The hip hop scene of the late 80s and early 90s is truly wild, when you think about it. For the first decade and a half, it was all about the East Coast. Los Angeles started to hit the map with the advent of Ice-T and eventually NWA. National headlines discovered Miami via the 2 Live Crew. But Seattle? That didn’t make waves until Nirvana hit every living room in America.
Before that, though, was a hidden gem – an emerald, if you will – who was the face of an entire city’s hip hop scene, building slowly towards what would be megastardom. But before everyone knew they liked big butts and thus, could not lie, Sir Mix-a-Lot was just a dude rapping about gold and girls.
Swass was released in 1988 on Mix-a-Lot’s own Nastymix Records to not much fanfare, but the single “Posse on Broadway” spurred a video that made it into the Yo! MTV Raps rotation. It’s a tale of the posse out for the night, living it up being the envy of all who looked on. Its slow, hypnotic bassline rattled many a trunk, but you also got a sense of Mix’ vast musical taste when you realize there’s an Iggy Pop sample in there as well, not the usual crate digging fodder at the time.
This wasn’t the only place where we saw innovation. On two tracks – the opener “Buttermilk Biscuits (Keep on Square Dancin’)” and “Square Dance Rap” – Sir Mix-a-Lot employs some voice distortion to appear to be an entirely second emcee. This was before Shock G and Humpty Hump appeared on record two years later, or Positive K playing both roles of a he-said-she-said track in 1992. He uses Metal Church to play a sample of “Iron Man” on a song of the same name about the same time Public Enemy is sampling Slayer. He later samples (and then is forced to remove said sample by) Siouxsie and the Banshees. Considering he was ensconced in the Pacific Northwest in a pre-internet era, it’s actually impressive how cutting edge he was for the time.
But ultimately, the bulk of the record is his flavor of a boom bap record. “Rippin’” featuring his posse mate Kid Sensation is just straight rappity rap of the era, “Bremelo” is a crude dismissal of women that don’t rate – a bit cringeworthy today but also still forces a chuckle or two. In fact, there’s some great unintentional comedy to the way some lyrics have aged, from the fact that in “Gold” a security guard is needed while Kid Sensation buys a gold chain…for $700 (“Fourteen 20s and his face stayed blank”) or the fact that Mix-a-Lot flexes that he spent $100,000 on a brand new home. Hey, it was 1988.
However, the song that had the most staying power is the title track. Not many people have heard it as source material, but it was used by Busta Rhymes and Cee-Lo when they wrote the hit “Don’t Cha” for the Pussycat Dolls – remember them? “Dontcha wish your boyfriend was swass like me?” was the original hook, later tweaked and becoming part of popular culture. I remember, even at the time, just smiling when I heard it, like I was in on a secret. All of Swass is basically a secret, even after its re-release on Rick Rubin’s Def American label. But it also serves as a great time capsule – worthy of a revisit every once in a while.