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 was supposed to be a harmless joke. The absurdity was the point. Your girlfriend came in, and she caught you red-handed, creeping with the girl next door. Picture this: You were both butt-naked, banging on the bathroom floor. All this time she was standing there, she never took her eyes off you. She even caught it on camera! She stayed until it was over! There’s nothing that you can possibly say, no excuse that you can make. But your deep-voiced friend in the purple bathrobe gives you the best advice that he can think of: You should just say it wasn’t you. It doesn’t matter that it was obviously you, that the whole thing was happening in your house. You just deny, over and over again.
Nobody was ever supposed to take Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” seriously. In 2001, when the song was utterly inescapable, nobody did. It was a joke song, and it was taken as a joke song. Then, the next 21 years happened. Now, half the public figures who get caught committing a fucked-up act sound just like Shaggy. Their phone was hacked. It’s a deep-fake. Someone stole the votes. The Shaggy strategy became the prime public-relations strategy for entire political parties. These days, we’re forced to treat gallingly, insultingly obvious lies as public menaces, to describe them as gaslighting. It’s a bad scene.
None of this is Shaggy’s fault. It wasn’t him.
In 2001, around the time that “It Wasn’t Me” became Shaggy’s first Hot 100 chart-topper, I had a roommate who would say that he wished he had a time machine. We all wish we had a time machine, but this guy had a particular reason for that wish. He wanted to go back to a point in history when “It Wasn’t Me” did not exist. I’d be like: “But why wouldn’t you just go forward? If you jump forward like six months, ‘It Wasn’t Me’ isn’t going to be popular anymore. If you go back in time, then you’ll always have ‘It Wasn’t Me’ just waiting for you in the future.” But he was adamant. It had to be the past, a time when “It Wasn’t Me” simply was not part of the cultural landscape. That guy was probably right. The world was probably a more pleasant place before “It Wasn’t Me,” though I don’t think the Shaggy song is the reason that we now have a shittier reality. Again: Not Shaggy’s fault.
Nobody saw “It Wasn’t Me” coming. Today, it seems inconceivable that “It Wasn’t Me” was only the #1 song in America for a couple of weeks. Back then, that song’s cultural dominance seemed to go on forever. It was all slightly baffling. Like: People want to hear this song again? You didn’t catch the joke the first time? You need it repeated? Maybe that dominance really was Shaggy’s fault. Maybe people just thought it was fun to hear Shaggy’s voice winding through the air. I can’t argue with that.
Orville Burrell was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and you will not be surprised to learn that he got his nickname from Scooby-Doo. (When Shaggy was born, the #1 song in America was the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”) When Shaggy was 18, he went to live with his mother in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Music had never been a huge part of Shaggy’s life in Jamaica, but in Brooklyn, he started to perform with Jamaican-style soundsystems. Before Shaggy’s musical career had a chance to go anywhere, he joined the Marines.
Shaggy served in the military for four years, including a stint in Kuwait during the Gulf War. While he was a Marine, Shaggy would return to Brooklyn whenever possible, sometimes driving up from his base in North Carolina. In that time, Shaggy hooked up with the Brooklyn producer Shaun “Sting International” Pizzonia, who became his main collaborator. (It’s kind of funny that Shaggy spent years making music with a guy named Sting International before making a whole album with the other Sting.) A few of Shaggy’s early singles became underground hits in New York, though Shaggy mostly wasn’t around to see that happen.
In 1992, around the time he finished his stint in the Marines, Shaggy released a version of “Oh Carolina,” an early ska song that the Jamaican trio known as the Folkes Brothers had first released in 1960. Shaggy’s take on the track was rumbling dancehall, laced with a sample of the rubbery spy guitar from former Number Ones artist Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme. Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” dripped with charisma, and it was also strange and hypnotic to those of us who didn’t know anything about dancehall. I remember hearing it a lot on alternative rock radio, where it made no sense but where it always sounded great.
The reggae label Greensleeves released the “Oh Carolina” single in the UK, and it became a #1 hit over there. In the US, “Oh Carolina” stalled out at #59 even after showing up on the soundtrack to the Sharon Stone movie Sliver. Still, the track established Shaggy as a crossover-friendly dancehall artist with a cartoonish, over-the-top lothario persona. Shaggy signed with Virgin and released his debut album Pure Pleasure. That album didn’t really sell, but two years later, Shaggy came back with “Boombastic,” an absolute summer jam that made the most of his playful baritone growl. (“Boombastic” peaked at #3. It’s an 8.) A year after that, Shaggy showed up on “That Girl,” a single that the former Number Ones artist Maxi Priest took to #10. (“That Girl” is a 7.)
Shaggy’s Boombastic album went platinum, but his 1997 follow up Midnite Lover tanked, and its lead single “Piece Of My Heart” peaked at #72. Virgin figured that Shaggy’s career was over, and the label dropped him. Years later, Shaggy told Complex, “It was a real hurt. They were my family. And then they signed Beenie Man. He was like the new flavor of the month, and that really hurt also. At that point, I had sold millions of records with them, and Beenie Man had sold aluminum, and yet he’s the new guy?” (Beenie Man’s highest-charting US single, the 2004 Ms. Thing/Shawnna collab “Dude,” peaked at #26.)
But Shaggy’s career wasn’t over. In 1998, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were working on the soundtrack for the movie How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and they brought in Shaggy to record the track “Luv Me, Luv Me.” Janet Jackson sang the hook, and though she didn’t appear in the video, the single still made it to #75. Shaggy worked the single hard, and his hustle helped win him a new deal with MCA.
MCA wanted Shaggy to keep working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Shaggy wasn’t keen on the idea, since that duo charged a whole lot of money and Shaggy didn’t want to use up his entire budget. But MCA insisted. When Shaggy came out with his 2000 album Hot Shot, the Jam and Lewis-produced “Dance & Shout” was the first single. It missed the Hot 100 entirely.
Instead, the biggest hit of Shaggy’s career was an album track that nobody had earmarked as a potential hit. Shaggy and Sting International recorded “It Wasn’t Me” at Shaggy’s studio in Jamaica. They were working with two other songwriters, Brian Thompson and Rickardo Ducent. Ducent was known as RikRok — no relation to the great Bay Area rap producer Rick Rock or to the way that Scooby-Doo would pronounce the name of a popular Chinese social network. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, RikRok describes the songwriting session: “You have the beat playing in a minidisc player all day long and eat Jamaican beef patties. You talk a little, make a couple of jokes and write a line here or there and eat some more beef patties.” That sounds like a great day.
RikRok wrote the chorus for “It Wasn’t Me,” and Shaggy wrote the verses. When they recorded the demo for the song, RikRok sang the hook, even though he wasn’t really a singer. The two of them weren’t telling stories about their own personal experiences. Instead, they based the entire song on an extended riff from Eddie Murphy’s 1987 stand-up film Raw. (Eddie Murphy’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Party All The Time,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)
When Shaggy got done making “It Wasn’t Me,” he thought the song was good, but his manager hated it. Shaggy tried to give the song away to a few other dancehall artists, but they all turned it down. Shaggy’s A&R rep at MCA liked the song, so it made the cut for Shaggy’s Hot Shot album. That A&R rep was into RikRok’s voice, so RikRok came to New York to record the proper version of the hook. Since Shaggy had spent so much of his budget working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, he didn’t have the money to clear the sample on “It Wasn’t Me.” Sting International had interpolated the hell out of “Smile Happy,” a laid-back 1975 track from the Latin funk band War. He’d taken the song’s melody, its slow-swelling horns, and even its basic rhythm. Shaggy told his label that the song didn’t have a sample. He figured that “It Wasn’t Me” was just an album track, that nobody would notice. In that Complex interview, Shaggy says, “When it actually blew up and became a massive hit, they sued the fuck out us. We lost a shitload of publishing.” (War’s highest-charting single, 1972’s “The Cisco Kid,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
After “Dance & Shout” tanked, Shaggy’s album was dead in the water. But then a DJ in Hawaii downloaded an MP3 of “It Wasn’t Me” and played it on the radio, and people loved it. The track took off in Hawaii first, and then it spread. Shaggy and RikRok made a video where they pretty much turned the track into a comedy skit. RikRok is on the run from his girlfriend, pulling all sorts of goofy action-movie hijinks to get away. He shows up at a mansion where Shaggy is hanging out with tons of women and waggling his eyebrows at the camera. Shaggy observes the situation on what I guess is supposed to be a satellite camera, and he uses a two-way pager to text RikRok. The video makes a silly song seem even sillier. It was all over MTV for a while.
Funny thing about “It Wasn’t Me”: It’s Shaggy’s song, but Shaggy’s not really the protagonist. He’s just the guy giving out the comically terrible advice: “To be a true player, you haffi know how fi play/ If she say, ‘A night,’ convince her — say, ‘A day.'” RikRok, a guy who wasn’t even a recording artist, is the one with most of the funny lines. He’s so sincere when he desperately tells his friend just how bad his situation is. On the bridge, RikRok finally he comes to the realization that Shaggy’s advice “makes no sense at all,” that he has to own up to his shitty behavior: “Need to tell her that I’m sorry for the pain that I’ve caused/ You may think that you’re a player, but you’re completely lost.”
On that bridge, the song’s melody actually gets pretty for a minute. RikRok is perfect for this role. A smoother, showier singer probably wouldn’t have shown the same vulnerability. RikRok sounds like a bumbling naif, his voice cracking with heartbreak when he talks about how badly he fucked up. (Amazingly, RikRok never really did much after “It Wasn’t Me.” He made a few more tracks with Shaggy, and he worked with dancehall artists like Bounty Killer and Richie Spice, but I don’t think he ever made a record of his own.) Shaggy’s swaggering machismo is the counterpoint, and it’s all a big bluff. He’s the comic-relief slob of a best friend in the romantic comedy. The whole point of the song is that he’s wrong, but we, as a society, never learned that lesson.
“It Wasn’t Me” was a decent bit of fun the first few times I heard it, but when it got overplayed, its appeal became a distant memory. “It Wasn’t Me” was not a song built for constant repetition. Beyond Shaggy’s patois, it’s not even really a dancehall song. At the time, the genre was on fire creatively; there was so much rhythmic and melodic inventiveness in the stuff coming out of Jamaica. You don’t really get any of that in “It Wasn’t Me.” It’s just a cute novelty song about lying and cheating and lying about cheating. Somehow, though, “It Wasn’t Me” touched a cultural nerve. By the time “It Wasn’t Me” finally reached #1, Hot Shot had sold three million copies, and it would keep selling — enough that Shaggy will soon appear in this column again. I don’t know who was buying all those Shaggy records. It wasn’t me.
BONUS BEATS: In 2000, the dancehall great Lady Saw teamed up with singer Marsha Morrison for the “It Wasn’t Me” answer record “Son Of A Bitch.” Here it is:
(Lady Saw doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits of her own, but she guested on No Doubt’s 2002 jam “Underneath It All,” which peaked at #3. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Liam Payne’s video for his first solo single, the 2017 Quavo collab “Strip That Down,” which interpolates the melody from “It Wasn’t Me”:
(“Strip That Down” peaked at #10, which makes it Liam Payne’s highest-charting solo single. It’s a 5. As a member of One Direction, Payne got as high as #2 with 2013’s “Best Song Ever.” That’s a 6. As lead artist, Quavo’s highest-charting single is 2018’s “Workin Me,” which peaked at #52. As both a guest-rapper and a member of the Migos, Quavo will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shaggy being forced to sing “It Wasn’t Me” at gunpoint in a scene from the Workaholics’ 2018 Netflix movie Game Over, Man!:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2019, a whole mob of reggaeton stars — Anuel AA, Daddy Yankee, Karol G, Ozuna, and J Balvin — got together on the single “China,” which is pretty much built from an “It Wasn’t Me” sample. Here’s the video:
(“China” peaked at #43. Deep breath: Anuel AA’s highest-charting single is the 2019 Sech/Ozuna/Darrell/Nicky Jam collab “Otro Trago (Remix),” which peaked at #34. He also guested on 6ix9ine’s 2018 track “Bebe,” which peaked at #30. Karol G’s highest-charting single is the 2022 Becky G collab “Mamiii,” which peaked at #15. Ozuna’s highest-charting single as lead artist is “China” — everyone on the song is listed as lead artist — but he got to #11 as a guest on “Taki Taki,” the 2018 DJ Snake track that also features Selena Gomez and Cardi B. J Balvin’s highest-charting single is the remix of 2017’s “Mi Gente” with Beyoncé and Willie Williams. That’s a 9. The original “Mi Gente,” the one without Beyoncé, would’ve been a 10, but it peaked at #19. As a guest, Balvin will eventually appear in this column. Daddy Yankee will also be in this column one day.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Shaggy singing “It Wasn’t Me” in a 2021 Super Bowl ad with Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher:
THE 10S: Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me,” a hard-stuttering glitched-out dream-ballad version of a song that her brother-in-law Joe Henry had written, peaked at #4 behind “It Wasn’t Me.” Don’t ever tell me it’s not 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.