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.
Songs take many strange routes to #1, and the hits with the best stories are usually the strangest, most random ones. When Boyz II Men kept the Hot 100 in a chokehold for months at a time, that was one thing, and I’m always interested to figure out how it happened. But when Boyz II Men’s run at #1 was interrupted by a minor reggae figure who had never previously come close to the American charts, that’s a whole lot more fascinating.
At the very end of 1994, “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” the only big hit from the Jamaican artist Ini Kamoze, took the crown for a couple of weeks, disrupting the reign of the Boyz II Men smash “On Bended Knee.” A lot of things had to happen in very specific ways for “Here Comes The Hotstepper” to have its moment. When his song ascended to the peak position, Ini Kamoze was 37 years old, and his career was basically over. His song took a route through a young hotshot remix specialist, a quickly-forgotten major-label compilation, the New York rap-radio ecosystem, and a titan of ’70s new wave cinema. Every turn that “Hotstepper” took was less likely than the last, and Kamoze never really had a chance to repeat his success. In retrospect, the whole thing seems impossible. But sometimes, a great song can make its own rules, and “Here Comes The Hotstepper” happens to be a great, great song.
Nobody saw this coming for Ini Kamoze. Kamoze himself probably didn’t see it coming. According to the bio on his website, Kamoze was born in a literal shack in the Jamaican seaside town of Oracabessa. Kamoze was born Cecil Campbell, the son of a cop and a factory worker. When his father ran out on his mother, she put the baby Kamoze in cardboard box and handed him over to a friend in Kingston, and that friend raised him as her own. As a teenager, Kamoze dropped out of high school and turned to crime and then to Rastafarianism. That’s when Kamoze took his new name, which apparently means “mountain of the true God.” In 1981, Kamoze released a couple of singles on a small local label called Mogho Naba, and those singles caught the ear of Sly & Robbie, the legendary rhythm section and production team.
Kamoze started working with Sly & Robbie, recording for their Taxi label, and he was a perfect match for them. This was the early-’80s moment when roots reggae was starting to transition over into something more digital, and Sly & Robbie were at the forefront of that. Kamoze’s voice was silky but tough, almost eerie, and he just floated over those cavernous basslines and those ghostly robotic skanks. 1983’s “World A Music,” the first single that Kamoze recorded for Taxi, remains a classic of the era.
In 1984, Island Records collected a bunch of the tracks that Kamoze recorded with Sly & Robbie and released them as Kamoze’s self-titled debut. Kamoze toured the UK and Europe, and he kept recording, but he eventually split away from Sly & Robbie, forming his own group called the One Two Crew. As the dancehall style took over reggae, Kamoze adjusted.
In the early ’90s, Kamoze disappeared from music. He’d already cranked out dozens of singles, but there’s a three-year gap in his discography where he didn’t release anything. Even on his own website’s bio, Kamoze won’t say what was happening during that time or comment on the rumors that he was locked up for a stretch. Then, in 1994, Kamoze reemerged with “Here Comes The Hotstepper.” In 1990, Kamoze had recorded a dancehall track called “Hot Stepper” with the Jamaican producer Philip “Fatis” Burrell — “Hot Stepper” being patois slang for “fugitive.” That original “Hot Stepper” is pure dancehall. “Here Comes The Hotstepper” is something else.
“Here Comes The Hotstepper” isn’t a straight-up dancehall record like the ones that Kamoze had recorded in the past. Instead, “Here Comes The Hotstepper” is a hybrid beast. Rather than recording in Jamaica, Kamoze made the song in New York, with a New York producer. Salaam Remi, a young Queens native, had come up through rap music, playing keyboard on a Kurtis Blow record as a teenager. In the early ’90s, Remi cut his teeth producing for rap groups like Zhigge and Fu-Schnickens and remixing dancehall reggae artists like Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra. At that point, there was plenty of overlap between dancehall and rap, especially in New York. (Snow’s previous chart-topper “Informer” fit into that overlap; it’s a dancehall record from a New York rap producer.)
Remi’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper” beat is a full-on sample collage, like so many of the rap beats from that era. The main backbone of “Here Comes The Hotstepper” comes from a New York club classic. Remi took the drums and the overwhelmingly funky bassline from Taana Gardner’s 1981 single “Heartbeat,” an underground anthem that was famous for its 10-minute Larry Levan remix. “Heartbeat” never made the Hot 100, but it was a top-10 hit on the club and R&B charts. Salaam Remi had a family connection to the record; his father, a musician named Van Gibbs, had worked with Gardner as an arranger.
“Heartbeat” is the main sample on “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” and “Heartbeat” writer/producer Kenton Nix got a songwriting credit on “Hotstepper.” But there are tons of other little sonic elements from other records in the “Hotstepper” mix. The echoing chant at the beginning of “Hotstepper” — the voices shouting “champ” or “tramp” or “wham” — is from “The Champ,” a mostly-instrumental 1968 funk track from a group of session musicians known as the Mohawks; that record was popular sample source in that era. Another heavily sampled record was Bobby Byrd’s 1972 James Brown cover “Hot Pants – I’m Coming, I’m Coming, I’m Coming,” also sampled on Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” That’s Byrd’s voice screaming “I’m coming” on “Hotstepper.” When someone says “hit it” on the intro, that’s the voice of Slick Rick, taken from Doug E. Fresh’s 1985 classic “La Di Da Di.” We also get a bit of guitar from former Number Ones artist Isaac Hayes’ 1974 track “Hung Up On My Baby.”
On “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” all those disparate elements come together. Salaam Remi chops them all up, turning them into strut-music that doesn’t really sound much like reggae. Anyone could rap over that beat, and that’s basically what Ini Kamoze does. His voice deeper and more commanding than it was in his younger years, Kamoze basically just talks his shit with total assurance — a skill that the best dancehall deejays had in common with the best rappers. On “Hotstepper,” Kamoze chants slowly, with authority. His patois isn’t all that heavy, and you can make out everything he says without straining your ears too hard.
Some of the flexes on “Hot Stepper” are firmly tied to the song’s era. Kamoze knows what Bo don’t know, and ain’t no Homey gon’ play him — twin references to Bo Jackson and In Living Color that hit me right in the nostalgia zone. Kamoze also gets away with some truly ridiculous lyrics because his voice is so cool and because his delivery is so commanding. You shouldn’t be able to call yourself a “top celebrity man,” and you shouldn’t be able to say that you’ve got “juice like a strawberry,” but Kamoze pulls both of those lines off. There’s a beautiful simplicity to what Kamoze does on the song. You can tell that he’s recording with non-reggae audiences in mind, watering his style down and keeping out any references to apocalyptic mythology, but you can also hear that he’s having fun. He’s got money to burn, baby, all of the time, and anyone press will hear the fat lady sing. He’s the lyrical gangster, and he still loves you like that.
There’s a lot of melody in Kamoze’s delivery, and as with the samples in the track, some of those melodies are borrowed. The infectious “na na na” bit comes straight from the oldies-radio standby “Land Of 1000 Dances,” first written and recorded by New Orleans R&B artist Chris Kenner in 1962. Kenner’s original version of “Land Of 1000 Dances” peaked at #77; that Kenner version doesn’t have the “na na na” bit that Ini Kamoze used. Instead, the “na na na” was an embellishment from Francisco Garcia, lead singer of the East LA garage rock band Cannibal & The Headhunters, who covered “Land Of 1000 Dances” in 1965 and who took their version of the song to #30. (Kenner got a writing credit on “Hotstepper” even though he died 18 years before Kamoze recorded the song and even though the “na na na” thing wasn’t his.) The Cannibal & The Headhunters cover directly inspired the most famous version of “Land Of 1000 Dances,” which Wilson Pickett recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1967. Pickett took the song to #6; it was his biggest hit ever. (The Pickett version is a 9.)
The “na na na” bit on “Here Comes The Hot Stepper” is only one of the hooks. Really, the song is just one long hook, with no real structure — a bunch of choruses that come back around a few times. But the other part that people remember is the voices in the background chanting “murderer” after Kamoze says that he’s the lyrical gangster. The “murderer” chant probably comes from Shabba Ranks’ 1990 single “Roots And Culture.” (Shabba Ranks’ highest-charting single, the 1992 Johnny Gill collab “Slow & Sexy,” peaked at #33.) Talking to Vibe after “Hotstepper” hit, Kamoze said that we shouldn’t take the “murderer” line literally but that we also shouldn’t not take it literally: “We’re certainly not talking about killing people, although we’re not talking as if that’s impossible either.”
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Salaam Remi says that there was a lot of intention in that combination of elements: “It had ‘Land Of 1000 Dances,’ from my grandparents’ era. It had ‘murderer,’ the chanting part, which was very important for the reggae and West Indian commmunity — as well as the ‘Heartbeat’ sample, which made it appeal to my parents. At the same time, there was nothing about it that would make a young person say, ‘It sounds old.'”
Taken all together, the combination works. “Here Comes The Hotstepper” is pure collage, painstakingly and carefully assembled, but it sounds effortless. It’s funky and hypnotic, and it makes me feel invincible. In an era when overwrought ballads barely ever left the #1 spot, “Here Comes The Hotstepper” was pure joyous self-assurance. If you didn’t know all the context — and there was a lot of context to know — “Hotstepper” just sounded like a monster party record.
It took time for “Here Comes The Hotstepper” to find its audience. After shopping around the demos that he’d recorded with Ini Kamoze, Salaam Remi licensed “Here Comes The Hotstepper” to Columbia. The Columbia reps didn’t sign Kamoze, but they included “Hotstepper” on Stir It Up, a reggae compilation that barely sold anything. When Columbia didn’t do much with “Hotstepper,” Remi took the track to Funkmaster Flex and Angie Martinez, two DJs at New York rap station Hot 97, and they started playing the track. But the real tastemaker who broke “Here Comes The Hotstepper” wasn’t Funkmaster Flex. It was Robert Altman.
Altman, the great director from the ’70s new-Hollywood wave, was on the comeback trail in the early ’90s. He’d had a cold ’80s, but two back-to-back pictures, 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts, earned critical raves. Altman followed those films with Ready To Wear, a chaotic and star-packed satire set during Paris Fashion Week. Altman needed songs for runway scenes, and a couple of Columbia execs pitched him “Hotstepper.” Altman loved the song, and he included it in the film. “Hotstepper” already had a low-budget video, but with its inclusion on the soundtrack, the song got another video, full of utterly incongruous Ready To Wear clips. Ready To Wear got dismal reviews and didn’t earn much money, but the movie did push “Here Comes The Hotstepper” out into the world. From there, the song gained its own momentum, to the point where it temporarily knocked Boyz II Men off the top of the Hot 100.
Much like Lisa Loeb before him, Ini Kamoze wasn’t signed to any label when his soundtrack song became a hit. A bunch of different labels got into a bidding war, and Kamoze signed with Elektra. But Columbia wouldn’t let Kamoze use “Here Comes The Hotstepper” on Lyrical Gangsta, his Elektra debut. Instead, Columbia absolutely kneecapped Kamoze’s entire career. The label bought the music that Kamoze recorded with Sly & Robbie in the ’80s from Island, and they put together a Kamoze compilation, calling the new album Here Comes The Hotstepper. The fake Columbia Ini Kamoze album came out one week before the real Elektra Ini Kamoze album. Kamoze told Vibe, “That phony Sony record is trying to rip off the buying public. They’re digging up 12-year-old tapes and packaging them as new. Those vampires should quit trying to suck me.”
The vampires did their job. Kamoze only returned to the Hot 100 once, when his 1995 single “Listen Me Tic (Woyoi)” peaked at #88. (Salaam Remi, on the other hand, went on to a big career, working extensively with people like Nas and Amy Winehouse.) What happened with Kamoze was some truly shady record-company shit, but I wonder if it helped keep his old music in rotation.
In 2005, Damian “Jr.” Gong Marley recorded a towering reggae anthem called “Welcome To Jamrock.” When I moved to New York that year, “Welcome To Jamrock” was part of the atmosphere, which means Ini Kamoze was part of the atmosphere. The beat from “Welcome To Jamrock” comes from Kamoze’s 1984 song “World-A-Reggae,” and the most memorable part of the song — “out in the streets, they call it murrrr-derrrr” — was Kamoze’s voice. (“Welcome To Jamrock” peaked at #55.)
Ini Kamoze returned to Jamaica and kept recording music; his last album came out in 2016. His one taste of American pop stardom was a fluke, but the song itself remains. Maybe Kamoze’s career couldn’t survive those record-label vampires, but Kamoze himself made it through. So did “Here Comes The Hotstepper.” It was a perfect song in 1994, and it’s a perfect song now.
BONUS BEATS: In Extreme Championship Wrestling, Flyboy Rocco Rock and Johnny Grunge, the massively popular tag team known as the Public Enemy, used “Here Comes The Hotstepper” as their extremely unlicensed entrance music. Here’s the Public Enemy’s 1996 double dog collar match against the Pitbulls — no relation to the guy who will eventually appear in this column — with that “Here Comes The Hotstepper” entrance included:
(The Pitbulls’ entrance song, White Zombie’s “Thunder Kiss ’65,” sadly never made the Hot 100.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dr. Dre’s John Carpenter-sampling 1999 Hittman/Ms. Roq collab “Murder Ink,” which uses the “Here Comes The Hotstepper” “murderer” chant:
(Dr. Dre will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper” soundtracking a scene of Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne slo-mo strutting in the 2014 movie Neighbors:
(Neighbors star Zac Efron’s highest-charting single is “Breaking Free,” the Vanessa Hudgens duet from 2006’s High School Musical, which soared up to #4. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Reggaeton stars Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee adapted the “Here Comes The Hotstepper” hook on “Muévelo,” their 2020 single from the Bad Boys For Life soundtrack. Here’s the “Muévelo” video:
(Nicky Jam’s highest-charting US single, the 2018 J Balvin collab “X,” peaked at #41. Daddy Yankee will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Philly rock band Dr. Dog’s video for their 2021 cover of “Here Comes The Hotstepper”: