Baby Got Backspace: How Early Tech Helped Make Sir Mix-a-Lot a Star

There was a time when you could dial 1-900-Mix-a-Lot. Sort of.
Sir Mix-a-Lot via YouTube

Things weren't going well, for a time, for Sir Mix-a-Lot. His first two albums, Swass and Seminar, had climbed the rap charts—enough to make him a platinum-selling artist—but his third, Mack Daddy, was struggling to find an audience. His label, Def American Recordings, wanted to get the new album more widespread airplay; the first single it released, though, “One Time’s Got No Case,” was pretty much a flop.

Then Def American developed a new strategy: It sent the music video of another of the album's singles to the Box, a music-video-oriented cable channel—a kind of grittier, wittier MTV. The channel allowed viewers to order videos, pay-per-view-style, with their phones (with each call costing between $1.99 and $3.99), and also with their TVs—via an on-screen menu that offered up to 300 video selections across different musical genres. (The menu was the result of an "interactive video system" that the Box had patented.) Like a jukebox, the videos would play in the order you purchased them. 

The Box was, on the one hand, simply a video-focused reimagining of an old technology: the classic jukebox. But it was also, as a concept, ahead of its time (or at least ahead of American Idol, which is pretty much the same thing). The Box foreshadowed YouTube (instant access to music videos!), cable news (24 hours of programming!), reality TV (voting for what gets broadcast into your home!), and the kind of cross-platform pollination we take for granted today (TV programming! Ordered on your phone!). As The New York Times put it, somewhat breathlessly, in a 1992 article, the Box "capitalizes on computer technology to transform viewing from a passive experience into an active one." 

Which brings us back to Sir Mix-a-Lot. And, more to the point, to his affinity for large derrieres. Because the song Def American had sent to the Box was "Baby Got Back." And while the label had sent the video to MTV, too, MTV wouldn't play it any time but the evening. It also wouldn't let you watch the thing on repeat, the better to marvel at the dancing and memorize the lyrics. It wouldn't let you experience music videos, in other words, in the relatively intimate way we're used to experiencing them today, on the web. 

And that (along with its obvious artistry—anacondas! Hondas! Fonda!) helped to propel "Baby Got Back" into its ongoing popularity. The Box, that 1992 Times story declares, "has had a decisive impact on the careers of a growing number of recording artists, and, like MTV in its early days, it has gained a reputation as a hit maker for new performers. It has been credited with influencing the careers of dozens of artists, including Hammer, Ice Cube, Color Me Badd, Vanilla Ice, Queen Latifah, En Vogue, Soundgarden, Kris Kross, and Shabba Ranks."

And also: Sir Mix-a-Lot. Viewers liked his song, and they could not lie; the Box gave them a way to keep liking it, over and over and over. Just a week after the Box began offering it, the song entered the channel's Top 10 list. And from there, it went big. It went so big. It went out there—to, in this case, the broader market. After a few months of availability on the Box, "Baby Got Back" had reached Number 1 on Billboard's pop singles chart. The song ended up winning Sir Mix-a-Lot a Grammy (for Best Rap Solo Performance). Billboard would go on to rank it as the second biggest single of the year, just behind Boyz II Men's ballad "End of the Road."

And, this week, the song went viral yet again—in the form of a video, shot at the Seattle Symphony, featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot and a bevy of female audience members. Who were dancing and delighting and dialing 1-900-Mix-a-Lot in more ways than they knew.

 Via The New York Times's ArtsBeat blog

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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