‘Fantasy’ 20 Years Later: How One of Mariah Carey’s Biggest Singles Became the Future of Pop Music

by Chris Azzopardi 5:55 AM PDT, September 24, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

It was like a fantasy.

He was gritty -- not only by name. A founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, his unruly mane and gold grill enhanced his trademark persona: Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Meanwhile, Mariah Carey was a 25-year-old, squeaky clean diva-in-training who belted out a string of No. 1 singles about finding your inner hero, visions of love and being rescued by a “dreamlover.”

The two came together in the most unlikely of ways: a grunge rapper and a sweet songbird on one song. An unfounded concept, that is until 1995, when Carey and the late rapper brought their respective talents together for “Fantasy (Remix)."

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Carey’s ninth song to top the Billboard singles chart was brazenly flipped into hip-pop perfection, with the powerhouse cooing the dreamy track as the self-proclaimed “dirty doggy” smeared his glorious rap rhymes all over it. Over a sample of Tom Tom Club's 1981 jam, "Genius of Love," and Carey's daydreamy vocals, the rapper snarls, "Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers."

A turning point in Careys career, the chart-topping song quickly became a trendsetter, giving birth to a new genre -- “hip-pop” -- as TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes once put it.

“My first thought was, ‘Who the hell allowed this to happen?’” former MTV news correspondent John Norris tells ET about the remix’s initial release. "It wasn't just a pop singer and a rapper," he adds. "It was the sweetest pop singer and as gritty of an East Coast rapper as we had at the time."

While Columbia Records -- Careys label from 1988 to 1999 -- gave it the ultimate go-ahead, it was Carey who relentlessly pushed Tommy Mottola, the head of the label and her then-husband, for creative control. She was restless. And ready.

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“The record companies didnt understand my collabs with hip-hop artists and producers, such as ‘Fantasywith ODB or ‘Heartbreakerwith Jay Z,” Carey told Variety in August. “Now anyone would kill to have a record with Jay Z. I got a lot of flak for that.”

“People who wanted her to be a Celine Dion-type artist had gripes about it," rapper Da Brat recalls to ET. A close friend and collaborator of Carey’s, the rapper would help with the singer’s urban transition.

The change was in full force by the time Butterfly was released in 1997, spurring crossover gems with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and hip-hop heavyweight P. Diddy. Rainbow followed in 1999, and its first single, “Heartbreaker,” featured rappers on both versions of the record. Jay Z appeared on the official release while Missy Elliott and Brat came together for an all-female anthem.

Regarding Careys fringe makeover, Brat says, “Tommy Mottola didnt want that. He didnt want her on that level. He didn't even want her associating with rappers like that. She fought for that, because Mariahs got a little hood in her.” 

Careys fight was victorious, igniting a wave of collaborations in the dirty-pop vein of “Fantasy" and “Heartbreaker.” Jennifer Lopez teamed up with Ja Rule for two of her biggest singles, “I’m Real” and “Ain’t It Funny (Murder Remix).”Fergie, who first broke on the scene as the hook singer of The Black Eyed Peas, collaborated with Ludacris on her solo release. Christina Aguilera teamed up with Redman. And Ashanti found success with a number of rappers. By 2002, the format was so popular that the GRAMMYs introduced an award for the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, which eventually went to Beyonce and Jay Z for “Crazy in Love.”

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“She set the trend," Brat says of Carey, whose influence is clearly seen in a number of today’s young artists -- even if today’s new generation of singers don’t realize the path they’re following.

"All the new R&B and younger pop artists should worship the ground Mariah walks on because she paved the way in so many different ways by trying different things that the world didn't necessarily agree with,” she adds. “And that's what these new artists lack -- they lack appreciation, and they lack respect.”  

While Carey has always straddled the worlds of pop and R&B, the hip-hop element has increasingly become popular among today’s pop divas. Earlier this year, Taylor Swift joined forces with Kendrick Lamar for the remix of "Bad Blood." Also in 2015: Britney Spears and Iggy Azalea famously banded together for "Pretty Girls."

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“The 'Fantasy' remix set the template for what pop has become,” Norris says. "It's almost a given now that pop songs will have a hip-hop element to them. Those two elements are almost a requirement to get on pop radio today.”

But as the format has become more popular, "the collaborations we see are not nearly as unexpected," Norris adds.

Unexpected or just unimpressive?

According to Brat, those to follow Carey are just attempting to capture a vibe that singer simply embodied. “Mariah was already edgy, so to me, it merged better,” she says. “The gelling between Mariah and ODB -- they were in the studio together, and he was probably smoking weed and she was, you know, probably sippinher wine. A true artist can tell how the process went.”

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Nobody then was bridging pop and hip-hop on such a massive level -- at least nobody as mainstream, or as universally adored as Carey. And it was a win-win, both for Carey's career and the hip-hop community.

"The whole hip-hop community and R&B world -- we loved it,” Brat says. “Finally we had somebody to take us over to the pop side. It was just incredible.”

But it goes beyond the approval of one or two genres. “’Fantasy’ is the most important recording shes ever done," Norris adds.