shake down to 1989

January 17, 2007

greatness never occurs in isolation. pulp fiction, red, quiz show, and the shawshank redemption were all released the same year, as were the french connection, a clockwork orange, and fiddler on the roof; crystal pepsi had tab clear; dash hammerskjold, l.p. mandrake, notwithabang…, destroyer, and allegedly designedlateral, leading luminaries of the late-capitalist phenomenon known as the internet , all joined together on the same website; and in 1989, two of the greatest hip-hop albums of all-time were released in quick succession: De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising and The Beastie Boy’s Paul’s Boutique. The Beastie Boys, by the way, were the answer to the word tease from a couple of days ago. Congratulations to Rueven Upright of Newark, DE for being the first contestant to call in his answer over Ham Radio.

not only were the two albums released in tandem, they also bear a superficial resemblance to each other. both albums take sampling to the level of an artform , and both inject levity into a genre that was in danger of being over-saturated with violence. that isn’t to say that the artists avoid discussing serious social ills. quite the contrary: the Beastie Boys tackle racism on “Eggman,” and De La Soul explore the perpetuation of urban poverty and the reification of the “ghetto” in “Ghetto Thang.” indeed, these exceptions become even more notable and powerful because of the overall context of the albums.

at the time, 3 Feet High and Rising was the better received album, although some would argue that this is the result of its earlier release date. many of the things that make Paul’s Boutique so outstanding an album also featured on 3 Feet High and Rising (this is especially true of the collage-like production; amazingly, both albums make use of johnny cash samples and lyrics, a rarity in the hip-hop world of 1989), and though they were innovating in tandem, the earlier release of 3 Feet had already guaranteed that it would be credited with many of the accomplishments. as time has passed, the Beastie Boys have rightly received their share of accolades and the two albums are now both considered hip-hop classics.

each album is steeped in mythos. the beastie boys, fresh off their best-selling debut album, got into a bitter contract dispute with def jam (see this couplet from 1993’s lll Communication: ‘Cause Yauch’s on the upright, the shit just ain’t funny/ Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money ), and fled to los angeles where they began actually living the image they’d created for themselves on licence and entered a life true of decadence and debauchery. the lead single, “hey ladies,” convinced their fans that they’d become a disco group, and their label abandoned promotion after disappointing early sales. 3 Feet, on the other hand, inaugurated the “Jazz rap” and “hippy rap” genres, and De La Soul had trouble being taken as a “serious” group. it’s no surprise that both groups’ next albums were significant departures. thebeasties retreated from the world of sampling and went back to playing their own instruments. without any label interference, they recorded hundreds of hours of tape, eventually whittling it down to make check your head, a low-key album that marked a rather unlikely return to prominence. their next album, lll Communication, was made in a similar process, and is a very logical follow-up to check. it wasn’t until 1998’s hello nasty that they once again explored some of the elements that made paul’s so successful. likewise, De La Soul, weary of being pigeon-holed as a light, jazz inspired group, released De La Soul is Dead as their next album, a much rougher album with little connection to 3 Feet, and a near betrayal of many of their fans, mitigated only by the fact that the album is terrific. it’s also a logical precursor to princepaul’s classic, a prince among thieves.

the strength of 3 Feet is Prince Paul’s production. Prince Paul invented the hip-hop skit for this album, and crafted a musical world of infinite play and possibilities. 3 Feet is one of the ultimate soundtrack albums: it perfectly captures the spirit of backyard barbeques, hootenannies, and its a fact universally acknowledged that the album will put anyone in a good mood. It’s hard not to be amused by an album with whole songs about band members liking putty and needing haircuts, and frank, humorous descriptions of first-time jitters.

paul’s boutique is likewise marked by brilliant production. produced by the dust brothers, who seem to produce every artists best album (paul’s, beck’s odelay!, and hanson’s debut), paul’s is one of the most sampling intensive albums in hp-hop history, leading many to say that it could no longer be made because of rights clearance issues. but despite the production mastery, the album’s major strength is its lyricism. While De La could certainly inject terrific moments of whimsy into their songs, (mirror mirror on the wall/tell me mirror what is wrong/could it be myde la clothes/ or is it just my de la soul?; or: breakfast- broke it fast, she was in my english class/asked for notes, rocked my boat, jenifa…oh!/jenny lost her favorite penny, so i gave her a dollar/she kissed me <and I hollered!>) thebeastie boys took rhyming (and stealing) to new levels on paul’s boutique. consider the way the boys feed off of each other on “shake your rump.” i’ve tried to create an apparatus to illustrate this playfulness: parentheses=adrock, brackets MCA, french quotation marks mike d, and *sample.

(Now I rock a house party at the drop of a hat) <yeah>
(I beat a biter down with an aluminum bat)
<a lot of people they be jonesin’ just to hear me rock the mic>
(they’ll be staring at the radio,) <staying up all night >
[so like a pimp] (<I’m pimpin’>)
[I got a boat] (<to eat shrimp in>)
[Nothing wrong with my leg I’m just B-boy limpin’]
<Got arrested at the Mardi Gras for jumping on a float>
<(My man) MCA’s got a beard like a billy goat>
*oowah oowah* [is my disco call]
(<MCA>) *hu-huh* [I’m gettin’ rope y’all]
(Routines) <I bust> (and the rhymes) <that I write>
[And I’ll be busting routines and rhymes all night]
(Like eating burgers or chicken or you’ll be picking your nose)
(I’m on time, homey, that’s how it goes)
[<You heard my style I think you missed the point>]
*it’s the joint *

like an altman film, paul’s boutique is an amazing example of polyphony and multiple voices coming together. when this lyrical virtuosity is coupled with innovative sampling, the album his a new level of brilliancy. “the sounds of science” is maybe the finest example of this. the song, like much of the album, is heavily inspired by the beatles (like Abbey Road, the album ends with a strange linking of short songs): “sounds” begins with a sample of “when i’m 64,” then lays the drum beat to “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band,” as a base for the guitar track from “the end.” consider the lyrical playfulness and force of these rhymes, and the way the lyrics utilize the theme of science:

“Ponce De Leon constantly on
The fountain of youth not Robotron,” linking the explorer with a 1982 video game.

With my nose I knows and with my scopes I scope
What I live I write and that is strictly rope
I’ve got science for any occasion
Postulating theorems formulating equations
Cheech wizard in a snow blizzard
Eating chicken gizzards with a girl named Lizzy
Dropping science like Galileo dropped a orange

i wonder how many songs manage to keep up a theme of science of science throughout, while still maintaining the juvenile jocularity of the genre. they even manage to include the line, “anmc to a degree that you can’t get in college.”

17 years later the impact of these albums are still felt. prince paul, now joined by dan “the automator,” continues to lay down some of the best beats in hip-hop, and the beastie boys continue to be amongst the best lyricists in the business. though their last album was uneven, it still managed to produce the thoughtful paean to their home, “An Open Letter to NYC.” here’s just one of the many fine jewels in the heartfelt song:

We come together on the subway cars
Diversity unified, whoever you are
We’re doing fine on the 1 and 9 line
On the L we’re doin’ swell
On the number 10 bus we fight and fuss
You know we’re thorough in the boroughs ’cause that’s a must

in those short lines they’ve managed to traverse 4 boroughs, and show the common threads that link all new yorkers. the second verse begins the same way, referencing two of the major highways in the city.

1989 was an amazing year for hip-hop. in addition to the two albums enumerated here, the year saw Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and RunDMC’s “Wrestlemania rap” celebrating Wrestlemania IV. it was a time when artists in mainstream hip-hop still wanted to innovate and change the world, goals that have unfortunately fallen to the margins.

2 Responses to “shake down to 1989”

  1. Isaac Says:

    No capitalization? Who the hell do you think you are?

  2. rsbodapati Says:

    nobody can isolate captilization.

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