Beastie Boys ‘Paul’s Boutique’ Broke Ground w/ Country Influence

Today we learned of the death of Adam Yauch, aka “MCA” from the hip-hop and hardcore punk group The Beastie Boys. You may wonder why such news would be germane on a country music website, but 25 years after the release of The Beastie Boys commercial blockbuster album License To Ill, country music is attempting to fight off an incursion of the most awful, ill-advised, and poorly-executed attempts to bridge country and hip-hop influences into something called “country rap”.

In my Survival Guide to Country Rap, I pointed out many reasons why the fusion of country and rap rarely works, and how it can be harmful to the health of both genres by killing contrast and aiding the formation of one popular mono-genre of American music. But I also left open the idea that at times, when approached with respect and understanding, the two polar genres of country and rap could be bridged successfully.

Today many people will be pouring their brass monkey’s while listening to License to Ill, but it was not The Beastie Boys 1986 blockbuster that had the most influence in music, it was their 1989 follow up Paul’s Boutique that is considered their magum opus. Along with albums such as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and The Sex Pistols’ Nevermind The Bullocks, I and other music critics would put Paul’s Boutique up there as one of the most influential albums in all of music, for all time.

The reason for this is because Paul’s Boutique created many of the trends that continue to be alive in popular music today, the biggest being the use of sampling in songs. Though many music listeners, especially country music listeners may see this practice as cheating, this was a completely inventive approach at the time, and a way to make old-school-sounding music in a music world The Beastie Boys had difficulty relating to. The Beastie Boys were the old-school pioneers of the late 80’s, similar to the neo-traditionalists of country today. Feeling an inferiority with present day sounds, they borrowed from the past to create feeling and nostalgia through their music. The Beastie Boys were embarrassed of being labeled one hit wonders and hacks, and wanted to assert their creative influence on the music world.

Where the country world comes in is in the heavy-handed and stark use of country and Southern influences in Paul’s Boutique. In many ways, country and Southern sounds and themes are the foundation for the album. The problem with Paul’s Boutique was that it was not very popular in its time, and was considered a flop compared to License to Ill.

The most important mark of the project on popular culture was how it interjected violent themes into rap music. At the time, “Word To Your Mother!” was about as violent as rap got, while Johnny Cash had been serenading prisons about killing a man just to watch him die for 35 years. The Beastie Boys and Paul’s Boutique took stark country and western themes and lyric modes and set them to hip hop beats built in many cases from Southern sounds and artists. Many people credit Paul’s Boutique as being the formation of “gangster rap”, and country music themes may be just as much to blame for this as The Beastie Boys and The Dust Brothers who DJ’d the album.

Paul’s Boutique’s Country & Southern Foundations

“5-Piece Chicken Dinner” is the most obvious example, a simple fiddle and banjo riff put in the album to be completely ironic, but at the same times speaks to an appeal for country music that runs like a vein through the most influential hip-hop album of all time.

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“Looking Down The Barrel of a Gun” borrows from the Southern rock anthem  “Mississippi Queen” from another from another New York band called Mountain, though most of the track is played live by Adam Yauch (MCA) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock). This song is the best example of the violent influences of country mingling with hip-hop beats into what would become “gangster rap”.

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“High Plains Drifter” is the best example of Paul’s Boutique taking classic country and western themes and adapting them into a modern hip-hop song, and how this allowed the violent “Wild West” storytelling element of country music to assert influence on hip-hop. Sonically the song borrows heavily from The Eagles’ “Those Shoes”.

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“Johnny Ryall” is another storytelling song about a “rockabilly Star from the days of old” who “got a platinum voice but only gold records” who now is a homeless bum living on the streets of New York. This song that also references Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm”. The amazing thing about “Johnny Ryall” is how closely it mirrors the tragedy songs written about Nashville’s forgotten stars and songwriters, songs like “Murder On Music Row” that wasn’t released until a decade later. As much of the song seems to be centered around making fun of a homeless man, the underlying message is of a forgotten rockabilly great who never was given his due.

Whole album is below, “Johnny Ryall” starts at the 4:48.

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Paul’s Boutique is an example of where country elements can be integrated with hip-hop successfully, but it also teaches us the lesson of why in the end there is no country rap, there’s only country, and hip hop. At the very beginning of the formation of hip hop, of which Paul’s Boutique is an essential element of, it became a genre of music that borrowed from other genres, like the country elements in Paul’s Boutique.

Nobody would argue that Paul’s Boutique is a country record, for the same reasons you can argue Colt Ford isn’t country either: because as soon as you integrate hip-hop elements into country music, it ceases to be country and becomes hip hop. Hip-hop elements have no history, and no place in country music, while country music, just like every other music genre, went into forming hip hop. The lessons learned from Paul’s Boutique prove this.

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Two guns up for Paul’s Boutique.

RIP Adam Yauch, aka (MCA)

(Fellow Beastie boy Mike D also has an alter ego “Country Mike”, and recorded an album “Country Mikes Greatest Hits” for friends and family in 2000).

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