In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Withers’ grandmother was born into slavery, and she died when he was young. Maybe that’s why “Grandma’s Hands” is so impressionistic, so full of tiny snapshots of his childhood in West Virginia. Withers remembers his grandmother’s hands clapping in church, handing him candy, soothing “the local unwed mother.” His grandmother tells him not to run too fast and tells his mother not to whip him. It ends with a feeling of loss just hanging in the air: “I don’t have Grandma anymore/ If I get to heaven, I’ll look for Grandma’s hands.”
“Grandma’s Hands” never sounded anything like pop music. It’s humble and meditative. It has no pop-song structure. It only barely passes the two-minute mark — as if Withers couldn’t bear to spend more time than that thinking about this person who he’d lost. But Withers felt that “Grandma’s Hands” would be the reason that people remembered him. Withers’ big single from Just As I Am was “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which doesn’t really sound like pop, either, but which still peaked at #3 and made Withers famous. (It’s a 10.) Withers followed that single with “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Grandma’s Hands,” against all odds, made the Hot 100, peaking at #41.
Introducing “Grandma’s Hands” in a TV performance in the early ’70s, Withers said, “I learned how to really love somebody from not a very pretty lady — not at that point in her life, not sexy at all — but just a nice old lady who used some very nice old gnarled hands to make life kinda nice for me at that time, when I really needed somebody.” He also said that “Grandma’s Hands” was his favorite thing that he’d ever written. Decades later, Withers still felt that way. In 2015, near the end of his life, Withers still said that “Grandma’s Hands” was the song he was most proud of writing.
“Grandma’s Hands” wasn’t written to be a smash. It was made to last. Bill Withers never much cared for the music industry, and when he left it behind, he never looked back. Withers was proud that “Grandma’s Hands” was out in the world, that it made people feel things. I wonder how Withers felt when the chords that he strummed and the humming sigh that he let out at the beginning of “Grandma’s Hands” found their way onto a #1 record. I wonder what he thought when “Grandma’s Hands” got horny.
Teddy Riley, the man who made “Grandma’s Hands” horny, has already been in this column twice, as the leading force behind Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” and Hi-Five’s “I Like The Way (The Kissing Game).” Riley grew up in public housing in Harlem, and he played piano and sang in church as a kid. (When Riley was born, the #1 song in America was the Box Tops’ “The Letter.“) Riley’s uncle owned a Harlem nightclub that had a small recording studio in back. The record producer Gene Griffin took Riley under his wing, and when he was still a teenager, Riley co-produced rap classics like Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Kool Moe Dee’s “How Ya Like Me Now.” But rap wasn’t necessarily Riley’s focus. Instead, Riley used rap to change the face of pop music.
The Village Voice critic Barry Michael Cooper coined the term “new jack swing,” and he came up with that name to describe what the very young Teddy Riley was doing. Working with singers like Keith Sweat and Johnny Kemp, Riley injected R&B with rap swagger and dance-music intensity, creating a hybrid that would go on to rule pop music for a few years. Riley also formed the hugely important trio Guy in 1987. Riley could’ve been the lead singer for Guy, but he was too shy. Instead, Riley wrote and produced Guy’s music, and a charismatic Queens gospel prodigy named Aaron Hall became the lead singer. (Guy’s highest-charting single, the 1999 reunion effort “Dancin’,” peaked at #19.)
Even after Teddy Riley became a hugely successful producer, he remained a member of Guy. After two albums, though, Guy broke up in 1991. At the time, they blamed Gene Griffin, Riley’s former mentor, who’d become their manager and who’d extracted as much money as he could from the group. Later on, Riley said that the real reason was that Ronald Byrd, New Edition’s production manager, had shot and killed Anthony Bee, who was Guy’s security guard and Riley’s best friend, in a fight outside a hotel when the two groups were on tour together.
Riley went on to produce much of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. He also moved from New York to Virginia Beach and built a studio there, and his presence in the Tidewater region helped spur an explosion in creativity in that region’s rap and R&B musicians. Riley’s brother Markell had started the Virginia Beach rap group Wreckx-N-Effect, and Riley co-produced their massive 1992 hit “Rump Shaker.” Teddy also rapped on “Rump Shaker,” but he didn’t write his verse. Instead, that verse came from Pharrell Williams, a Virginia Beach teenager who will eventually appear in this column. (“Rump Shaker” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
Riley briefly reunited with Guy in 1995, but the reunion didn’t work out. By that time, Riley had already started a new R&B group. Blackstreet — sometimes stylized as BLACKstreet — started off as Riley and his longtime friend and collaborator Chauncey “Black” Hannibal. Riley first wanted to call the group Flavor, but Flavor Flav owned that name, so they went with Blackstreet instead. Blackstreet made their debut with “Baby Be Mine,” a 1993 single recorded for the soundtrack of the Chris Rock rap mockumentary CB4. “Baby Be Mine” went top-20 on Billboard‘s R&B chart, but it didn’t cross over to the Hot 100.
Blackstreet released their self-titled album in 1994, and one of its songs did cross over. The ballad “Before I Let You Go” was a showcase for Blackstreet member Dave Hollister, and it peaked at #7. (It’s a 5.) That first album went platinum, and Hollister quickly left Blackstreet to go solo. (Hollister’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “My Favorite Girl,” peaked at #39.) Eventually, Eric Williams and Mark Middleton, former members of a couple of R&B groups that hadn’t taken off, joined Riley and Hannibal in Blackstreet.
Blackstreet’s debut album included a track called “I Like The Way You Work.” At some point, they brought in LL Cool J to rap on a remix. As far as I can tell, that remix never came out, but something that LL said on the track stuck with Riley: “I like the way you work it, no diggity, got to bag it up.” (“No diggity” would be the Das EFX tongue-twist way to say “no doubt.” “Bag it up” is an extremely crass way to describe safe sex.) Riley liked that line, and he thought it would sound better sung than rapped. (LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles, the 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’,” both peaked at #3. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin’” is a 6. As a guest, LL will eventually appear in this column.)
A year after working on that remix, Riley and his co-producer William “Skylz” Stewart, were in the studio, messing around with a sample of “Grandma’s Hands.” They took Bill Withers’ opening, that soft and thoughtful humming-to-himself moment, and looped it up. By taking that moment out of context, Riley and Stewart made Withers sound cold and almost predatory. That little hum becomes the sound of a man impressed but unsurprised by his own flyness. They added huge drums and a thundering, rumbling piano line. The swagger in that beat is just out of control. It glides like a spaceship. Before they’d even written any words to go along with it, Stewart told Riley that the song was a smash.
Bill Withers had once taken care to point out that his grandma was not sexy. But when Teddy Riley flipped that sample, he turned it into a song about an extremely sexy woman. The “No Diggity” lyrics are an ode to a “playette” who’s got ’em open all over town. Strictly biz, she don’t play around, covers much ground, got game by the pound. On “No Diggity,” the singers are obviously attracted to the woman, and they try kicking some game of their own: “You’re blowing my mind/ Maybe in time/ Baby, I can get you in my riiiide.” Most of the time, though, they’re admiring her from a distance, as impressed by her money-stacking ability as by her sexiness. “No Diggity” is not a vulnerable song, but Riley, on the first verse, sounds almost intimidated: “I can’t get her out of my mind/ Think about the girl all the time.”
During Guy’s 1995 brief and unsuccessful reunion, Riley offered “No Diggity” to the group, and they turned it down. (Vibe later reported that Aaron Hall “refused to even consider” cutting the track.) In a bunch of interviews, Riley has said that the other members of Blackstreet also didn’t like “No Diggity.” That’s why Riley, who never liked to sing lead, takes the first verse; nobody else wanted it. Riley has also said that Jimmy Iovine, head of Riley’s label Interscope, didn’t hear “No Diggity” as a single. But another power-player felt otherwise.
This column has mentioned Dr. Dre a great many times, but Dre hasn’t been directly involved in any of the songs that we’ve covered. (Dre produced and rapped on “California Love,” the real hit from 2Pac’s “How Do U Want It” single, but that’s not the one that was in this column.) Dre’s iconic, game-changing 1992 single “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” an obvious 10, peaked at #2 behind Snow’s “Informer,” but the fact that it even got that high is wild. On his debut album The Chronic, Dre, the former N.W.A producer and occasional rapper, figured out how to make a street-rap blockbuster, launching a whole extended universe of ribald, violent West Coast G-funk. Dre also co-founded Death Row Records, the label that utterly ruled rap music for a few years.
Early in 1996, Dre finally had enough of his infamous Death Row partner Suge Knight, and he departed Death Row to found his own Aftermath label. He also released “Been There, Done That,” his song about his boredom with the music that was coming out of Death Row. That single led to the compilation album Dr. Dre Presents: The Aftermath, which came out while “No Diggity” was at #1 and which famously flopped. But Dre made it past that failure just fine; we’ll see a lot more of Dre’s work in this column.
When Dre heard “No Diggity,” he liked it, and he told Riley that he wanted to be in the video. (Dre had seen the “Rump Shaker” video, and he figured there would be a lot of pretty girls on set.) Riley said that Dre could only be in the video if he rapped on the song, so Dre did just that. On paper, the Dre verse that opens “No Diggity” isn’t that impressive. Dre says that he’s attracting honeys like a magnet and giving up eargasms with his mellow accent, and that bit about “eargasms” always conjures a pretty gross mental image. Also nasty: Dre’s line about “bump like acne.” A year earlier, Dre had contributed “Keep Their Heads Ringin’” to his old N.W.A colleague Ice Cube’s Friday soundtrack. On that song, Dre warned that anyone running up on him could “get popped like a pimple, so call me Clearasil.” I love that little era where Dre tried to describe his own coolness and just kept mentioning zits. (“Keep Their Heads Ringin’” peaked at #10. It’s a 9.)
Dre’s “No Diggity” verse isn’t exactly masterful, but it sounds cool as hell anyway. A lot of that is the way that beat comes in, with its clanging pianos and its long stretches of empty space. Some of it is also the booming authority in Dre’s voice, which serves as a great introduction to the song. I wouldn’t call Dre’s accent “mellow,” but I always thought he had a powerful, underrated rap voice.
At the end of “No Diggity,” Riley brought in another rapper. Lynise “Queen Pen” Walters came from Brooklyn, and she sounded a whole lot like Lil’ Kim, who was coming up around the same time. (Kim will eventually appear in this column.) On “No Diggity,” Queen Pen sounds hard as hell. She’s got a ton of presence, and she really attacks the beat, bringing equal measures of strut and style. She also brags about the Cartier wooden frames sported by her shorty — the first reference to same-sex relationships in a career full of them. After “No Diggity,” Queen Pen signed to Riley’s Lil Man label, and she made a few hits. (Queen Pen’s highest-charting single is 1998’s “All My Love,” which featured Blackstreet’s Eric Williams and which peaked at #28.) Queen Pen also feuded bitterly with Foxy Brown, and she eventually became an urban novelist. She’s now got nine books to her name.
The real magic in “No Diggity” is the way the song moves. The different singers bring different personalities. Teddy Riley isn’t showy, and he doesn’t indulge in vocal theatrics, but his voice hits the track’s pocket perfectly. On the next verse, Chauncey Hannibal goes harder, his tenor floating over everything. Like Riley, though, Hannibal moves with the beat, letting it push his voice around. The track builds and builds, its ornamental ad-libs stacking up until the “hey yo hey yo” singalong and the Queen Pen verse. The song never gets boring, and its sense of confidence never falters. When “No Diggity” came on, it felt like time stopping. The song projected an icy calm that was light years removed from almost anything else on the radio.
The “No Diggity” video radiated that same overwhelming sense of cool. Director Hype Williams was already well on his way to becoming the greatest music-video auteur in history. Dre was right; there are plenty of pretty girls in the clip. There are also puppets; the old-man marionette, who I guess is supposed to be Bill Withers, looks a whole lot like those Lil Penny Hardaway Nike ads. But what I always remember is the way the thing looks — the soft glow of the lights, the upturned camera angles, the sense of constant motion. I wish everything looked the way that video looks.
“No Diggity” pushed Blackstreet’s Another Level album to quadruple-platinum sales, even though the LP didn’t really have any other hits. Blackstreet never reached the top 10 again, though they maintained relevance for a little while. When Jay-Z, a future Number Ones artist, tried to aim for Puff Daddy-style sample-heavy smoothness on his 1998 single “The City Is Mine,” he got Blackstreet to sing the hook. (It peaked at #52.) That same year, Blackstreet made it to #14 with “Take Me There,” the Mya/Mase/Blinky Blink collab from the Rugrats movie soundtrack. On the beat, Teddy Riley flipped the Rugrats theme.
Blackstreet have broken up and reunited a bunch of times since “No Diggity.” They’ve made two more albums, neither of which were especially successful. Guy reunited and then broke up again. Teddy Riley went on to work with future Number Ones artists like Snoop Dogg and Lady Gaga. He also did something that I’ve always found fascinating. He latched onto South Korean pop music when that whole industry was still growing, and he co-wrote and co-produced tracks for K-pop groups like Rania and Girls Generation.
Teddy Riley probably won’t appear in this column again, but he’s point-blank one of the greatest producers in pop history. He invented a whole sound, and then he kept evolving and trying different things. “No Diggity” doesn’t really sound like anything else that he ever recorded. It also doesn’t really sound much like anything else that anyone ever recorded. It’s a one of one, a perfect anomaly. I would like to think that Bill Withers was proud. I would like to think that his grandma would’ve been proud, too.
BONUS BEATS: When Dr. Dre left Death Row, everyone else at the label was pissed. Former Number Ones artist 2Pac used the “No Diggity” beat to throw shots at Dre on his song “Toss It Up.” Before the track came out, Blackstreet hit Death Row with a cease-and-desist, so a different version of “Toss It Up,” without the “No Diggity” beat, appeared on Pac’s posthumous album The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. K-Ci and JoJo sang on “Toss It Up,” and so did Teddy Riley’s once and future Guy bandmate Aaron Hall. Here’s the original version of “Toss It Up,” with the “No Diggity” beat:
(As a solo artist, Aaron Hall’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “I Miss You,” which peaked at #14. K-Ci & JoJo will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1997 film Soul Food where “No Diggity” plays at a wedding reception:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I have a hard time with this one, but here’s Anna Kendrick singing “No Diggity” and awkwardly rapping the Dre verse in the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect:
(Anna Kendrick’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Cups,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Arca atomizing a “No Diggity” sample on the 2012 track “Dignity”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Backstreet Boys covering “No Diggity” in a 2018 BBC radio session:
(The Backstreet Boys’ highest-charting single, 1996’s “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)
THE 10S: Teddy Riley wasn’t the only genius making R&B in Virginia Beach in 1996. Ginuwine’s otherworldly burping-robot sex-jam “Pony,” the first top-10 hit produced by future chart conqueror Timbaland, peaked at #6 behind “No Diggity.” Come and jump on it. It’s a 10.