The 1980’s were a golden age for crate-diggers. Sampling technology had existed since at least the 1960’s with the Mellotron, but these technologies tended to belimited, heavy, and prohibitively expensive to most. Naturally, with time the technology improved and its costs lowered, ushering in samplers such as the E-Mu SP-1200, which was largely favoured by hip-hop producers, and is credited with ushering in the sample-heavy era of the late 80’s and early 90’s.
At the dawn of the sampling era, E.Z. Mike (Michael Simpson) and King Gizmo (John King) were hosting a weekly hip-hop show called “The Big Beat Showcase” at the Pomona College radio station in southern California, where they would showcase new records from the emerging genre of hip-hop. Once in a while, there would be a public service announcement, and in order to showcase their skills, they would cut mixes of funk, rock, soul and hip-hop to go over the background of these PSA’s. These mixes grabbed the attention of Matt Dike, L.A. Dj and founder of Delicious Vinyl. Dike recruited them for Delicious Vinyl and they began to make music out of his living room together with sound engineer Mario Caldato Jr. They took the name Dust Brothers because someone told them their music sounded “dusty”.
Delicious Vinyl approached music creation the Motown way; they would make music and invite artists to rap over them. Whoever sounded best on the beat got the track. Sometimes the Dust Brothers would get carried away and create extremely dense musical landscapes out of a large number of samples, and it would become impossible for anyone to rhyme over them. These tracks would get earmarked for a possible future Dust Brothers album.
Out of these early sessions emerged Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin‘, which went multi-platinum, as well as Tone-Loc’s album Loc-ed After Dark. An early stylistic quirk of the Dust Brothers can be heard on Tone-Loc’s track “Cuttin’ Rhythms”: after a couple braggadocious lines from the titular MC, he informs the listener that his “DJ’s cuttin’ rhythms” and the song segues into a heavily cut-up sample of Paul McCartney’s “Band on the Run”. It was unheard of at the time for a straightforward hip-hop song to sample something so wildly different from the usual realm of jazz, soul and James Brown, and indeed parallels to the Beatles abound when talking about the Dust Brothers’ production style: “I always felt that, from a construction point of view, the way the Beatles made records was so fascinating because they took all these different sounds and things people had never heard before and made timeless music. As a producer, to do the same thing was always my goal.” said Mike Simpson to Kexp 90.3 FM Seattle. These tangents into wildly different spheres of music would come to define the sound of the Dust Brothers for the years to come.
It was chance happening that brought the Beastie Boys and the Dust Brothers together in February of 1988. The Beastie Boys had essentially split up at the time, following their first album “License to Ill”. Although the album had been a massive success, the group was dissatisfied with their projection in the media as frat boy pranksters, exacerbated by their lead single “Fight for Your Right to Party” and its music video, which they insist was meant as a parody of that lifestyle. There were large question marks over whether they would ever be able to replicate that success. On top of that, they were in the middle of a legal dispute over royalties with their record label Def Jam, all of this adding up to a very uncertain future for the band, which, at the time, had no plans for a follow-up record. To pass the time, Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock) had landed a role in the movie Lost Angels which was filming in Los Angeles, and the other two Beastie Boys, Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Yauch (MCA), would travel down to visit him and potentially meet with some record labels. Having met Matt Dike previously at a show he hosted, in which the Beastie Boys were meant to open for Run-DMC but blew the entire sound system during their set, they were aware of his reputation as someone who knew the ins and outs of the L.A. party scene. There was no party this time, but the two Beasties were invited to Dike’s flat, where he happened to be hanging out with Mike Simpson, John King and Mario Caldato Jr. Dike had heard that the Beasties were looking to leave Def Jam, and therefore convinced the Dust Brothers to play their guests some of the music they had been setting aside. The track that was playing when the Beasties came in was “Full Clout”, which would eventually become “Shake Your Rump”, and it blew their minds so much that Diamond immediately wanted to buy it. That was out of the question, but a collaboration was on the cards and the Dust Brothers assembled a tape of their music to send to the Beasties, who were flying back to New York the next day. Agonizingly for Simpson, who had been accepted to Colombia law school and had to submit a tuition deposit, the response didn’t come for weeks, thus he begun to prepare for a career as a lawyer. But the response did come eventually, and the Dust Brothers were asked to book studio time. They found space at the Record Plant, were Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was recorded, but Simpson and King had never been in a professional studio previously, and didn’t know how any of it worked. Originally the Beastie Boys had wanted their own sound engineer and to produce the album themselves, but they soon figured out that there was a special chemistry between them and the Delicious Vinyl crew, so they ditched the engineer for Mario Caldato Jr. and began recording in Dike’s living room, with the production of the Dust Brothers. With the early demos in hand, they soon found a label willing to accommodate them and deal with the legal trouble from Def Jam.
Most of the soundscape of Paul’s Boutique had already been assembled by the time the Beastie Boys hooked up with the Delicious Vinyl crew. It was music the Dust Brothers had been assembling for years, from the tracks they played over the PSAs in their radio show to tracks that had been deemed to dense to be rapped over by any of the Delicious Vinyl MCs. They were planning an instrumental album with these track, but the opportunity to work with the Beastie Boys was to good to pass on. They offered to strip the tracks down to the bones, to make them more hip-hop, so the Beasties could rhyme over them with ease. Thankfully, the Beasties refused, and the resulting record is a dense, kaleidoscopic journey through at least 30 years of music history. Armed with a J.L. Cooper PPS-1 sampler and a stack of vinyl records, the Dust Brothers went to work sampling everything from the Car Wash soundtrack to Sly & the Family Stone, the guitar licks on the Beatles “When I’m 64”, Matt Dike ripping from a bong, Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, the Ramones and even the Beastie Boys’ own “Fight for Your Right to Party” as an in-joke. And in the meantime, they still managed to have classic hip hop samples in there: a hefty dose of James Brown, the Incredible Bongo Band, the Jackson 5, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow. Over the course of the 53 minute album, anywhere from 100 to 300 songs were sampled, though no one knows the exact amount and most are reluctant to talk about it. The list of samples is so mind-boggling that there exists a whole website dedicated to tracking down all of them. Furthermore, Paul’s Boutique was made without a drum machine, which was unheard of in the boom-bap era of the late 1980’s. The truth of the matter is that hip-hop, the most recent development in popular music, had been growing stale at the time, and the Beastie Boys, together with the Dust Brothers, sought to dig deep into music’s past to find a way to bring the genre forward and expand the sources from which hip-hop would be allowed to draw upon in the future. Tim Carr, the A&R man who would recruit the Beasties for Capitol records remarked that, prior to Paul’s Boutique, “all samples were from a small, select set of breakbeats that you fucked with at your own risk.” The available technology certainly helped, but the album’s sound is a reflection on the way it was made: a group of friends, each with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, all hanging out together in a living room, trading ideas.
Although the entirety of Paul’s Boutique’s catalogue of samples is worthy of notice, with its countless references to sounds of the past and the density of it all catching the listener off-guard even after repeated listens, there are certain moments that stand out amongst the rest. The first is “Shake Your Rump”, which is the opening track following the intro “To All the Girls”. The latter starts off extremely quiet, as MCA dedicates the album to all the women in the world. The listener is led to believe that something is wrong with his stereo, compelling him to turn the volume all the way up, and then “Shake Your Rump” kicks in with an ear shattering (in all likelihood, if you forget to turn down the volume) drum-roll. This song is composed of over a dozen samples: a Ronnie Law cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Tell Me Something Good”, “Jazzy Sensation” by Afrika Bambaataa, Sugarhill Gang’s “8th Wonder” and others combine to form a seamless piece of soul music, which segues into a cut up sample of the opening from Rose Royce’s “Six O’clock DJ (Let’s Rock)”, an edited moog bassline which today could be easily confused for a dub-step drop. This is also the song with the infamous sample of Matt Dike ripping from a bong.
“The Sound of Science” is the Beastie Boys’ homage to the Beatles; it samples no less than five songs by the fab four: “The End”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, “When I’m Sixty Four” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.”. But the parallels don’t end there. The song’s very structure is reminiscent of “A Day in the Life”: the first part features the Beasties rapping in monotone over a delayed guitar sample from “When I’m 64”. It is deliberately slow before surprising the listener by smoothly transitioning to a second, faster part, similar to how John Lennon’s downbeat tune interacted with Paul McCartney’s more upbeat section. The second part begins with some scratching giving into the drums from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” until eventually being joined by the guitar riff from “The End”.
And then there’s the album closer “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. The song is in reality a 12 minute medley composed of 9 songs all meshed together, similar in structure to Abbey Road’s side B. Including this kind of medley in a hip-hop album seems like a strong artistic intent, but, in reality, it’s more likely that this was merely a way to combine some loose strands together. “If it wasn’t called ‘B-boy Bouillabaisse’, you wouldn’t know this part of the record was any different.” Mike Simpson told music journalist Dan LeRoy for the 33 1/3 book on the album. And in fact, this makes the track a microcosm of the entire album: the style is the same, the only difference being the speed at which one track segues into the next. On the “Stop That Train” section the Beasties wax lyrical about travelling on the subway after a night out, juxtaposing early morning commuters with weary party goers and hookers in spandex. Following the verses, a sample from Scotty’s “Draw Your Brakes” kicks in to end the section, an old-school reggae jam which gives the section its title: “Stop that train/ I want to get on”. The “Hello Brooklyn” section is constructed from an ingenious sample of the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” from Dark Side of the Moon, essentially a deep, buzzing sound interspersed with some drums. The section ends with MCA bragging about having “Shot a man in Brooklyn…” before having none other than a sampled Johnny Cash finish the sentence: “just to watch him die”. The sample is from the song “Folsom Prison Blues” and the man had originally been shot in Reno. This is an example of the effects a sample can have on the listener, re-contextualizing the chaos of New York in the 1980’s as the new Wild West with just a snippet of a song. To further increase the parallels to the Beatles, the song (and therefore the album) ends where it began, with a reprise of “To all the Girls”, just as Sgt. Pepper’s had ended with a reprise of the title track. This could not have been a coincidence. After all, they sampled that very same track.
All of this should amount to a triumph for everyone involved, but unfortunately this story wasn’t to have a happy ending. The higher-ups at Capitol were disappointed with the album, expecting a sequel to License to Ill, and didn’t bother to promote it. Meanwhile, the Beastie Boys had stubbornly refused to come up with any obvious hits, preferring to maintain a homogeneous sound. The critics responded well, but the album didn’t sell as expected and only made it to #24 on the R&B/Hip-hop charts. The Beastie Boys split with the Delicious Vinyl crew, save for Mario Caldato Jr., who would become a long time collaborator. And to top it all off, two years later singer Gilbert O’Sullivan would sue Warner Bros. and rapper Biz Markie for unauthorized use of O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again (Naturally). The case, known as Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., would rule in favour of O’Sullivan, creating a precedent which drastically changed the sound of hip-hop music. From then on, each and every sample would have to be cleared, and the use of more than one or two samples on any individual track became prohibitively expensive to most. The decline of the music industry in recent years has made sampling more expensive than ever, as it is seen as a secondary source of revenue for record labels. While the Beasties had paid $250,000 for sample clearances on Paul’s Boutique, lawyer Kembrew Mcleod estimates that it would have cost them $20 million today. The art form adapted, and embraced interpolation (the act of playing the sample manually and merely paying the songwriter rather than the artist or label), samples from artists who are amenable to the practice, or snippets of sound so obscure that no one would ever bother to sue. “One of the cool things about Paul’s Boutique, I think, is all the little references.” Said Mike Simpson. “I don’t think you could ever do that again. And it’s too bad because there should be a loophole in copyright law that let’s you reference stuff. Because at the end of the day, nobody’s buying Paul’s Boutique to hear that Johnny Cash sample. It’s not taking money out of Johnny Cash’s pocket. It’s kind of sad.” But things were never the same and, undeniably, Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. put the final nail in the coffin on this era of hip-hop.
When the dust had settled, Paul’s Boutique would finally receive the success that it deserved, selling 2 million copies by 1999. This was possible thanks to the Beastie Boys’ continued success and endorsement from such greats as the late Miles Davis, who supposedly never got tired of listening to the album, and Chuck D, who claimed it was a dirty secret in hip-hop circles that Paul’s Boutique had the best beats at the time. The Dust Brothers would go on to work with Beck on his 1996 album Odelay, crafting another masterpiece in the process. Beck, like the Beastie Boys’ before Paul’s Boutique, was seen as a bit of a novelty and a one-hit wonder. Originally a folk musician, he burst onto the scene in 1994 with the folk hip-hop single “Loser”. Suddenly finding himself under pressure to capitalise on the hype from his first hit single, Beck originally planned to record an album of sombre folk songs, but scrapped that idea and turned to the Dust Brothers to produce a more upbeat album. Odelay merges rock and folk sounds into a hip-hop structure, and while the album is still sample-heavy relative to most, the list pales in comparison to Paul’s Boutique. But the Dust Brothers had the fortune to be working with a real musician this time. Beck could play all kinds of instrument, so in most cases they interpolated the sounds they wished to use. This time, the album was an immediate success, appearing on many year end’s lists in 1996 and reached #16 on the Billboard 200.
Odelay is seen as the spiritual successor to Paul’s Boutique, and in many ways it is. After all, it is a brilliant album by the same producers, by an artist at a similar point in his career as the Beasties were in ’89, and it has a similar sound and texture to it. But from a crate digging perspective, it doesn’t hold a candle. The real legacy of Paul’s Boutique belongs to two other albums, the first of which was released just a few months after Odelay. Dj Shadow’s Entroducing… sounds nothing like Paul’s Boutique, being a dark and atmospheric instrumental record, with samples from Nirvana, Metallica and Giorgio Moroder, but the philosophy of creating a new sound from innumerable snippets of existing sound remains the same. The Avalanches’ 2000 album Since I Left You is in the same category; whereas Paul’s Boutique borrowed from the Beatles, Since I Left You similarly borrowed from the Beach Boys’ psychedelic aesthetic, sampling from 60’s dream-pop and classic disco records as well as Madonna, Raekwon and Parisian hip-hop group Saian Supa Crew. It’s telling that the albums that were to pick up Paul’s Boutique‘s legacy took so long to come. It seems like the world wasn’t ready for this kind of collage of sound yet, but by the time these albums came out, respectively 7 and 11 years after the fact, it certainly was, as both albums were critical and commercial successes. Sampling still esxists today, but collages of sound such as Paul’s Boutique are unlikely to see the light of day ever again. It’s telling that, in July of this year, when the Avalanches released their long awaited follow-up to Since I Left You, the long list of samples was substituted with a long list of featuring artists instead (although Wildflower, the album in question, is still a sample-heavy album relative to most). In the post-Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. world, the sound of sampling is alive and well, but it’s achieved through legal loopholes, interpolation, featuring artists and a lot of cash, not through the sheer creativity that comes when one is able to play around with any bit of music. No commercial artist will ever have the freedom the Dust Brothers had to sample whatever they pleased, and that is what makes Paul Boutique such a timeless piece of music: created as soon as the technology was good enough, but before the copyright laws caught up.
Sound on Sound interview with the Dust Brothers
Kexp 90.3 FM Seattle article on Paul’s Boutique and interview with Dust Brother Mike Simpson
Wondering Sound’s Dan LeRoy’s article on Paul’s Boutique and it’s legacy as well as his book on the album from the 33 1/3 series (highly reccomended read for more information on the album)
Image credit: Yahoo, XXL Magazine, Wondering Sound