Arts and craftsmen

After the Beasties and Beck, the Dust Brothers strike out on their own

The pool guy's out back, a borrowed Lucky Strike dangling from his lips as he vacuums leaves out of the crystal-clear water. He comes once every few days to clean this beautiful pool that sits beneath a brick-wall cliff and an arrogantly blue sky, but the owners of the pool never use it, nor do most of the guests who visit this home, perched on an immaculate residential hill in Silverlake, a burgeoning artist community just east of Hollywood.

That's because the owners of the home--Mike Simpson and John King, best known as the Dust Brothers--do not live in it. It's simply their place of business--part office, part recording studio, part refuge for their friends in the Silverlake music community who like to drop by and listen to old '70s funk records or to record. These days it also acts as one of the offices for the Brothers' new Nickel Bag Records label, which recently released Sukia's dense, brilliant, post-disco Contacto Espacial con el Tercer Sexo. (In cozy Silverlake fashion, Mitchell Frank will manage the label; he helped start it during the 1994 South by Southwest music conference in Austin.)

When Simpson and King moved into the house a few years ago, it was in pristine condition. Now it shows the cracks and holes of neglect and late-night recording sessions; mud is tracked across the used-to-be-white carpet. A few gold and platinum records hang on the wall. In the studio--actually a small room filled with mixing boards, computers, and shelves and shelves of well-worn LPs--King is waiting for his partner to arrive, tweaking the remix of White Zombie's faithful cover of "I'm Your Boogie Man" for the upcoming Crow 2 soundtrack. He has several versions in the computer--where he edits everything--and they roll by one after the other, each a little funkier, a little darker than the one before.

"It still sounds pretty much like the original," King says, typing into his Macintosh. "We just made it sound a little more like the Dust Brothers." As he explains the difference between remixing other artists' work and recording their own music--the difference between fixing someone else's car and building your own from scratch--the phone rings. It's James Lavelle, the eternally 21-year-old owner of London's Mo'Wax label, calling to discuss plans for a Dust Brothers single release--the first under their own name. For years, the two have lent their name, their sound, and so much of their music to other people (the Beastie Boys, Tone-Loc, Biz Markie, Boo Yaa T.R.I.B.E., and now friend and Silverlake neighbor Beck [Hansen] for his new Odelay), but every time they've planned their own album, they've been stymied.

Someone will hire them for a production job (Odelay alone took two years, on and off, while Beck did Lollapalooza and then Europe), or they'll be called in to remix Bomb the Bass, EMF, They Might Be Giants, or White Zombie. They're all bands the Brothers insist they like: They won't whore out for just anyone (but White freaking Zombie?).

King and Simpson have been partners almost from the moment they met at Pitzer College's radio station in 1983. They aren't simply producers; they do more than make tangible the sounds floating inside an artist's head or clean up mistakes. Using turntables, musicians, and old records as their instruments, they're as indispensable to a project as the artists whose records they produce. On the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay the pair receives songwriting credit for every track.

"They came into the studio and heard these songs we had been working on and asked us to send them a tape," Simpson says of their hooking up with the Beasties. "We sent them a tape with six or seven songs, and those songs essentially became songs on Paul's Boutique. But then there were other songs we did collaborations on, and with Beck it was a total collaboration. We had beats and grooves and things all stored on our computer and tons of resources in our record collection, but those songs were written with Beck."

For years, the Dust Brothers have anonymously been behind some of hip-hop's definitive moments--Tone Loc's Loc'ed After Dark, Young MC's Stone Cold Rhymin', Def Jef's Just a Poet with Soul. Throughout the mid- to late '80s, the Brothers created the Delicious Vinyl sound, taking archival funk grooves and pasting them into pop songs; where other rap artists were content to take one groove and ride it from start to finish, the Brothers took seconds of pleasure from dozens of songs and created their own collage.

To them, the montage was a big laugh: Let's see how much music we can cram into three minutes before the seams start to burst. Every record they've ever worked on, whether by Beck or even Vince Neil (how's that for a sense of humor?), sounds like one large, deep belly laugh. This is, after all, one hell of a way to make a living--listening to your favorite old records all day long, cutting them up, then pasting them back together and calling it art.

"When we're producing," King says, "we're not thinking about brilliance at all. We're just laughing, thinking, 'Yes, this is so funny.' Music has to evoke mood, feeling, emotions; and so in a lot of stuff we do, the moods and feelings are of anger, angst, passion. We haven't done too many love songs. The moods are usually heavy or tongue-in-cheek, kind of goofy and funny and fun."

"It seems like in music everything's been done before, and so rather than try to fake it and say, 'Hey, this is new,' we're just sort of acknowledging that everything's been done before, and sort of honoring it yet putting a new twist on it," Simpson adds, lying down on a dilapidated couch in the Brothers' bright, airy den. "I really enjoy hearing other people who are combining samples and creating new songs out of it. I just think the '80s were a really bad time in music, and I'm glad to see people are looking back to the '60s and '70s and kinda going for that sound."

Nothing brought the past into the future more successfully, more evocatively, or more hilariously than 1989's Paul's Boutique, the record that proved the Beastie Boys were more than white punks on dope beats. Where Licensed to Ill was a melange of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC riffs done up B(ar Mitzvah)-boy style--a party record for the apocalypse--Paul's Boutique was a lesson in history and the indestructibility of pop music and pop culture. Even more to the point, coming as it did on the tail end of the Beastie Boys' acrimonious split with Def Jam Records' Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, Paul's Boutique proved they could take the car out by themselves.

Stuffing slices from the likes of the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Public Enemy, movie themes, Joe Walsh, and innumerable unidentified musicians into the grooves of a double record, the Dust Brothers snatched the Beasties from the jaws of novelty-rock defeat. The record began as several Dust Brothers songs over which the Beasties simply added raps, and it ended up costing a fortune in licensing fees; despite the fact that it remains the band's poorest-selling record (it didn't go platinum until 1995), it more than paid for itself artistically.

"After we had the big falling-out with Russell, it was just 'Let's just get away from New York," says the Beasties' Michael Diamond, a Silverlake neighbor. "Let's just get away from everything we know. We hooked up with the Dust Brothers in L.A., and it was like, 'OK, we can go completely wild and do whatever we want.' It was a completely new world.

"Making [Paul's Boutique], as well as what happened in terms of how it sold commercially, was sort of necessary in terms of where we are now. The only way we could be in the position we are now is by accepting everything up to this point...I just remember Russell Simmons called us up and said, 'You guys are really on some art shit now.'"

Paul's Boutique was released in 1989, a lifetime ago in the record business. Since then, the Dust Brothers have thrived in anonymity, producing the likes of the Buck Pets and The Scream. Some said that the Chemical Brothers in England confused audiences when they initially called themselves the Dust Brothers and flooded the dance market with stacks of mediocre wax, devaluing the Brothers' coin. In reality, Simpson and King were tied up throughout the early '90s cutting a deal with Irving Azoff's old Giant label, which eventually became the inappropriately named Revolution label.

The deal would have allowed the Dust Brothers to become in-house producers. In addition, they would have been able to sign acts to Giant through their own subsidiary label, as well as release the first Dust Brothers album. But the deal fell apart after they waited most of 1992 and '93 and failed to capitalize on whatever momentum they had going.

"It was early on in our career, and we were kind of thrown into it," King says. "The first stuff we worked on went platinum, and it was unusual--the way most people get into the business and pay their dues. We kind of paid our dues afterward. Afterward, we bought this house and set up our studio and tried to work out the Giant deal, and basically we put off doing our own album. That's something I don't do anymore--hence we have our own label, and we're doing our own record...ourselves. We're open to working with big companies and big labels, but we're not waiting on it.

"We haven't been dicking around. The music business has been dicking around. Not much of the stuff we were working on has come out or came out at the time. At this point, there's tons of stuff coming out, but during the early '90s we were setting up our studio and developing artists we were trying to get signed."

"That Giant thing put our careers on hold," adds Simpson, who has actually gone to work as an artist-and-repertoire supervisor for DreamWorks, the Jeffrey Katzenberg-Steven Spielberg-David Geffen label distributed by Geffen Records. (Simpson brought the Eels to DreamWorks.) "We were actually getting offers from other labels to put these records out, but we were being advised, 'No, this Giant deal is happening,' so we sort of held off. In this business, if you don't have a record out in a year and a half, you're old news.

"Also, when Paul's Boutique came out, the critics and all these people were saying, 'Oh, this record is great. It's the Sgt. Pepper's of rap, this and that.' But when it came out and didn't do all that well commercially, they all said, 'Oh, well, the record is ahead of its time.' So we thought, 'Wow, if our music's that ahead of its time, we better chill out for a minute and let everybody catch up.'"

Which brings them to Beck and Odelay, an album that picks up where Paul's Boutique left off and carries the ball to the goal line. It is, quite simply, the most exciting record of the year--one on which every second is a trip and tumble to a different place, whether it's the psychedelic freak-out at the end of "Novacane," the unexpected conjunto sample in "Hotwax," the ersatz rock of "Minus," or the deadpan soul of "Where It's At."

Odelay is what happens when a fallen folk-bluesman steps into the studio with two white funk fans, sparks a fattie, then writes and records till night slips imperceptibly into morning. It's a soundtrack for the stoned, an in-joke with a slurred punch line that anyone can understand. There's no such thing as a non sequitur for Beck and the Dust Brothers: Every sample, every aside, every random word is there for a reason--even if it's for no reason at all.

Perhaps that's where Odelay garners its media comparisons to Paul's Boutique: Both albums do black-and-white with amazing grace and style, and if you pay attention from start to finish, there's something new underneath every layer. There's never a dull moment, even during the boring ones; they're both records made by and for the Attention Deficit Disorder Generation.

Simpson sees the comparisons between the two records, even if he doesn't quite know where A connects to B. "It's hard to say what Paul's Boutique did, because it had such a slow build," he says. "I think it opened up a lot of people's minds to hearing all different styles of music, and for the Beasties it was a good sophomore record to establish that they weren't one-hit wonders--that there was some depth there.

"I'm sure Beck was concerned about being taken seriously as an artist. For him, 'Loser' was an afternoon in the studio; then two years later they were like, 'Hey, we want to put this out,' and he was like, 'Oh, yeah, I remember that. Go ahead.' I think the Beck record will do the same thing for a lot of people that the Beasties' did. They'll listen to it and think, 'Oh, wow, maybe country music isn't that bad.' It will open people's minds a little bit. Everything doesn't have to sound the same. In the old days, people made records more as pieces of art, and if you listen to the Beck record, every song is great. Maybe this will force artists to take a look at what they're doing and realize this is about art.

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