By the time 1988 arrived (think hard, now: Poison, Def Leppard, Debbie Gibson and George Michael’s “Faith” comprised the day-glo pop soundtrack of the moment), the Beastie Boys had already experienced a full career by generally accepted hip-hop standards: a number-one album (1986’s Licensed To Ill, the first hip-hop release to go to the top of the Billboard charts), an accompanying bacchanalian world tour complete with cage-dancing girls and a giant inflatable penis borrowed directly the Rolling Stones’ playbook, the requisite MTV hit (“(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)”). But then came the backlash: a Liverpool show that dissolved into riot and an assault arrest for vocalist Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, the litigious end of their Def Jam partnership with future Columbia Records CEO Rick Rubin and their subsequent self-imposed banishment to Los Angeles. It was a weird time for the Boys, and 1989’s Paul’s Boutique became the even weirder byproduct of that era: hip hop’s first “headphone album” and a masterpiece of massiveness that remains, to this day, the finest thing in the Beasties’ catalog and one of the greatest pop albums of all time, right up there with OK Computer, Revolver, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and Blonde On Blonde on the scale of universally recognized, full-length rock ‘n’ roll righteousness.
So where did the frat-boys-in-da-hood goofiness end and the genius begin? It’s the beats, stupid: the richly evocative cut-and-paste sampling favored by their new producers, the Dust Brothers (Mike “E.Z. Mike” Simpson and John “King Gizmo” King), turned the Beasties’ prototypically goofy boasts and pop-culture tidbits into nuggets of solid gold, weaving together no fewer than 105 samples into a rich, psychedelic tapestry of snippets from artists as diverse as the Ramones, Eagles, Loggins & Messina and Fatback—sometimes all within the context of a single track (“High Plains Drifter”). Amazingly, the stringball of sound hangs together as a cohesive statement, one completely unimaginable previously and totally unreplicable afterward. Indeed, the album’s stacks o’ wax proved to be the end of sampling on this scale as we knew it, given the costs involved in gaining clearances from all the artists concerned, as the contemporaneous lawsuit between Gilbert O’Sullivan and Biz Markie quickly proved.
Hovering atop it all were lyrics unlike anything the Boys or their peers had attempted to date: a name-dropping, party-hopping, Dick Fosbury-flopping survey of pop culture that bobbed and weaved between daytime-TV references (“Shake Your Rump”), random sports trivia (the album’s surehanded hit, “Hey Ladies”) and a heartfelt love letter to their native New York City via 12-minute-plus epic “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” a 26-track samplefest that managed to create mini-suites feting Manhattan’s Chrystie Street subway stop, Jamaica Queens (“Stop That Train”) and Adam “MCA” Yauch’s native Brooklyn in the process. (Trivial pursuit: A college friend of mine can be seen leaning out of the window directly above the green arch on the album’s front cover photograph, a panoramic view of downtown New York as seen from the corner of the Lower East Side’s Ludlow and Rivington Streets). In hindsight, it’s clear that the Boys were pining for home, and in many respects Paul’s Boutique now reads like an extended letter from daycamp from a troop of slightly neurotic, emotionally wrought (but nevertheless fun-loving) expatriates.
Despite the critical accolades heaped upon it at the time, it took the record a decade to sell less than half the copies of its predecessor and remains, if possible, something of an unheralded classic among the masses. But let’s recognize and give respect: Paul’s Boutique (which has just been remastered and reissued) is the Beastie Boys’ finest hour and an indisputably top-notch component of the hip-hop canon. It’s also much better than that: a flawless, burning hunk of funk that has emerged as one of pop music’s all-time greatest releases. Belie’ ‘dat.