Happy 30th Anniversary to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s debut album Swass, originally released September 1, 1988.
Even through the late 1980s, mainstream hip-hop music was the product of places like the Northeastern Seaboard and California. Occasionally artists from places like Houston or Miami would make themselves heard, but the guys who got the most shine were from New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Which makes the fact that a Seattle-based rapper released a platinum album in 1988 such an oddity.
Anthony “Sir Mix-A-Lot” Ray created the Seattle hip-hop scene for all intents and purposes. As a DJ in the early ’80s, he spun hip-hop in community centers throughout the city. He eventually began recording music himself, releasing and distributing 12”s through Nastymix Records in the mid ’80s. He became a staple of the Seattle club scene, which has always skewed heavily towards Rock music; Mix-A-Lot has said that Nirvana once opened up for him at a tavern show during this period. His debut album Swass was a considerable success upon its release 30 years ago, selling a million copies during a period where most platinum acts were from New York or Los Angeles.
Swass sounded unique in a hip-hop climate populated by the Public Enemies, N.W.As, Rakims, and Big Daddy Kanes of the world. Musically, it was almost a throwback to the mid-’80s. Mix-A-Lot produced Swass himself and created a soundscape that’s heavy on electro funk. The beats have much more in common with the music of Newcleus and Egyptian Lover than the breakbeat-based production that began to dominate hip-hop during this period.
Lyrically, Mix-A-Lot had an at times imposing vocal presence that was counter-balanced by a genuine sense of humor. One refreshing aspect of his music is that he knew it was okay to not take himself too seriously all of the time, and he could cut loose and have a good time. As a result, Swass is often a really fun record.
One thing that’s always stood out about Mix-A-Lot’s music is that even the album’s name itself comes from an inside joke within the crew. In an interview with Magnet, Mix-A-Lot explained “Swass” doesn’t actually mean anything. When he worked in an arcade during the mid-’80s, there was a pinball machine that said a word that sounded like “Swass!” He decided Swass stood for “Some Wild Ass Silly Shit” after recording the song that would become the album’s title track.
The title track itself is a prime example of the overall eclecticism of Swass. Musically, it’s reminiscent of mid-’80s Prince, complete with breathy vocal effects and throbbing drums that thump with mechanical precision. Over buzzing yet faint synthesizer, Mix-A-Lot raps in short, clipped phrases while using an exaggerated, suave vocal tone. He describes himself as an “Intelligent freak, wardrobe complete” and announcing that he’s “the king of the beat in the Great Northwest.”
Over 15 years later, “Swass” became the inspiration for the mega-hit “Don’t Cha” by the Pussycat Dolls. Cee-Lo Green, who wrote and produced the song, was a huge fan of “Swass,” and re-interpreted the song’s chorus. The hook (“Don’t you wish your boyfriend was Swass like me?” became “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”) became a big reason for the success of “Don’t Cha.”
Swass is best known for “Posse On Broadway,” the album’s third single and biggest hit. The song sounded considerably different than what constituted a hip-hop hit in 1988: a stripped-down, deliberate drum-machine driven track filled with vocal stabs and Godzilla-like groans. Mix-A-Lot adopts a syrupy, almost nasally drawl as he rhymes about traversing the streets of Seattle, first 23rd Street and then Broadway, posse-deep on a quest for female companionship. He also introduces the listeners to his crew: rapper Kid Sensation, rapper/dancer Maharaji, and Larry the White Guy a.k.a. a real estate investor who makes a lot of money.
As he shouts out prominent local landmarks, he clowns haters and his “posse” of women continues to grow. Mix-A-Lot oozes swagger on the track, particularly as he describes a twerp who hits his girlfriend getting a face-full of mace from one of Mix-A-Lot’s crewmembers. He basks in his own splendor, proclaiming, “I got a def posse; you got a bunch of dudes / You’re broke, cold crying about the rock man blues.”
Mix-A-Lot is also adept at kicking some straight lyrical shit. When he does engage in some straight ahead battle-rapping on Swass, he excels. “Rippn’,” the album’s second single, is one of the best songs on Swass, as he trades verses with fellow crew member Kid Sensation, spitting rhymes at a rapid pace over a pulsing drum and percussion-filled track that must clock in near 120 beats per minute. Highlights also include a synthesizer-replaying of “Alouette” for the song’s hook and a breakdown that samples vocals from Gary Numan’s “Cars.”
“Attack on the Stars” is another album highlight, as Mix-A-Lot unleashes a volley against would-be rappers only concerned with the trappings of fame, rather than creating good music. “Mix-A-Lot the maker of revenue,” he bellows over a synth-heavy beat, “Dropkick mud ducks on the avenue.” His disgust for phonies is palpable as he raps, “Punk, your rap's illiterate / Wanna box, boy? Don’t consider it.”
Mix-A-Lot continuously demonstrates a desire to give the audience something they aren’t necessarily expecting. Case in point, he serves up both “Square Dance Rap,” which he first released as a single back in 1985, and “Buttermilk Biscuits” on Swass. On both songs Mix-A-Lot adds heavy effects to his voice, making him sound like a high-pitched redneck alien. The two songs are what the titles advertise, as they are respectively odes to square dancing and breakfast muffins, but they play like the seriously demented, countrified versions of “Jam On It.” Mix-A-Lot fully commits to the bit here; I have no idea how he didn’t bust up laughing while giving step-by-step instructions on how to prepare and serve the nominal breakfast treats.
There are other instances where Mix-A-Lot tries to be unorthodox and achieves mixed results. “Iron Man,” the album’s fourth single, is an early rap/metal mash-up. It features Seattle-based Metal Church playing the iconic Black Sabbath guitar riff from the song of the same name. Though Mix-A-Lot is an avowed Heavy Metal fan, he admitted in a 2003 interview with The AV Club that this song was an attempt to copy Run-DMC’s success. “When things are that obvious, they're kind of cheesy,” he said, “and I wish I hadn't done it.”
For what it’s worth, the 12” remix, featuring a sample of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” drums and rhythmic scratching, is the better version of the song. I’ll also say that the line “Met Clint Eastwood and slapped his mama” will always be funny to me.
However, some of Mix-A-Lot’s risks don’t pay off at all, specifically the album closing “Romantic Interlude,” as atrocious a late ’80s hip-hop love song as has ever been released. Mix-A-Lot attempts a faux-Prince Soto voce talk/rap thing over layers of cheesy synths, which sound about as bad as you’d expect. It’s yet another example of a song that I wasted precious Walkman battery life fast-forwarding and further proof that all late ’80s rap ballads were bad.
Swass launched a very interesting career trajectory for Sir Mix-A-Lot. His path to eventual mega-stardom wasn’t a straight line. His sophomore album Seminar (1989) was very good but not as commercially successful as Swass. He followed that with 1992’s Mack Daddy and the still ubiquitous “Baby Got Back,” which turned him into a household name.
Though both of these follow-up albums sounded significantly different from Swass, they were also different than just about everything else out at the time. Moreover, they still presented Mix-A-Lot as a dynamic personality. Swass was instrumental in shaping this ethos, and is entertaining as hell to boot.