I shot a man in Brooklyn...
The Beastie Boys - 'B-Boy Bouillabaisse' (Paul's Boutique -1989)
One of the curious elements of music criticism and analysis is that rock music has its own references and shorthand, which you really need to pick up and learn. If those references mean nothing to you nowadays, you can find those references by going to YouTube, Spotify or wherever.
If a review in Mojo in 2019 that told me that a debut album reminds the reviewer of Talk Talk and The Blue Nile's Hats it would register with me - I know what they sound like, I know if I like those sounds, and it puts me in a frame of mind to consider the new music. Rewind to 1999, when I first started reading Mojo as a fifteen-year-old, I would not understand the connections, and short of buying Spirit of Eden and Hats, I would have to get a sense from the descriptions what both the new artist and the old ones sounded like.
The reason that comes to mind when I think about ‘B-Boy Bouillabaisse’ is that it features on an album that is regularly referred to as "Hip-hop's answer to Sgt. Pepper". OK, De La Soul's 3ft High and Rising has also been described as such, but with the Liverpool foursome sampled by The Beastie Boys on their second album, you can understand why the claim is made. You need some sense of the history of rock music to contextualise what is meant by this phrase. The linked articles talk of it being "trailblazing", and Rolling Stone say is
a record that was mind-expanding in both text and texture
For me, the intriguing point around this is that if it is the "Sgt Pepper of hip-hop",' it also contains a suite that could be considered hip-hop's version of the Long Melody on the 2nd side of Abbey Road.
It is twelve-and-a-half minutes made up with snatches of songs and ideas that didn't have enough fuel in the tank to produce a three or four-minute complete pop song, but set together, they are enough to propel the piece forward.
Led Zeppelin, Chic, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix and Johnny Cash all feature here in the context of an album that weaves a tapestry of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, Deep Purple, The Band and others together.
In 2009 Nate Patrin said in a 20th-anniversary review for Pitchfork that;
Paul's Boutique is a landmark in the art of sampling, a reinvention of a group that looked like it was heading for a gimmicky, early dead-end, and a harbinger of the pop-culture obsessions and referential touchstones that would come to define the ensuing decades' postmodern identity as sure as "The Simpsons" and Quentin Tarantino did.
It's an album so packed with lyrical and musical asides, namedrops, and quotations that you could lose an entire day going through its Wikipedia page and looking up all the references;
That sense of dizziness is precisely how 'B-Boy Bouillabaisse' makes me feel. Referencing back through three decades of popular music would be enough; the references to US pop culture still mainly sail 30,000ft over my head. Years after first hearing the album I still hearing something in the original context and the penny dropping to whereabouts, The Beastie Boys had borrowed it.
Mike D himself in The Beastie Boys book said;
We wanted to make our own psychedelic rap manifesto inspired by listening to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Hendrix super loud in various automobiles and Yauch's bedroom. We had nine-song ideas left over. We could have spent time working on them and developing them more fully, but instead we decided to shove them all together into one medley and call it a bouillabaisse. […] Coming from hardcore, we always loved the economy of super-short songs. So what if we tried some rap songs like that? Then throw in for good measure [some] backward loops, fuzz bass, b-boy routines, and a hundred NYC shout-outs, then chop up and mix and cut it all together with a Ginsu II.
The opening two sections, "59 Chrystie Street" and "Get On The Mic", don't really feature a sample as a hook; nothing with a melody is used. You have the crunching Hendrix sample, scratching and a story about seeing a disrobed wick-wick-whack and Mike D beatboxing on the latter track about what your girl has been up to, Rolos and a retired American football player. Jumping forward to what my CD lists as section H, we get another fifty seconds of Mike D bragging over a melody free section with references to Ironside and Red Lobster queued in like a radio commercial.
It's two minutes in with section C on "Stop That Train" before we get a constant peppering of New York references as the track and the lyrics take a symbolic train ride. We also got a Scotty sample from They Harder They Come that Vanilla Ice would use the following year. At this point, we step it up a notch and on "A Year and Day", the crowning glory of the whole piece as it opens out with that rusty guitar lick from Ernie Isley on 'That Lady' meets a hyperactive smackdown of John Bonham's concrete cinder blocks from "When The Levee Breaks" again. At the same time, we hear the first stirrings of MCA's Buddhism on record as he pushes the track forward.
Away from that slickness, "Hello Brooklyn" is a lot denser, and the cut to Jonny Cash's "...just to watch him die" from 'Folsom Prison Blues is a level of coolly humorous macabre that sits well in that section. It was also heavily reinterpreted by Jay-Z and Lil' Wayne in 2007 on the appropriately named "Hello Brooklyn 2.0."
"Dropping Names" mixes The Meters, The Crusaders and The Sweet with a section of a Bob Marley interview where he says showing someone how to play reggae and them being able to feel it are two different things. - A warning to the Brooklyn trio's would-be imitators. We head towards the end with "Lay It On Me", probably the funkiest thing in the suite thanks to Kool and the Gang's "Let The Music Take Your Mind".
“A.W.O.L” starts with Chic and what is meant to sound like a live track before the group, fresh from playing out all these samples and loops, then loop back to the album's start with the sample of "Loran's Dance" by Idris Muhammad that opens the album.
Something about "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" still intrigues me now; I am not sure any other act could have made something quite like it in 1989. There's an element of what we would call in the UK public schoolboy humour, a sort of snickering at anyone taking any of this seriously.
It is also a towering achievement on a record that has gained prominence over the last 30 plus years, a never bettered exuberant, free-wheeling masterpiece that mixes both high and low art. It causes ripples that wash up on landmark records of the 1990s, not just inside the hip-hop universe. I'd wager that the next decade would have sounded very different without it - you can hear the influence all over records such as Odelay, Entroducing… and Since I Left You.
You can bet a lot of those acts had some moments of revelation listening to the last twelve and a half minutes of this record.