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The strange story of Beach Boys visionary Brian Wilson's lost rap song
Guns N' Roses, Van Halen, LL Cool J, Lil Wayne – they've all taken strange new directions. None of them top Brian Wilson's attempt at a hip-hop record, though. Here's the story of his lost rap anthem.
The history of popular music is rife with ill-advised adventures across disparate genres. Axl Rose’s dalliance with gangster rap on the Guns N’ Roses song One In A Million springs to mind as an especially egregious example. There’s also Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth’s experiment with reggae with No Big ’Ting, Lil Wayne’s attempt to become a rockstar on Rebirth, and the less said about LL Cool J’s collaboration with Brad Paisley, Accidental Racist, the better. But for all the wild and weird attempts by renowned artists to mine different sounds and cultural touchstones, perhaps the wildest and weirdest of all was the Beach Boys savant Brian Wilson’s early ‘90s attempt to become the next big thing in hip-hop with his unreleased song, Smart Girls.
Smart Girls is a stultifying aberration; a glorious fever dream where the genius who wrote and composed Good Vibrations spits the corniest bars you’ve ever heard over an array of boom-bap drums and pre-teen giggling. “All the songs I used to write / talked about girls who weren’t too bright,” he raps in the second stanza. “As time goes on I’ve seen the light / intelligent chicks are dynamite.” One YouTube user described the track as, “Music that plays in the elevator on your way down to hell.” Others place it in the so-bad-it’s-actually good basket. Somewhere between both sentiments lies the real truth.
The song was originally intended to be the centrepiece of an album that Wilson was working on in 1990 called Sweet Insanity. The record was supposed to be his second solo effort, following the release of the critically-lauded, self-titled Brian Wilson album that came out just two years earlier. Unlike that first solo album, which was overseen by industry pros like Russ Titelman and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Sweet Insanity was largely produced and overseen by Wilson’s domineering therapist Eugene Landy – the villain of the piece in the excellent Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy.
Even with a collaboration with Bob Dylan on a song called The Spirit Of Rock & Roll on Sweet Insanity’s second side, plus guest appearances by Paula Abdul, Tom Petty,and "Weird Al" Yankovic, the bigwigs at Wilson’s label Sire, Seymour Stein and Lenny Waronker, hated the record and refused to release it. Through the years, however, most of the songs on Sweet Insanity have leaked out in bootleg form to the delight and the horror of Wilson’s admirers.
There are three supervillains in the life story of Brian Wilson. His father Murray, his one-time bandmate Mike Love and his therapist Eugene Landy. Wilson was a patient of Landy’s from around 1975 until 1992, when he won a restraining order against Landy, breaking once and for all the psychological hold he had over the singer. For years, Landy had frozen out Wilson’s family and friends, isolating him from those who might impugn on his ability to control Brian. There was hardly a single facet of Wilson’s life in which Landy didn’t have a personal or professional stake and by the ‘90s that included his music career. If you there’s anyone directly to blame for the existence of Smart Girls, it’s him.
In his second memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy describes the way Landy pushed him to make an album that he didn’t personally want to make. To begin with, he hated the proposed title, Sweet Insanity, which was explicitly designed to comment on how mental illness could be a net positive. And then there were the working conditions, which he abhorred. “The way Gene was trying to force me to make the record wasn’t a good scene,” Wilson wrote. “He kept on me all the time. He asked questions about every part. It was the strangest and worst way to make a record, with so much pressure and so much interference.”
According to his first memoir, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story – which was partially written by Landy himself in collaboration with People Magazine reporter Todd Gold and has since been challenged in court several times for defamation by numerous parties – the idea to write Smart Girls came about when Wilson was watching Yo! MTV Raps one night with Landy's then-partner Alexandra Morgan.
“Alexandra remarked that all the rap songs seemed to put women down. They were demeaning,” (possibly) Brian Wilson wrote. “I agreed and said we should try to write a positive rap.” Thus, we end up with cringe-inducing lines like, “Smart girls, I love the smart girls / you brainy babes with your attitudes,” and “I wanna hot hot, massive stimulation / women with more imagination.”
Of course, the idea of melding Beach Boys music with hip-hop isn’t completely absurd. UK producer Bullion found a way to blend the music of that group’s all-time great album Pet Sounds with the production of the late, great Detroit-based producer J Dilla to incredible affect in 2007 for the mash-up project Pet Sounds In The Key Of Dee. FACT later included that bootleg effort in their list of the most essential instrumental hip-hop albums of the last 15 years.
The music for Smart Girls was largely put together by a burgeoning hip-hop producer called Matt Dike. In the years prior to working with Wilson, Dike, who died in 2018 aged 56, co-founded the label Delicious Vinyl with Michael Ross and made a name for himself by releasing Tone-Loc’s hit track Wild Thing. He also worked with the Dust Brothers producing Beastie Boys’ multi-platinum smash Paul’s Boutique. For Smart Girls, Dike leaned into the sample-heavy aesthetic of the Dust Brothers, pulling in pieces from some of Wilson’s most beloved earlier hits like God Only Knows, California Girls, and Surfin’ USA, and married them with fuzzy electric guitars, boisterous horns, and treacly synth lines to create a wild kaleidoscope of disorienting sound. The whole thing is a big experiment in sonic kitsch.
However the strangest thing about Smart Girls – more than the bewildering lyrical content and falsetto-inflected chorus – is the simple act of listening to Brian Wilson rap. He is not a rapper. This doesn’t seem like a thing that needs to be said, but here we are. In fact, I’m going to say it again because it really, really bears repeating: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy, the man who practically invented the Southern California ideal in all its sunshine-y glory, is NOT a rapper. This is a suburban dad approaching 50 trying his best to hit hard rhymes objectifying women for both their intelligence AND their hips and breasts. It’s absolutely insane. More than anything, Wilson sounds pissed off as he moves from one verse to the next. It’s like he heard Brass Monkey one time and thought that’s what all of rap is supposed to sound like.
Of course, Smart Girls never got its chance to test the world's capacity to embrace MC Brian Wilson. Of all the songs on Sweet Insanity, Smart Girls was the one that his label masters despised the most. “We were just trying to make a statement and have a laugh at my past in the context of a rap song,” either Landy or Wilson wrote in Wouldn’t It Be Nice. “‘So what,’ Waronker said.”