Sir Mix-a-Lot On 25 Years Of 'Baby Got Back'

May 8, 2017

Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, a career-defining single was born — and with it, endless sitcom jokes and rap homages. It was referenced in Sing, the 2016 animated children's movie, and in Shrek years before that. But when it debuted in 1992, there were those who took it to heart as an anthem of body positivity.

"Baby Got Back" begins kind of a heartbreaking scene: a white woman talking to her friend Becky, straight up mocking a black woman. The man behind the song, Anthony Ray — better known as Sir Mix-a-Lot — says he didn't make that up.

"It was like a blown-out, glorified version of what was actually being said at that time," he says. "Basically, pop culture was waif-thin, heroin addict, big hair, fake boobs — you know, that was what they thought beautiful was. And because of the way it was discussed publicly, it made women who had naturally curvy bodies ... run around with sweaters wrapped around their waist."

"When I heard it, I just felt so — it was so affirming," says Erin Aubry Kaplan. In the mid-'90s, Kaplan was staff writer at LA Weekly. She and wrote a big feature article about the paradoxical way black women's butts were seen — using "Baby Got Back" as an epigraph.

"Every day, my butt wears me tolerably well, I'd like to think," her piece went, "and has ever since I came full up on puberty about 20 years ago and had to wrestle it back into the Levi's 501s it had barely put up with anyway."

Kaplan says she admired the way the "Baby Got Back" cut through the timidity people had talking about that part of the body: "It was saying to me and other black women, you know what, you have a great shape and white people think that too. 'Even white boys got to shout.'"

The song was pretty clear about who Mix-a-Lot thought was to blame, calling out magazines like Cosmopolitan and Playboy for pushing a very specific worldview of what women should look like. Have things changed in the past quarter-century? A little, says Ashley Weatherford, a beauty editor at New York magazine's fashion site, The Cut.

"It's been a long time coming, but I think there's certainly an element, especially within the magazine space, of embracing a diversity of body sizes," Weatherford says, though she thinks sites like hers might be ahead of the curve on that. She adds that black women didn't really need Sir Mix-a-Lot to take up this particular fight — "but that doesn't mean it's not nice."

As for Mix-a-Lot himself, he says he hasn't put the song behind him yet, and still plays it when he gets a chance.

"Do I do bar mitzvahs? No," he says, laughing. "You know, you've gotta draw a line somewhere. But when you're in front of a big crowd — I know what they're there to see."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Tomorrow, it will be 25 years since this song came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Shake it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: Shake it.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Shake it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: Shake it.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Shake that healthy but. Baby got back.

MCEVERS: "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot. It's a song that keeps coming up over the years. It was even referenced in the animated kids movie "Sing" last year. NPR's Andrew Limbong has the story behind the original.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: "Baby Got Back" starts with kind of a heartbreaking scene. It's a white woman talking to her friend Becky, straight up mocking a black woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean gross - look. She's just so black.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) I like big butts, and I cannot lie. You other brothers can't deny that...

That was what, you know - it was, like, a kind of blown-out, glorified version of what was actually being said at that time.

LIMBONG: Anthony Ray, aka Sir Mix-A-Lot.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: Basically pop culture was at that time waif-thin, big hair, fake boobs, you know? And that was what they thought beautiful was.

LIMBONG: Picture '90s-era runway models.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: Anything other than that was not considered beautiful. And because of the way it was discussed publicly, it made women who had naturally curvy bodies - the Serena Williams, the Beyonces of the world at that time would always run around with sweaters wrapped around their waists.

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN: When I heard it, I just felt so - it was so affirming.

LIMBONG: In the mid-90s, Erin Aubry Kaplan was a staff writer at LA Weekly, and she wrote a big feature article about the paradoxical way black women's butts were seen using "Baby Got Back" as an epigraph. Her piece went something like this.

KAPLAN: Every day, my butt wears me tolerably well, I'd like to think, and has ever since I came full-up on puberty about 20 years ago and had to wrestle it back into the Levi 501s it had barely put up with anyway.

LIMBONG: She admired the way "Baby Got Back" cut through the timidity people had talking about butts.

KAPLAN: Was saying to me and other black women, you know what? You have a great shape, and you know what? White people think that, too, but they just can't say it. You know, even white boys got to shout.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) So Cosmo says you're fat. Well, I ain't down with that 'cause your waist is small, and your curves are kickin'. And I'm thinking about sticking.

LIMBONG: The song is pretty clear about who's to blame - magazines like Cosmo and Playboy pushing a very specific world view of what women should look like. And in the past quarter of a century, sure, things have changed a bit. Here's Ashley Weatherford, beauty editor at New York Magazine's fashion site The Cut.

ASHLEY WEATHERFORD: It's been a long time coming, but I think there's certainly an element of - especially within, you know, the magazine space - of embracing a diversity of body sizes.

LIMBONG: Though Weatherford says her site might be ahead of the curve on that. And she says black women didn't really need Sir Mix-A-Lot to take up this particular fight for women.

WEATHERFORD: But that doesn't mean it's not nice.

LIMBONG: As for Sir Mix-A-Lot, he hasn't put the song behind him yet, playing it when he gets a chance.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: Do I do bar mitzvahs - no (laughter). You know, you got to draw a line somewhere. But when you're in front of a big crowd, I know what they're there to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY GOT BACK")

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) So ladies...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: Yeah?

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Ladies...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: Yeah?

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Do you want to roll in my Mercedes?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: Yeah.

SIR MIX-A-LOT: (Singing) Then turn around. Stick it out. Even white boys got to shout. Baby got back.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIR MIX-A-LOT SONG, "BABY GOT BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.