The Number Ones

April 15, 1995

The Number Ones: Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It”

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.

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New jack swing was a moment in time, and it couldn’t last forever. In the late ’80s, the young singer and producer Teddy Riley developed a fast, hectic style that merged R&B with rap and dance music. This was giddy, chaotic music, and it briefly took over the pop charts and paved the way for the ’90s, when R&B utterly dominated the Hot 100. During that dominant stretch, R&B did everything in its power to keep pace with rap, and rap moved in different directions. Especially after the world-altering success of Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic, rap became slower, denser, and more menacing. That stylistic change came to affect R&B. By the mid-’90s, a lot of the biggest R&B tracks were built on samples of beloved rap beats, and they turned those beats into new things.

In the early ’90s, the New York label Uptown Records used the term “hip-hop soul” as its big marketing hook. As put forward by Uptown, hip-hop soul was distinct from new jack swing. Uptown founder Andre Harrell was an ex-rapper; he’d been half of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, an ’80s duo whose whole gimmick was that they wore suits onstage. Uptown signed streetwise R&B groups like Jodeci and pop-friendly rappers like Heavy D, and Harrell hired the ambitious young mover-shaker Sean “Puffy” Combs, a man who will play a big role in this column, as an intern, then an A&R director. (Harrell also fired Combs, which led Combs to found his own Bad Boy Records imprint, but we’ll get to all of that in future columns.)

Uptown’s flagship artist was Mary J. Blige, a singer who will eventually appear in this column. Blige didn’t rap, but she carried herself with the hard, unimpressed calm of of a rapper, and she sang over rap beats. In 1992, Puffy Combs co-produced Blige’s second single “Real Love,” which had Blige singing furiously over the head-crack drum-break from Audio Two’s 1987 underground-rap classic “Top Billin’.” This was a lightbulb moment. In its early years, rap records were built from samples of old funk and R&B records. In the early ’90s, tons of rappers and R&B singers were using the same James Brown funk breaks. With “Real Love,” though, we had an R&B singer taking the drums from a rap record — a sort of role-reversal for rap and R&B in general. (“Real Love” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

In the years after “Real Love,” more and more R&B singers used beats from rap songs — which themselves were often built from samples of older funk and R&B records. That whole trend continued for years, and it’s still happening now. But it might’ve reached its apex in 1994, when a young singer from Los Angeles built an indestructible party anthem out of a Slick Rick record.

Montell Jordan grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where both of his parents were deacons in a Baptist church. (When Jordan was born, the #1 song in America was Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Love Child.”) As a kid, Jordan sang in the church, and he absorbed all of his mother’s old funk and R&B records. After finishing high school, Jordan went to Pepperdine University in Malibu, where he was a state finalist for a Rhodes scholarship. At Pepperdine, Jordan also joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and started to think about whether it would be possible to sing over Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.”

Slick Rick, born Ricky Walters in London, had lived a checkered life. He’d been half-blinded by broken glass as a baby, and he’d moved to the Bronx as a kid. Studying at LaGuardia High, the famed Fame school, Rick had started to rap, and he’d caught the attention of the pioneering Harlem-based human beatbox Doug E. Fresh. Rick joined Fresh’s Get Fresh Crew, and his weirdly charming mock-aristocratic flow was all over the classic two-sided 1985 single “The Show” b/w “La Di Da Di.” Because of that single, Rick became one of the first artists signed to the new Def Jam label, and he released the beloved debut album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick in 1988.

Slick Rick was a complete character and a born star. His delivery, with its insouciant lilt and its slight remaining trace of an English accent, was utterly distinct. So was his look — the eyepatch, the Kangol, the gold. But Rick’s greatest ability was his storytelling. Rick’s best songs always involved some kind of narrative, whether silly or serious. On his Great Adventures single “Children’s Story,” Rick put that ability on full display, weaving a dark tale about a kid who’s drawn into a life of crime. The track ends with the kid shot dead by police.

The actual “Children’s Story” narrative is bleak, but you can hear a whole lot of joy in the way Rick tells it and in how he frames his tale as a nighttime story for a couple of kids. The track itself is a monster — a driving and propulsive beat that Rick produced himself. Rather than sampling Bob James’ jazz-funk instrumental “Nautilus,” a song that hundreds of producers sampled, Rick played its bassline on a piano. That piano riff pushed the “Children’s Story” plot the way a pulse-pounding score pushes an action-movie narrative.

“Children’s Story” never made the Hot 100, but it was a top-five hit on Billboard‘s rap and R&B charts. Montell Jordan loved “Children’s Story.” Later on, Jordan said that during his fraternity days, Slick Rick’s single “was the two in the morning record; that dancefloor always got packed when that song came on.” Jordan was starting to contemplate how he’d break into the music business, and he kept thinking about how it might work if he sang over the “Children’s Story” beat. Jordan probably wasn’t the first person to have that idea.

In the mid-’90s, Slick Rick samples were everywhere. Rick’s voice briefly appeared on Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes The Hotstepper,” and his “Hey Young World” beat formed the spine of TLC’s “Creep.” On his massively popular 1993 debut album Doggystyle, Slick Rick fan Snoop Doggy Dogg straight-up covered “La Di Da Di,” tweaking the lyrics just enough that they might plausibly apply to him. Slick Rick himself, however, couldn’t take part in any of this. He was in prison.

In the late ’80s, Slick Rick’s cousin had worked as his bodyguard, but he’d started trying to extort money from Rick. After losing his bodyguard job, Rick’s cousin made death threats. One day in 1990, Rick was out in his Bronx neighborhood, and he saw his cousin. Rick shot at the cousin, hitting him and someone else, wounding both. Rick claimed that the shooting was in self-defense, but he eventually pleaded guilty to attempted murder, and he ended up in prison until 1996. More than a decade later, after Rick’s immigration status almost led ICE to deport him to the UK, New York governor David Paterson gave Rick a full pardon.

When Slick Rick was in prison in the mid-’90s, the rap world felt hugely sympathetic towards him; I think that goodwill might be part of the reason that he was sampled so frequently during that stretch. Rick wasn’t entirely absent from the music world while he was locked up. The 1994 album Behind Bars was built around vocals that Rick recorded while on furlough and work release, and its title track, a collaboration with Warren G, is still Rick’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist. (It peaked at #87.)

After he graduated college, Montell Jordan found a job working on infomercials, and he recorded demos and sang at showcases. Jordan didn’t get a record deal until 1994, when he was 26. When he did get his deal, though, Jordan became labelmates with Slick Rick. At the time, Def Jam was trying to break into the lucrative R&B market, and it started up a sub-label called Def Soul. After hearing a demo tape, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons flew Montell Jordan out to New York, and Jordan sang for Simmons and Andre Harrell in the back of Harrell’s Range Rover. On Harrell’s advice, Simmons signed Jordan.

Signing Montell Jordan couldn’t have been that difficult of a decision. Jordan was a smooth, good-looking singer with a nasal tenor that recalled Guy frontman Aaron Hall, one of the defining voices of the new jack swing era. Jordan was also really tall — 6’8″, to be exact. That’s not quite as tall as me, but I’m still pretty certain that Montell Jordan is the tallest person ever to make a #1 hit. (I have spent way too much time looking into this utterly trivial question, but it sure seems like Montell Jordan easily takes the title. Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, the runners-up, are only like 6’4″. And for the record, I think the shortest person with a #1 hit is 4’9″ Brenda Lee. If Montell Jordan and Brenda Lee ever record a song together, it’ll be like when Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues both played for the Bullets.)

When recording his 1994 debut album This Is How We Do It, Montell Jordan didn’t get a whole lot of direction from Def Jam, since nobody at the label really had much experience making R&B records. Jordan himself has admitted that the album is “kind of scattered,” but there’s nothing scattered about the title track. Jordan built “This Is How We Do It” from the propulsive drum loop and the hammering pianos of “Children’s Story,” and he even adapted Slick Rick’s flow and phrasing on a verse where he told his own story: “Once upon a time in ’94/ Montell made no money, and life sure was slow/ All they said was 6’8″ he stood/ And people thought the music that he made was good.” Montell Jordan’s Slick Rick impression was really good; you could be forgiven for thinking that Slick Rick had actually made a guest appearance on that verse.

“This Is How We Do It” isn’t a story-song, though. It’s a party song. Over all those drums, Jordan sings ebulliently about what it’s like to cut loose in South Central Los Angeles. Montell reaches for his 40, turns it up, and gives the designated driver the keys to his truck. (Very responsible.) He hits Crenshaw because he’s faded, and people in the street yell that he made it. It feels so good in his hood tonight — the summertime skirts and the guys in Kani. If you were from where Montell is from, then you would know that he’s gotta get his in a big black truck; you can get yours in a ’64. (Montell’s choice of vehicle makes a lot of sense. The man needs leg room.)

“This Is How We Do It” came out at a time when a lot of cultural attention was focused on South Central LA. Some of that attention came from rap records and movies like Boyz N The Hood, and some of it also came from all the violence that erupted after the acquittal of the cops who beat up Rodney King. In the popular imagination, South Central LA was a blighted, gang-controlled hellscape, but that’s not the image that Montell Jordan paints on “This Is How We Do It.” Instead, he uses the song to celebrate his hometown and his local culture. In the world of “This Is How We Do It,” violence, at least for one night, is not a factor: “All the gangbangers forgot about the driveby.”

Party songs don’t necessarily have to be about anything other than partying, and “This Is How We Do It” is definitely all about partying, but it’s also about feeling proud of where you’re from. Jordan never sings about negative media depictions of South Central LA, but that’s an undercurrent on the track. Jordan wants us to know that he loves where he’s from: “The hood’s been good to me, ever since I was a lower-case G.” “This Is How We Do It” bangs hard, and it’s got a monster chorus, but I think that pride has something to do with “This Is How We Do It” sticking around as an evergreen banger, one that refuses to age.

Montell Jordan co-wrote and co-produced “This Is How We Do It” with his friend Oji Pierce, a guy who also worked pretty extensively with Compton rapper Coolio. (Coolio, who appeared on Montell Jordan’s first album, will show up in this column pretty soon.) Slick Rick also got a songwriting credit, and I have to imagine that the royalties have kept him in oversized gold jewelry ever since. When he recorded the song, Jordan brought 30 people to the studio to party. That’s why there’s so much background noise on the track, and maybe that’s also why the song has such an unforced and celebratory feel.

Hype Williams, not yet a music-video superstar, directed the video for “This Is How We Do It,” and the clip captures all the cartoonish silliness that a party-song like this requires. It shows Montell Jordan equally at home at house parties and fancy restaurants, but it doesn’t really show him standing up next to other people. I get that. Tall people sometimes get self-conscious about looking like big goofs.

“This Is How We Do It” hit huge in its moment. The song got a bunch of remixes, including one from future Number Ones artist Sean Combs, who’d adapted the Puff Daddy moniker by then. The album’s next single was the relatively laid-back “Somethin’ 4 Da Honeyz,” which peaked at #21. (Montell Jordan’s Def Jam labelmate Redman had a fun verse on the “Honeyz” remix.) None of the other album tracks charted, but the This Is How We Do It LP still went platinum. Montell Jordan sold a million records, but he didn’t do the dash — not yet, anyway. He stuck around for a while.

Montell Jordan released his sophomore album More… in 1996. It went gold, but none of its singles made the top 10. Montell Jordan didn’t need to impersonate Slick Rick on lead single “I Like,” since the song had a verse from the real Slick Rick. It was the first thing that Rick recorded after getting out of prison. “I Like” peaked at #28.

Later in the ’90s, Montell Jordan came pretty close to equalling the pop success of “This Is How We Do It” a couple of times. In 1998, Jordan teamed up with Master P and Silkk The Shocker, the two brothers at the center of the booming No Limit Records empire. No Limit sold millions upon millions of CDs, but “Let’s Ride” represents the only time that P and Silkk really got to make a big pop-chart impact. P’s highest-charting singles as lead artist are 1998’s “I Got the Hook Up!” and “”Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” both of which peaked at #16. That same year, Silkk got to #18 with the straight-up classic “It Ain’t My Fault.” But “Let’s Ride” took Jordan, Silkk, and P all the way to #2. (It’s a 7.)

A year later, Montell Jordan landed one last top-10 hit, getting as far as #4 with the smooth-gliding seduction track “Get It On Tonite.” (It’s a 7.) Around the same time, Jordan also wrote and produced tracks for other singers. Jordan won’t appear in this column again as lead artist, but he’s got a songwriting credit on a track that’ll eventually show up here.

Montell Jordan was never too comfortable playing the loverman role that his R&B stardom required. He’d been married since before he made “This Is How We Do It,” and he’s still married today. Jordan left Def Soul in the early ’00s, and he left the music business completely in 2010. To hear him tell it, God told him to leave music behind. These days, Montell Jordan is a pastor at an Atlanta megachurch. He also hovers around the entertainment business. Jordan made one more album in 2019. Right now, Montell Jordan is singing “This Is How We Do It” in car-insurance commercials that also feature fellow tall guy Shaquille O’Neal. (Shaq’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “I Know I Got Skillz,” peaked at #35.)

All things considered, Montell Jordan had a pretty impressive run, but “This Is How We Do It” was always going to overshadow the rest of his career. When you come out with an eternal dancefloor destroyer as your debut single, that’s just usually going to happen. These days, I probably hear “This Is How We Do It” nearly as much as I did in 1995. Thus far in 2022, the song has already landed a couple of big prestige-TV placements — soundtracking a dance party on Yellowjackets, at least before the stranded girls’ Walkman battery dies, and a drunken party on Euphoria. Those syncs probably have something to do with all the TV showrunners and music supervisors who are about my age, which makes them prime candidates for mid-’90s nostalgia. But a song like “This Is How We Do It” will never truly fade away — not when we still need to show people how we do it.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1996’s Multiplicity where Michael Keaton gets woken up at night because his clones are partying to “This Is How We Do It”:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the truly great scene from 2008’s Step Brothers where John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell both sing “This Is How We Do It”:

(Gets me every time.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2012 movie This Means War where Reese Witherspoon sings along to “This Is How We Do It,” not realizing that Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are running around and doing spy stuff in her house:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the UK duo AlunaGeorge’s slinky, woozy 2013 cover of “This Is How We Do It”:

(AlunaGeorge’s highest-charting single, the 2015 DJ Snake collab “You Know You Like It,” peaked at #13.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: LA rap crew Shoreline Mafia built “How We Do It,” their 2020 Wiz Khalifa collab, from a “This Is How We Do It” sample. Here’s the video:

(Wiz Khalifa will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: TLC’s horny, funky slo-mo R&B jam “Red Light Special” peaked at #2 behind “This Is How We Do It.” It’s an 8.

Adina Howard’s hornier, funkier slo-mo R&B jam “Freak Like Me” also peaked at #2 behind “This Is How We Do It.” It’s a 9.

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