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You might find it hard to believe but this year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Blu Cantrell’s hit song, “Hit Em Up Style.” The song was groundbreaking because not only did it speak about a woman getting revenge on a cheating man, the way she sought to do so was through spending his hard-earned money. Clever.
In honor of this hit, we’re taking a deep dive into the story behind this song. But before we get to that, we need to discuss the path which led Cantrell, whose real name is Tiffany Cobb, to this moment in time.
Before she decided to go solo, Cantrell had been trying to find her footing in the music industry for years. According to an interview Cantrell did with You Know I Got Soul, she shared that in the 90’s, she was singing background for Puffy Combs before she joined another girl group named 8th Avenue in 1999. Led by Teddy Riley, the group recorded songs for Blackstreet’s album Finally (none of which made it to the album) before Interscope Records disbanded them when Riley decided to reunite with Guy.
Eventually, Cantrell met Usher who introduced her to producer Tricky Stewart. Stewart’s initial plan for Cantrell was for her to join another girl group. But eventually, he came to the realization that she would be better as a solo artist.
With Stewart’s endorsement, there must have been quite a bit of excitement around Cantrell because there was a bidding war for her. Eventually, L.A. Reid and Arista Records won out.
That was the background of how Blu’s solo career began. Now let’s get into “Hit Em Up Style.”
Written and produced by Dallas Austin
Producer extraordinaire Dallas Austin, is known for writing hits for women. His catalog includes songs like TLC’s “Creep,” Monica’s “Just One Of Dem Days” and of course Cantrell’s “Hit ‘em Up Style.” Austin was the one who wrote and produced the entire thing. Starting with the production.
In a 2019 interview with Billboard, Austin said about the creation of the song:
“I needed actually to make another soul record, and I just couldn’t figure it out. And I was just sitting there watching Merrie Melodies, this little cartoon, and it was like… [makes the opening credit sound] and I said, “Wow that would be cool if I can make a song kind of like that sound, just updated.” So I went and wrote “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and I didn’t think anybody was going to like it. But when I played it for Blu Cantrell she said, “This is the most creative song I’ve heard in a long time.” And I said, “I’ll take that.”
Not Crazy About The Lyrics
Interestingly enough, according to Wikipedia, in a 2008 interview she conducted with Michael Baisden, Cantrell revealed that while she told Dallas she loved the musical composition of the song, she later claimed she wasn’t thrilled about the lyrical content. But, she told Baisden, that she was able to take that frustration out on the rest of the album.
Cantrell is not the only blue-eyed person associated with this hit. In addition to Dallas Austin being inspired by the Looney Tunes intro, “Hit ’em Up,” also features a sample from Fran Sinatra’s 1962 song”The Boys Night Out.” It wouldn’t be available to the public until the 1995 release of Sinatra’s The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings.
You can hear the exact moment that was sampled in the video below at 1:42.
All of the elements blended together to make a song people couldn’t seem to get enough of. “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)” was released on July 21, 2001 performed insanely well. It was Cantrell’s debut single but it landed at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, where it stayed for two consecutive weeks. It also cracked the top 50 songs in other European countries as well. Her subsequent album featuring the song debuted at number 8 on the Billboard 200.
In addition to its chart performance, Cantrell was nominated for a Grammy for her vocal performance. The song itself was nominated for Best R&B song that year.
Back in 2001, if you really wanted your song to soar, it had to have a killer video as well. And “Hit ’em Up” definitely had that angle working in its favor. We basically watched as Cantrell hit up all the stores spending money that didn’t belong to her. And as jilted as she had been by her man’s actions, we didn’t find anything wrong with it.
What was interesting about the video though is that years later, fans started to recognize that there was something off with the Neiman Marcus sign. Instead of being spelled correctly, the sign in front of the store read: “Neircus Marman.” I don’t know if this was done to protect Blu and Arista from litigation. But seeing as how it took fans years to spot the spelling.
In 2017, writer Gabby Noone tweeted, “just realized in the video for Blu Cantrell’s “hit em up style” she doesn’t shop at Neiman Marcus but rather: [picture of the story sign which reads: Neircus Marman.”
Check out the image of the misspelled sign at :20 second mark in the video on the next page.
What made it work?
It’s hard to point out one element that made this song so well-received across the world. But one thing it had going for it, was the fact that nothing else sounded like it on the radio in 2001. In the You Know I Got Soul interview, Cantrell said, “I couldn’t categorize “Hit ‘em Up Style” and I don’t think anybody could. That’s why it was being played on so many different radio stations. I don’t really like to categorize myself because most labels have a demographic for what type of people they’re trying to direct your record to or who is going to buy it. Everything they said, none of it happened. It ended up loved by 70-year-olds to 5-year-olds all over the world.”