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.
David O. Russell’s great 1999 war movie Three Kings begins as a war ends. Shortly after the opening scene, the Gulf War reaches its hasty conclusion. Most of the American soldiers haven’t actually done shit, but they howl and whoop and chest-thump like they’ve just reasserted US dominance across the globe. Mark Wahlberg, pretty early into his screen career, plays Troy Barlow, the only soldier in his company who’s actually shot anyone. At a victory party, Barlow leads his friends in a singalong of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA,” and then everyone dances to Public Enemy’s “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man.” It’s a funny scene, made funnier by the contrast between Lee Greenwood and Public Enemy. But it might’ve been even funnier if the soldiers had been dancing to Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch.
This couldn’t have happened, of course. The Gulf War ended in February 1991, and “Good Vibrations,” the debut single and only #1 hit from Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch, didn’t come out for another six months. And of course Mark Wahlberg, the former Marky Mark, would’ve never let it happen. By 1999, Wahlberg had only just made the transition to full-on movie-stardom, leaving behind his goofy white-rapper/underwear-model past. In Three Kings, he’s credited as Mark Wahlberg, while Ice Cube, the other early-’90s rap star in the cast, is still Ice Cube. (Ice Cube’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “It Was A Good Day,” peaked at #15.) Wahlberg didn’t wanted to be reminded of his Marky Mark days, but the world wouldn’t let him forget it.
Maybe Mark Wahlberg was promoting Three Kings when he appeared on MTV’s Total Request Live in 1999. (I can’t find the exact date. Wahlberg had two movies that year, Three Kings and The Corrupter, his buddy flick with Chow Yun-Fat.) Wahlberg happened to be on the same TRL episode as a significantly less goofy white rapper. Legend has it that the TRL producers had told a snotty and fresh-faced young Eminem that he could not, under any circumstances, say the words “Marky Mark” on-air. But Eminem couldn’t help himself: “Ahhhh, we’ll just all stand here like a happy fun bunch! A happy group!” In response, Wahlberg visibly seethed.
Wahlberg had a good reason to be mad, and Eminem, a guy who will eventually appear in this column, had a good reason to clown Wahlberg. The shit was funny. Marky Mark was funny. Consider the “Good Vibrations” video. Consider the extremely diesel young Marky Mark, filmed in black-and-white by Wahlberg’s future Basketball Diaries director Scott Kalvert, clinging onto a chain-link fence, shirtless in a bandana and a shamrock chain, mean-mugging the camera. Consider Marky Mark lifting a barbell made of cinderblocks and then throwing it at the ground hard enough to make the cinderblocks shatter. Consider the sex scene, which pairs Marky Mark with future Baywatch star Traci Bingham and which is, unless I’m mistaken, the first sex scene in a video for a #1 single. Consider the Funky Bunch dancers humping the ground with synchronized precision. It’s all just so fucking stupid.
But maybe Eminem wasn’t just clowning. Maybe Eminem was mad. After all, Eminem was trying to be taken seriously as a white rapper. For a while, that was an uphill battle. Rap music isn’t just a predominantly Black art form; it’s perhaps the single art form most identified with Blackness in the American cultural imagination. For a brief early-’90s moment, though, the white teen idols threatened to take over.
In 1990, Vanilla Ice, a white guy, became the first rapper to land a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. This was a ridiculous little travesty, a true embarrassment, and it gets worse. A year later, Marky Mark became the second rapper with a #1 hit. In 1991, rap music was well on its way to becoming the sound of young America, and it had produced countless classics, but these two white doofs were the only rappers with #1 hits. Top-40 programmers, it seems, were only willing to fully embrace rap music if it came with a white face. That’s not a sweet sensation. You could understand if Eminem didn’t want to be associated with that.
Vanilla Ice had at least come up on the rap underground, making his name on the overwhelmingly Black club scene in Dallas. Marky Mark took a different route to the top: He was the brother of a New Kid and a former New Kid himself. In the ’80s, when Maurice Starr assembled the New Kids On The Block, Donnie and Mark Wahlberg were the first kids that he recruited. The Wahlberg brothers were the youngest children in a huge working-class family in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester; Mark was only 13 when he joined. (When Marky Mark was born, the #1 song in America was the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which is pretty funny.) But young Marky Mark couldn’t sing, and he didn’t want to learn. He wanted to rap. After a few months, he quit the New Kids.
By the time he relinquished his spot in the New Kids On The Block, Mark Wahlberg was a fully-formed young hoodlum. He’s said that he was already addicted to cocaine at 13. He dropped out of school in ninth grade. He was also a racist, violent kid. In 1986, Wahlberg and his friends chased a group of Black kids out of their neighborhood, throwing rocks and yelling racial slurs. The kids’ family sued Wahlberg, and the case was settled out of court. Two years later, Wahlberg viciously attacked two Vietnamese-American men, yelling more racial slurs. Later, he claimed he’d been high on PCP at the time. Arrested and charged with attempted murder, Wahlberg pleaded down to assault and only served 45 days in jail. Years later, when he was a movie star, Wahlberg tried to get a pardon for that conviction and others, but he withdrew his petition when the backlash hit. (In 1992, Wahlberg also beat up his neighbor when his neighbor called one of Wahlberg’s friends a racial slur. Maybe Wahlberg had reversed his position on racism but not on beating people up.)
So: Marky Mark. Bad kid. But Marky Mark had the good fortune to have a New Kid On The Block for an older brother. Donnie Wahlberg, presumably recognizing that young Mark was doing nothing good with his life, put serious effort into getting Mark a record deal. Mark got together with a group of Black rappers and dancers that he called the Funky Bunch, and they recorded a demo that Donnie produced. (The other Funky Bunch rappers didn’t rap much, but one of them was named Hector The Booty Inspector, which is a much better rap name than Marky Mark.) Through the New Kids, Donnie knew one of the execs at Interscope Records, a label that had just started in 1990. Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine loved the Funky Bunch’s demo, and he signed them almost immediately.
Donnie Wahlberg, still riding high with the New Kids, produced almost all of Music For The People, the debut album from Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. It is not a good rap record. Marky Mark clearly modeled himself on LL Cool J, the oiled-up Queens roughneck who had already — don’t call it a comeback — been there for years. (As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column.) But Marky had none of LL’s intensity and precision. Instead, Marky huffed and puffed clumsily all over the record, barking out edgeless versions of LL’s flexes over Donnie’s chopped-up collages of records that more-talented rap producers had already sampled.
For the album’s first single, the Wahlberg boys tried their hand at hip-house, the short-lived fusion of rap and house music that had already produced hits like C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations” has nothing to do with the previous #1 hit that was also called “Good Vibrations.” Instead, Marky’s “Good Vibrations” is very much a product of that hip-house moment. Like Freedom Williams before him, Marky wanted to see sweat coming out your pores. (Early-’90s dance-rappers were very concerned with the question of whether or not there was sweat coming out your pores.) And like the C+C producers before him, Donnie D enlisted the help of a veteran disco howler. Unlike Clivillés and Cole, though, the Funky Bunch made sure to credit the singer.
Like so many other singers of her era, Loleatta Holloway came up singing gospel and then discovered that there was a dance-music market for big-voiced euphoria. In the early ’70s, Holloway began recording for Aware, a soul label in Atlanta, and she scored a few minor hits. (Holloway’s highest-charting single, the 1975 ballad “Cry To Me,” peaked at #68.) But Holloway really found her voice when she moved to the Salsoul subsidiary Gold Mind and started making club music. Holloway’s 1980 disco jam “Love Sensation” never crossed over to the Hot 100, but it topped the dance chart. During the moment when disco transitioned out of the spotlight and went back underground, “Love Sensation” stuck around as a club staple.
In 1988, producing the single “I Wanna Have Some Fun” for Samantha Fox, producers Full Force sampled “Love Sensation.” (“I Wanna Have Some Fun” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) A whole lot more “Love Sensation” samples followed. A year later, Black Box used Holloway’s voice on their track “Ride On Time,” a #1 hit in the UK. Holloway was mad enough to sue. Black Box, like C+C Music Factory, also brought Martha Wash in to sing on some of their tracks and then used other singers to lip-sync Wash’s vocals in the videos.
After Holloway and Wash objected, Black Box’s whole practice caused a public backlash. So when Donnie Wahlberg built “Good Vibrations” on a sample of “Love Sensation,” he brought Holloway in. Holloway got royalties and a feature credit. She appeared in the “Good Vibrations” video and performed with the Funky Bunch on Arsenio. “Good Vibrations” still hit #1, which is a nice indication that you could avoid the whole models-lip-syncing strategy and still have a big song — at least if you also had an extremely buff and shirtless ex-boy-band guy in the video, too.
Donnie and Mark Wahlberg wrote “Good Vibrations” with their friend Amir “Spice” Shakir, and it’s really only a house track in the vaguest sense. “Good Vibrations” has none of the loose playfulness of early house, and it definitely has no connection to the predominantly Black and gay culture that created house music. Marky Mark might want to see us sweat, but there’s no sweat on “Good Vibration,” and there’s no futurism, either. It’s a cold, cynical pop product. That’s not a complaint, necessarily. I like a lot of cold, cynical pop products. But it’s pretty striking to realize just how quickly house music lost its whole cultural context when it hit the mainstream.
I don’t hate the “Good Vibrations” beat. Donnie Wahlberg’s production on the Music For The People album is deeply pedestrian, but “Good Vibrations” commits to disco, and it bangs harder than any New Kids tracks I can name. When Donnie D breaks it down and all we hear is drum-machine rat-tat-tats for a few seconds? Pretty good! If that track had an actual rapper on it — or even a Freedom Williams-style party-chatter type — it might be an OK song. But it doesn’t have an actual rapper on it. It has Marky Mark.
On “Good Vibrations,” Marky Mark sounds like his later movie-star self, except all roided-out and hormonal. He’s got no presence, no nuance, no sense of rhythmic depth. He blusters and flexes and audibly struggles to stay on top of the beat. His lyrics are a whole lot of nothing. A couple of times, he loudly announces himself as a rapper. When Marky says, “Strictly hip-hop, boy, I ain’t singing this,” he sounds like he’s already protesting against the idea that anyone would call him a boy-band guy, even if he does have Donnie D on the backup. (Donnie Wahlberg is notably absent from the “Good Vibrations” video. Marky Mark, as far as I can tell, is the only white guy in there.) Also: “Pure hip-hop! No sellout!” If this isn’t selling out, then what does “sellout” even mean?
“Good Vibrations” isn’t really about anything. Marky Mark wants to prove that we can party on the positive side and pump positive vibes, so come along for the ride. That’s really it. There is, however, a whole verse about how this party will not involve drugs: “Drug-free! So put the crack up!” (I love the idea of someone hearing that line, shrugging, and then tossing their bag of crack away.) I’ve always thought that lyric was a hilariously lame little bit of DARE messaging, but I didn’t realize that the guy rapping it was addicted to cocaine at age 13. Maybe it was actually important for Marky Mark to talk about being straight-edge. It still sounds stupid, though.
For that matter, just about everything Marky says on “Good Vibrations” sounds stupid, with two exceptions. One of those exceptions is “come on come on!” The other is “feel it feel it!” If “Good Vibrations” had been a Loleatta Holloway song with Marky Mark as hypeman, it probably would’ve been a lot better. But Marky Mark simply can’t hold the center of the thing. He’s not a star — not in this medium, anyway.
The “Good Vibrations” single went gold, and so did its follow-up. On “Wildside,” Marky tried to regretfully tell hard-luck street stories, while Donnie Wahlberg jacked the sample of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” that a Tribe Called Quest had just used on “Can I Kick It?” a year earlier — a truly shameful act of sample-jacking. “Wildside” peaked at #10, making it a bigger chart hit than anything that Lou Reed or a Tribe Called Quest ever made. (“Walk On The Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s highest-charting single, peaked at #16. “Can I Kick It?” missed the Hot 100 entirely. A Tribe Called Quest’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “Award Tour,” peaked at #47. “Wildside” is a 2.) The Music For The People album eventually went platinum.
Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch didn’t wait long to put out their sophomore album, but 1992’s You Gotta Believe landed with a thud, not even going gold. The album’s lead-single title track peaked at #49, and then the Funky Bunch never returned to the Hot 100. Apparently, people did not believe. Soon afterwards, the Funky Bunch broke up. Fortunately for Marky Mark, he quickly found a new career path. In 1992, Marky also started appearing in Herb Ritts-directed ads for Calvin Klein underwear. This kept Marky in the public eye, even if people came to assume that he was a big fucking idiot. On Saturday Night Live, Adam Sandler portrayed Marky as a monosyllabic dummy who couldn’t wait to drop his pants. It’s probably the hardest that Sandler has ever made me laugh, but it’s really only a slight exaggeration.
In 1993, Mark Wahlberg made his acting debut in a TV movie called The Substitute, playing a troublemaking high school student who gets murdered by his teacher. In The Substitute, he was credited as Marky Mark. A year later, when he had a small role alongside Danny DeVito in Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man, he’d started calling himself Mark Wahlberg. Over the next few years, Wahlberg caught some good breaks, acting alongside a young Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries and a young Reese Witherspoon in Fear. He truly became a movie star in 1997, when he landed the lead role as Dirk Diggler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s dizzily energetic ’70s-porn odyssey Boogie Nights. Wahlberg is great in that movie, somehow believably embodying the role of a handsome and lucky moron. Years later, Wahlberg said he’d prayed for forgiveness for being in the movie.
(What if that neon sign said “Hector The Booty Inspector” instead?)
Funny thing: Right up until 1997, the year that he made Boogie Nights, Marky Mark was still trying to maintain his rap career. In 1994, after the fracturing of the Funky Bunch, Marky and the Dominican-American reggae artist Prince Ital Joe made an album called Life In The Streets. Their club track “United” was a #1 hit in Germany. Marky Mark stayed popular in Germany for a weirdly long time. Marky was still recording singles in Germany in 1997, but movie stardom distracted him. We haven’t heard Marky Mark rap in a long time.
Eventually, Mark Wahlberg became one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. He got nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Departed, and he honestly should’ve won. (He lost to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin.) In 2017, Wahlberg was the world’s highest-paid actor. He’s also produced a bunch of HBO shows, including Entourage, which essentially mythologized his own celebrity story. Entourage left out the Marky Mark stuff, though. These days, Mark Wahlberg is starring in the straight-to-Paramount+ Antoine Fuqua film Infinite. Donnie Wahlberg is on Blue Bloods. Loleatta Holloway died of heart failure in 2011 at the age of 64. I don’t know what the other guys in the Funky Bunch are doing now; Hector The Booty Inspector does not have a Wikipedia page.
The era of the early-’90s white pop-rapper did not last long. Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark probably poisoned the well for the rest of their palefaced brethren. Rap zagged away from that crossover pop sound, and figures like Marky Mark’s Interscope labelmate Dr. Dre became kings of the genre. Another white rapper wouldn’t top the Hot 100 for more than a decade, and the white rapper who broke that streak was a generational figure. You probably don’t need me to tell you that it was Eminem. But now, there are a whole lot of white rappers with #1 hits — a happy fun bunch of them. We’ll get to all of them eventually.
BONUS BEATS: “Good Vibrations” has been on a whole lot of movie soundtracks. Maybe it’s cheap to license, and maybe it just creates some kind of general montage-ready exuberance. “Good Vibrations” is actually the end-credits song for the 2001 Mark Wahlberg vehicle Rock Star. (Wahlberg has been in a bunch of very successful comedies, but this might be the only evidence I’ve seen that he has a functioning sense of humor.) A few weeks ago, “Good Vibrations” soundtracked a pep rally scene in the pilot episode of the great Showtime show Yellowjackets. Here’s “Good Vibrations” playing during a scene form the 1993 film The Mighty Ducks in which the Ducks get new equipment:
(There’s a pretty good chance that one of these fucking kids has been involved in making a Hot 100 hit, but I’m not doing all that Googling.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On their 2009 single “Good Vibrations,” British dance duo Stanton Warriors remixed the other #1 hit called “Good Vibrations” and chopped it up with Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations,” a pretty funny little meta-joke. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Right now, there’s a whole lot of buzz around the new movie Red Rocket and its star, the former MTV VJ Simon Rex. Rex used to rap under the name Dirt Nasty, and he might follow Mark Wahlberg’s white-rapper-to-Oscar-nominee trajectory. On his 2010 mixtape The White Album, Dirt Nasty included a “Good Vibrations” parody called “Feel The Vibrator,” and here it is:
(Dirt Nasty has no Hot 100 hits, but he was in the videos for a couple of songs that’ll eventually be in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2013’s Don Jon, the only film that he has ever directed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt raps exuberantly along with “Good Vibrations.” Was this some kind of inside joke at Mark Wahlberg’s expense? I would love to know! Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Flo Rida, possibly the heir to Marky Mark’s muscled-up swaggerless dance-rap throne, used the “Good Vibrations” chorus on his 2018 single “Sweet Sensation.” Here’s the video:
(Flo Rida will eventually appear in this column.)