Why the Beastie Boys' misunderstood ‘Paul's Boutique’ was both the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ of hip-hop

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

It's hard to believe that when the Beastie Boys' ambitious sophomore album, Paul's Boutique, came out 30 years ago, it was considered a commercial disaster and career suicide. Now, it is widely considered “the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop” and one of the most important and trailblazing rap albums of all time. But it might be more accurate to call it the “Pet Sounds of hip-hop,” because, much like that misunderstood record by the Beach Boys, it took years for fans and many critics to truly appreciate the Beasties expectations-defying classic.

“We were supposed to come out with ‘Fight for Your Right to Party, Pt. 2’ and fall on our faces,” Mike D told Rolling Stone in 2013. “Now we get people coming up and saying, ‘I just have to thank you…. I got into Paul’s Boutique in college.’”

Just three years earlier, in 1986, the Beasties’ 10-million-selling debut LP, License to Ill, had become the first rap album to ever hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200. But then Mike "Mike D" Diamond, Adam "Ad-Rock" Horowitz, and Adam "MCA" Yauch, in an attempt to shift away from that party album’s goofy, frat-boy-friendly sound, moved from New York to Los Angeles, swapped their famous producer Rick Rubin for L.A. hipsters the Dust Brothers, and parted ways with Rubin’s label, Def Jam. The Beasties’ new label, Capitol Records, didn’t seem to know how to promote the rampantly sampledelic and experimental Paul's Boutique, and both radio programmers and old-school Beastie fans seemed equally flummoxed. So, the record tanked upon its release, only reaching No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and No. 24 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, and barely even going gold in its first year.

But the Beasties’ risky reinvention ultimately worked. They stayed with Capitol for the remainder of their recording career, and the more mature Paul’s Boutique sent them down an artistic path that eventually led to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Capitol is digitally releasing 21 rare remixes and B-sides over the course of the next month, via the EPs An Exciting Evening at Home With Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and Love American Style.

Music industry veteran Andrew Slater was the Beastie Boys’ manager during this tricky time of transition, after a chance meeting with Mike D in the video game arcade at Los Angeles shopping mall the Beverly Center. Sitting with Yahoo Entertainment reflecting on this difficult but fruitful and fascinating era of the trio’s career, he says, “The point that [Capitol] came in, they were just excited to have a Beastie Boys record. I'm not so sure they knew exactly what to do with it. But to be honest, I don't know if anyone would have known what to do with something that was so groundbreaking. It just was commercially difficult, because you couldn't get a format of radio to buy in, in the way that they did with ‘Fight for Your Right to Party.’ I think everyone was expecting something like that — including the label.

“I mean, at that time you had like three lanes. You had rock radio and you had hit radio, and maybe adult contemporary radio, and that was it. And it fit in none of those lanes. You know, radio can be very narrow in its approach to music just because it's a business like everything else. Their listeners want to hear things that they think sound familiar. When [lead single] ‘Hey Ladies’ came out… it was this incredibly artful synthesis of ‘70s soul and modern hip-hop scratching and wildly sort of — I wouldn't say revolutionary, but wildly colorful bravado. Male bravado. It was something that was very different than a straight-up rock record that somebody was rapping over it. And it had a hard time finding its place on a playlist where something like Licensed to Ill could be played next to a straight-up rock track.”

Paul's Boutique still stands as one of the most densely sample-happy albums of all time; in fact, 95 percent of the record is composed of samples, of everyone from the Ramones to Kool & the Gang to the Sweet to Afrika Bambaataa. The band spent approximately $250,000 on clearances in the late 1980s (although now, it would cost them millions). Slater seems to think it was worth it.

“I was so fascinated by the depth of their knowledge in everything from hip-hop to rock to folk. Each of those guys, you know, had a very distinct personality but also had a vast vocabulary about that music. And you know, one of the things when you, when you listen to Paul's Boutique, you see there the humor that the Beastie Boys have, which becomes I think more sophisticated on that record than Licensed to Ill. But yet it's still very playful and fun. It's like the mentalist fun ethic on a record. The references, the things they pull from television, from the golden era of the ‘60s. … It's something that you can go back and listen to 100 times and on the 90th listen, you'll hear something in there — a sample, a reference, a line — that you didn't hear the first 90 times. And that's also you know, the greatness of intricate and layered record-making, which they were clearly pioneers of.”

The Beastie Boys in their "Shake Your Rump" music video. (Photo: Capitol Records)

Remembering his experience watching the band and the Dust Brothers record Paul’s Boutique at Delicious Vinyl co-founder Matt Dike's L.A. apartment (aka the Opium Den) and mix it at the Record Plant studio, Slater still marvels at their creativity and innovation, three long decades later. “I had never experienced that kind of record-making as a voyeur in the midst of it. You know, I had seen the ‘70s California guys spend lots of time in the studio honing in on a song and sort of writing in the studio. But when I saw the Beastie Boys, the three of them with their notepads in a vocal booth working out the rhymes, and then the sampling that was going on to create these tracks, it was really revolutionary — the incredibly artful synthesis of all of those elements of music coming together in a recording studio, the culture of hip-hop and the culture of rock, and the craftsmanship of Matt Dike, and those guys.”

Adds Slater, who has worked in various managerial and production capacities with Warren Zevon, Don Henley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lenny Kravitz, The Wallflowers, Jane’s Addiction, Fiona Apple, and many others, “I've seen a lot of stuff in the studio. I worked with a lot of people and I was just around lot. That was probably the most groundbreaking moment, I think, of 30 or 40 years of me being in a recording studio.”

Additional reporting by Laura Ferreiro.

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