America received the ultimate booty call on May 7, 1992, courtesy of Seattle rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot and his song “Baby Got Back.” Since its release through legendary rap-rock producer Rick Rubin’s Def American label, the up-tempo track — which spent five weeks at No. 1 and was the second-best-selling single of 1992, after Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” — has become our national anthem of ass, spawning innumerable parodies, cover versions (most notably Jonathan Coulton’s viral 2005 version), and references, including on Friends and in Shrek and Charlie’s Angels movies. The song’s long-lasting success owes greatly to its winking video, which, aside from featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot dancing atop a giant derrière and countless buttocks-related visual puns, generated a healthy amount of buzz when MTV banned it and fans, including Bruce Springsteen, countered that it offered a far more realistic glimpse at the female form than other music videos of the day. As part of our micro oral histories week, Vulture corralled Rubin, Sir Mix-a-Lot (real name: Anthony Ray), the video’s director Adam Bernstein (also of Breaking Bad fame), and others to bring you the story behind the behind-centric classic.
Sir Mix-a-Lot (producer/writer/performer, “Baby Got Back”): Amylia Dorsey was my girlfriend at the time, the girl that did the “Oh my gawd, Becky” intro [to the song]. You think J.Lo had a body? No contest! We were together eight, nine years.
Amylia Dorsey-Rivas (voice artist, “Baby Got Back”): My background is such that being a woman of color — I’m half-Mexican, half-black, and have always been curvy — was not appreciated at all. Where I grew up, in the suburbs of Seattle, if you weren’t built like Paris Hilton you weren’t appreciated. I worked at a modeling agency as a teenager, and I taught hair makeup and runway classes to six-foot-tall girls who weighed 90 pounds. But I didn’t get much work, and neither did anyone who looked like me. You could have the highest cheekbones in the world, but if you were a little more broad at the beam, forget it. The kind of thing that women in my position went through made Mix angry. He’d say “I don’t understand why you can’t get modeling work,” and I’d say “Look behind me.” This was my experience that he was writing about.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: There was one event that really made me think that I should do a song about this, which was irritating the shit out of me. Amy and I were at a hotel on tour, when we saw one of the Spuds MacKenzie ads for Budweiser during the Super Bowl. You’d see these girls in the ad: Each one was shaped like a stop sign, with big hair [and] straight up-and-down bird legs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I was so sick of that shit. Now, Amy never said anything about all this until she realized I was so in favor of her physique. She was an actress, and she started admitting that she felt like she lost a lot of parts because of her hourglass figure. I knew for a fact that many artists felt that if they didn’t use a skinny-model-type woman in their video, then mainstream America would reject the song. But I do not agree with that: If you look at Dolly Parton at her peak, a lot of white guys were like “daammn!” At the same time, when I did casting calls for videos, curvy women wouldn’t show up. They thought they didn’t have a chance. Unless you were in the hood, women who had curves — and I’m not talking about women who are shaped like me, with a gut, but women who ran five miles a day, with a washboard, six-pack stomach and a nice round, beautiful, supple ass — wore sweaters around their waist! Bottom line: Black men like curves. When they’re crooning to women about how beautiful they are in an R&B song, the ladies you see in the video don’t reflect what those guys like. Every time an R&B video was on, I heard women say, “I just saw him down in Oakland, and his girls wasn’t like that.” That made me think that this was more than a funny song, and it wrote itself.
Dorsey-Rivas: I have about 40 to 50 different voices that I do. There were so many kids coming in and out of my household — my parents had about 40 foster kids; I was adopted — that I picked up lots of different accents. The one [at the beginning of] “Baby” was based on girls I grew up around. My friend and I would constantly do that voice back and forth as a joke: I’d call her and say: “hell-loh” or “ohmygawd!!!” He’d heard me do the voice many times; it comes the easiest of all the voices I do, and he loved it.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: I thought it was the second worst song on the record. I turned in three songs to Rick; each seemed like a better single. Then he called me: “You may wanna think of something more up-tempo. These songs come off gangster; you’re from Seattle, and I don’t need to hear more gangster shit.” So I scrapped the original track for “Baby Got Back” and made a more up-tempo track. It’s rare that a big hit hip-hop song is fast, but Rick fell in love with it as soon as he heard the revised track. There was one change he suggested: “On your punch line, I need you to hit mute, and drop the music out so that people can hear what you’re saying. That’s gonna drive the song.” That’s where “my anaconda don’t want none” or “I’m thinkin’ about stickin’” came from. As soon as he heard the finished track, he said, “People are gonna be talking about this twenty years from now.”
Dan Charnas (vice-president of A&R, Def American/American Recordings, 1991–97; author, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop): Rick wanted “Baby” to come out as a single first, but Mix-a-Lot wanted “One Time’s Got No Case.” Rick let Mix have his way, and it did next to nothing: It wasn’t popular with hip-hop D.J.’s. Hip-hop was gangstas and A Tribe Called Quest at the time. It had a to be a pop thing, and that’s how Rick related to him anyway. He knew “Baby” was gonna be a big single, and he knew who he wanted to direct the video.
Rick Rubin (owner, Def American/American Recordings): I was a fan of the videos Adam Bernstein directed for They Might Be Giants and the B-52s. I thought the combination of his quirky alt-rock style with Mix’s suburban hip-hop would yield something we hadn’t seen before.
Adam Bernstein (director, “Baby Got Back” video): Rick called me to see if I wanted to direct the video. When you had a meeting with Rick, he would arrive in his Rolls Royce, and you would get in and he would play whichever song really loud. Which is the way I heard “Baby Got Back” for the first time. I thought that the song objectified women, but it made me laugh, and I thought it would be fun. I had previously been offered the chance to direct an LL Cool J song, “Big Ole Butt,” but I didn’t do it. This time, I needed to get out of New York because I broke up with my girlfriend and she got the apartment. So doing this video was a matter of good timing — though I had done “Hey Ladies” for the Beastie Boys.
Dana Hollister (costume designer, “Baby Got Back” video): I worked on “Hey Ladies” with Adam. I guess I did a lot of ass stuff at that time.
Bernstein: Then I had a meeting with Mix-a-Lot to talk about the concept. He really wanted a giant ass in the video, and he wanted to be coming out of it. I suggested that maybe that wasn’t a great idea. For the casting of all the dancers, Mix and his friends wanted to have butt approval. So the dancers would come in for the audition, and I had to snap a polaroid of their butts. I was mortified: “Okay, now I have to take a close-up picture of your buttocks.” But a lot of the women auditioning thought it was hilarious. We took all the Polaroids, and made a giant grid of the buttocks, which we Fed-Exed to Seattle so that Mix and his friends could approve the butts.
Hollister: I made all the costumes that the dancers were wearing. I made the gold shorts and the banana skirt (see image below). I had a $500 budget, so I got glitter at the craft shop and covered the bananas with it at home before the shoot.
Bernstein: I concocted the visuals based around the giant ass. Dana and I leafed through a book about Jean-Paul Goude, a French fashion photographer who happened to be ass-obsessed. So the shape of the butt was inspired by his work. Then we talked about what color to make it, and we settled on gold, because of the line in the song [“Some brothers wanna play that hard role/And tell you that the butt ain’t gold”]. It was made of pencil-steel, which is what aircraft frames are made of, and fiberglass. We shot it at the Chaplain, a big studio near A&M Records off of La Brea, between Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: I was a little worried. “Man, this is gonna come off cheeseball.” So I walked on the set, and the first thing I saw was a 50-foot yellow ass. Me and my guys simultaneously said, “What the fuck? Someone made this thing?” They said it was gonna be big, but it didn’t make any sense until you saw that it was as big as a house. There was a ladder going up the backside, and I was running all around that ass. There were problems initially. What really bothered me was that the main girl sitting on the pedestal at the beginning of the song had on a blonde wig, tiger shorts, a bunch of gold chains, a cheap-ass satin gown, and ugly lipstick: She looked like a ho! I thought, What the hell is this? [Although] to be honest, if I saw her on the street, I might say, “What’s up, baby?” Adam said, “I thought you wanted hot?” But I told him, “This song is called ‘Baby Got Back,’ not ‘Baby’s a Ho.’” We ended up going to the mall with the wardrobe people to get other clothes, and they changed her hair, and shooting was held up for four hours. Her name was Almond, and she said, “Thank God, I didn’t want to wear this.” Pop culture says that if a black girl is to be taken seriously, she has to assimilate and be as white as possible, to the point of bleaching her hair blonde. But the entire point of the song was the opposite. The lady who the white girls were looking at in the intro was supposed to be a queen that they saw as a ho, not an actual ho.
Charnas: The girls in the video were cast by people who didn’t quite understand what they were engaged in culturally.
Bernstein: I don’t remember anything about dressing anyone like a prostitute, but there was a kerfuffle in the wardrobe room with Dana.
Hollister: Mix pulled a glock on me, because I challenged the way he was dressed for art direction purposes, and he freaked out on me.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: That’s bullshit. [Laughs uproariously.] There is no way I would travel across state lines into California with those gun laws. Pulling a gun on a guy is enough of a punk move, but a woman?
Hollister: But I wasn’t having it: “Are you fucking kidding me? A gun?” He was wearing all brown, and he would have been standing on the butt, looking like … you know!
Sir Mix-a-Lot: I was wearing a brown shirt and brown pants, and they were taking Polaroids, and I saw that I looked like dancing turd. My boys said, “You always talking like you’re the shit. Well, now you really the shit.” They still ride me on that.
Hollister: The incident was all of two minutes. He realized that we had his best interests at heart. He’s a lovely guy.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: [This video] meant a lot to me: Bernstein and the video people were taking something from me and fucking it up. I realized that I was fighting an uphill battle with Bernstein: He had been conditioned the same way everybody else had and didn’t get it.
Hollister: If you do something like this video, it goes into the culture and then into history, so you understand that he might be sensitive to how he’s going to be perceived.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: In the end, though, I was very happy with the video, and I’m not mad at anyone who worked on it.
Bernstein: We let each dancer freestyle, so I would edit in shots coordinated with the song wherever appropriate. One dancer did that great flying kick, and it made sense to sync that shot with the kung-fu movie Whopp-pish! sound in the track. I think I may have come up with the Josephine Baker and Madonna references, and with the white guy nervously loosening his tie. But others were pointed to by his lyrics: He references Cosmo, and someone knew the latin-derived word for someone with a nice ass is “callipygian.” That’s where we got “Cosmo-pygian.”
Rubin: I loved the video and remember working closely with Adam on the nuances of the edit.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: I was nervous because my music had previously been on an independent label, where the threshold for success was very low. We put the song out, and we go on this promo tour. Halfway through it, the record went No. 1 and it blew my mind. The first date was in Salt Lake City Utah: 300 people [turned out]. The last was in Panama City, Florida, and there were so many people there that the balcony collapsed. Then we did Arsenio (see clip below), and right before that I had a meeting where someone said, “How does it feel to be banned from MTV?” I was like, excuse me? Now I think my career’s over. I remember talking to Heidi Robinson, Rick’s publicist, and she said, “No, no! Now you’re the forbidden fruit; now you’re really gonna sell some records!”
Heidi Ellen Robinson (longtime publicist for Def American/American Recordings): Controversy gets my blood going. The worst thing that could have happened with this song would be ambivalence. The only thing I can compare it to was working with the Sex Pistols.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: And it worked! Later MTV agreed to play it after 9 p.m. Everybody thought I should have been mad at MTV, but you’re talking about a station that just made me a million dollars. I thought they wouldn’t play it straight out of the gate.
Patti Galluzzi (senior vice-president of music and talent, MTV, 1988–98): As a music programmer at MTV, I was the first person who would watch every single video. Then, videos would be sent to standards and practices, and word came down that “Baby,” while a great, hilarious video, was not going to air. People like to use the word banned: You can be righteous, as if MTV is burning books. But banning is not the same as a programming decision with respect to a video that directly flouted a then-recently instituted rule against showing female body parts with no reference to a face. We were trying to move away from MTV’s recent past, when videos showing slices of pie would drop into a girl’s lap, like in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” were shown around the clock.
Rubin: I had these old-fashioned, engraved desk plaques made that read “Call MTV Re: Mix-a-Lot” and left them on the desks in the office of every staff member. I knew if we could get MTV onboard, word would spread.
Galluzzi: I was at this radio conference in Seattle where I didn’t know anyone. The first night I ate dinner in my hotel room by myself. The second night, Benny Medina —a Warner Bros. executive later to represent Mariah and J.Lo — walked up to me and asked if I had dinner plans. I knew somebody! So I met up with him and Ricardo Frazier, a very handsome man who I knew was Mix’s manager, at a restaurant. I noticed that there was a fourth chair at the table, and I realized this was a bait-and-switch, and in walks Sir Mix-a-Lot. I just went with it; this was my job. The conversation got around to, “We have this incredible song and video, and you guys won’t play it.” I explained MTV’s rules. But finally, Mix told me that he felt that the message of the song is that all women are constantly bombarded with images of super-thin models on TV and in magazines, and he thought that women and young girls need to hear that not everyone feels that way, as well as defending a more African-American body image. He was also speaking directly to me: I had back and front, then and now. So I said, “You know what? I’ll go back to NYC and bring this to the top.” Which would have been Judy McGrath, VP of creative — and with me standing there with my curves, she was sympathetic. Standards and practices still insisted on the removal of specific shots, like Mix doing push-ups on the butt, or other really tight butt shots. They cleaned it up, and finally we could play it after 9 p.m., when young kids are going to be asleep.
Robinson: Mostly, it was male journalists who didn’t like the song. I’m sure their intention was to be very pro-woman and protective. There were some women who took offense.
Bernstein: Two principals in Epoch, the production company I was working for at the time, were female and were so disappointed in me after seeing the video. They were offended, but there’s a cultural difference, in that black women loved it. After the video blew up, those women changed their minds.
Mark DiDia (general manager, Def American/American Recordings, 1991–97): “Baby” was controversial, and we had to promote it with the methods available at the time: in-store play, street teams, video, and radio. But Mix didn’t like to fly, so we decided that if he wouldn’t tour as much as we would like, we would tour a giant, inflatable ass. We would put it on top of record stores and radio stations, or in the parking lot and blast the song.
Robinson: We sent it to San Francisco, then to Los Angeles, and then around the country. One day the producer of Falling Down saw it on top of Temple Records in Hollywood and he put it in the movie.
Chanas: It was a good-looking ass; if it was real, I would have hit it! It was often shot at with arrows and bullets, then had to be patched up and re-inflated. I was the butt-balloon manager.
DiDia: Sometimes I would be on conference calls: “Well, Mix can’t come to Texas, but I can offer you this inflatable ass.” It was so popular we had to make a second one.
Robinson: I quoted Mark on one press release: “If nothing else, this was the most expensive piece of ass we ever paid for.”
Sir Mix-a-Lot: After that, I started to see songs like “Shake Your Rump,” and I was like, Yes! “Baby Got Back” was the marijuana, but [controversial rapper Luther Campbell alias] Luke Skyywalker’s shit was the cocaine. And then there was Jamie Foxx on In Living Color as Trail Mix-a-Lot [doing] “Baby Got Snacks.” It might have contradicted the message of “Baby” just a bit, but I thought it was funny as hell.
Charnas: It was not lost on any of us that this was Sir Mix-a-lot’s pop moment. I would go to Bally’s gym every night in Hollywood, and I started to hear it on the radio there: “That’s my record!”
Sir Mix-a-Lot: I still love “Baby Got Back.” I will perform it until I drop. It’s completely ignorant when an artist has a successful, iconic song that makes millions of dollars, but slaps his fans in the face when he says, “That song ain’t shit, I’m bigger than that.” I appreciate the fact that people got behind that song back in the day, so I do a fuckin’ ten-minute-long version live. You should celebrate having a song that damn big. There are songs that sold more at the time, but you don’t hear ’em now. Still, two years after “Baby Got Back,” people still didn’t get it. I was gonna do this video for “Ride” [off 1994’s Chief Boot Knocka]. I met with a potential director and we talked about what I wanted the girls to look like. I wanted them to be thick, but he said, “You want fat women in the video?” I gave him the example of Marilyn Monroe; she exemplifies beauty. And he said “Marilyn Monroe? That’s more like a whore.”
Dorsey-Rivas: It’s weird to open up a karaoke book and see that song there twenty years later, or to hear 6- and 7-year-old children imitate my intro. Even if I’d never contributed to it, I would still have appreciated what it did. When people said it was degrading, I would say there’s not one thing degrading about that song to anyone who felt like me.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: Now, ass isn’t a big deal. I go to the gym, and I’ll hear a white girl saying to her trainer, “I want this to be round.” They realize that it doesn’t mean that you’re out of shape if you have a nice ass. Anybody who’s ever seen a stripper pick up a dollar bill with her ass knows you can’t do that with fat.
Charnas: Mix-a-Lot did not act alone. There was Luke, Wreckx-N-Effect, and many others. But his was the loudest voice for this cultural overthrow of the Euro-centric beauty aesthetic, in favor of something more akin to what America would like twenty years hence: Black women are now on the covers of magazines, which used to be very risky. “Baby” will forever be a great combination of a silly pop song with an earnest resolve to change the perception of body image in America.
Sir Mix-a-Lot: It was something we only talked about in a locker room or a club before “Baby.” But black women got the song immediately. Everybody to my mom, to Amylia, to every black woman I knew or met said “about time” and “thank you.” Girls who didn’t have big butts thought the song was cute, but girls who did have butts thought it was a revolution.