The Number Ones

March 13, 1993

The Number Ones: Snow’s “Informer”

Stayed at #1:

7 Weeks

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.

***

How did this happen again? How was this even possible? History barely took two years to repeat itself. In 1990, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” became the first rap song to top the Billboard Hot 100. In a genre that had always been predominantly Black, this was a troubling development — a message that pop radio would only truly embrace rap music if it came with a white face attached. It didn’t last. By the spring of 1993, Vanilla Ice had basically become a cultural punchline, and rap music had moved on. But in March of 1993, the same thing happened all over again.

Rap and dancehall reggae have always had a lot in common. The two genres share a common ancestor in Jamaica’s soundsystem culture. (Kool Herc, the Bronx DJ widely credited with inventing hip-hop, is a Jamaican immigrant, and he essentially kicked off an entire cultural revolution by adapting the soundsystem culture to American music.) In the ’80s, rap and dancehall evolved along parallel lines, aided in part by the development of sampling technology. Dancehall toasting and rapping were never the same thing; patois-heavy toasting was more melodic and improvisational. But rappers and dancehall deejays had been collaborating since the early years of both genres. In 1993, when the first dancehall record ascended to the top of the Hot 100, it was a white guy who made the record.

The entire story of the man known as Snow looks different at a distance. The idea of a white guy — a Canadian white guy, no less — sing-rapping in patois was sheer novelty in 1993, and the weirdness was probably part of the appeal. Snow’s stage name emphasized his whiteness, and it practically demanded Vanilla Ice comparisons. Before “Informer,” dancehall was essentially an underground phenomenon. It was popular in clubs and sometimes on rap radio, but it never threatened pop dominance. Devotees of dancehall must’ve been baffled and horrified to see Snow suddenly surging to #1. (The British reggae singer Maxi Priest’s 1990 chart-topper “Close To You” was at least partly inspired by dancehall, but it wasn’t straight-up dancehall like “Informer.”) Snow must’ve looked like the man who would kill dancehall through pure silliness.

When “Informer” came out, the standard joke was that nobody had any idea what Snow was saying. That kind of fast-chatting patois simply did not exist on pop radio. When MTV played the “Informer” video, they added subtitles, and those subtitles definitely didn’t help things. It wasn’t just the accent; it was the language, too. “Informer” is a song about violent crime. The “licky boom-boom dem” bit on the chorus is Snow saying that he’ll find and kill, or at least beat up, the person who snitched on him. Most of the kids who listened to “Informer” had no idea what that meant. “Licky boom-boom dem” just sounded funny. For Snow, it was serious.

Darrin O’Brien, the man who would later be known as Snow, grew up in a housing project in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. (When O’Brien was born, the #1 song in America was the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You.”) O’Brien was a working-class Irish kid, and when he was young, Scarborough was a working-class Irish area. But when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau changed Canada’s immigration policy, Toronto became one of the world’s most diverse cities, and O’Brien’s neighborhood became a whole lot more West Indian.

O’Brien had mostly grown up on rock music; he loved Kiss in particular. But when Snow learned about reggae from his new neighbors, he fell in love. He started trying to sing reggae himself, adapting a fake patois. His neighbors encouraged him. According to some versions of the story, Snow got his stage name because some of his Jamaican friends started calling him Snow White, which is objectively extremely funny. (Another version is that Snow stands for “Superb Notorious Outrageous Whiteboy,” which is even funnier.)

When Snow first started playing around with reggae, his closest friend was a Jamaican-born DJ named Marvin Prince. The two of them met in 1988, when Snow was a teenager, and they worked on music together for a few years. At some point, Snow came to the attention of Queens rapper MC Shan. (One version of the story is that Prince met Shan while on vacation in New York and told Shan about Snow. Another is that Snow met Shan while on vacation in New York himself.) A few years earlier, Shan had been a hugely important figure in rap music. In 1985, Shan had released a Queensbridge rap anthem called “The Bridge,” a local NYC hit that started a whole ongoing storyline.

Shan was part of the Juice Crew, the Queens-based rap collective founded by radio DJ Mr. Magic and groundbreaking producer Marley Marl. On the Marley-produced “The Bridge,” Shan rapped the story about rap music coming to the Queensbridge housing projects, but some people didn’t take it that way. Some people, possibly listening in bad faith, heard “The Bridge” as MC Shan claiming that rap music started in Queensbridge. At the time, the Bronx rap crew Boogie Down Productions already had an issue with Mr. Magic, who wouldn’t play their records on the radio. BDP leader KRS-One fired back at Shan on the 1986 single “South Bronx,” claiming to set the record straight. (Answer records like “South Bronx” were already a well-established strategy to get a rap career going. The Juice Crew had first come to prominence on the strength of similar answer records from Dimples D and Roxanne Shanté.)

The so-called Bridge Wars that followed became one of the first truly high-profile rap feuds. It went back and forth for a while — MC Shan with “Kill That Noise,” Boogie Down Productions with “The Bridge Is Over.” It spread. Different rappers from the Bronx and Queens started taking aim at each other on record. KRS-One was able to use the momentum from that feud to turn himself into a beloved figure in the rap firmament. (His highest-charting single, 1995’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know,” peaked at #57.) Shan was not. Shan kept making records, but the Bridge Wars had come to overshadow everything else he did. His albums didn’t sell, and he never made a single that charted on the Hot 100. The beef eventually died down, and KRS and Shan eventually starred in a mock-battle Sprite commercial together, but Shan’s career never really recovered.

When Snow met MC Shan, Shan had fallen on hard times. Together, the two of them made a four-song demo tape in Shan’s basement studio, with Shan producing. Snow later told Rolling Stone that he endeared himself to Shan by helping out with his expenses: “I’d go to A&P and steal chickens and beef and feed his whole family.” Shan introduced Snow to two managers, and they got him signed to EastWest. When Snow made his 1992 debut album 12 Inches Of Snow — I always thought that triple-entendre title was pretty clever — Shan and his associate Edmond Leary produced almost everything.

When Snow recorded that demo with Shan, he’d just gotten out of jail. Back in Toronto, Snow had gotten into a knife fight and found himself charged with two counts of attempted murder. (He later claimed that he was fighting with some construction workers who’d been making fun of him after hearing him singing reggae to some girls.) Authorities eventually dropped the charges, but Snow had already spent the better part of a year locked up. He wrote “Informer” while he was in jail, furious at the person who he believed had sent him there.

“Informer” is not hard — at least, not sonically. It’s a bright, playful, uptempo track, and if you don’t understand the patois, you wouldn’t have any idea that Snow was talking street shit on the record. Snow really leans into that patois on the song, “‘Tective man a say, say daddy me Snow me stab someone down the lane.” He talks about police looking down his pants and up his butthole. MC Shan shows up with a verse of his own, complaining that the police are after him because he’s hanging with the Snowman. It’s an angry song, but it doesn’t sound angry. It sounds fun. It is fun.

The “Informer” beat uses a couple of well-worn samples. The drums are a slowed-down loop of the breakbeat on “Amen, Brother,” an obscure 1969 instrumental from a DC funk band called the Winstons. The “Amen” break remains one of the most widely-sampled breakbeats of all time. It had already shown up on tracks from Salt-N-Pepa, Mantronix, and N.W.A, among many others, and it would later form the basis for the entire genre of jungle. Shan and Leary also sample the grunts from “The Assembly Line,” a 1974 track from former Number Ones artists the Commodores. Hundreds of other tracks used those same grunts. Shan and Leary also add a slow bassline and a few one-drop chimes, moving the instrumental deeper into reggae territory.

Snow’s vocals on “Informer” are a ridiculous. He doesn’t have the gravitas of most of that era’s dancehall deejays. His voice is thinner and more brittle. He goes fast, and he’s comfortable singing in patois, but you can tell that this isn’t exactly his first language. There’s something superficial about the whole thing. There’s one part — the “come with a nice young la-dy” bit — where Snow locks into a serious groove. The rest of the time, he’s got a dress-up goofiness to his whole delivery. Still, it’s catchy and memorable, and the “in-fooor-mah” hook can get deeply stuck in your head.

The goofiness of “Informer” is a key part of its appeal. In the video, Snow looked silly as hell, with the giant shamrock on his shirt and the sunglasses worn down on the bridge of his nose, like he was Albus Dumbledore. Snow isn’t a rapper, but the part on the song where Snow acknowledges that he is not from Jamaica stands out as one of the most unintentionally comic moments in white-rapper history: “In an a-out a dance, an’ they say, ‘Where you come from-a?/ People dem say, ‘Ya come from Jamaica?’/ But me born an’ raised in the ghetto, that I want ya to know-a/ Pure Black people, man, that’s all I man know.” (This would also be the most unintentionally comic moment in white-dancehall-deejay history, but that history practically doesn’t exist.) Snow’s not even lying, but just in saying that, he pushes himself into Malibu’s Most Wanted territory. As a white fan of rap and dancehall who’s prone to crypto-ironic self-loathing, I love this shit.

There’s a whole lot of dispute over who deserves credit for “Informer.” Marvin Prince, Snow’s old Toronto friend, thought that he and Snow had formed a 50-50 partnership early on, and he quit his job as Snow’s tour DJ when he realized that he wasn’t getting paid as much as Snow. Later, Prince claimed that he’d co-written “Informer,” coming up with the track over the phone with Snow when Snow was in jail. Eventually, a court awarded Prince $1.5 million, and then another court overturned it. Edmond Leary, the co-producer and credited co-writer, later claimed that he’d done most of the work on the song and that he deserved a bigger share of the profits, and he fell upon hard times himself.

In any case, “Informer” was a surprise hit. Snow and Shan shot a low-budget video in New York. (One of the dancers is Mona Scott, who would later become a manager and then a TV producer. She’s namechecked in a song that’ll eventually appear in this column.) After shooting the video, Snow got locked up again, this time for a different knife fight. He did eight months for assault, and he saw the “Informer” video for the first time while he was in jail. The video blew up on the Box, the cable network where you could pay a few bucks to request a video, and then MTV started airing it once the network got the subtitled version. Snow was still locked up while “Informer” was shooting up the Hot 100.

When “Snow” finally topped the Hot 100, was the first uptempo chart-topper in a long time. After Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” topped the Hot 100, the next five #1 hits were all adult-contempo soundtrack ballads — and since two of those soundtrack ballads were “End Of The Road” and “I Will Always Love You,” that meant an unbroken seven-month streak of nothing but slow songs at #1. I like that America decided to end that run of ballads in the silliest way possible.

When he finally got out of jail, Snow was denied entry to the US because of his criminal history. That meant that Snow couldn’t promote his music in the US, and it makes the success of “Informer” even more surprising. Snow’s American success was short-lived. The “Informer” single and the 12 Inches Of Snow album both went platinum, but Snow’s follow-up single “Girl I’ve Been Hurt” stalled out at #19, and he never made the Hot 100 as lead artist again. He became a prototypical one-hit wonder, a punchline just like Vanilla Ice before him.

But Snow did not stop making music. He wanted to be taken seriously as a reggae artist, and he recorded much of his next album, 1995’s Murder Love, in Jamaica, with Jamaican artists. On the remix of his single “Anything For You,” Snow shared the microphone with dancehall dons Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Terror Fabulous, Kulture Knox, and Louie Culture. That single didn’t register in the US, but it became the year’s biggest seller in Jamaica. Today, it’s remembered as a straight-up dancehall classic. Snow is definitely not the most commanding voice on that track, but his hook is smooth, and the song doesn’t happen without him.

Murder Love sold jack shit in America, and Snow got dropped from EastWest after that album and 1997’s Justuss both flopped. Some of Snow’s later songs did better internationally. A few tracks became big hits in Asia, and a 2000 single called “Everybody Wants To Be Like You” made it to #2 in Canada, where “Informer” had only been a #6 hit. But Snow hasn’t released an album since 2002, and he mostly seems to live off of royalties from his old hits. He tells Rolling Stone, “Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do music and just want to lie on my hammock… It’s been hard for my managers because I don’t want to do anything.” To me, that’s a more relatable sentiment than anything on “Informer.”

Snow did not destroy the legitimacy of dancehall reggae, and he did not stop it from being a predominantly Black genre. (The only other prominent white dancehall artist I can name is the Florida-born and Bermudian-raised Collie Buddz, who had a pretty good run around 2007 but who never made the Hot 100. Dancehall has never had an Eminem equivalent, unless it’s Gwen Stefani or something.) Presumably, Snow will not appear in this column again. A couple of decades later, though, another dancehall fan from Toronto would come to dominate the Hot 100, sometimes while rocking the fake patois. We’ll see a whole lot of that guy in this column.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: In an extremely funny and withering 1993 In Living Color sketch, Jim Carrey parodied “Informer” and absolutely annihilated the entire idea of Snow: “You can criticize me all the way to the bank/ My single’s #1, and Shabba don’t Rank.” The Popeye impression? Holy shit. Tommy Davidson does the MC Shan part: “I’m rapping ya songs with the best of my ability/ You need a Black man to increase your credibility.” Here’s Carrey doing “Imposter”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler dancing to “Informer” in 2015’s Sisters, a movie that definitely exists:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Will Ferrell taking part in a campfire “Informer” singalong on a 2015 episode of Last Man On Earth:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The reggaeton star Daddy Yankee’s 2019 smash “Con Calma” is basically a Spanish-language remake of “Informer,” and it features Snow himself. (Snow, still banned from US entry, shot his part of the video in Toronto, and he never met Daddy Yankee.) Yankee told Rolling Stone, “I wanted to pay tribute to the classic, and the best way to do that was to bring the man who made it.” I don’t even know how to process the layers of cultural appropriation at work there. It’s like “Informer” boomeranged around Toronto and ended up back in the Caribbean. Here’s the “Con Calma” video:

(“Con Calma” peaked at #22, bringing Snow back to the Hot 100 for the first time in 26 years. Daddy Yankee will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: In one of the all-time great pop-chart goofball moments, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s buzzing, euphoric, casually menacing statement of G-funk intent “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” — a song that changed the face of ’90s music at least as much as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — peaked at #2 behind “Informer.” It’s a one, two, three and to the 10.

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