Sisqó is momentarily confused. “You said ‘Differences,’” he shoots back. I’ve just gotten through telling the late-’90s and early-2000s icon that the two songs lodged into my prepubescent brain as a child were his slow-jam classic “Incomplete” and Ginuwine’s 2001 song “Differences.”
“’Cause Ginuwine is a friend of mine. I usually hear, like, ‘Pony’ or ‘So Anxious,’” Sisqó continues.
When I share that I was a young child when these songs ruled the tristate area airwaves he simply replies, “That basically says that I’m a thousand years old.” And that’s where Sisqó is wrong.
The Dru Hill frontman and metallic-haired icon is timeless. In a world yet to be dominated by social media, an endless stream of reality TV, and sexless R&B, Sisqó showed the world what it meant to live without fear. For a brief, but blinding moment, the Baltimore singer fought kaiju with well-timed choreography and dominated multiple movie soundtracks. Sure, most people know Mark “Sisqó” Andrews as the creator of the “Eleanor Rigby”–interpolating hit “Thong Song,” but for millions he was a hero burning brighter than few R&B artists had before or have since.
For Sisqó, doing just enough is never enough. When he didn’t see anyone fully embracing the future the Jetsons promised at the dawn of the millennium he decided to dye his hair silver. During performances, Sisqó would spin and flip like an acrobat, just before nailing a note most people couldn’t perform standing still. At a time when artists were beholden to their labels, Sisqó financed his own debut solo album and retained most of the masters.
Over Zoom, Sisqó discussed the new Vice mini-documentary The Story of “Thong Song,” the origins of his dyed hair, the million-dollar rumors surrounding his “Unleash the Dragon” video, and pandemic video games. Below is an excerpt of that conversation. For the full discussion, check out this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show here.
After watching the Vice doc on the making of “Thong Song,” I found it very interesting that you financed Unleash the Dragon by borrowing from your manager. You were in Dru Hill, but you’re still a new solo artist. How do you go through the process of financing an entire album?
I was a new solo artist, but Dru Hill had two multiplatinum albums prior to my first solo album. Every commercial release that we had released had gone either platinum or multiplatinum, but to get that extra money, I actually borrowed money from my manager, Kevin Peck.
And it’s a risk because you’re putting up your own money for this album, and I’m assuming your record company was like, “We just want another Dru Hill project, we don’t want Sisqó solo right now.”
They wanted another Dru Hill project because when we started working with Def Jam, the record label started to consolidate. Def Jam was known predominantly as a hip-hop label. And at the time hip-hop was very taboo. Everybody was under the impression that it was going to be a fad. So all of the success that a lot of the hip-hop artists had back then always had some kind of R&B element or some kind of artist singing on the chorus. And so that prompted us to work with Def Jam after our very first no. 1 single, “How Deep Is Your Love.” And that was on the Rush Hour soundtrack. We also had worked with them again with the song called “Big Bad Mamma” with Foxy Brown for the How to Be a Player soundtrack. Both of those songs had gone platinum or multiplatinum.
As a matter of fact, we had gotten paid more than any other artists in history at the time to record “How Deep.” So when we got with Def Jam, hip-hop was kind of fresh in the game, they was getting shunned. I can remember some Def Jam execs trying to get into a party, and they were literally stuck behind the velvet rope, and I was walking in with Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys and Paris Hilton. I think it was Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles—they were like “Sisqó, Sisqó!” and I was like, “They’re with me.” So they got let into the party. They were kind of new to that side of the game because the roots of Def Jam were bathed in hip-hop. And now, everybody knows the story—it’s literally the opposite now. Hip-hop is now the mainstream and now R&B artists, unless you got Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion on your new record, they’re probably not going to play it on urban radio.
“Thong Song” is almost like a love song, but the person you’re singing to, it’s not a person, it’s an inanimate object. You’re singing to the thong, you are in love with it. How did that passion come about?
To be completely honest, I was young. But the fact of the matter is, if you know you’re into somebody and they put that thong on and they spent the time to look good in it, it could still get anything you want from anybody.
Did the Beatles ever reach out to you about interpolating “Eleanor Rigby” on “Thong Song”?
Nah, I met Michael [Jackson]. He owned the Beatles [publishing]. So bam, there you go.
Paul McCartney didn’t reach out?
He was mad at Michael. Remember that thing with Mike? Because [McCartney] told Michael about the masters and then he bought the Beatles masters. Looking at him and Prince talking about the whole masters scenarios is how I learned to just be a little bit more savvy with my musical career. And now everybody’s trying to get their masters, but record labels found a way around that too.
One of the first to do it as a young artist being like, “No, I want my masters.”
Yes, yes. But the thing is they found a way around it. They end up giving the artists their masters but later on, so the hits that you know them for, they don’t own those. I mean, this is a hundred-year-old business. They’ve figured out every way to screw you.
Can you walk me through the birth of the silver hair? Iconic.
We came directly out of high school into the music industry. When we got there, my hair was this color, it was blond and the label didn’t want my hair blond. ’Cause I actually had kind of a curly fro. So I ended up cutting all my hair off and they wanted us to take some Polaroids so they could see my natural hair color. And so we dropped our first single “Tell Me,” and then on the set of the video, I was really upset cause that wasn’t me, I wanted to express myself in a different way. So I went in the bathroom and dyed my hair blond.
When I came back out, the label was really upset. They were like, “You’re going to ruin your career.” I was like, “I’ve already done more than I thought I was going to do. This is me, take it or leave it.” And that’s why if you look on the album cover, all of the artwork from my first album, I got a hat on all the time, cause they didn’t want my hair blond until it worked. And then they wanted to “Oh yeah, that was our idea!” kind of thing. So then I started making it a habit to do a different color for each album or a different style of it. So the first album, my head was like this, and then the second one, it was kind of curly.
And then I did the silver because we were going into the new millennium and I was born the year of the dragon, just like my son was born in the year of the dragon. I can’t make that up. I literally named him “Ryu” because “Ryu” means dragon in Japanese. Anyway, we were going into the new millennium—remember Y2K and everybody was all afraid? And I was like, “We going into the new millennium and nobody got the silver hair.” People was doing blue hair, but I was thinking from The Jetsons, silver hair. So I was like, the evolution of the bleach blond would be the silver, which I would never do again. Dude. It’s so messy. It’s all over everything.
How long does it take to do the silver?
It didn’t take that long, but it would get all over everything ’cause you had to spray it on and then you would just kind of give yourself a lineup. It was super messy, though. It would get on my clothes. That’s why after a certain amount of time, I was like, “OK, the silver is done.” Then when we did the third album, I dyed my hair red, then I had cornrows.
I’ve always wanted to ask you about the “Unleash the Dragon” video. What do you remember about that? That’s a legendary video, it’s damn near a movie.
To be completely honest, I feel like the video was sabotaged. Because I had a list of things that I had written to the label that I expressed. I was like, “If we do these three things, this video is going to be both wack and a waste of money.”
The first thing was, if the video was in the daytime, it was going to be lame. Then, the video was in the daytime. I said, “If the dragon don’t bust out of the ground and the dragon just comes around the corner, the video is going to be lame.” What did the dragon do? Come right around the corner. I said, “If the buildings are brick instead of glass, it’s going to be lame.” What were the buildings? Brick. It was almost like they did exactly the opposite.
When I was working at MTV, I heard someone say that the “Unleash the Dragon” video cost like $10 million. Is that true?
It was pretty expensive. It was in the millions.
Oh my God!
It was a waste, though. It was one of those things where I had written a treatment, I drew up everything. You show up at the video shoot and you’re thinking that everything’s good, because they didn’t show me. Only thing they showed me was the actual dragon, and we just kept going back and forth with the dragon. Then, we were going over some of the special effects, then we had wire work going, and then we were working on getting Tatyana Ali in the video. So I was kind of preoccupied with that stuff, and then when I got to the video set, when we shot the first part, it was actually dark like dusk.
So it was about to turn nighttime. And next thing you know, we’re shooting the video, and everything I asked not to be in it is in it, but we’re on the set. So I kind of just got to shoot it, but I was really upset the whole time. I found out later that they had a vested interest in [my song] “Incomplete” because one of the label heads—I won’t say any names, I’m not petty like that—owned the publishing of “Incomplete,” hence why they wanted [“Unleash the Dragon” to not] come out [as the follow-up single to “Thong Song”]. And that’s the reason why [“Incomplete”] went no. 1 and “Thong Song” didn’t. So it’s just the games that they play so that they can keep one up on the artist. And then when the artist says something about it, we look crazy, hard to work with, all the above. It was my fault that “Unleash the Dragon” didn’t work well, I mean …
I will say—“Unleash the Dragon” is an amazing song.
Thanks, man! I appreciate it!
There’s a viral video of one of your performances, and I don’t know where it is, but you’re wearing your iconic red-leather suit. You’re spinning, you do a flip, and then you drop to your knees, but you’re still standing and not losing any breath. Do you remember that performance?
Nah. ’Cause the last time I remember wearing something red, that was the MTV awards.
It might’ve been the MTV awards, right?
No, I slid and then popped back up, I think.
Do you feel a certain type of way? Not only did you have to have breath control, but you’re dancing and you got to hit the notes where it’s like …
It’s funny you say that, because a lot of artists couldn’t do that before we came out. That was why on our first single “Tell Me,” when I came up with the choreography, we do the “Tell Me” bounce. I was like, dude, if we hit these notes while we’re doing this movement and our voice isn’t bouncing, then we’ll set ourselves apart from the rest. So, it kind of set the standard, and that’s why a lot of artists that were out with us were either lip-synching, because when you turn the mic on and you actually hear what they were actually doing, you can hear them breathing a lot.
So it was always taking that extra time to make sure that we were doing it right. Because Michael could do it. When you look at videos of him singing with his brothers on tour, he was hitting that live. And me personally, I know from experience that the “Billie Jean” routine is very difficult to do.
You’re very into video games. Is that correct? During the pandemic, what have you been into?
Yeah, I’ve dabbled in Hades and Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That’s my favorite. I saw the Nintendo Direct the other day, so I was about to delve back into Age of Calamity. I’m really kind of a geek gamer. I’m not into the more popular multiplayer games, like Fortnite and Call of Duty. I’m more so into RPGs, but I could still play some Destiny.
What’s your favorite RPG? Maybe top three of all time.
Mass Effect 2, even though I played the whole series. Definitely Zelda. And, I don’t know, I like God of War II, so I don’t know, man. I got, like, a big game library and I’m really into games. When Def Jam did their video game, that was actually my concept, but that’s for another day.