"A blue bong, high quality indica buds, hash, hash oil, freebase, red wine, cigarettes, LSD, coffee, and whippets." Dust Brother Mike Simpson's recollection of the essential items in the production of the Beastie Boy's second album gives more than a hint about why this particular slice of hip-hop has been, to say the least, a little obscured. And this is the Beastie Boys album which needs the most exposition; even though most people will tell you that it's their masterwork, the circumstances surrounding it have been in need of description.
Thankfully, this sad lack of information is filled by Dan LeRoy's new book, which tells the album's story in its entirety. This is definitely one of the best stories to an album I've had the pleasure of reading: filled with juicy and hilarious anecdotes about music industry power struggles, wild parties and ground-laying music-making, Paul's Boutique is definitely the most entertaining of the 33 1/3 books I've read. There are plenty of scenes that provide major entertainment: the Beasties' many eggings of unsuspecting victims, Capitol A&R man Tim Carr's nude sauna business meeting with Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, and many more. And LeRoy's really done his homework to stitch the story together: his bibliography is the busiest of all the 33 1/3 books I’ve been through.
The format of the book is one people who have read previous 33 1/3 volumes will be familiar with: opening with the album's complete history, and then proceeding into a track by track description of the songs that comprise the album. Thankfully, LeRoy includes info on b-sides and outtakes, a rare and scattered bunch of songs, most with humorous, interesting stories of their own. The way he brings up some of the more salient samples that make up the songs is also admirable, hitting some nice middle ground between not discussing the composition at all and giving an exhaustive sample list (which, as the Dust Brothers and Matt Dike admit, would be impossible anyway).
The book's final chapter wraps up and ends with a reflective note on the Beasties' future, the album's legacy, and, problematically, its overlaying sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a concept LeRoy tries to work throughout the book. He takes it to be a crucial element of Paul's Boutique, and he expounds on it intermittently in his analysis. He makes a good argument, too; but while it's true the album is made up of pop culture fragments from an earlier time, sometimes it doesn't seem fair to me to pigeonhole this tendency as "nostalgia." The artists involved weren’t really looking back with a wistful fondness; to me, it seems they were actively buoying themselves on music they loved, no matter what the cultural circumstances.
My issues with LeRoy's book are really just little quibbles, however. For such a seminal album in the history of sample-based music, I would have liked to see a little more attention to that as a prominent feature of the album, rather than the theme of nostalgia. Then again, this book could probably be three times as long if it contained discussions about all of its aspects. For example, Paul's Boutique, and the innovation of sample-based hip-hop that broke at the end of the 1980s, was part of a gradual trend toward self-reflexiveness in pop culture, a phenomenon that's almost inescapable in our current cultural society of DJ Shadow, Family Guy and ironic T-Shirts built on references to TV shows that stopped running two or three decades ago.
So what better time for this book than the present? The Beastie Boys are hitting the dusty last stretch of a lengthy career, especially for the notoriously "here today, gone tomorrow" hip-hop universe. And although they're about 15 years past their prime, they still pull it together and get interviews, magazine cover shoots, and play on the radio.
But Paul's Boutique was pretty much the axis of their career, and this book is indispensable for that reason. LeRoy ends his work on a slightly awkward and imploring note: an invitation for the reader to get off his or her ass and put on some headphones. The entreatment might come off a little strange, but the invitation is certainly valid: if you haven't heard the album, you need to hightail it to the nearest record store or library and get it. And when you're done, you need to read this book.
Reviewed by Jon Cameron