'Informer' by Snow gets the white rapper backlash [March 21, 1993]
Plus: The Bluebells, Ice T, and Mary J Blige
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
It’s March 21, 1993 again
📰 President Mary Robinson visited Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, the first time ever that an Irish head of state had met the British Monarch.📽️ Eddie Murphy’s political comedy The Distinguished Gentleman hits cinemas.📺 Red Dwarf’s Norman Lovett gets his own new sitcom, I, Lovett.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Oh Carolina’. Let’s stick with novelty reggae this week and discuss…
This week’s Number 2: ‘Informer’—Snow
I have a vivid memory of hearing ‘Informer’ for the first time.
It was a cold, rainy morning in 1993. I was eating my cereal in bed, trying to stay warm while dreading the thought of school. The radio was tuned to Ian Dempsey’s 2FM Breakfast Show, and Ian played this track, which was catchy in a “WTF is this?” kind of way.
After it faded out, Dempsey said something like, “that’s the new big hit from the rapper Snow, who is actually white, believe it or not.”
And I literally did this:
Possibly adding, “are you fucking kidding me?”
Because we had talked about this. Human civilization had survived Vanilla Ice and vowed as one, “never again.” Suddenly, here was Vanilla Ice 2.0 doing some kind of hip-hop/reggae fusion. And he wasn’t just white.
He was Canadian.
My reaction was far from unique. Although ‘Informer’ was a monster hit, the general reaction was that this guy was a clown, and the single was possibly some kind of practical joke.
Plus, the lyrics were ridiculous. What was he even singing about? “A leaky bum-bum down”? Was he singing in French?
Yo, Snow, they came around here looking for you the other day
So, what was Snow’s whole deal?
‘Informer’ actually contains a pretty accurate autobiography, although it’s buried in the third verse and coded in Jamaican patois. It goes like this:
Yes a daddy me Snow me are de article don
But the in an a-out a dance an they say where you come from-a?
People dem say ya come from Jamaica
But me born an' raised in the ghetto that I want ya to know-a
Pure black people man that’s all I man know
Yeah me shoes are a-tear up an'a me toes just a show-a
Where me-a born in are de one Toronto
Now, the lengthy gap between the question (“Where you come from-a?”) and the eventual answer (“Toronto”) is very funny. But the lines in between do actually tell us what we need to know about this guy.
Snow’s real name is Darrin O’Brien, and he grew up in a rough Irish-Canadian neighbourhood in north Toronto (making him more Irish than House Of Pain, but let’s not get into that again). After his parents split, his mother raised Darrin and his siblings in a housing project riddled with gang violence. “Born an' raised in the ghetto” is actually pretty accurate.
This Toronto neighbourhood was also home to many Caribbean immigrants. Young Darrin formed a close bond with some of them, and they introduced him to reggae and dancehall. They also taught him how to toast—the vocal style that’s roughly a reggae equivalent of rapping (as discussed in the recent Shaggy newsletter).
“Pure black people man that’s all I man know”, is probably an exaggeration, but it is true that O’Brien spent a lot of his teenage years in Black communities. That’s how he met Jamaican DJ Marvin Prince, who helped his musical evolution. O’Brien and Prince started co-writing, and eventually they made ‘Informer’ together.
Prince gave O’Brien the stagename Snow, and also created the painfully cringey backronym, “Super Notorious Outrageous Whiteboy”. Thankfully, it did not catch on.
Snow was now making music, but his chief passions remained drinking and fighting. He became a familiar face in the local cop shop, and seemed likely to end up dead or in jail.
So dey put me in de back de car at de station
In 1988, Snow did find himself in jail.
A bar brawl ended in multiple stabbings, and Snow got picked up on attempted murder charges. He spent eight months in prison awaiting trial, but charges were eventually dropped. While behind bars, Snow had kept writing music, including one violent fantasy about what he’d do to whoever gave him up up to the cops.
The lyrics to that song roughly go like this:
Hey, whoever told the police about me?
I’m going to find you and shoot you
Someone told the cops they saw me stab a guy in an alleyway
I’m going to find you and shoot you
But they’re coded in Jamaican patois, so they they sound like this:
Informer, ya' no say daddy me Snow me I go blame
A licky boom boom dem
'Tective man a say, say daddy me Snow me stab someone down the lane
A licky boom boom dem
“A licky” should probably be written as “I lick he”, which roughly means “I’ll lick him” in the fighting sense of the word. “Boom boom” refers to the gunshots—Snow used to cock fingerguns at the audience when performing this song live.
So, this cute little pop song is actually a death threat. And not an idle one either—it was written by a guy in jail for attempted murder, and who was very pissed at whoever snitched.
Vanilla Ice claimed to be from the streets until Ice T delivering the classic put-down: “Which street you from? Sesame Street?” But Snow actually was kind of gangsta: a working-class kid with no resources, no hope, and no options other than crime.
The real difference between him and his rap contemporaries was…
Bigger dem are they think dem have more power
Snow and Vanilla Ice had one thing in common. Both of them got absolutely murdered by Jim Carrey on In Living Color.
Vanilla Ice was finished forever after Carrey unveiled his parody, ‘White White Baby’, which contained savage lines like:
When’s it gonna stop? Maybe never
I get richer with every endeavour
I’m livin’ large and my bank is stupid
Cause I just listen to real rap and dupe it
‘Informer’ was a huge hit in the U.S., spending seven weeks at Number One in the Billboard Hot 100, which meant that Jim Carrey couldn’t not do another parody. He gave his fellow Irish-Canadian a vicious beat-down in a track called ‘Imposter’, which featured lyrics like:
Hear me on the radio, think I could not be blacker
But on my video, you see I'm really a cracker
Pretending I was a Rasta since I was in jammies
I should paint my face and start belting out, "Mammy!"
Both songs make the same accusation—that these are white kids trying to steal Black music. Which is a reasonable concern, because it’s happened before. And any idiot could see that record companies were dying to find a white hip-hop star, for obvious reasons
Listen for me, you better listen for me now
In hindsight, everyone was a little unfair to Vanilla Ice.
Vanille Ice did a huge and fascinating interview with The Ringer back in 2020, telling the full story of how a white trash kid became drawn to hip-hop. It was vibrant and liberating, a ray of hope at the shitty end of the American dream.
When he turned out to be pretty good at it himself, people grabbed him and tried to exploit him. Literally—Suge Knight dangled him off a hotel balcony until he agreed to share his profits from ‘Ice Ice Baby’. That money became the seed capital for Death Row Records.
Snow’s story is kind of the same, except with more reggae and less being thrown off hotel balconies. You know who else has the same kind of backstory? A dead-end white kid rescued by rap music? Eminem.
Jim Carrey’s parody calls Snow a ‘middle-class white kid from Toronto’, which says a lot about how Snow was packaged. While record labels were happy to admit that he was white, they didn’t draw attention to the fact that he was poor. Like Vanilla Ice, he was marketed as a kind of aspirational rock star figure.
And that’s really what people hated about them, I think. They just felt so fake.
Snow never had another major hit after ‘Informer’, although he went on to become surprisingly popular in Jamaica. He had a Number One there in 1995 with ‘Anything For You’, featuring a bunch of reggae stars including Beanie Man and Buju Banton.
‘Informer’ lives on forever, making regular appearances on Worst Songs of All Time.
I won’t say it’s a good song, but it is definitely is a very fun song. I definitely don’t hate it as much as I did on that cold morning in 1993, when I spat out my cereal at the though of another white rapper.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 5 (New Entry): ‘Young At Heart’—The Bluebells
‘Young At Heart’ is technically a cover version of an old Bananarama track, although The Bluebells changed so much that they’re essentially two different songs.
This became an issue in later years. Robert Hodgens of The Bluebells used to go out with Siobhan Fahey, and he co-wrote the original track, which made things easy from a copyright perspective when The Bluebells recorded their version.
However, in 2002, the band were dragged to court by session musician Robert Valentino who created that distinctive violin riff. He won, because they’re two different songs with different melogies.
Anyway, the original video features a cameo from the delightful Claire Grogan (second Red Dwarf star to appear in this issue). The song was reissued in 1993 after appearing in a Volkswagen ad, and became a much bigger hit than either of the two previous versions.
Number 19 (New Entry): ‘Pressure Us’—Sunscreem
Suscreem were weirdly popular in the States, and this begin their second Number One in the Billboard charts, following ‘Love U More’. Nothing against them, but… why them?
Big EMF vibes off this track, especially on the verse which sounds a lot like ‘Unbelievable’.
Number 24 (↑ from 34): ‘More More More’—Bananarama
Hey look, Banarama are in the charts twice this week! ‘More More More’ is a cover version of the old disco track, produced by Stock, Aiken and Waterman, another formerly great trio now in decline after losing a key team member.
It’s not great.
Number 27 (New Entry): ‘It Was A Good Day’—Ice Cube
Almost embarrassing that Snow is so high in the charts above this one, but hey, it’s not like this is some criminally overlooked obscurity. ‘It Was A Good Day’ is one of hip-hop’s foundational texts, a melancholy, G-funk Ulysses about hood life’s precarious nature.
An internet detective did some sleuthing some time ago and figured out when Ice Cube’s good day happened: January 20, 1992, which was a Monday. This is ironic as the song would eventually inspire the Friday movies.
Number 32 (New Entry): ‘Chok There’—Apache Indian
This is also much better than Snow, and it is a much better take on hip-hop/reggae fusion. Probably the best single from the very strong album, No Reservations.
Album of the Week
What’s The 411?—Mary J Blige
Nothing illustrates the early 90s UK/US musical divide better than the chart performance of two game-chaning classics: Dre’s The Chronic and Mary J Blige’s What’s The 411?
The Chronic revolutionized hip-hop, invented G-Funk, and did not chart in the UK until a 2000 reissue. Mary J Blige’s rap-infused R’n’B debut fared slightly better, scaling the dizzy heights of Number 53 in the March 1993 album charts before vanishing again.
Of the two records, you could argue thatWhat’s The 411? had the greater impact. The sound here is so archetypal that it has basically defined all pop music for the last 30 years.
People often say that Mary J Blige (and her producer here, Sean “Puffy” Combs) was the first person to mix soul vocals with hip-hop beats. That might come as a shock to hip-hop’s first diva, Chaka Khan, who is actually represented here with a cover version of ‘Sweet Thing’:
But while Mary J Blige might not have invented the genre from scratch, there is an undeniable alchemy happening on What’s The 411? The beats, the lyrics, the vocals, and the production all come together to create songs like ‘You Remind Me’ and ‘Changes I’ve Been Going Through’, ingenious blueprints for pop music in a post hip-hop era. This, right now, is the sound of the future.
And although Puffy and the rest of the team deserve a lot of credit, it all hinges on Blige. Mary J was only 22 but her voice belongs to someone much older, someone who’s been in and out of love so many times that she’s entirely run out of fucks to give.
So, What’s The 411? is undoubtedly a landmark moment in musical history. It’s also a very, very good record in its own right.
A gamechanging debut from a generational talent.
Really enjoyed this post about ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ in the always excellent. Read and subscribe!
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The real victim in all that is MC Shan who was at least mildly respected until he played Snow's sidekick. Oof.
Now that you mention it, Sunscreem was strangely popular over here. I loved O3, but was also in my "take 2 of everything" phase, so...
Also: Shows should bring back in-house dancers.