The Number Ones

July 24, 1999

The Number Ones: Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” (Feat. Dru Hill & Kool Moe Dee)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

It’s one of our great lost subgenres: the end-credits rap song that summarizes the plot of the movie that you just got done watching. At some point in the late ’80s, a bunch of film executives decided that rap music was both marketable and funny, and they figured that they could use this music to sell some of their less-prestigious offerings. My friend Jack Hamilton has called this whole phenomenon “wrap-up rap,” and since I can’t come up with a better subgenre name, that’s what we’ll go with here. In the early days of the genre, a few wrap-up raps featured the motion picture’s stars doing their best to approximate rap music. That’s what’s happening in my all-time favorite example of the form: Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks’ “City Of Crime,” from 1987’s Dragnet, which comes much closer to Licensed To Ill-era Beastie Boys than anyone could’ve possibly expected.

Most of the time, though, Hollywood went to actual rappers to record their end-credits theme songs. Most of the genre’s more credible names weren’t interested, or maybe nobody attempted to recruit them, but plenty of rap goofballs have tried their hand at the wrap-up rap over the years. The Fat Boys did it on “Are You Ready For Freddy” in 1988. Former Number Ones artist Vanilla Ice did it on 1991’s “Ninja Rap” — a song that Ice actually performs in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret Of The Ooze, not even waiting for the end credits. Tone Lōc did it on 1994’s “Ace Is In The House.”

For whatever reason, from Dragnet on, movie reboots of old TV shows have gone especially hard on wrap-up raps. The early-’90s Addams Family movies, for instance, had plot-summary raps from both MC Hammer and Tag Team. Up until the mid-’90s, Hammer’s 1991 single “Addams Groove” was easily the biggest hit in the wrap-up rap pantheon. “Addams Groove” made it all the way to #7, while Tag Team’s 1994 follow-up “Addams Family (Whoomp!)” only reached #84. (“Addams Groove” is a 3.) But then Will Smith became a movie star, and that caused a permanent shift in the balance of end-credits rap-song power.

In 1997, Barry Sonnenfeld, the former Coen Brothers cinematographer who directed those two Addams Family movies, came out with Men In Black, the first true star vehicle for Will Smith after Smith broke out in Independence Day a year earlier. Smith was a rap star long before he was a movie star, and his songs were heavy on narrative and on crossover-ready charm — maybe the two qualities most important for wrap-up raps.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s single “A Nightmare On My Street,” a #15 hit in 1988, was a rare unauthorized wrap-up rap, a Nightmare On Elm Street tie-in that the Nightmare producers attempted to shut down even though it was better than the Fat Boys single that they had commissioned. The “Nightmare On My Street” video had to have a disclaimer that the song wasn’t officially associated with the Nightmare franchise. Two years later, Will Smith jumped into sitcom stardom, and his theme for The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air was a new wrinkle: The opening credits rap song that describes the plot of the show that you were about to watch.

While Will Smith was making Men In Black, hitmaking production duo the Trackmasters convinced Smith that he should record a theme song for the film. At that point, Smith was no longer making music with DJ Jazzy Jeff, and he was full-time focused on conquering Hollywood, but he went along with the plan. Smith’s song “Men In Black” was a ridiculous smash that would’ve probably reached #1 if it had been commercially released as a single, and it helped the movie become the phenomenon that it was. When Smith reunited with Sonnenfeld two years later, they tried to repeat the trick. The resulting movie was a world-historical bomb that Will Smith now calls the worst motion picture that he ever made, even though he made Bright and After Earth and Suicide Squad. But the song became the second of Will Smith’s two #1 hits.

Will Smith must’ve felt absolutely bulletproof when he made both Wild Wild West and “Wild Wild West.” Bad Boys had been a solid hit. Independence Day and Men In Black had been globe-conquering blockbusters. After those two films, Smith had taken a break from punching CGI aliens to act alongside Gene Hackman in the paranoid political thriller Enemy Of The State — not a mature movie, exactly, but not a cartoon, either — and even that had made hundreds of millions. Smith had returned to music almost as a spare-time hobby, and that had been a roaring success, too. Big Willie Style, Smith’s first solo album, sold millions, and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” went all the way to #1 — something that Smith had never been able to accomplish when he was still calling himself the Fresh Prince. At the time, you could argue that Will Smith was the biggest movie star and the biggest rapper on the planet. The reception for Wild Wild West must’ve felt like a blast of cold water to the face.

Like so many other would-be ’90s blockbusters, Wild Wild West was an adaptation of a barely-remembered ’60s TV series. The film spent years in pre-production; at various points, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and George Clooney were attached to star. Will Smith famously turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix to play Jim West, lawman and former Union soldier. On paper, you can see why people thought it would work. Smith could seemingly do no wrong. He and Sonnenfeld were coming off of Men In Black, and they knew how to work together. The rest of the cast was full of heavyweights: Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek. And at least in theory, there was something powerful about building a mega-budget Western around a Black star. But there is absolutely nothing powerful about Wild Wild West, an utterly deranged cacophony of godawful-ugly CGI and attempted slapstick.

Tonally, Wild Wild West is whiplash-inducing nonsensical psycho shit. Will Smith’s Jim West is supposed to be a suave James Bond type, but he’s also supposed to be out to stop the former Confederate general who massacred his parents. All the setpieces are noisy goofball spectacles with limp punchlines, and all the characters communicate mostly in frantically unfunny quips. The movie always finds the dumbest possible ways to deal with a Black protagonist in a Reconstruction-era setting. Then, at the end, there’s a giant robot spider for some reason.

Much of the blame for Wild Wild West presumably belongs to Jon Peters, the high-powered maniac producer who’d gotten his start as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser and boyfriend. Many years later, Peters would unsurprisingly face sexual harassment allegations, and Bradley Cooper, a man who will eventually appear in this column, would portray Peters in Licorice Pizza. To hear Kevin Smith tell it, Peters, a superhuman wellspring of terrible ideas, was obsessed with putting giant robot spiders in all of his blockbusters. With Wild Wild West, Peters got his way. The public did not share his enthusiasm for that idea.

Wild Wild West opened pretty big on July 4 weekend, a piece of valuable summer real estate that Will Smith had previously owned. The movie then dropped like a stone and became a punchline. (The Razzies are an inherently worthless exercise, but Wild Wild West is the kind of movie that seems almost intentionally built to sweep the Razzies, which is exactly what happened.) Smith has always seemed hugely embarrassed about Wild Wild West when he even mentions it. I just skimmed Smith’s 2021 memoir for mentions of Wild Wild West, and it’s just not in there at all; the book jumps straight from the births of Smith’s kids, future weirdo celebrities Willow and Jaden, to Ali. Somehow, though, Smith’s obligatory Wild Wild West theme song topped the Hot 100 weeks after the movie opened, around the same time that the film cemented its flop status. It seems safe to say that people liked the song better than the movie.

The idea for “Wild Wild West” came from Rob Fursari, the songwriter and producer who was partially responsible for Destiny’s Child’s first hit, 1997’s “No, No, No.” (“No, No, No” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) Fursari had done some work with Will Smith’s former Fresh Prince Of Bel Air co-star Tatyana Ali, who was signed to Smith’s production company and who had a brief run as a pop prospect in the late ’90s. (Fursari didn’t have anything to do with Ali’s one big hit, the 1998 Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz collab “Daydreamin’,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 6.) Fursari knew that Smith had most of his success rapping over bald, obvious samples, so he whipped up a few tracks sample-heavy tracks. The one that Smith liked the best was built on a huge piece of “I Wish,” the euphoric Stevie Wonder hit that reached #1 in 1977.

Even for those of us who don’t really mind bald, obvious samples, that “Wild Wild West” beat was a strikingly unoriginal idea. It came out four years after Coolio had reached #1 with “Gangsta’s Paradise,” another movie theme built from a sample of a Songs In The Key Of Life classic. (“Gangsta’s Paradise” is not in the wrap-up rap canon, since it doesn’t involve Coolio offering a rapped Wikipedia-level plot synopsis of Dangerous Minds.) By that point, Stevie Wonder was very aware that he could make a lot of money from people sampling his work. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 hits, Rob Fursari says that “Wild Wild West” was “an extremely expensive record to make” and claims that Wonder asked for a $500,000 advance for the sample. Get your money, Stevie Wonder! (Fursari’s work will appear in this column again.)

“I Wish” wasn’t the only big sample on “Wild Wild West.” Smith also had the idea to use a track from a rap elder. Kool Moe Dee had been one third of the Treacherous Three, one of the biggest groups to come out of the South Bronx in the early days of hip-hop. The Treacherous Three never made the Hot 100, but they were later sampled on a couple of chart-topping hits, Mariah Carey’s “Honey” and Will Smith’s own “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Kool Moe Dee also basically invented battle-rap by shitting all over fellow old-school great Busy Bee in a 1981 face-off, and he went on to a long and well-publicized feud against his younger peer LL Cool J. (LL probably won that one; “Jack The Ripper” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” were both at least party directed at Moe Dee.)

After the Treacherous Three broke up, while most of his generational rap peers withered away, Moe Dee went on to a big late-’80s run as a solo star. With those gigantic trademark sunglasses and that commanding voice, Moe Dee was a fixture in rap’s late-’80s upper echelon. He worked with Teddy Riley early, and he won a Grammy for a random-ass Quincy Jones collab. Moe Dee’s 1987 album How Ya Like Me Now went platinum, and one of its singles, a cowboy-themed track called “Wild Wild West,” became Moe Dee’s biggest chart hit, peaking at #62.

Rather than sampling Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West,” Will Smith just brought Moe Dee in to record the track with him. (Stevie Wonder and Kool Moe Dee both got songwriting credits, along with Will Smith and Rob Fursari.) On Smith’s song, the deep voice murmuring the title belongs to Kool Moe Dee. Moe Dee also plays hypeman throughout the track, doing little call-and-response bits with Smith. (I never realized that Moe Dee’s line about “not the GBs” was supposed to be a Ghostbusters reference. Has anyone else ever referred to the Ghostbusters as the GBs?) Smith also brought in another guest for his “Wild Wild West”: The fast-rising Baltimore R&B group Dru Hill.

Dru Hill were named after Druid Hill Park, a Baltimore locale where I spent a lot of time as a kid, since that’s where the zoo is. The members of the group all met when they were working at the Fudgery, a self-explanatory business in Baltimore’s downtown tourist trap Harborplace. While working the counter there, those four young guys would all sing together, and they would attract a huge crowd. I’m fairly certain that I saw some incarnation of Dru Hill performing at the Fudgery when I was a kid. Dru Hill, led by a flamboyant and energetic little weirdo named Sisqó, signed with Island and released a platinum self-titled debut in 1996. A couple of that album’s singles went top-10, and the biggest of them, the slow jam “In My Bed,” peaked at #4. (It’s a 6.)

Dru Hill’s second album was even bigger. 1998’s Enter The Dru went double platinum, and it had Dru Hill’s biggest hit. “How Deep Is Your Love,” which also showed up on the end credits of the surprise hit Rush Hour, peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.) Dru Hill were on the precipice of something bigger. That bigger thing, we would later learn, would be Sisqó’s solo career — or, more accurately, a couple of Sisqó solo hits. (Sisqó will show up in this column soon enough.) First, though, Dru Hill got to be guests on a #1 hit.

I’m always happy to see Baltimore people doing big things, and maybe there’s some mid-Atlantic connection between Philly native Will Smith inviting Dru Hill onto his big movie theme. Fursari says that Dru Hill recorded their part of “Wild Wild West” in Manhattan and that Sisqó came up with all the vocal parts in about 20 minutes. It can’t have been that hard, since Sisqó was really just singing Stevie Wonder’s melody but changing the lyrics into something about going straight into the wild wild west. The other Dru Hill guys barely even register on the track.

It’s hard to even judge “Wild Wild West” by itself as a song. It’s too tied up with Will Smith’s persona, with the wacky-ass history of end-credits rap songs, and especially with the butt-ass terrible movie that the song exists to promote. Most #1 hits were built to sell, not to express some artist’s deep inner feelings, but the songs still tend to have some connection to actual human emotions. “Wild Wild West” does not. Its whole reason for being is: Will Smith is Jim West! He’s so cool! Don’t you think he’s cool? Also, here is the plot for Wild Wild West, a movie that we would like you to pay money to go see!

With that said, “Wild Wild West” the song is a lot harder to hate than Wild Wild West the movie. Some of that comes down to the fleet-footed sparkle of that Stevie Wonder sample. Some of it is also in Will Smith’s energetically corny delivery and Sisqó’s vocal theatrics. But I’ve also got a soft spot for the song’s pure shamelessness. Even when he’s laying out this bullshit storyline, Smith sounds like he’s having fun: “Now, once upon a time in the west! Madman lost his damn mind in the west! Loveless!” (That line is the only reason I would ever remember Kenneth Branagh’s character’s name.) There’s always stuff happening on the song. There’s Sisqó hungrily keening all over the track, Smith and Moe Dee doing little back-and-forth routines, Smith’s old partner Jazzy Jeff scratching all over Stevie Wonder’s already-busy groove. “Wild Wild West” simply isn’t willing to let you get bored.

That shamelessness is also evident in the video, which came from future Bulletproof Monk director Paul Hunter. The clip is utterly jammed with eye-grabbing whizjets: elaborate sets, dance routines, a flaming logo. Sisqó, looking endearingly silly, never stops jumping around. Near the end, the song stops so that Will Smith can throw his hat across a party scene that’s packed with random-ass celebrity cameos: Salma Hayek, Stevie Wonder, Babyface, Larenz Tate, MC Lyte, Smith’s former Fresh Prince co-star Alfonso Ribeiro, future Number Ones artist Enrique Iglesias. In an equally silly performance at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, Smith more or less recreated the video, riding a horse through the audience and leaving room for Sisqó to leap all over the stage. Stevie Wonder got another cameo in, too. I wonder if that was included in the $500,000 advance or if it cost extra.

Where Will Smith’s Big Willie Style era was at least slightly adjacent to what Puff Daddy and Bad Boy were doing around the same time, “Wild Wild West” couldn’t possibly have less in common with the circa-1999 rap zeitgeist. The biggest stars of that year — Jay-Z, DMX, the ascendant Cash Money camp — were making hard and grimy street music, and that’s not what “Wild Wild West” was. The year’s big breakout star was Eminem, the gleefully sociopathic white shock-rapper who will eventually appear in this column. A year after “Wild Wild West,” Em happily took a shot at Will Smith’s cleaned-up version of rap on his own massive hit “The Real Slim Shady”: “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records! Well, I do, so fuck him, and fuck you too.” Will Smith’s rap career was already a punchline. (“The Real Slim Shady” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

You can hear some of that anxiety on Willennium, the excellently titled Will Smith album that came out later in 1999 and included “Wild Wild West” almost as an afterthought. (An album skit makes it clear that Smith only puts that song on the album because a baby Jaden demands it.) On Willennium, you can hear Smith attempting to figure out his place in the rap landscape, rapping with current artists like Lil Kim and Eve but also doing old-school routines with Jazzy Jeff and sharing a track with fellow ’80s vets Biz Markie and Slick Rick. Throughout, Smith sounds weirdly defensive about all of his hits.

Will Smith followed “Wild Wild West” with the stupidly titled “Will 2K,” the first real single from Willennium. That song was definitely built to be a hit; it was Smith and former Number Ones artist K-Ci doing high-energy flexing over the Trackmasters’ sample of the Clash’s “Rock The Casbah.” (“Rock The Casbah,” the Clash’s highest-charting US single, peaked at #8. It’s a 6.) But “Will 2K” wasn’t really a hit; it peaked at #25. “Freakin’ It,” Smith’s next single, had Smith challenging his rap peers to “write one verse without a curse,” and it only made it to #99. The whole song comes off both surly and absurd: “I read in Rap Pages, they referred to me as ‘soft’/ Yeah, more like Micro-soft.” Whoof. Willennium went double platinum — pretty good for anyone else, pretty bad for the guy who’d just sold 9 million copies of Big Willie Style.

Will Smith made a couple of albums after Willennium, but he’s only returned to the top 10 once, when his 2005 single “Switch,” which somehow has nothing to do with Hitch, peaked at #7. (It’s a 4.) In this century, Smith has mostly busied himself with his up-and-down film career. He’s made a few good movies and a lot of bad ones. He’s racked up a few Oscar nominations. He’s mostly used music as a kind of nostalgic hobby, a thing that he puts down and comes back to every once in a while.

Smith’s musical output in the past few years has been a strange patchwork. He reunited with Jazzy Jeff for a terrible party song called “Get Lit” in 2017. He showed up on tracks with Latin stars Nicky Jam and Marc Anthony in 2018. He collaborated with cornball rappers Logic and Joyner Lucas. A couple of times, Smith also tried to go back to the end-credits rap-song well. In 2002, when his music career was still at least semi-relevant, Smith went in an ill-advised rap-rock direction on the Men In Black II theme “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head),” which peaked at #77.

Then, in 2019, Smith played the genie in the mostly-CGI, theoretically live-action Aladdin remake, a role that required Smith to do something resembling singing. For that movie’s end credits, Smith teamed up with DJ Khaled, a guy who will eventually appear in this column, for an utterly ridiculous version of “Friend Like Me” that included a few bars of Smith rapping about being a genie. It was bad, and it didn’t chart.

That Aladdin remake came out during a stretch when Smith was consciously and strenuously attempting to reinvent himself, cranking out memes and self-promotional clips on Instagram, trying to make sure kids remembered who he was. Last year, Smith starred in the sports biopic King Richard, a good movie, and went on a vaguely overbearing charm offensive, publishing his memoir and letting the world know way too much about the inner workings of his marriage. You already know where that led. Earlier this year, mere minutes before he finally won his long-coveted Oscar, Smith smacked the shit out of Chris Rock while Rock was in the middle of an awards-presentation routine.

That made for an utterly bewitching night of TV; I remember feeling like I was high on celebrity-weirdness fumes that night. When Judd Apatow jumped on Twitter and claimed that Smith could’ve killed Rock? Amazing. Simply earthshaking. What a Rorschach test. What a calamitous series of meltdowns. Smith did win his Oscar right after the slap, which made the whole thing crazier, and now he’s banned from the Oscars for the next decade. (Smith is now officially the best rapper ever to win an Oscar in an acting category. Sorry, Mahershala Ali.)

The whole tale is almost Shakespearean. This guy came out of rap music, succeeded at becoming the biggest movie star in the world, and never quite won the industry acceptance that he’d always craved. Then he did earn that acceptance, but he managed to erase all of his own goodwill while also elevating the Oscars back to pop-culture spectacle status in the one moment where his grinning nice-guy act finally shattered. It was something to witness. God only knows where Will Smith’s career goes from there. I’m guessing he won’t be back in this column, but I’m not going to predict a goddamn thing. The simulation is glitching out too hard these days; nothing is off the table. (A suggestion: Will Smith should bring back Jim West for a gritty Unforgiven-style meditation on death and guilt and aging. Call it Old West.)

In Will Smith’s grand arc, “Wild Wild West” is a minor footnote, a thing that didn’t even merit a mention in his memoir. But in the big story of end-credits rap songs, “Wild Wild West” is the towering climax, the one hit that dwarfed all others. Within a few years, the form had almost completely disappeared. I remember KRS-One did a truly awful wrap-up rap for the 2003 Assault On Precinct 13 remake with Ethan Hawke, and I had no idea why he accepted that assignment. The only wrap-up rap that I can remember after that was a parody — the makers of the 2006 stoner comedy Grandma’s Boy bringing Kool Keith in to rap the movie’s plot.

The end-credits rap song is a literal joke now. A few years ago, the great comedian Demi Adejuyigbe imagined how Will Smith’s end-credits songs for actual good movies like Moonlight might sound. Maybe one day the end-credits rap will return. Maybe Will Smith, the king of the genre, will be the one who brings it back. Until then, we’ll always have “Wild Wild West.”

GRADE: 5/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Offset and Gunna kinda-sorta interpolating “Wild Wild West” on a 2019 Offset track that’s also called “Wild Wild West”:

(As lead artist, Offset’s highest-charting single is the 2017 Metro Boomin collab “Ric Flair Drip,” which peaked at #13. As a member of the Migos, Offset will eventually appear in this column. Gunna’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Lil Baby collab “Drip Too Hard,” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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