February 7, 2017

mix a lot

Gino Sorcinelli is waiting for Vanilla Ice with the LA Philharmonic.

Sir Mix-A-Lot and his then-girlfriend Amylia Dorsey-Rivas were watching another Super Bowl starring the long-suffering Buffalo Bills, when the game cut away to a beer commercial featuring former Budweiser mascot Spuds Mackenzie and an entourage of ultra-skinny women. As a curvaceous model struggling to find work, Dorsey-Rivas was tired of losing out to overly thin women like the ones in the advertisement. “Where I grew up, in the suburbs of Seattle, if you weren’t built like Paris Hilton you weren’t appreciated,” she explained in an interview with Vulture.

Dorsey-Rivas’ and Mix’s annoyance with the commercial sparked an idea—Mix could turn their frustrations into an anthem for full-framed women. With Dorsey-Rivas providing the now famous “Oh my god Becky” opening, they went to work. The end result was “Baby Got Back,” the second single from Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 Mack Daddy album. Despite being one of Mix’s least favorite songs on the entire album and the second-to-last song recorded, “Baby Got Back” dominated the charts, sold millions of copies, and went on to make over $100,000,000 through publishing, royalties, and sales during its 25 years of existence.

Before the release of “Baby Got Back,” Mix spent his early years honing his craft in a bedroom studio in Seattle, Washington. Using a drum machine, Korg and Moog synths, and Commodore 64 computer to build his compositions, he channeled inspirations like Devo, Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk into independent singles. When Mix wasn’t working on material in his home studio, he furthered his development outside of the studio with frequent performances alongside the Seattle DJ pioneer Baron Von Scratch. With Mix working the synths and Scratch handling DJ duties, the duo performed some epic live shows that Seattle hip-hop heads still remember fondly today.

As Mix honed his live performance skills and worked on his studio game, a fortuitous meeting with radio DJ Nasty Nes in 1984 set the stage for a watershed moment in his career. Nes, a rising star at Seattle’s KFOX 1250 AM, had heard of Mix and decided to check out one of his shows at Boys and Girls Club in Seattle’s Central District. After watching him tear it down, he knew they could form a mutually beneficial alliance. “After seeing [Mix-A-Lot] cut, scratch, mix, and rhyme at this event, and how he had the crowd rockin’, I invited him to come on my show and air his material,” Nes explained to the Seattle publication The Stranger.

Not long after their initial meeting, Nes’s Freshtracks radio show quickly became a powerful new vessel for Mix to promote his singles. It didn’t take long for his songs to resonate with the people of Seattle and his popularity soon skyrocketed. Further aiding his local fame was the formation of his own NastyMix record label, which he co-founded with Nasty Nes in 1985. After years of grinding with independent singles and shows, Mix released his full-length debut, Swass, in 1988. Aided by the 808-heavy hit single “Posse on Broadway,” Mix’s Swass made its way onto the Billboard R & B top 20 album chart and went platinum. 1989’s follow-up effort Seminar also earned platinum status, cementing Mix’s status as a rap legend in Seattle. “By the time he came out [nationally] he was almost kind of old to the people here. He was everywhere. He had songs that were big that never even came out.,” Seattle native and G-Unit/Rhymesayers producer Jake One recalled in an interview with Cocaine Blunts.

Despite two platinum-selling albums with NastyMix, the good times with the label ended in 1990 after some financial disputes with Nasty Nes. This led to Mix positioning himself for national recognition and signing with Rick Rubin’s Def American label. “Baby Got Back” was the second-to-last song completed and once he sent it to the label, it took several iterations before it was album ready. “When I did ‘Baby Got Back’—initially it was a slow song like ‘Posse on Broadway’…And then I decided to make a fast version,” he explained in a Reddit AMA. According to Mix, the suggestion to scrap the slow version came directly from Rick Rubin, who knew they’d have a hit if they made it faster.

After nixing the slower original, Mix decided to build the song around a sample from the Detroit techno classic “Technicolor” by Channel One. This marked a different approach to beatmaking for him, as his earlier work often sampled “found” sounds instead of other people’s music. “When samplers finally came along, it never occurred to me to steal somebody else’s music. I would bust a beer on the ground or shoot off guns—I would use anything,” Mix told Billboard. He also credited Rubin with the signature mute outs to punctuate certain lines. But despite Rubin’s valuable feedback and proven track record for success, Mix’s response to the finished product was lukewarm at first. “I didn’t like it, I thought it was going to piss everybody off,” he said.

Mix was so unenthusiastic about the song the song that it wasn’t released as a single until April of 1992 despite Mack Daddy’s February release date. After Mack Daddy’s lead single, “One Time’s Got No Case,” didn’t make much of an impact, he consented and co-signed the release of “Baby Got Back.” The song was embroiled in controversy when MTV briefly banned the music video, which featured the Seattle rapper rhyming on top a gigantic yellow ass. Their attempt to prohibit the video only increased its demand, and the station soon lifted the brief ban and agreed to play it after 9 PM. Once it made its way onto MTV, constant radio play soon followed. Working as a perfect counterbalance to some slower rap hits of the early ’90s by the likes of Hammer and Vanilla Ice, it wasn’t long before “Baby Got Back” started to gain some serious momentum. By the time Mix embarked on his first promotional tour for the single, it had hit number 1 on the charts midway through the tour.

“Baby Got Back” spent 7 months on the Billboard Hot 100 and went double platinum in three months. It also sold copies 145,000 in a single week and won a Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance in 1993. In addition to being an instant party starter, part of the song’s success seems to stem from Mix’s ability to take the serious topic of female body image and race and make it humorous. “Initially it was going to be a serious song. But I realized if it was serious, they wouldn’t take it serious. It would just be dismissed…Before people knew what it was about, it had already sold three or four million copies,” Mix explained to DJ Vlad.

As Mix held his own on the charts amongst music industry giants like Boyz II Men and Whitney Houston through much of the year, it seemed like he was poised to reach levels of stardom seldom seen in the rap industry. But like many rappers from the early ’90s who scored mainstream hits, repeat success was not easy to come by. Mix’s 94 follow-up Chief Boot Knocka charted but did not achieve gold or platinum status. And while the long-forgotten album cut “Just da Pimpin’ In Me” was nominated for a Grammy, it lost out to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” By the time 1996’s Return of The Bumpasaurus came out, the rap industry had taken a drastic change in direction and consumers had moved on to new and different acts. Since then, Mix has only released one more album—a fate he seems more than OK with. “Am I gonna try to make a bunch of Mix-A-Lot records now? No, I’m a realist,” he told Vibe in 2000. “I’m not into shoving myself down nobody’s throat.”

Despite his willingness to move on from the limelight, “Baby Got Back” is still going strong 25 years after Mack Daddy first came out. After appearing in everything from Friends to Futurama, the song has undergone endless interpolation, sampling, and parody. 2014 was one of the song’s best years in recent memory, as The Seattle Symphony performed a live version with Mix on vocals and Nicki Minaj used generous portions of the song her smash hit “Anaconda.” Mix is more than happy to let people reimagine his work, as it results in more revenue and touring dates for him. “That’s what I like, man. Use it, use it, use it,” he told HipHopDX when asked about “Anaconda.”

The constant repurposing of “Baby” for the past two decades plus is largely due to Mix’s business savvy and his control of the song’s publishing. “Why own your publishing if you’re not willing to leverage it?” he asked DJ Vlad in an interview. This attitude has helped “Baby Got Back” make over $100 million dollars so far, an astonishing figure for a single song. Although he’s not releasing albums anymore, the steady cash flow has given Mix the freedom to “record music with integrity” as he continues to dabble with the occasional song and music video. Though his self-promotion these days is modest, his hit record continues to do all of the promotion necessary for him to make a comfortable living. With “Anaconda” giving the song a recent shot in the arm, and the power to control who can repurpose his music, it seems like Mix has ensured that “Baby Got Back” will continue to live on for many years to come.