1989: when Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and sampling ruled

1989: when Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and sampling ruled

Hip-hop And You Do Stop is a series chronicling Nathan Rabin’s deep love for (and growing estrangement from) hip-hop through the filter of golden age and ’90s hip-hop. Each entry documents a year in the genre’s development, beginning with 1988 and concluding with 2000.

About a decade ago, I made the mistake of buying Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free as a birthday present for my older sister Anna. Anna took me to my first two hip-hop shows when I was an impressionable young man hungry for experience and adventure: Beastie Boys and De La Soul. When we were both in our teens, hip-hop was something we shared. It was a common currency. Anna wasn’t a big hip-hop fan, but like seemingly every white college kid of her generation, she had a deep, abiding love for Beastie Boys and the creative revolutionaries of Native Tongues. 

Anna has grown progressively less interested in pop culture—to the point where she hasn’t had a television since the Clinton era—but at the time, I thought Dead Prez’s rebellious fire might reignite her lost love of hip-hop. Oh sweet blessed Lord, was I ever wrong. On a road trip to Michigan, we listened to Let’s Get Free between Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams, and my sister sported a polite but undeniably pained expression. It wasn’t just that Dead Prez’s music and lyrics were like a shot of Jägermeister between the chamomile tea of DiFranco and Williams, or that my sister couldn’t relate to the nationalist duo’s righteous rage at that stage in her life: It was as if Dead Prez was communicating in a language she didn’t understand. 

Her response made sense, since hip-hop is a shifting language, an utterly malleable vernacular. I’m not just talking about slang; I’m talking about hip-hop as a musical, cultural, and even sartorial language, an elaborate code of conduct with perpetually changing customs and attitudes. 

The 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone had a great episode called “Wordplay” about an average man played by Robert Klein who wakes up one morning to discover he doesn’t understand the people around him, though they’re all ostensibly speaking English. At first, his disorientation is subtle: He’s puzzled but not overly concerned when a neighbor refers to a dog as an “encyclopedia,” but grows increasingly frantic as he discovers that for no discernible reason, the English language has morphed dramatically, and the words he thought he knew no longer mean what they once did. By the end of the episode, a world that once made sense and played by rules he understood had grown impenetrable and terrifying. 

It’s easy to feel like Klein when writing about pop culture for a living, especially as you get older in a pop universe that prides itself on remaining forever young. You go to sleep one night thinking you understand pop culture. You imagine you know the right labels and producers and movements and songs and scenes and slang and terminology, then wake up one morning to find that the pop-music world has changed into something foreign and bewildering, hence vaguely threatening. 

Just like hip-hop, sampling is an evolving language that can seem warm and reassuring, or terrifying. At first, it was a relatively simple language conveyed through crude tools and primitive samplers, but in 1989, that language underwent a startling transformation. Seemingly overnight, it evolved from hieroglyphics to Shakespearean English. The catalyst for this revolution in sampling was a pair of simpatico masterpieces from artists who took different paths to a common destination. 

When Paul’s Boutique was released to good reviews and underwhelming sales, the Beastie Boys were multi-platinum pop stars in exile from their home base in New York, their old label (Def Jam), their former producer (Rick Rubin), and their obscenely profitable old image as party-hearty frat-rappers peddling proudly ignorant douchebaggery. De La Soul, conversely, was comprised of unknown middle-class black teens from Long Island who were fortunate enough to hook up with brilliant, eccentric DJ-turned-producer Prince Paul, whose innovations ricocheted through hip-hop throughout the next quarter-century. 

According to Dan LeRoy’s 33 1/3 book on the making of Paul’s Boutique, the Beastie Boys were largely adrift following the massive, runaway success of Licensed To Ill, an album that made Def Jam a fortune, yet netted its creators substantially less than a pittance. Def Jam was reluctant to pony up substantial royalties to the group, out of fear that the label’s trio of golden geese would simply vanish from the nest instead of keeping the money train going with a follow-up album.

After Licensed To Ill made them heroes and role models to all the wrong people (and some of the right ones), the Beastie Boys felt lost. They didn’t know what they wanted to do, but they knew what they didn’t want to do. They didn’t want to remain with Def Jam. They didn’t want to make another crude, head-banging rap-rock album with Rick Rubin, the black-clad demon on their collective shoulder. (It was Rubin’s idea, for example, to name the trio’s debut Don’t Be A Faggot.) They didn’t want to collaborate with Rubin on a film vehicle to be called Scared Stupid. (Rubin’s blaxploitation vehicle for Run-DMC, Tougher Than Leather, hadn’t panned out well.) They didn’t want to stay in New York. And more than anything, they didn’t want to release a sonic or spiritual sequel to Licensed To Ill, whose antics they now found a little embarrassing. 

They didn’t discover what they did want until they stumbled across some weird instrumental tapes from DJ-turned-production duo Michael Simpson and John King, who called themselves the Dust Brothers, and had some success producing hit songs for Tone Lōc and Young MC on the Delicious Vinyl label. Along with young engineer named Mario Caldato Jr., Delicious Vinyl co-founder Matt Dike, and Beastie Boys themselves, the Dust Brothers became the team that brought Paul’s Boutique to life. 

The Dust Brothers tracks that initially attracted the Beastie Boys’ attention were so complex, the duo thought about stockpiling them, then releasing them as an instrumental album. They certainly didn’t think of them as simple beats for rappers to rhyme over, multi-platinum or otherwise. But the Beastie Boys could see what the Dust Brothers couldn’t. The group wasn’t intimidated by tracks that were perfect in their own right and didn’t really need anyone to rap over them. Instead, they saw a magnificent canvas for them to splatter their rhymes over like a tagger marking a subway car. Beastie Boys envisioned a creative Vulcan mind meld where the rhymes were extensions of the beats, the beats were extensions of rhymes, and it was all in the service of a larger vision and grand gestalt. While that’s true, it’s also true that the Beastie Boys were debauched twentysomethings more interested in partying and fucking around than scoring another hit album. Paul’s Boutique consequently has the exhilarating, stoned lightness of a goofy lark and the heft of a grand artistic statement. 

In his book, LeRoy strains mightily to find meaning and substance in the album’s lyrics, positing “Johnny Ryall,” for example, as an empathetic exploration of the plight of contemporary homelessness. But I think one of the album’s most sublime jokes lies in harnessing unprecedented technological, musical, and creative sophistication to songs about chucking eggs at dudes, smoking weed, and chasing women in a series of increasingly preposterous scenarios. When the Boys ask an unnamed white supremacist “Why’d you throw that chair at Geraldo Rivera?” on “What Comes Around,” I suspect they’re motivated less by a desire to confront the plague of racism and bigotry than by a conviction that “Why’d you throw that chair at Geraldo Rivera?” is a hilarious thing to say when you’re high. On Paul’s Boutique, the Boys’ intertwining voices and hot-potato delivery is simply one element of a complicated sonic mix. It’s a central element, but—in sharp contrast to the usual dynamic—the rhymes serve the production, rather than the other way around. 

Paul’s Boutique and De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising took advantage of the brief window when technology and artistry pushed sampling to new levels of sophistication, and the folks who owned the publishing rights to the songs and sounds being sampled didn’t yet realize the immense power they possessed, or understand the windfall that could be gleaned from licensing samples to major artists. The two albums stand as apogees of sampling in part because they played by different rules than everyone who came after them, yet were beneficiaries of technology that didn’t really exist before them. 

At the same time, part of what makes Paul’s Boutique such an enduring, consistent marvel is the sense that the Boys and their gifted collaborators weren’t playing by any rules, that they were making them up as they went along, then discarding them whenever it suited them. Paul’s Boutique inhabited a magical era where a group could sample the Beatles over and over—as Beastie Boys and the Dust Brothers do on the second half of “The Sounds Of Science”—without forking over their entire budget for the privilege. The more expensive sampling rights got, the more prohibitive their use became. But Paul’s Boutique was created at a time when the whole field was wide open, and the only restrictions they faced were those they placed on themselves. 

Paul’s Boutique ends with “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” a nine-part, 12-and-a-half-minute song-suite that screamed the album’s Herculean ambitions from the mountaintops while maintaining the sense that the album represents a brilliant cosmic joke. It’s a nostalgia-powered journey back to the homesick group’s New York roots that peaks, in my mind at least, with “A Year And A Day.” Over the deafening fuzz guitar of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady (Part 1 & 2),” Adam Yauch raps with newfound purpose and conviction through a thick layer of vocal distortion about dreams, purity, and looking beyond the fog of the Los Angeles party life to see himself “clear as day.” It’s a dazzling combination of b-boy bravado and soul-searching that marked the first sign that the hard-partying Casanova of Beastie Boys was undergoing a dramatic transformation into a spiritual seeker with a future in converting to Buddhism, making documentaries, releasing arthouse films, and fighting for Tibetan freedom, rather than an endless battery of bong-hits and lost nights. Listen closely to “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” and you can hear hip-hop evolving. Listen to “A Year And A Day,” and you can hear Yauch evolving. 

In some ways, Paul’s Boutique marks the true beginning of the 1990s, even though that meant it had the misfortune of being slightly ahead of its time. It captures the sensibility that defined the decade, a potent combination of winking, affectionate irony, rapid-fire (and sometimes obscure) pop-culture references that today have listeners racing to Wikipedia, 1970s nostalgia, kitsch, dark comedy, and gleeful, unapologetic postmodernism. Paul’s Boutique brought Quentin Tarantino’s magpie, thrift- and video-store sensibility to hip-hop while Tarantino was still toiling as a clerk at Video Archives. 

When Paul’s Boutique came out, it was so radically new and different that it might as well have come from another planet, but it before long, much of the culture was speaking Beastie Boys’ language, metaphorically speaking. 

Paul’s Boutique sometimes resembles a hip-hop Tower of Babel, a riot of screaming, percussive voices gleaned from obscure 1970s funk records, glam-rock singles, bong hits, shotgun blasts, cowbell solos, and a thousand other sources ranging from the unknown to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Only instead of producing an eardrum-shattering cacophony, it produced something strangely perfect, a beguiling tune sung in perfect harmony by a million voices from different eras and continents and genres. Instead of a Tower of Babel, the crazy-quilt patchwork of Paul’s Boutique produced a glorious Tower of Song.

Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High And Rising benefit from the freedom, recklessness, and vitality of youth. They were the products of kids who hadn’t been beaten down by the grim realities of the record business, who made albums they wanted to listen to without regard to commercial considerations. In Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique, De La Soul’s Trugoy (a.k.a Dave) captures this fundamental openness when he says, “It was a capsule of our innocence. I can hear four individuals who didn’t give a damn about the rules and just went in and had a good time.” Change the number of individuals, and Dave could just as easily have been talking about Paul’s Boutique.

The commonalities between Beastie Boys and De La Soul extend beyond their shared status as classic albums that evolved the art of sampling. Both artists were alternately blessed and cursed with landmark debuts that established personas from which the groups later took great pains to distance themselves. Beastie Boys have spent much of their career trying to make fans forget about tours involving women in cages, giant inflatable penises as stage props, and dumbass party anthems, ironic or otherwise. They have atoned for these early sins of tongue-in-cheek misogyny many times over, while De La Soul took equally dramatic steps to lose its “D.A.I.S.Y Age” hippified image, even naming its grittier, harder-edged, less-utopian but still awesome 1991 follow-up De La Soul Is Dead. As if the title didn’t get the message across, the cover featured a knocked-over trio of sad little daisies in a broken flowerpot. 

Beastie Boys and De La Soul also had the combined pleasure and misfortune of making seminal albums with producers so strong-willed, talented, and original that they threatened to overshadow the bands with which they were working. Beastie Boys had to get out of New York, leave Def Jam, and collaborate with brilliant new producers to escape the notion that they were Rick Rubin’s cute little project. Similarly, it took De La Soul a while to evade Prince Paul’s outsized shadow, a feat the group conclusively accomplished with 1996’s Stakes Is High, the first album it made without Prince Paul. 

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Prince Paul and 3 Feet High And Rising are credited with introducing skits to hip-hop, which is a legacy akin to introducing smallpox to the indigenous population of the United States. Skits eventually became a plague upon hip-hop, but on 3 Feet High And Rising, they serve a crucial function. What is the hip-hop skit, if not an inside joke lost on 99 percent of the listening public? Like hip-hop and sampling, inside jokes also constitute a language in their own right, a private, personal vernacular of shared gags, experiences, and references. 

3 Feet High And Rising and Paul’s Boutique feel like album-length inside jokes in the best possible way. Instead of excluding listeners, the albums welcomed audiences into Beastie Boys and De La Soul’s friendships. Like Paul’s Boutique, 3 Feet High And Rising gives listeners a glimpse into the world of its creators, their friends, and their collaborators. Devoting an entire track to whispers about Prince Paul and De La Soul’s dandruff and need for a haircut—as De La Soul does on “Can U Keep A Secret”—might strike outsiders as the very definition of self-indulgence, but it also gives the album a funky sense of personality, intimacy, and eccentricity. Without the self-indulgent silliness, 3 Feet High And Rising simply wouldn’t be the same album. 

That silliness begins with the first track, “Intro,” which introduces De La Soul and Prince Paul as contestants on a game show where they struggle to answer a series of patently absurd questions about the number of feathers on a Perdue chicken, the number of fibers intertwined on a Shredded wheat biscuit, an English translation of French phrases, and the Batmobile’s propensity for “catching” flat tires. The track establishes that we are now in Prince Paul and De La Soul’s weird world, a psychedelic realm that owes as much to Firesign Theatre as Run-DMC. 

The following track, “The Magic Number,” takes its cues from a beloved old Schoolhouse Rock chestnut and samples a woozy Johnny Cash asking, “How high’s the water, mama?” The sample is from Cash’s “Five Feet High And Rising,” the song that gives the album its title, and sounds as if it’s been filtered through an LSD haze. “The Magic Number” reaches back in time to harness the iconic power of Johnny Cash, an earlier iconoclast who became a legend by refusing to play by other people’s rules. But the track also directly and indirectly references a more obscure but more pertinent creative outlaw, Steinski, a Jewish adman whose sonic collages with partner Double Dee, known as “Lessons,” had a huge impact on producers like Prince Paul and Madlib. Like 3 Feet High And Rising, Steinski’s pioneering early opuses proved that in the right hands, hip-hop instrumentals could be anything: stoner comedy, social commentary, Dadaist pranks, culture-jamming rock ’n’ roll, and all-out subversion. 

According to Check The Technique, an early plan to make 3 Feet High And Rising a concept album about a pair of microphone plugs broadcasting from Mars was abandoned, but other than that, seemingly no idea was dismissed for being too silly or too out-there. As with Paul’s Boutique, the prevailing attitude wasn’t “Why?” so much as “Why the hell not?” Why not include yodeling in the background? Why not impart moral messages via friendly talking animals (“Tread Water”) or interrupt a poppy, commercial song (“Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin’s Revenge)”) about the joys and anxieties of teenage sex with a clip of Liberace playing “Chopsticks?”

Where Beastie Boys rap so fast and so densely that it can be difficult to discern what they’re saying, even after repeat listens, De La Soul favored a conversational, easy-to-follow style that split the difference between rapping and talking. Where Beastie Boys delighted in borderline-nonsensical lyrical tomfoolery, De La Soul nicely offset Prince Paul’s manic humor with disarming, earnest sincerity. 

3 Feet High And Rising might have reached the same unfortunate commercial fate as Paul’s Boutique if the group hadn’t scored a big crossover hit with “Me, Myself And I.” When I went with my sister to see De La Soul back in the day, they prefaced the song by chanting, “You love this song, you love this song, we hate this song, we hate this song.” Their candor was admirable, I suppose, but it’s also more than a little insulting to fans. It’s a not-so-subtle way of saying, “We, the creators, think this is crap, but if you want to go on having bad taste, knock yourself out.” 

De La Soul has an ambivalent-to-hostile attitude toward its best-known hit, but it’s both a terrific pop song and an early manifesto in which De La Soul asserts its individuality, uniqueness, and blackness while rebuking the music industry’s attempts to pigeonhole and caricature it. On 3 Feet High And Rising, Prince Paul is a sonic mad scientist making hip-hop magic out of the unlikeliest ingredients, but on “Me, Myself And I,” Paul follows in the footsteps of countless others by sampling the ubiquitous oeuvre of George Clinton and The Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm.” The move worked like gangbusters, creatively and commercially, but it was also an uncharacteristically safe, conventional tactic on an album that was anything but. I suspect part of the reason the song’s success bugged the group was because “Me, Myself And I” became its identity for a while, and people coming to De La shows just to hear a hit song from the radio went against 3 Feet High And Rising’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic. In that respect, maybe it’s a good thing Paul’s Boutique never had a hit: It forced listeners to grapple with the album as a complete whole, not just as hit songs tethered to a bunch of weird stuff begging for the fast-forward button. 

De La Soul and Beastie Boys have another intriguing commonality as well, this time of a more recent vintage. After successfully distancing themselves from the albums that made them stars, Beastie Boys and two-thirds of De La Soul recently released nostalgia-rich projects that return the iconic artists to their complicated roots.

Like therapy patients who relive formative traumas in an attempt to purge them from their tormented psyches, the late, dearly missed Adam Yauch decided to confront the lingering demon of the “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” video by writing and directing a half-hour-long sequel/parody called “Fight For Your Right (Revisited)” that finds Danny McBride, Seth Rogen, and Elijah Wood portraying 1980s versions of Beastie Boys in the aftermath of the raucous party chronicled in “Fight For Your Right.” Meanwhile, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly play versions of the current Beastie Boys who travel back in time (in a DeLorean, of course) to challenge their acid-addled younger versions to an epic dance-off. The Beastie Boys have always delighted in goofing on the tackiest recesses of pop culture past. 

On the gloriously goofy “Fight For Your Right (Revisited),” that delight extends to the Boys themselves, and the least-reputable parts of their storied history. In true Beasties tradition, the video is littered with in-jokes and self-referential asides: My favorite is Will Ferrell smacking a cowbell in a simultaneous homage to the legendary “More cowbell” SNL skit and the cowbell that features prominently in “Hey Ladies.” 

The short film is half gleeful self-parody—in a particularly funny exchange, the “Boys” nervously disavow any knowledge of sledgehammers or destructive partying when confronted by a skeptical couple played by Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon—and half self-homage. The “Boys” are more than a little pathetic with their mindless compulsion toward meaningless destruction and inflated self-image, but they’re also more than a little badass. In the video, Beastie Boys ironically reclaim their embarrassing past and impishly subvert it. Nothing is safe from their good-natured mockery, least of all of themselves and their preposterous but lucrative early personas.

De La Soul hasn’t released a proper studio album since 2004’s excellent The Grind Date, but group members Posdnuos and Trugoy recently joined French production duo Chokolate and Khalid to record First Serve, a concept album for which the rappers inhabit the characters of a pair of up-and-coming rappers angling for their big break. It’s telling that when Posdnuos and Trugoy went looking for inspiration for their first proper studio album in eight years, they found it by returning to the hunger and ambition of their carefree early years rather than their current lives as fortysomething rap legends. 

First Serve is a solid comeback album, but it’s thoroughly devoid of the innovation and experimentation that defined 3 Feet High And Rising. It’s the work of men who’ve already made their mark and have nothing left to prove. Beastie Boys’ final two albums had an unmistakably nostalgic, retro vibe as well, especially the old-school homage To The 5 Boroughs

Beastie Boys and De La Soul were ahead of their times. Beastie Boys paid a big price for that at the time of Paul’s Boutique, while De La Soul was understandably and justifiably rewarded, both creatively and commercially, for seeing beyond the current hip-hop scene to a utopian future that never panned out. While their most recent releases are backward-looking, they’ve earned the right to bask a little in their triumphant past. 

Up next: Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, A Tribe Called Quest, and Ice Cube release albums that reflect a profound fracturing of the hip-hop nation.