Beastie Boys started out in 1981 as a hardcore punk outfit. Their 1983 song Cooky Puss – essentially a prank phone call played over a hip hop beat – prompted the group to pursue that still burgeoning genre even further. The debut Beastie Boys album Licensed To Ill came out in 1986, when hip-hop was still in its infancy. That first record owes a lot to Run DMC; it has their sound, but with far sillier lyrics. Not to dismiss the album out of hand – unto itself it is a great record, but it pales in comparison to where the Beastie Boys would end up going to on subsequent LPs. Lyrically, the Beastie’s would rap about whatever they thought would be funny. For example, Fight For Your Right was merely a pisstake on jocks. Licensed To Ill went on to become the first rap album to hit the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in America, consequently catapulting the Beastie Boys to stardom. Being swept up into the inevitable frenzy that happens when your album tops the charts changed the group; by their own admission they became beer swilling, macho jerks – the very thing they set to make fun of on Fight For Your Right et al. Thereafter, they decided to endevour to prove that they were artists, not just a two-dimensional novelty act. They left their record label Def Jam records, and relocated to LA, with the intention of working with a number of different producers. In the end, they decided to record their entire second album with the Dust Brothers on production duties.
Paul’s Boutique, opens in a pretty reserved fashion, with MCA giving smooth-voiced shout-outs like a late night radio DJ to various female nationalities around the globe. Meanwhile Idris Muhammed’s “Loran Dance” provides the laid-back keyboard-lead music for To All the Girls. Then suddenly, a blast of heavy drum fills comes in, interrupting the album opener like a robust mission-statement: Beastie Boys were back, and they were far, far better than ever before. The album’s second track, Shake Your Rump, was one of a number of instrumentals that the Dust Brothers were planning on releasing for the nightclub community. The Beastie Boys asked to let them rap over it, with the Dust Brothers offering to strip the song back, since they felt it was too dense. Bear in mind that the music in the average hip-hop song of the 80’s tended to largely consist of drum samples or drum machines with fairly minimal instrumentation, coupled with a periodical “stab” which would often be a horn or something along similar lines. So the Beastie Boys insisting on rapping over something as layered and rich as the Shake Your Rump track as it was with nothing removed was very much against the norm. It must have provided a catalyst to both the Dust Brothers and the Beastie’s for Paul’s Boutique as a whole; the music on the album is almost entirely consisted of samples, as many as around 300 in all. The song chosen as the lead single for the record was Hey Ladies, the decision of which is apparently a mystery to Beastie Boys’ Mike D.
As to why this became the first single, or where “Vincent Van Gogh go and mail that ear” came from, your guess is as good as mine.
This is pure conjecture, but my own suspicion is that Hey Ladies was selected because while the music was dramatically different from anything off Licensed To Ill, the lyrics were on somewhat more familiar territory: rhymes about girls.
In spite of the quantum leap forward in terms of artistic merit, the album was considered a commercial flop upon initial release. Capitol Records even eventually stopped promoting it. Paul’s Boutique has, since its initial release, gone on to be revered as a classic album, regularly cited as the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop, and frequently being included on lists of the greatest albums of all time by critics and audiences alike. It’s easy to see why. At 26 years old, the album doesn’t sound dated in the least, with the blanket of sounds interweaving throughout the album, along with the Beastie Boys now perfected 3-way shared rhyming style packing the album to the gills with regularly hilarious raps featuring dozens of pop-culture references. It’s also worth noting that it happened at a time when sampling laws were (thankfully) still very much a grey area. Since the landmark case where Gilbert O’Sullivan successfully sued Biz Markie for sampling Alone Again (Naturally), a court decision as a result of this lawsuit changed hip-hop forever. At the time when the Beastie’s second album was released, the sample clearance of the LP cost an estimated $250,000. If the Beastie Boys were to try and make Paul’s Boutique post 1991, it would have cost them millions, all thanks to Gilbert O’Sullivan ruining the party for everyone. Luckily for Beastie Boys fans, by 1994 their songwriting prowess was so strong that it had gotten to the point where you couldn’t actually tell when they were sampling other people’s work, or merely playing their own instruments and rapping over musical loops of themselves. Paul’s Boutique remains their finest hour for many though; the sort of album that most musicians and recording artists can only dream of making. For the listener, it remains one of the most enjoyable genre defining records of all time.