In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
MC Skat Kat wasn’t the first cartoon character to appear on a #1 hit. Way back in 1958, one of the very first chart-toppers on the newly introduced Billboard Hot 100 was “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” the novelty song credited to the Chipmunks and David Seville. David Seville was really a Broadway actor named Ross Bagdasarian, and the Chipmunks were his creations. Bagdasarian had discovered that he could speed his voice up on tape and make it sound squeaky and irritating, and this somehow led to a 60-year career for his characters Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. After their novelty-hit success, the Chipmunks went on to star in comic books, cartoons, and a series of bafflingly popular CGI/live-action movies with David Cross in them.
Along those same lines, the biggest hit of 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar,” an insistent bubblegum banger credited to the Archies. The Archies were the animated stars of The Archie Show, the adaptation of the Archie comics that had already been coming out for decades. Don Kirsher had previously overseen the music on The Monkees, and he’d helped turn the actual Monkees into an act that was briefly bigger than the Beatles. But the Monkees hated how they weren’t allowed to choose their own songs or play on those songs, and they eventually found a way to oust Kirshner from their show. Kirsher went on to establish the Archies as a studio act that couldn’t rebel because the characters weren’t real people.
So MC Skat Kat had precedents. But Skat Kat was the first cartoon character to rap on a #1 hit. Depending on how you define rapping, MC Skat Kat may have also been the first being, animated or otherwise, to rap on a #1 hit. At the dawn of the ’90s, rap music was still just starting to break through on the Hot 100. Rappers like Tone Lōc and Young MC had made big hits in 1989, but they hadn’t been all the way to the top. So maybe this dancing feline loverman was a pivotal figure in mass acceptance of rap music. Maybe a work of pure, overwhelming silliness helped change the course of pop history. Probably not, but maybe.
“Opposites Attract” came from Oliver Leiber. Oliver, the son of legendary pop songwriter Jerry Leiber, had come up in the Minneapolis funk scene. He’d already written two songs for Paula Abdul’s debut album, including the title track and eventual chart-topper “Forever Your Girl,” before coming up with “Opposites Attract” at the last minute.
Leiber had just bought a brand new MPC drum machine, and he was fooling around with it, trying to figure out how to program beats, when Abdul’s A&R rep Gemma Corfield called him and asked him for one more track. During that phone call, Leiber pretty much came up with the pitch for “Opposites Attract” on the spot. He played Corfield the beat that he’d just made over the phone, and he said that he had a possible song called “Opposites Attract,” a title he’d seen on an old paperback while browsing a used bookstore. At the time, Abdul was still a choreographer trying her hand at a singing career, and her album was not a huge priority for Virgin, so that pitch was good enough. Corfield told Leiber to put the song together as quickly as possible.
Initially, Leiber didn’t think of “Opposites Attract” as a duet, but fellow Minneapolis musician David Z, the guy who produced the Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy,” suggested that the song might work better that way. Leiber recorded a demo with Bruce DeShazer and Marv Gunn, a duo who called themselves the Wild Pair. Both DeShazer and Gunn had been members of Mazarati, a band led by Prince’s Revolution bassist Brownmark. (Prince had originally written “Kiss” for Mazarati before taking it back for himself.) Mazarati broke up after their 1989 sophomore album flopped, but DeShazer and Gunn kept singing together as the Wild Pair, and Leiber recorded them singing the entire song. Paula Abdul couldn’t return to Minneapolis to record, so Leiber went to LA, and he took out half of the Wild Pair’s vocals and put in Abdul’s parts. At that point, there was no rapping cat on the song.
Nobody expected “Opposites Attract” to become a single at all. Leiber later told Songfacts that he was both “embarrassed” and “bummed” at how the song came out: “I was really sure that I had completely missed the mark. I almost sent that one in with an apology — literally. Like, ‘I’m really sorry I let you down. I thought this was gonna be good.'” But in November of 1989, Abdul’s Forever Your Girl went quadruple platinum. It had already spun off five singles, and three of them had gone to #1. Virgin was worried about Abdul becoming overexposed, but she had an idea for another video, and she sold Virgin on it.
Gene Kelly had always been one of Abdul’s heroes, and Abdul wanted to make a video that would pay tribute. In the 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh, there’s a scene where Kelly dances with Jerry, the mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons. Abdul wanted to do something similar, and “Opposites Attract” was the obvious candidate for that treatment. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had been a huge hit in 1988, so the idea of a real-life Paula Abdul dancing with an animated cat didn’t seem too far-fetched. After all, kids loved Paula Abdul.
David Fincher directed the videos for Paula Abdul’s first few hits, but she went with different directors for “Opposites Attract,” which explains why MC Skat Kat didn’t get the Kevin Spacey role in Seven. Actually, Skat Kat was the creation of Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger, the married team of animators who’d done the rotoscoped cartoon parts for a-ha’s “Take On Me” video a few years earlier. The Skat Kat character, a horny good-time rapping cat who is very into Paula Abdul, is an exaggerated caricature of everything that kids my age were supposed to think was cool — the kind of thing that The Simpsons would clown with their Poochie episode a few years later. It worked on me. I thought Skat Kat was cool.
The “Opposites Attract” video doesn’t look rotoscoped, but Patterson and Reckinger used a version of the same technique for their clip. Abdul choreographed her dance with the Skat Kat, and dancers like Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, the guy who played Ozone in the two Breakin’ movies, did the cat’s moves. Later on, Patterson and Reckinger painted over those cels with Skat Kat doing those moves.
When Virgin decided to release “Opposites Attract” as a single, they wanted a new version of the song, and they wanted a rapper on it. They asked Leiber to remix the track. For the album version of “Opposites Attract,” an embarrassed Leiber had gotten keyboardist Jeff Lorber to replace some of his parts. For the remix, Leiber, now more confident in what he’d made, just used the stuff he’d originally recorded, before bringing in Lorber. But Leiber had a problem: He didn’t know any rappers.
Leiber recruited a Minneapolis radio DJ named Derrick “Delite” Stevens. Leiber didn’t know whether Stevens could rap, but he liked the guy’s voice. Leiber wrote some rap lyrics, and Stevens then rewrote them. Stevens and the Wild Pair aren’t in the “Opposites Attract” video; instead, all their vocal parts go to MC Skat Kat. The rapping on “Opposites Attract” is not, strictly speaking, good. (Skat Kat’s opening line: “I’m MC Kat on the rap, so mic it/ Here’s a little story, and you’re sure to like it.”) That rap is absolutely just some tacked-on bullshit, but it’s the stupidly charming kind of tacked-on bullshit.
It’s hard to judge “Opposites Attract” as a piece of music. As soon as the video came out, “Opposites Attract” became a song about Paula Abdul and a cartoon cat getting horny for each other, challenging lots of taboos about interspecies relationships. (Those taboos were really under attack in the ’80s. Roger Rabbit and Howard The Duck had similar notions about romance between humans and weird-looking anthropomorphic animals.) “Opposites Attract” is a song all about how these two very different characters are still into each other despite sharing nothing in common. Paula Abdul likes TV, hates smoking, and makes the bed. Skat Kat likes movies, likes smoking, and steals the covers. Somehow, they make sense together anyway. (The lyrics never mention how Paula Abdul is a human and MC Skat Kat is a cat. I guess that’s implied.)
“Opposites Attract” mostly works as the soundtrack for a truly silly video; the music is practically incidental. The song itself is a fleet, frisky little piece of Minneapolis bubblefunk. You could be excused for thinking the song itself was always just an excuse for the video. The rapping is bad, and it doesn’t add anything, but it gives Skat Kat more to do in the video. There’s not a ton to the beat, but it’s funky, and it moves. The best thing about the song is the hook, a slick little bit of back-and-forth business that sticks with you. Without the video, though, it’s a fair bet that nobody would really remember “Opposites Attract.”
It’s a little sobering to think that a horny rapping novelty-song cartoon cat did better on the charts than any of the actual rappers who were making great music at the time. In 1989, for instance, Jody Watley brought in Rakim, arguably the greatest rapper in the world at the time, to rap on her single “Friends,” and that song couldn’t get past #9 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.) But when Paula Abdul teamed up with a cartoon cat, she went straight to #1, which raises the troubling possibility that “Friends” might’ve done better if Rakim had been a claymation puppy or something.
In any case, with that video, “Opposites Attract” was huge. Even though Forever Your Girl had already been out for a year and a half by the time “Opposites Attract” reached #1, the single propelled Forever Your Girl back to #1 on the album chart, and the LP stayed there for another nine weeks. By the summer, Forever Your Girl had sold seven million copies. The “Opposites Attract” video won Paula Abdul her first Grammy. Gene Kelly was touched by Abdul’s tribute. He and Abdul became friends, and they remained close until Kelly died in 1996.
Oliver Leiber didn’t make any more big hits after “Opposites Attract.” He produced and co-wrote a few early songs for the Corrs, and he played guitar in Rod Stewart’s band for a while. Leiber also wrote and produced some singes for the singer Stacy Earl, and he included the Wild Pair on Earl’s 1992 single “Romeo And Juliet,” which peaked at #27. This was the Wild Pair’s only hit other than “Opposites Attract.” The duo never made a record of their own. Paula Abdul, on the other hand, will appear in this column again.
There are a lot of weird things about the success of “Opposites Attract,” but the weirdest of them was that MC Skat Kat attempted a solo career. In 1991, Skat Kat released his album The Adventures Of MC Skat Kat And The Stray Mob. (The Stray Mob was a whole extended squad of cartoon cats, some of whom appeared in the “Opposites Attract” video.) Derrick “Delite” Stevens continued to voice the Skat Kat character, and Romany Malco, who would later star in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Weeds, wrote some of the lyrics. (Abdul sometimes says that Malco did the rapping for Skat Kat, but he didn’t.)
Somehow, MC Skat Kat did not take the world by storm. Abdul reunited with Skat Kat in his video for lead single “Skat Strut,” but the song couldn’t get past #80 on the Hot 100. After that, Skat Kat was out of the music business. Sadly, we will not see him in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: On a 1997 episode of Muppets Tonight, Paula Abdul performed “Opposites Attract” with a bunch of different indeterminate-species Muppet monsters, none of which appear to be cats. I understand that Paula Abdul is not a Muppet, but I reject the premise that Abdul and Muppets are somehow opposites. Here’s that:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Seduction’s funky Rob Base-sampling house-pop jam “Two To Make It Right” peaked at #2 behind “Opposites Attract.” It’s an 8.