Baby Got Back
April 29th, 2012
Todd plays "Baby Got Back" in his piano
SIR MIX-A-LOT - BABY GOT BACK
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Oh my God, Becky. It's time for another edition of One Hit Wonderland, where we discuss the long and varied careers of artists who ended up known for only one song.
- MTV video of 1992
Todd (VO): And this time, we're going all the way back to the year 1992, when the center of the music world suddenly shifted to the rainy, gloomy city of Seattle.
- Clips of Alice in Chains "Would?" and Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
- Layne Staley: Into the flood again
Todd (VO): But while the Pacific Northwest grunge revolution took the country by storm, Seattle also spat out its first and, [clip of "My Hooptie"] to date, only hip-hop artist to become nationally successful, albeit briefly.
- Clip of "One Time's Got No Case"
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: It's the man that you love to hate
- Comin' outta Washington state
Todd: Now, when most people think of early 90s rap, they're either thinking of the [clips of Vanilla Ice - "Ice, Ice Baby" and Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg - "Nothin but a G Thang"] silly pop rap that crossed over like Hammer and Vanilla Ice, or they're thinking of the early gangsta rap back in the days when hip-hop was starting to cause some serious controversy. But there was a middle ground.
- Clip of 2 Live Crew - "Me So Horny"
Todd (VO): Stuff that was less sanitary than the Fresh Prince, but less dangerous than Ice Cube. And for one brief moment, the man at the center of it all was [video for "Baby Got Back"] Anthony Ray, better known as Sir Mix-A-Lot, who rose to the top of the music world with one of the most enduringly popular and deeply ridiculous rap songs of all time.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Got it goin' like a turbo 'vette
Todd: But who was this Sir Mix-A-Lot, the most gallant and courtly knight of hip-hop's round table? Let's find out.
Before the fame
Todd: Sir Mix-A-Lot's first album went platinum. [beat] Yeah. So eat that, labellers of "one-hit wonders."
- Clip of "Posse on Broadway"
Todd (VO): And that's an impressive accomplishment, considering that 1., he was on an independent label that he co-founded; 2., hip-hop had been around for less than a decade at that point; and 3., the only noteworthy or successful rap music had come out of New York or LA. Sir Mix-A-Lot, on the other hand, repped for Seattle, [album cover of Swass] as you can see on the cover of his first album, where he appears to be humping the Space Needle.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Me and Kid Sensation and that home away from home
- In the Black Benz Limo, with the cellular phone
Todd (VO): His first single was "Posses on Broadway," a story rap about him and his buddies driving around town at night being awesome, failing to get Taco Bell, and then embarrassing other posses by being more legit than they are, I guess. It scraped onto the bottom half of the Hot 100, but no one seems to remember it except if you're from Seattle, where I've heard it's still kind of a big deal and a bunch of the local landmarks he mentions are still there.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: My posses on Broadway
Todd (VO): I guess Taco Bell's still there too. [Clips of "Beepers"...] That wasn't his only brush with pop stardom. A bunch of his singles from his first two albums managed to place on the rap and R&B charts. One of the most notable moments from his early career is that he also collaborated [...and...] with Seattle hard rock band Metal Church for a hip-hop version of "Iron Man."
- Mike Howe: Oh yeah!
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: You could strike a match in my hand
- Too black to tan
Todd (VO): I actually like this a lot, but Mix-A-Lot has never been happy with it, saying that "Iron Man" was just an attempt to rip off what [clip of "Walk This Way" by...] Run-DMC had done with Aerosmith, and...you know what? Now that he mentions it...
Todd: ...uh, yeah. Yeah, it really is.
Todd (VO): Come to think of it, a lot of his early stuff and his flow especially, before he found his own voice, are very Run-DMC, [clip of...] particularly their funnier songs like "You Be Illin'" or "Dumb Girl."
Todd: And that's the thing. Except for "Iron Man," from the beginning, the guy was always kind of silly, and kind of all over the place. [Clips of...] He'd brag about being a super-bad pimp on "Beepers," but then he'd rap about driving a shit car on "My Hooptie."
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: One hubcap 'cause three got stolen
- Clip of "One Time's Got No Case"
Todd (VO): He always seemed to be someone you didn't need to take all that seriously. Even when protesting police brutality, it's like he's telling you to laugh at him because he got hurt.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Oooh, hit 'em again. Hit 'em again.
Todd (VO): [chuckles a little] Ugly lawsuits with his label meant the end of his career in Seattle, but things would change when legendary hip-hop producer [interview with...] Rick Rubin signed him to his label Def American. Rubin offered a lot of advice, the biggest being to play up the whole pimp thing.
Todd: So how did that work out for him?
The big hit
Todd: It's the song that defined a generation.
- Video for "Baby Got Back"
- Valley girl: Oh, my God. Becky, look at her butt.
Todd: The booty jam by which all booty jams are measured.
- Valley girl: I can't believe, it's just so round. It's, like, out there.
Todd: And it launched into the world with one of the most powerful statements of purpose in all of hip-hop.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like big butts and I can not lie
- You other brothers can't deny
- That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist
- And a round thing in your face
- You get sprung...
Todd: It is hard to look back at "Baby Got Back" with fresh eyes...
Todd (VO): ...because it is so deeply ingrained in our culture. "Baby Got Back" is such a permanent part of my psyche that when I hear someone say, "oh, my God,"...
Todd: ...I immediately add, "Becky, look at her butt." I'm told it's really annoying.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Baby got back
- LA face with Oakland booty
Todd (VO): Now obviously, "Baby Got Back" was not the only song about butt appreciation that came out that year, but this is the one people remember. You barely ever hear [single covers of...] "Rump Shaker," "Tootsee Roll," or "Da Butt" anymore, probably because when your video has an image as iconic as hip-hop dancers shaking their butts on top of a platform shaped like a butt,...
Todd: well, no one's gonna top that. You win.
Todd (VO): But it's also endured because there's more going on in "Baby Got Back" than Mix-A-Lot just liking big butts and not being able to lie about it. And since I got nothing better to do than contemplate the philosophical underpinnings of a man dancing on a giant ass, here goes.
Todd: Mix-A-Lot did not expect "Baby Got Back" to be a hit, he expected it to piss people off.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: A lot of simps won't like this song
Todd (VO): Because, you see, "Baby Got Back" is not just a song about Mix-A-Lot's booty-size preferences, but a political statement about how the world treats those with large butts.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: I'm tired of magazines
- Sayin' flat butts are the thing
Todd: So, you see, he's singing not just to express his appreciation for humongo butts, but also to strike back against society's narrow and even racist standards of female beauty, similar to the [old cigarette ad] "black is beautiful" movement of the late 60s.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: So Cosmo says you're fat
- Well, I ain't down with that
Todd (VO): And so, pushing back against the zeitgeist, Mix-A-Lot re-imagines the world as a place where curvy women are appreciated, and even white boys got to shout, and mallrats talk jealously about you behind your back.
- Valley girl: She's just so...black!
Todd (VO): Having big butts is part of your cultural identity. It's changing the standards of what beautiful is. Hell, it's practically one of those [image of...] Dove ads.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like 'em round and big
Todd (VO): On the obvious counterpoint, "Baby Got Back" also got hit by criticism that he was degrading women and that he was just trading one narrow definition of beauty for another. And because of that, he was protested everywhere in '92 and MTV banned his video.
Todd: But lost in the discussion of "Back Got Back"'s deeper meaning—and yes, people were actually talking about this in exactly those kinds of terms; I'm not pulling any of this out of my ass...so to speak.
Todd (VO): But lost in that discussion is the question: is "Baby Got Back" any good?
Todd: Well, it's memorable, that's for sure.
Todd (VO): Mix-A-Lot has a lot of energy and a very forceful flow. It's endlessly quotable.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: My anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hon.
Todd (VO): It's kinda just so stupid that you have to like it, which is why I guess most people liked it, and they really did.
Todd: This was a #1 single; it pushed Mariah Carey off the top of the charts. For Mix-A-Lot, this was a previously unthinkable level of fame. Finally, he's made his long-awaited breakthrough.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Baby got back!
Todd: Where does he go from here?
The failed follow-up
Todd: When writing his follow-up single, Sir Mix-A-Lot said this is what went through his mind—"Ass, what's next? Titties!"
- Video for "Put 'Em on the Glass"
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: And that's what she did, baby ain't no kid
- 36 d's a make a man skid
- I'm puttin in work on the freeway pass
- Cause she put 'em on the glass
Todd (VO): After all, why not get back the other half of the T&A crowd he alienated with "Back Got Back"? Sir Mix-A-Lot, I wanna point out, is not a stupid man,...
Todd: ...and has written about a lot of things over the course of his career, including silly things like "My Hooptie," but also more serious topics like racial profiling and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Todd (VO): But mostly, he made stuff like "Put 'Em on the Glass," to his detriment. [Clip of...] Where "Baby Got Back" was inspired by his love of butts and his disgust with the prevailing cultural attitudes, "Put 'Em on the Glass," by his own admission, was inspired by his love of thick, fat royalty checks that he got from "Baby Got Back." According to the man himself, "it really was a stupid move and I shouldn't have done it."
Todd: Because really, what more could he have done to make himself look like a one-trick pony than repeat himself so blatantly?
Clip from "Baby Got Back"
Todd (VO): And you know, I've never really understood how people could get that upset about "Baby Got Back." Again, giant ass platforms. How seriously can you take that? Todd: But this? Well, let's say this first.
"Put 'Em on the Glass" video continues
Todd (VO): This is the very first video I've ever had to censor because the girls are, like, full-on topless in this.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: And she's poppin' them buttons and yankin' that blouse
- Girl let it all out!
Todd (VO): And you know, there's a huge difference between saying you like big butts, and demanding that girls flash you on the street like you're a Girls Gone Wild cameraman at Mardi Gras. But the reason "Put 'Em on the Glass" doesn't work isn't that it's offensive—I'm not...I'm not offended by it—it's just stupid and bad. I mean, it doesn't have any of "Baby Got Back"'s novelty value or its silliness or its self-righteousness either. It's not clever, it's just in-your-face, it's, like, out there.
Todd: And he doesn't just reuse the basic topic of "Baby Got Back," it repeats a lot of the flow too.
- Intercut between the two, starting with "Baby Got Back"
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Round thing in your face
- You get sprung
- "Put 'Em on the Glass"
- Lungs, lungs, motherfuckin lungs
- Get a brother oh so strung
- "Baby Got Back"
- Use me, use me cause you ain't that average groupie
- "Put 'Em on the Glass"
- Offend me, offend me, you can freak me if your friendly
Todd (VO): "Baby Got Back"—which I don't have anything against, don't get me wrong—has always been kind of an adolescent, obnoxious song; where "Put 'Em on the Glass" makes him rap faster, which...you know, it's expressive, but it somehow makes him even more obnoxious.
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: I like my females nasty
- Never try to drive straight past me
- Just get in the left lane and show me your insane
- And fill up the window with fangs
Todd: This could never have been a hit. And even if it had been a hit, where could they show this?
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Shake 'em!
- Put 'em on the glass!
Anything else of note?
Todd: Not really.
- Clip of "Ride"
Todd (VO): Most people seem to prefer Sir Mix-A-Lot's albums released before "Baby Got Back" to the ones after it. His next two albums went nowhere, which is understandable.
Todd: I mean, this is what hip-hop became in the next few years.
- Video for Nas - "If I Ruled the World"
- Nas: Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassing
- Imagine going to court with no trial
- Lifestyle cruising blue behind my waters
- No welfare supporters more conscious of the way we raise our daughters
Todd: And this is what Sir Mix-A-Lot was doing.
- Video for "Jump On It"
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: What's up Phoenix, what's up
- What's up Phoenix, what's up
- Phoenix jump on it, jump on it, jump on it
Todd (VO): No way, at that point in time, would he have gotten a hit. Mix-A-Lot said he got sick of the music industry cycle, and also hip-hop got a lot less silly and a lot more thuggish, and since he wasn't interested in pretending to be gangsta just to try and get a hit, he sat out the rest of the 90s. He released another album in 2003, but by that point, hip-hop had passed him by.
Todd: That's not to say "Baby Got Back" is the only thing people remember him for. The one Sir Mix-A-Lot song that seems to come up on my searches on Google and YouTube besides "Baby Got Back" is not one of his singles, but something called "Buttermilk Biscuits."
- "Buttermilk Biscuits" played over Swass cover
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Now, buttermilk biscuits here we go
- Sift the flour, roll the dough
- Clap your hands and stomp your feet
- Move your butt to the funky beat
Todd: [um...] Huh.
Todd (VO): I have tried and tried to figure out how and why people would know this song, and I've come up with nothing. If anyone can tell me, please, for the love of God, let me know. Was it used on Spongebob or something?
Todd: So, anyway, verdict?
Did he deserve better?
Todd: I...guess? I don't know.
- Video for "Posse on Broadway"
Todd (VO): I picked Sir Mix-A-Lot for this episode because I always got the sense that there was more to this guy than his one big hit, and from what I can tell, that's definitely true. He had more personality and more work that deserves to be recognized. On the other hand, I didn't hear a lot of music from the guy that I couldn't live without.
Todd: But on the other other hand, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and especially "Baby Got Back," is influential in its own way.
- Clips of Mystikal - "Shake Your Ass" and 2 Live Crew - "Me So Horny"
Todd (VO): Not because we keep getting songs about ass, those existed before Mix-A-Lot. The kind of music "Baby Got Back" embodied was probably started by 2 Live Crew. But the thing is, 2 Live Crew were awful and no one really listens to them anymore.
Sir Mix-A-Lot had better flow and funnier punchlines, and his legacy is probably not just an increase in appreciation for monster booty, but also the fact that he kept a careful balance between dirty and silly. There was probably a direct link between him and later rappers who walked the same line like [pictures of...] Nelly and especially [The Red Light District album by...] Ludacris. Ever since the turn of the millennium, it feels like we've been awash in "Baby Got Back"s
- Clip of Big Sean - "Dance (Ass)"
- Big Sean: Ass ass ass ass ass ass ass ass ass ass
Todd: So if you want to understand how we got to where we are in hip-hop, don't listen to Tupac, don't listen to Nas, don't listen to A Tribe Called Quest, study "Baby Got Back."
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Baby got back!
Todd: 'Cause that's what all the rap guys today are apparently inspired by. But you know, who understands those rap guys?
- Sir Mix-A-Lot: Little in the middle, but you got much back
Closing tag song: Jonathan Coulton - "Baby Got Back"
"Baby Got Back" is owned by Def American
This video is owned by me