Monday, May 14, 2012

“Paul's Boutique” & American Freedom (With Love to Adam “MCA” Yauch)

The Beastie Boys are the only band I ever got into to impress a girl.

One of this girl’s life goals was to marry Mike D, and so naturally I wanted to see what this Mike D had that I didn’t.  I bought Paul’s Boutique and drove East, listening to it over and over, until it went from obnoxious & whiny to hard & rocking.  The punchline is that by the time I made it East, I was pretty obsessed with them, and, in trying to impress her of my knowledge (i.e., chatting about the songs from their supposed abandoned country album), I accidentally showed her up, so that she was like, “Wow, you definitely know a lot more about them than I do.”  Cue awkward silence.  My OCD had foiled another plan, but at least I got the Beastie Boys out of it.

In part because it was the first Beastie Boys album I got into and in part because it the stone-cold classic of their catalogue, Paul’s Boutique is the album I always go back to, in a way I do few other albums in my life (my off-the-top-of-my-head shortlist of others would include Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, and Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I digress).  As such, it was the album I went back to after Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away the other week.

It sucks how it takes someone’s death to re-appreciate their life, but for some reason it never fails to do the trick.  Paul’s Boutique had rarely sounded so rich, full, and funky; it was a 54-minute refresher on why this is my favorite rap album.

But to my ears, it plays as more than just a rap album, but an exercise in American freedom that is rarely matched by any other rock and roll, let alone by any other American music.  In its own way, I hear it falling into line not just with Elvis’s early pre-Army recordings and Bob Dylan’s pre-crash electric recordings, but Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives & Sevens recordings, and Billie Holiday’s early Columbia recordings.  For, in very different ways, all of these records seem to tackle the same issue: Working out freedom through sound.

I once read this interview with Bono where he was making a sweeping statement that took in the history of rock and roll (so unlike him!).  He said something along the lines of: It used to be that if you wanted to be a legitimate rock and roll band, you had to get your instruments together and practice a whole bunch, but then punk came along in the mid-’70s as a great equalizer such that anyone could pick up instruments and be a legitimate band later that day.  And now, Bono continued, with DJs and turntables, you don’t even need to make your own record!  You can just play part of someone else’s record and use that as your rock band.  The great equalizer, Bono seemed to be saying, had gotten equalized itself.  Or as Chuck D put it: “Run-D.M.C. first said a DJ could be a band/Stand on your own feet/Get you outta your seat!”

Indeed, Run-D.M.C. was the first major rap group and pioneered the music with a hard, stripped-down beat and sparse, if any, instrumentation.  When the Beastie Boys began making rap music, they modeled themselves on Run-D.M.C., eventually touring with them, and, on “Slow and Low,” picking up the group’s leftovers for their own debut album.  That album was Licensed to Ill, and with “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” powering it, it became the first number one rap album ever.  Licensed to Ill was produced by the Beasties’ old college friend Rick Rubin in 1986, the same year that he ushered Run-D.M.C. towards their first mainstream (read: white) success: A hip-hop cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” which is now rightly seen as a turning point in the history of modern popular music.

The Beasties could’ve stayed with Rubin and kept remaking Licensed to Ill until their sales dwindled and they had to wait around for a retro-old school craze to sweep them back up again, but they chose not to.  Instead, they parted ways with Rubin, moved to LA, and hooked up with the Dust Brothers.

Unlike Rick Rubin’s sparse production values, the Dust Brothers pioneered a dense sound in rap music that layered countless samples (often on top of each other) that was, in its own way, as full and exciting as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.  It was a Wall of Samples.

Using this sound as a base, the Beastie Boys rose to the challenge by becoming exponentially better MCs than they had been on their first album; as a quantum leap in talent and identity from a debut to a sophomore album, the Beasties are perhaps only topped by Bob Dylan.  They take the ever-changing kaleidoscope of samples and keep pace with a never-ending spew of fast and surreal rhymes that name-checks just as much as the music sample-checks.  Its speed and variety set the stage for such latter-day television shows as Mystery Science Theater 3000, 30 Rock, and Community — not to mention anything that Aaron Sorkin ever penned — while as American culture, its clearest parallel is Melville’s The Confidence-Man, in which the title character takes on a new form with each chapter in an ultimate gesture of reinvention.  But the Beasties even beat Melville at his own game: They shift form with almost every new line.

Much has been made of the breadth with which Paul’s Boutique takes a swath of culture, eating it up and spewing it back out in its own image, but listening to it again, I’m struck by how much of it junk culture, the kind of things you come across while flipping channels while putting off your afterschool homework.

In the album, one can find allusions to The Patty Duke Show, The Brady Bunch, and The Flintstones, and that’s just the first song.  Listen to the second, about a washed-up rockabilly star-turned-wino, and you can add to that list the Beatles’ “Helter-Skelter,” Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” and Elvis shaving his head to join the Army.  In the third, about driving around and egging LA, you can find Mother Goose’s Humpty-Dumpty, Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam, and Dr. Suess’s Green Eggs & Ham, over samples that cop Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly, the score from Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the lyrics of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”  And that doesn’t even mention the scores of allusions to and clich├ęs about eggs.  Just when you think you’ve heard them all, they throw another one at you.  It’s actually rather astounding.

You get the picture.  And it doesn't let up.  Everyone from Vincent Van Gogh to Charles Dickens to Harry S Truman to Raymond Burr to J.D. Salinger to Colonel Saunders to Alfred E. Neumann makes a cameo, over music that samples James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Chic’s “Good Times,” and the Commodores’ “Machine Gun” (not to mention other things from the Deliverance soundtrack on down to a ping-pong ball), and direct splices from lines in Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” the Ramones’ “Suzie Is a Headbanger,” the Funky 4+1’s “That’s the Joint,” Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” Bob Marley’s “Stop That Train,” Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” and more.

But for me, the most astounding thing is “Sounds of Science,” a song whose very title suggests culture allusion, this time to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence,” best experienced in the extended opening of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate.  Beginning with the supper-club two-step of the Beatles’ (THE BEATLES!) “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the Beasties turn their attention from throwing eggs and speeding cars to, well, science.  Everyone from Galileo to Newton to Franklin to Einstein is name-checked, as the Beasties appropriately rap about “expanding the rhymes of sucka MC amateurs.”  But then, about halfway through, the song breaks off into an old-school style breakdown over the fanfare that begins Sgt. Pepper, before restarting the song full speed ahead on top beats lifted from Ringo’s drum solo in “The End.”  With the Sgt. Pepper fanfare still continuing in a loop underneath, the song samples fucking Abbey Road over Sgt. Pepper!  And what music are the Beasties actually referring to in their rhymes at this point in the song?  Um, the Grease soundtrack.

Because of moments like this, Paul’s Boutique could never be made now or ever again.  By slipping in the tail beginning of rap’s first era of sampling bonanza, it broke the mold.  As per usual, the law showed up after the fact to try and put the genie back in the bottle: Any more than 5 seconds of sound was liable to copyright infringement, blah, blah, blah.  But by being one of the first, Paul’s Boutique was able to get by unscathed, the one they let get away as they waved their fist and swore would never happen again.  (Actually, the only other album that truly meets it is De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, but to me, Paul’s Boutique has always played as the stronger, tighter record…although I’ll admit that, as a northern white kid of Jewish descent listening to other northern white kids of Jewish descent, it may have been more on my level, but I digress.)

In this way, Paul’s Boutique expands more than just the rhymes of MC amateurs, but the boundaries of freedom in postwar American culture.  The album is a patchwork quilt of other people’s work, ripped up and reassembled as something new, and ultimately worthy in its own right.

We are a nation of borrowers, of lenders, of thieves, and of tricksters; we are, as Melville knew all along, a nation of Confidence-Men, ever shifting, ever changing, unwilling and unable to be pinned down until there is nothing left but freedom – and, if you’re lucky, the name you were born with.

Or as the late, great MCA says towards the end of “The Sounds of Science”: “No one really knows what I’m talking about/Yeah, that’s right, my name’s Yauch.”