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Bust a Move 20 Years Later: Young MC Reflects on the Hit That Changed Hip-Hop

Rapper on crossover backlash and finding out a Bush crony had karaoked his tune

March 25, 2009 9:44 AM ET

Twenty summers ago, Young MC's "Bust A Move" was inescapable, a G-rated funk-bomb integral to hip-hop's eventual mainstream acceptance. Fueled by a sample-heavy production, Flea's popping bassline, and infectious rhymes written in a University of Southern California dorm by economics major Marvin Young, "Bust A Move" helped usher in the era of pop-rap — songs squeaky clean enough for the whole family and infectious enough to bombard Billboard. Hot on the heels of Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" (a song which Young also wrote), "Bust A Move" broke down barriers on radio and MTV playlists, while its corresponding album, Stone Cold Rhymin' was a rap record that many adults still remember as the first their parents let them play. "People looked at rap and hard rock as the type of music that you slam your door after you argue with your parents, and bang your head in defiance," says Young. "My record wasn't necessarily rebellious, but it was clever enough to grab in a decent segment of people that didn't listen to rap music."

After a flop follow-up (1991's Brainstorm) and the mainstream embrace of gangsta rap in the early '90s, "crossing over" became a dirty word and Young MC never rocked the charts again — even cheekily calling his 1997 album Return Of The 1 Hit Wonder. But "Bust A Move" lives on in countless movies, TV shows and commercials. (Young's favorite? William Shatner's version in the Priceline spot.) Last week, Stone Cold Rhymin' was re-released for its 20th anniversary, complete with bonus remixes from modern dance-floor wreckers like Diplo, Aaron LaCrate, and members of Le Tigre. Still performing, still releasing records, and still having what he says is "a good reputation in whatever's left of the industry," the 41-year-old Young reflects with Rolling Stone on the impact of "Bust A Move." "It's kind of a mind-trip to fulfill a lot of your dreams at 23," says Young, "but it's a good thing in terms of putting it in perspective."

How did you stay so clean in the era of Public Enemy and N.W.A?
Well, I was going back to a college dorm every night when I was making that record. I wasn't even living in a neighborhood like I grew up in. I didn't really feel like I needed to live up to anything

Did you swear in real life?
Oh sure! I cursed like a sailor. But my view on rap music was calling up WBLS hoping that they would play "Rapper's Delight" again at 12 years old. You wanted to appeal to as many people as possible. I was so into "Rapper's Delight" because I could hear the hi-hat in the record because it was on FM. If you go back and listen to Sugar Hill Gang, Flash and the Furious Five, there was no swearing in it. They wouldn't even talk about going to bed. It was almost like Ed Sullivan the way they approached it, because it was so cognizant of trying to appeal to as many people as possible. This is record I have, I don't want to give a radio station a reason not to play it. Crossing over wasn't a bad thing, because nobody had crossed over yet.

When did you feel the backlash?
As soon as me and Loc blew up, I knew that there was a backlash… Now it's come full circle. The whole idea of "Bust A Move" crossing over being a bad thing, well it's a good thing again now, because everybody's seeing money fly out the door going, "Oh my God, where's this big check I'm supposed to get being a rapper?" Flo Rida, and those records crossing over is actually helping — which is what we did in the first place!

"Bust A Move" still has a life 20 years later.
"Bust A Move" gets a lot of recurrence. I get plays on pop stations. But there are no oldies rap stations. So you get these records that outsold "Bust A Move" that can't get any play. You can be cussing, talking about killing people, and a 16-year-old will get into that out of rebellion. But fast-forward 10 or 12 years and that person is now 30 and they have kids. They're not going to get a babysitter to go to a club and hear about you shooting people and raping women. They'll go to a club to hear "Baby Got Back" or "Bust A Move" or "Wild Thing," because that's a fun time out.

What's your favorite story about the song's legacy?
I will preface this by saying I'm a lifelong Democrat. But pre-9/11, in 2001, Bush was taking a lot of vacations down to the ranch. And the press secretary at that time, Ari Fleischer, got drunk at a party at the ranch and did "Bust A Move" on karaoke. They said he was actually good, and it made US News & World Report. The kids who were listening to it then are now gainfully employed.

They must tell you stories all the time.
I had a guy come up and thank me because he was able to get laid. He played the record for a girl he met me after a concert. Just the other day, my investment banker, his assistant had mentioned to her brother that I was a client and he just busted out all the lyrics. She had me come in and sign an album for his birthday... I didn't understand how big "Bust A Move" was for at least three, four, five years afterwards. I would meet people in places I'd never been and they would tell me stories. Yeah, you sell the records and win the Grammy, but that's a personal experience. I've watched the Grammys and seen people win with records that I've never heard before [Laughs].

What would you do if you could go back and change how you approached your second record, 1991's Brainstorm?
It's hard to say because there was so many other things going on. Brainstorm was on Capitol because I left Delicious — would you let an artist that just won a Grammy and just sold 2 million records leave? The lawsuit was major. I couldn't record for a year and a half. Trust me I was not sitting down, seamlessly going from one record to another. In hindsight, there's records on Brainstorm I could remix right now and would work.

Do you remember that 1990 Newsweek cover story about "Rap Rage" that all the music writers protested as being a racist fantasy?
I do! My friend actually showed me it about two years ago. Here's a little nugget. The morning after I won the Grammy, I go and do some post-award interviews. I'll never forget, it was an East-Indian lady from England because she had a British accent. And she looked at me as I walked in, and I believe I was wearing something nice — a jacket and slacks — and looked at me and said, "Oh, I was so surprised that you didn't have your Grammy around your neck on a chain." Now mind you, this is after I go up there in glasses and accept my award.

Where do you keep your Grammy?
This is bad, but I actually keep it in storage. I just don't want to look at it. I did a TV interview here about a month ago and they had me bring everything out and lay it out. I laid out all the platinum records, the Grammy, the American Music Award and the Billboard award. I know artists who I know and respect a great deal, who don't have half of what I have, just from that short period of time. So, if I'm looking at that every day, it just puts a weird perspective on trying to make a new hit. Also, quite frankly, if I have platinum records on the walls, it's really difficult having an honest conversation with people. They just got done fixing my sink, but then I get a call saying "such and such has a demo."

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