The Science of Sounds

Posted on May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

I interviewed Adam Yauch only once, in the spring of 2005. The topic was the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, a jubilant, sample-stitched masterpiece that’s just as engaging and enriching today as it was nearly a quarter-century ago. SPIN had just picked Paul’s to be included on one of its semi-annual greatest-albums lists, and Yauch agreed to give me a few minutes over the phone. As I recall, Yauch was forthright and pleasant, and though I can’t find my audio of our talk, I remember him chuckling a few times in that great, gruff voice of his.

Yauch died last Friday. The interview passage below–which I’ve streamlined and tightened a bit–doesn’t touch upon the many creative and philanthropic accomplishments he packed into his 47 years; it’s just a quick little making-of story. But I used maybe five percent of our conversation for the actual published story, and it seemed like a waste having it forever trapped on a hard drive. Plus, I’ve been playing Paul’s a lot these past few days, and re-reading this made me smile and play it some more:

ADAM YAUCH: Early on, when we first started working with the Dust Brothers, we had just intended to do a couple of songs. We thought that maybe we would work with different producers, and we weren’t really sure who we wanted to work with on the whole thing. We just happened to be in L.A. doing something else, and Mike and I stopped by our friend Matt Dike’s house. Matt was starting Delicious Vinyl, and he played us the instrumentals of what ended up being “Shake Your Rump” and “Car Thief.” But he said he and his friend were intending to make instrumentals, and throw them out as club tracks. And we said, “Oh, could we rhyme on this stuff?” And he said, “Yeah, you can rhyme, maybe on a stripped-down version. We could take some of the music out.” And we said, “Let’s just rhyme over the music the way its built–the guitars and the basslines.” So we went in and made these demos with them. Utimately we made the whole album with them.

Adam and Mike and I rented a house together that was up in the Hills. It was a classic Hollywood-type spot: It had a big view of the Valley, a big swimming pool, and a room with a window that looked into the living room. I don’t think we had a full party going on all the time, because we were pretty focused on writing the record. So it was kind of cool–the three of us being out there together and being able to write lyrics all the time. A lot of times, we’d go out to clubs. Sometimes we’d play baseball or basketball, and there was a softball field out there.

We wrote [lyrics] individually, but while hanging out together. Often we’d write like that: We’d have instrumentals that we’d listen to, and while we were listening to it, we’d all sit there with our own pad of paper and write a bunch of lyrics. And then we’d read stuff to each other. Maybe someone would have an idea for a specific hook, and we’d try to figure out what kind of lyrics we’d have for that hook, and then we’d throw all of the lyrics into the pot for that. For “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” we’d work together to come up with an order, and then we’d figure out how to break ‘em up—“You do this line, I’ll do that line, and we’ll do this line together.” So a lot of times on Paul’s Boutique, the lines that we’re saying are not necessarily the rhymes we’ve written. More of than not, they’re really mixed up. On later albums, we tended just to write our own lines: “You go for two bars, I’ll go for four bars.” Everybody hit their own section.

I don’t know how much of the plan [for Paul’s] was, “We need to do something different.” We just kind of instinctually tried to do something that wasn’t done, or was different from what was out there. Most people at that time were rhyming over stripped-down beats. So it seemed like an interesting way to go against the grain of what was going on, and the way that the different samples were hooked up together was a little more [complex] than most of what was going on at the time. During the course of making Paul’s Boutique, [Public Enemy’s] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back came out, and that had a lot of layered sampling on it. [De La Soul’s] 3 Feet High and Rising had a lot of layered sampling. We had kind of already started into it before that stuff came out.

I don’t remember worrying about [the sampling clearances] too much. I think we were all like, “We’ll just worry about it later.” Like, “We’re using it in a creative way. We’re just using a bar.” We weren’t taking someone’s whole song; we were just taking little pieces of somebody’s song. So it felt like more like it was collaging. [The legal response] wasn’t too bad for that particular album. People hadn’t really gotten insane about sampling. I don’t think you’d be able to make that particular record nowadays, just because so many people are looking to make a fortune off of samples that you wouldn’t be able to do it.

At the time we were finishing up Paul’s Boutique, I thought it was amazing. Licensed to Ill had sold five million records or something, so I just thought, “This record is ten times better. It’ll probably sell ten times more.” I was getting ready for this insane onslaught of success, and I was ducking and holding my head on my hands for the explosion. And then it went “poof.” Right after it came out, I remember being in a diner in the Valley, and some kid come up to me and said, “Man, what’s up with that new album? Why can’t you guys do more stuff like Licensed to Ill?”

The response wasn’t frustrating so much as it was surprising, because I felt like Licensed to Ill was kinda corny in a way to me. But Capitol Records imploded right around the time that record came out. It was one of the many times where they just fired everyone from the president on down, right as the record was coming out. The three of us went to meet the new president of Capitol and said to him, “We spent a long time on this record, and really like it, and we want to promote it and go on tour and make this thing happen. And the guy from Capitol saying “Look, I don’t have time for this. The new Donny Osmond album is coming out. Go work on a new album.” We were like “What? No!” He laid down the law.

We never toured for Paul’s Boutique, because our manager at the time didn’t want us to tour without a hit single. But when we went on tour in ’92 for Check Your Head, people started saying [Paul’s] was their favorite record.

[And here are just three reasons why: “Shake Your Rump,” “Hey Ladies,” and “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun”]


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