Released on 25 July 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.
Matching the mind-boggling array of samples is Beastie Boys’ own stylistic range. ‘Hey Ladies’ is a funky, self-satirising 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 outift and a signpost towards future high point ‘Sabotage’.
On ‘Egg Man’ the trio resurrected their frat personae, 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.
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