In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.
Will Smith- “Wild Wild West” (feat. Dru Hill & Kool Moe Dee)
HIT #1: July 24, 1999
STAYED AT #1: 1 week
For much of the ‘90s, Will Smith was arguably the biggest entertainer around. (The #1 song the week of Smith’s birth: The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”) At the beginning of the decade, he made his name on the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and in music enjoyed success as a member of the rap group DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince which peaked at #4 with 1991’s “Summertime.” (It’s a 9.) Then in the middle of the decade, Smith transformed himself into a surefire box office draw starring in huge hit movies like 1995’s Bad Boys, 1996’s highest-grosser Independence Day, and 1997’s Men in Black. With the success of those movies, Smith began releasing his own music netting similar success with his first #1 “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” in 1998 (It’s a 7.) as well as several other hits.
So it makes sense that Will Smith would close out the decade with a #1 hit from a movie even if that movie wasn’t as successful as his previous efforts.
The movie Wild Wild West was adopted from the TV show The Wild Wild West which ran for four seasons on CBS in the ‘60s as a science fiction western. The show centered around two Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon who are in charge of protecting President Ulysses S. Grant and all the adventures they get into. After the show’s cancellation in 1969, two TV movies aired in 1979 and 1980, and in most cases that would have been the end of it. But Warner Bros. picked up the film rights in 1992 and went through various casting changes with high profile names like Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise considered for the lead role of Jim West before Will Smith was picked.
In Wild Wild West, Will Smith and Kevin Kline play Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon respectively who are tasked by President Grant to take down Dr. Arliss Loveless, a former Confederate who plots on assassinating Grant as revenge for the Confederacy losing the Civil War. The film follows their journey to the Old West to capture Loveless while getting in all sorts of crazy adventures along the way. I have not seen Wild Wild West and going from its plot summary as well as this frankly ridiculous trailer I don’t have much interest to.
Upon its release in June 1999, Wild Wild West was panned by critics and was a commercial disappointment considering the movie’s large budget and Will Smith’s star power at the time. Robert Conrad, the actor who played James West in the original show, hated the movie. It was so bad that Wild Wild West and its title theme won the Razzie Award for Worst Picture and Worst Original Song respectively. “Wild Wild West” isn’t even used in the movie until the end credits. Yet it wound up topping the Hot 100 a few weeks after the movie’s release.
“Wild Wild West” came about when writer/producer Rob Fusari was approached by Smith’s A&R executive asking if he had any tracks that would be good for the movie’s soundtrack. Fusari sent Smith’s team about a dozen tracks all based on samples knowing Smith’s tendency to use samples in his music. Upon listening to the tracks, Smith liked the one that sampled Stevie Wonder’s 1977 #1 hit “I Wish” so that’s what got used for “Wild Wild West” despite Wonder having them pay $500,000 to use the sample. It wasn’t the only thing Smith suggested.
Fusari proposed getting the R&B duo K-Ci and JoJo to guest on the song but Smith had other ideas. He wanted the R&B group Dru Hill and rapper Kool Moe Doe to guest on the song. Given Smith’s star power, he pretty much got what he wanted. Formed in 1992 around Baltimore, Dru Hill, led by Mark “Sisqó” Andrews, had enjoyed a few years of Top 10 success before “Wild Wild West” (Their highest-charting single before “Wild Wild West,” 1998’s “How Deep Is Your Love,” peaked at #3. It’s a 5. The #1 song the week of frontman Sisqó’s birth: Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park”)
Kool Moe Dee dates back to the early days of hip-hop back when the genre was mainly a live form being a member of the Treacherous Three before going solo in the ‘80s releasing a few hit albums and singles that scraped the lower half of the Hot 100. But by the time of “Wild Wild West,” Dee had become a relic not having a major hit since the turn of the ‘90s. (The #1 song the week of Kool Moe Dee’s birth is funny enough Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Pt. II)”) In relation to the song, Kool Moe Dee had his highest-charting hit with his own “Wild, Wild West” which peaked at #62 in 1988. Dee’s constant rapping of the title became a big part of Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West.”
Smith wrote most of the lyrics and recorded his parts in two takes. Kool Moe Dee was recorded the next day at Smith’s home studio while Dru Hill recorded their parts the day after. Talking to Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, Fusari recalled how fun the recording experience was, “It was an extremely expensive record to make. But it was a ball of fun. Making that record was such a party.” Fusari also recalled Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett-Smith coming in on the last day of production to hear the song at her husband’s request, “It was almost like she was the final OK. I’m thinking what if she hates it? It could kill this whole thing, all this work! It’s his wife, he could take her opinion to heart! Halfway through, she gets up out of her seat and starts dancing! Nothing was changed.”
How could you not dance or move in any way to “Wild Wild West.” A lot of it is thanks to its use of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Wonder was inspired to write “I Wish” after being at a Motown company picnic in the summer of 1976. Soon after, he went into the recording studio and came up with lyrics reflecting on his childhood and wanting to relive those days. It was one of the last songs to be included on Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder’s landmark 1976 double album released at the end of his “classic streak” of masterpiece albums in the ‘70s. The album was a critical and commercial smash making Wonder the second artist after Elton John to have an album debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart with Songs being the third album overall. “I Wish” was the first single released going to #1 in January 1977.
While “I Wish” may not be the most remembered song off of Songs In The Key Of Life especially when “Isn’t She Lovely” remains one of Wonder’s most-played songs, it’s still a fun jam nonetheless. Get yourself relatable lyrics, funky instrumentation, and a lively performance from an artist at his creative peak and you got yourself another Stevie Wonder classic. (“I Wish” is a 9.) “I Wish” doesn’t fit in lyrically or musically with “Wild Wild West” but it has a strutting coolness to it that you can imagine appealing to someone like Will Smith. Plus, you can’t go wrong sampling Stevie Wonder. (Wonder is given songwriting credit on “Wild Wild West.”)
Will Smith and company don’t do much to update “I Wish.” “Wild Wild West” is basically just “I Wish” but about fighting bad guys in the West. It doesn’t change its key, speed or slow down the track, or even base the song on a certain part of its melody. The original track is played throughout and even in the vocals, Dru Hill (mainly Sisqó) spend the chorus singing in the same melody as Wonder did on the original chorus. He also does the same breakdown that Wonder does on “I Wish.” It acts in the way most samples do in bringing a feeling a familiarity to the song. If you knew “I Wish” you could listen to “Wild Wild West” and think about how much it sounds like “I Wish.” Now “Wild Wild West” is no “I Wish” but that doesn’t mean it makes the song better than it should be.
Lyrically, Will Smith is just rapping about the plot of the Wild Wild West movie and his character. There’s really not much else you need to know about the song. This is nothing new for Smith who had a major hit with his title theme for Men in Black so why not do it again. (“Men in Black” didn’t chart on the Hot 100 due to arcane Billboard rules related reasons that fucked up the charts a lot throughout the ‘90s. It probably would have been a high charting hit had it been allowed to chart.) The song is basically an extended advertisement for the movie which also goes for the Paul Hunter directed music video showing Smith and crew in various costumes and sets featuring appearances from Stevie Wonder and Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air castmate Alfonso Ribeiro. It’s a song that’s so tied to its movie that unlike other soundtrack hits it doesn’t lend itself to much usage outside of the movie.
Smith raps the song in the typical goofy but corny style that’s been his trademark. He makes his character and the movie sound like the coolest thing even if the critics didn’t agree. When he raps about fighting Loveless and other enemies, it’s like he’s used to it. Nothing can keep him down. Dru Hill on the chorus do their best admirable imitation of Stevie Wonder while Kool Moe Dee’s constant shouting of the title almost feels pointless. It’s like he was only included in the song because of the title similarities than anything else. But for a song tied to a long-forgotten critically panned movie, it sounds like everyone’s having a fun time as Fusari pointed out. Probably the best thing to come out of the movie.
All three artists wouldn’t get back to #1 after “Wild Wild West.” Can’t find much information on what Kool Moe Dee’s been up to aside from his more recent chart impact appearing on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ all-star collaboration “Downtown” which peaked at #12 in 2015. He also hosts a digital hip-hop discussion show Behind The Rhymes so he’s doing fine for himself. Dru Hill wouldn’t have any more big hits but Sisqó went on to have a good run of solo success in 2000 with the #3 peaking “Thong Song” and his own #1 single “Incomplete.” (“Thong Song” is a 3 and “Incomplete” is a 5.) The group has put out two albums since 1999 to little success. Members have come and gone but they’re still together as a trio including Sisqó.
For Will Smith, as his movie star grew bigger his music sales declined. After “Wild Wild West,” Smith has made it into the Top 10 only one other time and that wouldn’t be until 2005 with “Switch,” his attempt at adapting to the club rap of the 2000s and it peaked at #7. (It’s a 5.) Since then, Smith hasn’t put out much music nor does he really need to as he has continued acting in hit films as recent as 2020’s Bad Boys for Life which is currently the year’s highest-grossing film at least until movie theaters reopen and we get another major blockbuster that makes people want to go to the movies again. Smith’s not the only Smith family member to make an impact on the charts. His daughter Willow has released music on her own and got as high as #11 with 2010’s unkillable earworm “Whip My Hair.”
While Wild Wild West would be quickly forgotten, it’s not the only song from the movie that got big. The other soundtrack hit is to come.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Will Smith, Dru Hill, and Kool Moe Dee performing “Wild Wild West” at the 1999 MTV Movie Awards with Stevie Wonder making a guest appearance:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Neil Cicierega’s 2017 track “Wow Wow” is based on a sample of “Wild Wild West.” Here’s the track:
One thought on “Party Like It’s 1999: Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” (feat. Dru Hill & Kool Moe Dee)”