to his maneuvering of Lydon, Vicious, et al, but the anything-goes Duck Rock gave the world a lesson at least as significant: that hip-hop's recombinant powers are limitless. (For a fascinating inside look at the album, courtesy of engineer Gary Langan, check here.)
Folding field recordings of South African singers, Tennessee square dancers and New York mariachi bands into its programmed drumming and guest raps, Duck Rock was every bit as "Wild West" in its approach to sampling as Paul's Boutique. (Of course, there were virtually no laws regulating sampling — then mostly limited to the exotic and expensive Fairlight synthesizer — in 1983.) More importantly, it showed that hip-hop rhythms could absorb — and enhance — the pulse of nearly any culture, creating a truly universal beat.
The Screw-You Inspiration
"I remember having this discussion with (Adam) Yauch, and him saying, 'Let's just go completely over the top and sample everything. Let's make this the nail in the coffin for sampling'," Matt Dike told me in 2005. The discussion was about Paul's Boutique, but the attitude could have come straight from Bill Drummond. The Beasties at their most piss-you-off-provocative have never burnt a million pounds, nor penned a manual on How to Have a Number One the Easy Way, nor recorded a fantasy about shooting an artist they managed so he could be "bigger than the Beatles for sure." (That would be the still-very-much-alive Julian Cope.)
Call them the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, the Timelords or the KLF, but Drummond and collaborator Jimmy Cauty had pretty much done what Yauch suggested, a year or two before Paul's Boutique appeared. The Ancients' album 1987 — several tracks of which appear on History — remains one of the most audacious smash-and-grab jobs in pop, swiping huge chunks of the Beatles, Whitney Houston, Dave Brubeck and whatever else the duo could get their hands on. The samples were jammed rudely into a backdrop for brash Scottish rhyming that paved the way for Mike Skinner's Mockney a decade later. In fact, this collection makes a perfect counterpoint to the Beasties' contemporaneous debut Licensed to Ill; it's hard to think of two albums more gloriously naughty and snotty.
The Other Way to Sample
One thing that makes Paul's Boutique so endlessly replayable is that so many of its references, both musical and lyrical, are audible — at least to the careful listener. (Of course, the debate about what's actually "there" on Paul's Boutique, and what it all means legally, continues to wind its way through the courts). In this sense, the album could be considered the most sophisticated version of Dickie Goodman's "break-in" records ever attempted. Goodman, sometimes identified as the progenitor of sampling, had a string of novelty hits in the '50s that openly quoted other songs. "One of the cool things about Paul's Boutique, I think, is all the little references," said Dust Brother Mike Simpson. "I don't think you could ever do that again. And it's too bad because there should be a loophole in copyright law that lets you reference stuff. Because at the end of the day, nobody's buying Paul's Boutique to hear that Johnny Cash sample (on "Hello Brooklyn"). It's not taking money out of Johnny Cash's pocket. It's kind of sad."
The Beasties and Dust Brothers' musical version of Where's Waldo? is also completely congruent with their playful personalities. But it's remarkable to note that a completely different strain of sampling theory had already emerged a year before — and that it was as perfectly matched to its creators' worldview. The Beasties' old Def Jam labelmates, Public Enemy — and their production team, the Bomb Squad — used old wax for weaponry, not whimsy. When you listened to "Rebel Without a Pause," you weren't supposed to identify the horn sample from the J.B.s' "The Grunt" — it was just supposed to squeal like a klaxon in your ear, making sure you never got too comfortable.
The influence upon the Beasties and their producers was marked, regardless. "For me at that point, Public Enemy were, like, the ultimate hip-hop group," said Simpson. And Chuck D added that he can hear the influence of the first two Public Enemy albums on Paul's Boutique. "Myself and Hank (Shocklee) and Eric (Sadler), we were kind of precursors of that whole particular mosh-pit style of sampling, so we knew how much work had gone into it."
That painstaking approach produced dramatically opposite results, but when you listen to It Takes a Nation of Millions and Paul's Boutique back to back, you could be forgiven for thinking that sampling had already come full-stop.
The Brother from Another Mother
The album most frequently compared to Paul's Boutique is the one that Mike Simpson considers its logical successor: Beck's 1996 release Odelay. He points out that some acts that have hired him, and his fellow Dust Brother John King, have taken them away from their strength, which is sampling. "So when it came to doing Odelay with Beck, he really recognized, OK, this is what these guys do. Let me use them to their fullest. Let's collaborate and write songs.' Very similar to the way we did it with the Beastie Boys, except that Beck was a lot more involved musically."
However, it can also be argued that the album closest to Paul's Boutique actually appeared just a few months earlier. Brave enough to abandon machismo and embrace yodeling (on "Potholes on My Lawn"), De La Soul's debut 3 Feet High and Rising is a Daisy Age wonderland that shares the same hippiefied headspace as Paul's. It's also filled with unlikely soundbites, courtesy of producer Prince Paul, and was made by another trio of rappers interested in rebuking hip-hop orthodoxy. Naturally, the two records have been the subject of inevitable comparisons for the last quarter-century.
Mike Simpson and engineer Mario Caldato are quick to note that they only heard the single "Plug Tunin'" while recording Paul's Boutique — which was complete by the time 3 Feet High appeared." "To me, they're like companion records, in a big way," offered Simpson. "3 Feet High, to me, has more of a pop sensibility." Legendary A&R man Dante Ross, who worked on 3 Feet High, countered, "To me, what the Dust Brothers were doing was a more extreme version of De La…it was way more psychedelic. It was much more of a cut-and-paste, Pro Tools record — before there was Pro Tools." What's undeniable is that on both coasts in 1989, hip-hop was metamorphosing at a truly amazing rate.
The Final Frontier?
Perhaps there was only one place left for sampling to go after Paul's Boutique, and the debut of Australian sextet the Avalanches was it. Stripped of rhymes and vocals, Since I Left You focuses attention instead on the miles of flotsam and jetsam bobbing gently on its sonic ocean. The effect is hypnotic, amplifying the nostalgia that lurked beneath the grooves of Paul's Boutique, and turning even the dance tracks ("Radio," "Live at Dominoes") into wistful reminisces of childhoods past, or maybe even childhoods that never really existed. (That, according to author Svetlana Boym, is the definition of nostalgia.) The world continues to wait for an official follow-up, but it may be that after Since I Left You, there's simply nothing left to add.
For those passing time while keeping the faith, a comparable aesthetic pervades the Go! Team's 2004 debut. The clear love this Brighton outfit has for its source material reminds one of the respectful way, on Paul's Boutique, that the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike treat old disco and funk samples. And Thunder, Lightning, Strike also shares with the Beasties' greatest album an even more important quality: It's a serious album because it takes fun so seriously.