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Retrospect is a fucking beautiful phenomenon. Capitol Records would have sure loved a stack of stock in that particular power when the Beastie Boys arrived on their roster at the fag end of the 1980s, fresh from their brat-rap rise to notoriety with Rick Rubin’s Def Jam.
Back then an extra dimension was what The Beasties were crying out for, after stoking such cultural tumbles as Volkswagen badge half-inching, not to mention a line in stage shows that, comparatively, lent strip clubs moral fibre. This was fun, sure, and anybody who hates on 'Fight For Your Right' or 'No Sleep Till Brooklyn' to this day clearly doesn’t recognise a classic party tune if it slaps them around the baby-maker. But nobody was proclaiming the two Adams and Mike D were anything more than – dare we say it – honky white boys having a ball; least of all the band themselves, painfully aware that the game was pretty much up if they repeated Licensed To Ill.
With sophomore set, Paul’s Boutique, of course, they didn’t merely flip another style or two; they packed in almost as many multi-faceted angles as they did samples (Afrika Bambaataa to glam rock, with the Beatles chucked in for good measure, laced by the Dust Brothers). And now, two decades on, the album that announced the Beastie Boys as a global force is back on shelves in fully digitally re-mastered 20th anniversary edition form. The irony is, naturally, Capitol weren’t initially convinced. They were, if we’re being kind, rather less than supportive of their charges until the LP snowballed uncontrollably toward a ravine marked ‘all-time greats’. The fickle finger of fate, and all that...
To a second generation of Beastie Boys fans growing up with Licensed To Ill as a distant second to Ill Communication – ‘Sabotage’ and all the ceaseless amusement that came with that – Paul’s Boutique was something of an unwelcoming proposition. The general vibe, in days before Internet accessibility made crosschecking such statements a mere handful of clicks away, was this was the record where Diamond, Horovitz and Yauch’s eclectica was baffling. Thank you retrospect, once more; in actuality, having the whole shebang makes Paul’s Boutique rather more fulfilling than the standard Beasties album, ordinarily characterised by a clutch of single-quality gems and the remainder comprising less than appetising fodder.
For the Licensed... fans, the shrill rhyming and stirring loins (hello there, ‘Hey Ladies’), and slabs of live guitar (‘Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun’) weren’t completely out of the picture. Pop culture references are thrown around like 50 Cent dispenses nods to breaking faces. There are sufficient ridiculous boasts – see ‘3-Minute Rule’ – to tick another hip-hop box, referring to themselves in third person enough to keep the undereducated informed precisely who is rapping at any given time.
But here’s where it cuts differently: firstly, their obvious intelligence bleeds through where before they chose to self-consciously bury it, sending diligent listeners scrambling to the library to decipher the more elliptical references to famous figures, name-checking Kerouac en route. It takes you on a journey through their city – real life geographical location, in this case, less important than many of rap’s touchstone albums, which transport you onto the very sidewalks verbally painted. Perhaps that’s telling, as most of the LP was recorded in Los Angeles, the entire breadth of a continent away from their native New York City.
One crucial factor, maybe the most important, is embarrassingly obvious for a hip-hop record, yet on its release nothing short of a doubter disproving display of nuance and thus-unconfirmed expertise: the beats and bass-lines. None other than Chuck D subsequently admitted jealousy for backing tracks the Beasties rode in their prime and Paul’s Boutique is an apex of crate-digging crackle to boombox-rocking bap. ‘Shake Your Rump’ especially begins as a master-class in simplicity before bleeding in elastic bass and breaking down into classic turntable acrobatics. ‘High Plains Drifter’ – adopting Clint Eastwood’s celluloid alias long before UK hip-hop gent Jehst toyed with the alter ego – is almost proto-crunk in its minimalism. And beyond any one single musical aspect, the parting 12-minute nine-songs-in-one-opus ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’ is a whistle-stop district-to-district tour, beatbox to funk to reggae melodies to stuttering electro, reprising that snap music back-to-bassics (sic) sensibility in the process.
So what’cha want? 'Intergalactic’? Tibetan free noise ethics? With Paul’s Boutique you get close to both and everything in between, only with anti-commercial ethos Thom Yorke would be proud of and a bristling sense of humour since lost post-panning The Prodigy. They threw everything at the recording studio wall and, miraculously, most of it stuck. It would be unfair to expect the Beastie Boys to repeat this impact, though. As a pivotal transitional time, there was only one point they could have produced Paul’s Boutique. And although that time has long since passed, it won’t harm anybody to be reminded how groundbreaking Messers D, Rock and MCA once sounded.
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