'Men in Black' Turns 20! How Will Smith's Theme Song Marked His Return to Rap
By Joe Bergren
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It’s been 20 years since Will Smith made Ray-Ban sunglasses
and black suits look good in Men in Black, the sci-fi action film
about secret agents who track and supervise extraterrestrial lifeforms on
“July 4th weekend. That’s my weekend,” Smith told ET in
1997 on the set of the music video for the film’s theme song, “Men in Black.”
The film’s release was still a couple of months away, but Smith had the fullest
confidence that the comic book adaptation would be a success. After
all, the actor did lead the ensemble fight against aliens in Independence
Day, which made over $817 million worldwide the year before.
While Smith’s proclamation was supported by a $589 million
worldwide box office haul, becoming the second-highest grossing film of the
year, perhaps there was more pressure on the song. Sure, it was a good
promotional tool for the film, but it was also Smith’s first solo record and
his first new song since his 1993 album with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Code Red,
which featured his last major hit, “Boom! Shake the Room.” Having just signed a
record deal with Columbia Records, Smith was excited for the opportunity to “be
a real artist now making music,” he said, adding that he was done
with his Fresh Prince moniker.
And it was the job of “Men in Black” to kick things off.
“I’m coming back into the rap world. It’s big -- really, really
big,” Smith said on the “Men in Black” video set, which resembled the making of a
mini-blockbuster movie. Filming in a massive warehouse, there were 30
dancers clad in the special agents’ signature uniforms, lots of sci-fi
equipment and debris piles, not to mention a CGI alien that would be added in
post-production. “This is like the best video in the history of videos,” he
“He's got a very intuitive sense about music videos and,
obviously, filmmaking. So he's brought a lot of great bits and pieces to [the
video] that have really helped flesh out the idea,” director Robert Caruso said
at the time. It was his first time working with Smith, and the filmmaker would later helm
the video for “Just Cruisin.’” “He's very collaborative about that stuff,"
Of course, the song and accompanying music video were a
massive success. The single went double platinum and later earned Smith a
GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance, while the video was played in heavy
rotation on MTV and won a MTV Video Music Award for Best Video From a Film. The
single’s success pushed Men in Black: The Album to the top of
the Billboard 200 and served as the precursor to Smith’s even more successful
solo debut, Big Willie Style, which featured the chart-topping hits “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Miami,” and made him an early
staple of Total Request Live.
But for all the chart-topping success, Smith was determined to settle some personal business. Then-fiancée Jada Pinkett apparently didn’t believe the Fresh Prince could bust a move and the video would be certified proof that he had the goods. “No one ever truly knows everything about you, you know? You can know someone your whole life. Your parents don't really know everything about you,” Smith said a few months later while promoting the film’s release. “So, that's just a little something I had to toss at Ms. Pinkett, so she could just see what the real flavor was. What the real Big Willy is all about.”
As seen in the video, Smith shows an escaped alien (“Mikey,” who, sadly, does not end up transforming into Anjelica Huston) a few dance steps, preventing him from wreaking havoc in a MIB lab. He lists each dance move in the lyrics, seemingly to clarify them for Mikey. But seen another way, maybe he’s speaking directly to Jada, as if pleading, “Look at the bouncing! Look at the sliding! I’m executing them perfectly!”
“What's incredible is that in the last two days [on set] he learned the whole backend of this routine,” Caruso said during the making of the video, revealing that Smith wanted to learn more of the dance routine than initially planned. “He wanted to learn the backend, which is a much more complicated step.”
In July, at the premiere of Men in Black, ET asked Pinkett what she thought of Smith’s moves. “They had a really good editor,” she deadpanned.