Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 79 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack,” with a guest spot from Justin Charity.
There is, here in 2022, growing concern that the very concept of the One-Hit Wonder itself is in peril. There are fewer One-Hit Wonders now than in the ’80s and ’90s. In 2015, this data website Priceonomics went semi-viral with a post called “The Death of the One-Hit Wonder,” and they used, ya know, data. A graph showing artists who only had one song ever chart in the Billboard Hot 100, the definitive American singles chart. And it’s a steady downward curve from 1965 to 2015. Songs spend more time overall in the Hot 100 now—months as opposed to weeks. So there’s less room for newer shit. And fewer pop stars, too. The hugest artists dominate more and more of the Hot 100 now—as I speak, on this week’s Hot 100 chart, the top 10 is Taylor Swift. Ten Taylor Swift songs. From a mid Taylor Swift album. It’s like how film people complain that Marvel movies are crowding out everything else. Taylor Swift is Spider-Man in this analogy, I guess. The consequence for pop music is that you get fewer total flukes like “Come on Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners or “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. And those songs—because Dexys Midnight Runners and Chumbawamba did not endure as pop stars in the years to come—those songs come to define, and also perhaps helpfully explain the year, the decade in which they were briefly hit songs and those bands were briefly pop stars. So “Come on Eileen” helps explain the ’80s, and “Tubthumping” helps explain the ’90s. This phrase “One-Hit Wonder,” while rude, is itself growing archaic, and we will miss it when it’s gone, and miss the One-Hit Wonders when they’re gone.
All of which is to say, all this data and wiggliness aside, for me personally, “This Is How We Do It” and “Return of the Mack” have always come as a package deal for me. Two transcendent mid-’90s crossover R&B smashes with palpable hip-hop energy, sung by two dudes who briefly became pop stars but did not endure as pop stars. Sorry. Two all-time classic songs that would sound fantastic tonight if you played them back-to-back at a house party, or a junior high dance, or a bar mitzvah, or a quinceanera, or a wedding, or a funeral. Respect is due. Eternal respect is due.
Mark Morrison was born in 1972 in Hanover, Germany. His parents emigrated to the U.K. from Barbados, and he grew up primarily in Leicester, England. The c is silent. There’s a c in Leicester, when you spell it. Never mind. He’s English. When he was 10 years old, he made his stage debut in a local Leicester theater production of Winnie the Pooh. In 2006, he told The Guardian, “I auditioned for Christopher Robinson—is that his name?” (That’s not his name.) “But they cast me as a small, black beetle. Guess they wanted to save on a costume.” End quote. That’s funny. He says, though, that playing a beetle made his parents proud, and he liked that, making his parents proud.
Mark lived in Miami for a little while as a teenager—he absorbed quite a bit of American pop and R&B and hip-hop, I think it’s safe to assume—but he’s back in Leicester by the early ’90s. He’s 19 years old. He’s making music. He’s on the dole. He’s on the dole because he’s English. This is not immediately apparent, when you hear Mark Morrison sing. To my mind, the nasal aspect of Mark’s singing is far more immediately apparent than the He’s English aspect.
This song is called “Crazy,” the final album version of “Crazy,” and confusingly it’s Mark’s first hit song in England—the confusion being that it’s a song about how chaotic his life has been since he had a hit song. I keep looking for an older version of “Crazy” where he doesn’t say, Ever since I went no. 1, but he says it even in the original. Either I’m confused, or Mark Morrison’s entire life is pandemonium, or both. I’m going with both.
Starting as a teenager, Mark also had a lot of trouble with The Law, and this reputation was not the cultural asset in 1990s Leicester that perhaps it might’ve been in, say, Los Angeles. A guy named Jake Nava, the director of the “Return of the Mack” video, said in a Mel magazine piece that, “Gangster rap, real gangster energy, from an artist was an American thing. The kids who were through the system in England were just not behaving like that. And he was. He was getting himself into trouble because he came from a bit of a—well, actually, I’m not going to say exactly why he was getting himself into trouble, but he was. And that was part of his appeal.”
Mark Morrison started writing “Return of the Mack” in prison. In 2020 he told a Leicester newspaper, “I grew up on the St. Marks Estate. ‘Return of the Mack’ was written in Welford Road prison. I’m from here.” End quote. Mark also produced the original version of “Return of the Mack” along with a guy named Phil Legg, who’d most notably worked with Des’ree, the “You Gotta Be” lady. Love Des’ree. Two g’s in Phil Legg, just because.
That original version of “Return of the Mack” is not in the public domain. That’s the version of “Return of the Mack” that gets sent to our dear friend Cutfather and his own producing partner, Joe Belmaati. Cutfather, talking to Mel magazine, does not speak glowingly of the original “Return of the Mack.” He says, “It was very, very soft and sounded very slow. It was just very toothless. It wasn’t really catchy. The chorus was obviously catchy—the singing of it was catchy — but the chords around it actually made it less commercial. It was like pop R&B, but in a quite uncool way.” But he also says, “It was a really cool song.” Don’t you want to hear that version? The slow, soft, toothless, not-catchy, quite uncool version of “Return of the Mack”? That sounds awesome. Let’s pretend that the canonical, smash-hit Cutmaster and Joe remix of “Return of the Mack” is a song about Mark Morrison getting over the heartache of his original, quite uncool version of “Return of the Mack.”
Cutmaster and Joe got a few ideas for how to spice up “Return of the Mack.” First idea: The drums from “Genius of Love,” or drums very close to those drums. Second idea: Some new, way catchier chords from a 1992 song called “Games,” by an R&B singer named Chuckii Booker. That’s Chuckii, spelled Chuck with two i’s at the end, just because. Chuckii’s from L.A. I can confirm that this song “Games” has excellent chords.
Stupendous chords, truly. Tons of samples in this new, vastly improved, soon-to-be-colossal version of “Return of the Mack.” More drums from the French disco master Cerrone. Some noisy bits from the oft-sampled Bronx funk band ESG. Vocal fragments from the Treacherous Three, and Digital Underground, and Run-DMC. There’s a lot going on here. But there would be a lot going on here if Mark Morrison were the only thing going on here.
The “Return of the Mack” video occasionally clones Mark Morrison twice, so all three of them can harmonize beautifully with one another. There is a sweetness, a tartness to his voice that is inextricable from his nasal-ness, to his huh-I-didn’t-know-he-was-English-ness, his bad-boy-ness. You may have observed that “Return of the Mack” is a breakup song, a post-breakup song, an I-survived-a-breakup song, a fuck-you-you’ll-regret-breaking-up-with-me song. Mark at one point in the song calls it a comeback song. Tom Breihan, the great Stereogum critic and author who is allowed to be taller than me, called it “one of the great bounce-back songs in pop music history.”
I won’t say that Mark Morrison sounds vulnerable here, per se, but I will say that his swagger sounds hard-earned.
I’m fairly certain he’s singing All this pain you said I’d never feel there, but I’m absolutely positive he sings But I do, but I do do do, and he sounds fantastic. This is of course the version of “Return of the Mack” that hits the charts, and tops the U.K. charts, and eventually peaks at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in America, beaten out only by Hanson’s “MMMBop.” That’s funny. I reserve the right to find that funny. In 1996, the full Return of the Mack album comes out and eventually sells three million copies worldwide. Mark Morrison is a pop star now, and very quickly he learns to further lean into the swagger, the outsized luxury, the more American-pop-star idea of charming menace. Mark’s on the cover of the Return of the Mack album holding court in a very fancy and comfortable-looking plush blue chair, he’s got the sunglasses, he’s got the leather outfit, he’s dangling a pair of handcuffs.
Initially I heard the Mysterious Breathy Lady During the Bridge as like a counterargument within the song, right? I love it when that happens. When the lady the song’s about shows up during the song to refute her unflattering characterization in the song. I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / That much is true. That energy. I’ve done that song at karaoke, by the way. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here now. Now I think this is the lady dumping Mark and thereby inspiring this song, which in turn becomes Mark’s big break. I love it when that happens, as well. That’s great.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.