Q&A With Sir Mix-A-Lot

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Sir Mix-A-Lot—a.k.a. Seattle-based rapper/producer Anthony Ray—may forever be linked to 1992 mega-hit “Baby Got Back,” but you’d be off-base in labeling him a one-hit wonder. One of hip hop’s ultimate DIY practitioners, Ray was a platinum-selling artist (his 1988 album, Swass, and its definitive single, “Posse On Broadway”) long before “Baby Got Back” introduced suburbanites everywhere to the glories of the big, bad booty. He founded his own record label (Nastymix), promoted his music himself while producing his own tracks, created a Seattle hip-hop scene from scratch (giving birth to a generation of latter-day artists such as Blue Scholars, Oldominion and Common Market) and was among the first hip-hop acts to deliberately collaborate in the rock genre (working with fellow Seattleites Mudhoney, Metal Church and Presidents Of The United States Of America). These days, Ray is working on a new album due out next year and generally surveying a scene hugely influenced by the music he created two decades ago. Sir Mix will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.

“Y’all Don’t Know” (download):

MAGNET: I’m dying to know how that Burger King commercial happened—it’s truly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on daytime television; my 10-year-old loves it and wanted to know if the song was “sampled” as he wasn’t around when “Baby Got Back” was released. I know BK’s ad agency (Crispin Porter) isn’t afraid of anything, but how did this even happen?
Sir Mix-A-Lot: Actually, Burger King just called and had some ideas. They were hella cool about not letting me go out like a comedian. We changed a few things and headed to L.A., where the BK folks laid everything out. Good food, great hotel and some extremely sexy women! Especially the one named Fame! Wow!

What is the origin of the word “swass” and to what extent do you and your crew take credit for its entry into the hip-hop lexicon?
Back in the ’80s, I worked at a little arcade called Electric Palace. There was this one pinball machine that uttered some crazy word that sounded like “swass.” I don’t know what it was saying. Anyway, I decided to do a song called “Swass” as a joke. Actually, the word didn’t have a meaning until after the record was released. S.W.A.S.S. = Some Wild Ass Silly Shit.

What do you think of the Northwest’s hip-hop scene today? Back when you were doing your thing, Seattle had no real rap scene to speak of. These days, groups like Blue Scholars, Oldominion, Boom Bap Project and Grayskul, plus Portland’s scene (Lifesavas, Sandpeople, Cool Nutz), have established a more supportive circle.
Back when I started out, Seattle was looking to find itself, in my opinion. That’s not a diss. What I mean is there was a lot of stuff out here that sounded like New York/L.A. Including me for a while. However, the scene has changed big time. Cats like Blue Scholars, Grayskul and Cool Nutz have not only come up with something new, they have also come up with something credible and socially relevant, which is hard to do coming from Seattle. Much love to the Northwest!

You were one of the first—along with Run-D.M.C.—to try the rap/rock combination, via your collaboration with Presidents Of The United States Of America (as Subset) and the songs “Square Dance Rap” with Metal Church and “Freak Momma” with Mudhoney. Were you always a rock fan? How did these somewhat unlikely pairings happen in the first place?
Let me be the first to say I was never happy with the “Iron Man” song (recorded with Metal Church). Although I have always loved heavier rock, I was terrified when we did “Iron Man.” I feared having my love for hip hop questioned—something I now think is fucking stupid. But when we did the Presidents/Mix-A-Lot project, I felt right at home. The stuff was completely organic; nothing was forced. Someone came to us and asked us to cover a Hendrix song (which is crazy), and we ended up talking about the state of the music business and we realized there was something between us all that sparked the creative juices. We hit the studio and did some of the best PUSA & Mix-A-Lot stuff to never be heard. Hopefully one day it will.

You’ve said that after 1996’s Return Of The Bumpasaurus, you nearly retired from music. What have you been doing lately in terms of recording and shows, and why did you choose to come back?
I never retired from music. I just became bored with the usual way of doing things. Make a hit, milk it, milk it some more, milk it until the hit over takes the artist, then do it all again and watch a career go up in smoke. Comebacks are not cool. It implies that an artist is uncomfortable with where they are, so they try to go back to where they have been. Usually this happens to artists who allow the press to tell them that because they didn’t sell three million units this year, they should go apply at the local burger spot. This is the same press who tells fans that Mix-A-Lot is a one-hit wonder when I had a gold and a platinum plaque on my wall prior to the “Baby Got Back” release. America’s appetite for the train wreck is what I think drives these talking heads to diss artists and televise every failure they can find. I love music. You never retire from what you love unless you can no longer do it.

What do you mean by “I’m addicted to fame”? Obviously you experienced the sudden rush associated with one-hit wonder status, but I would think you’re as familiar by now with the downside of fame as the upside. What do you make of reality TV in this regard? Do you like it, think it’s funny or kind of lame in terms of the types of people it draws in, both its “stars” and viewers?
By “Addicted To The Fame” (a song on my next project), I mean the rush of the new. I had success before “Baby Got Back” (believe it or not), and the addiction started then for me. Example: First check I got, I went to Miami and bought a new Benz, painted it candy red with gold everywhere. Dumbest shit ever. You could come to my house in the early ’90s for a week straight and never see the same woman. Unlike some of these cats who claim “Playa,” I was a Playa. It was nothing to be proud of, though. It’s the newness that had me out there like that. I went—in one day—from life in the projects driving a Buick 225 to pushing Benzes, Beemers, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and having the nastiest sex I could think of. My money had to get old for me to calm down. I still do the same things, but my game is much tighter and I am far more cautious when making purchases or investments. As far as reality shows are concerned, some of them are cool, but some of them play on a former star’s need to eat and they exploit them to no end. But hey, if it’s lucrative and all parties are down? Oh well!

“Baby Got Back” and “Put ‘Em On The Glass” were celebrations of the female anatomy, but I know they also got you into trouble with picketers and protesters who felt like your music was demeaning to women. These days, your new music seems to be taking on a more serious form, in terms of the lyrical content and where you are in your life. Have your life experiences changed the style of how you flow or what you rap about, or was this just a natural progression, a path you were always going to travel artistically?
Lyrically, I have decided to use more skills in my new stuff. I did it before on songs like “I Come Buffalo,” “Mob Style,” “Ainsta,” etc., but one of the problems with the game, as it has been since the late ’80s, is that the major labels only know how to push songs, not artists. In the ’80s, Prince could make a bad record and it would eventually end up being huge in his overall career. Same can be said for James Brown, Bootsy, Metallica and many others. The labels were full of music people who understood the creative growth of an artist. Today, one mediocre single can end your career. My creative growth didn’t stop after I left the major circuit. I have been through a lot since the early ’90s. Losing my sister to breast cancer in 2002, losing her husband a year before that, losing her son (my nephew) the year after she died, losing my father in 2003, a Chapter 11 that nearly wiped me out, lawsuits, tax issues and a host of other shit. To not talk about it in my newer stuff would have been ridiculous, and that would have justified the naysayers. However, I am a man of many emotions so I still have fun with a track sometimes (actually, more often than not). I was really moved when Nas, one of the greatest rappers of all time, allowed me on his “Where Are They Now (West Coast Remix).” That allowed me to show some of the (“Baby Got Back”-only) fans to get a taste of my other side.

You were pursuing your career during the heyday of grunge, and saw what that scene did to both to draw attention to Seattle and, in some ways, ensure that the scene would fade from national view once the initial buzz had died. These days, Seattle still has a number of strong musical acts but doesn’t seem to have the glow it once did. Is this better for Seattle music in the long run, or do you think it’s better for a local scene to have some national hoopla associated with it? I know bands like Pearl Jam feel like they had to take a left turn artistically (and with the public) in order to survive and protect themselves, to have long term careers. Do you agree with this?
I disagree with your opinion that grunge died when the buzz died. Not the case at all, in my opinion. Grunge never did die, to be honest. Ask Nickleback or any of these rock acts that use the dynamic stuff that was unique to grunge. By dynamics, I mean the verse being rhythmic and somewhat funky, then a little pre-chorus, which was usually all vocal and very little music … and then the explosion!!!!!! A chorus that made the fans mosh it up like back in the Circle Jerks days. That is grunge. What killed grunge in Seattle was the grunge bands themselves. They were all over the place telling the press, “We are not grunge!” When you create something new and cool like grunge, you don’t go out and diss it at its peak. Could you imagine Run-D.M.C. going around telling folks back in the ’80s, “We are not rap”? WTF? The fans take this as you saying you are no longer cool. I do agree with Pearl Jam’s moves to keep it hot at a grass-roots level first. I remember they sold out Key Arena here in Seattle and many people who couldn’t afford it thought they were going to miss them. Pearl Jam (classy mutha fuckas) did a show at a small club the night before for them. That is cool!!!!

—Corey duBrowa

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