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Forever No. 1: Crazy Town’s ‘Butterfly’

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Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Crazy Town frontman Shifty Shellshock by looking at their lone No. 1 as a group: the surprisingly nice and sweet rap-rock staple “Butterfly.”

By 2001, rap-rock and nu-metal had long since taken over the world. From the mid-’90s peak of Rage Against the Machine and instruments-era Beastie Boys through the late-’90s takeover of KoRn and Limp Bizkit and the eventually diamond-certified breakthrough of Linkin Park’s 2000 debut LP Hybrid Theory, bands mixing loud guitars with aggressive rhymes and copious record-scratching grew into a truly massive piece of the music industry. They infected TRL and dominated Woodstock ’99 and terrified your Backstreet-and-Britney-worshipping younger siblings. But they didn’t get to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 until Crazy Town.

To some extent, that’s not surprising. The dawn-to-dusk of the entire nu-metal era transpired when radio was still king on the charts, and top 40 airplay in particular formed the shape of the Hot 100. Many of the genre’s biggest bands were heavy and abrasive enough that they struggled to even secure regular alternative rock airplay, let along crossover playlisting on the pop stations. These groups often outsold the pop hitmakers at the top of the Hot 100, but they weren’t a particularly imposing threat to their supremacy on the airwaves. That was particularly true because, unlike in the hair metal era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — the prior period where hard rock played an obviously central role in music’s mainstream — few, if any of these bands made room for power ballads or love songs between their ragers, the kind of songs that could expand both their radio reach and their demographic appeal. In other (highly reductive) words, none of these bands of angry young dudes wrote songs for women.

Crazy Town did, though. Or at least, they wrote one, for one woman: “Butterfly,” co-penned by group frontman Seth Binzer — known professionally as Shifty Shellshock, who died this week at age 49 — was inspired by a new girlfriend who made him take a second look at his traditionally misogynistic lyrical content. “I was in love [with her,] and she was asking, ‘What’s up with all these lyrics? Is that what you’re like?’” Shellshock recalled to Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. “So that made me come up with the concept of writing a song to her. Instead of writing a male chauvinistic song, I was going to write something nice and sweet to a girl I cared about.”

The lyrics to “Butterfly” are indeed nice and sweet — particularly compared to distinctly un-Hallmark prior Crazy Town singles like “Toxic” (“F–k the critics, we leave them hanging like INXS”) and “Darkside” (“Unearthin’ untamed perversion/ My bad brain’s workin’, circle-jerkin’”). Rather, “Butterfly” celebrates the titular love interest with a series of straightforwardly romantic and decently heartfelt verse tributes (“I used to think that happy endings were only in the books I read/ But you made me feel alive when I was almost dead”) and a chorus hook (“You’re my butterfly, sugar baby”) worthy of The Archies. A few questionable couplets, namely one from co-lead Brett “Epic” Mazur comparing him and his intended to storied punk lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen — who died by murder-suicide at the former’s hand — invariably opened the song up to Awesomely Bad-type ribbing. But as far as 21st century mainstream rock love songs go, it’s actually pretty touching.

More critical than the lyrics, though, was that the song sounded especially nice and sweet. Whereas the overwhelming majority of signature nu-metal anthems were confrontational head-bangers, the beat to “Butterfly” is a slow-and-low shuffle, with the record-scratching mostly contained to a background flourish. And while no one would mistake Shellshock’s rapped lead for one of 98 Degrees, his come-ons wisely hew closer to gentle invitation than yawped insistence; the most striking vocals on the entire song come via the complementary toneless backing whispers on the hook (“You make me go CRAZY….“)

But what really gives “Butterfly” its wings is the Red Hot Chili Peppers sample. In fact, in terms of both inspiration and utility, you could make the case for it being one of the 10 most important pop samples of the entire 21st century — it’s hard to think of too many other hits this big where the lift was this crucial to both the makeup of the song and the reason for it taking flight. Especially because its source is at once both incredibly obvious (a mostly shirtless bunch of SoCal rap-rockers finding kinship with an RHCP track, duh) and remarkably obscure: The percolating bass, weightless guitars and rising-sun horns of “Butterfly” are looped not from one of the Chili Peppers’ hits, but from a pre-crossover 1989 deep cut called “Pretty Little Ditty,” a disorientingly gorgeous four-measure pattern that briefly materializes mid-song and disappears for good immediately after.

While the mini-groove was just a flash of divinity in the original “Ditty,” it makes up the whole musical spine of “Butterfly,” running throughout the entire track. Mazur admitted to Bronson he never expected to get the sample cleared, given the band’s traditional reticence for approving such recycling of their songs, saying, “If we had to fight to get it cleared or they didn’t like it, we would have come up with some other music.” It’s utterly impossible to imagine any version of “Butterfly” without the full “Ditty” sample, though — everything about the song’s particular alchemy depends not only on the sample’s melodies and sonics, but in the built-in (and lived-in) Chili Peppers reference point.

Hot 100

However, with the heavenly sample elevating Shellshock’s sealed-with-a-kiss mash note lyrics — and a perfect accompanying visual in the lush, pleasantly psychedelic music video, co-starring his eventual wife Melissa Clark — “Butterfly” flapped higher than even any RHCP hit. While the latter band’s generational power ballad “Under the Bridge” stalled at No. 2 on the Hot 100 (behind Kris Kross’ “Jump”), Crazy Town’s breakout smash got all the way to No. 1 on the chart dated March 24, 2001, replacing Joe’s “Stutter” on top. It then gave way to Shaggy and Rayvon’s “Angel” — another romantic ode based around a lovey-dovey-all-the-time rock lift — before reclaiming the top spot, then ceding it for good to Janet Jackson’s seven-week No. 1 “All for You.”

“Butterfly” was not only Crazy Town’s only visit to the Hot 100’s top spot, it was their sole cameo on the entire chart. Gift of Gab follow-up “Revolving Door” made the Official UK Singles Chart’s top 40, and “Drowning” (from 2002 sophomore LP Darkhorse) earned some rock airplay, but the group was never interested in attempting another “Butterfly,” and they broke up shortly after Darkhorse. Shellshock had better fortunes outside of the group, scoring another sublime summery smash with the Paul Oakenfold-led dance-rock skate-along “Starry-Eyed Surprise,” peaking just outside the Hot 100’s top 40 and making the U.K.’s top 10. He scored one more minor hit with the solo “Slide Along Side” (as just Shifty), but his music career was largely sidelined by substance abuse; when he returned to music television in the late ’00s, it was as a cast member on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab.

But even if “Butterfly” was the lone pillar of Shellshock’s musical legacy, it would still be a sturdy one. The song’s sun-drenched, genre-blending composition and unmistakably of-its-time sound and vision have made it an enduringly iconic snapshot of its era — further helped by its extensive usage in early-’00s comedies like Saving Silverman and Orange County and TV shows like Daria and Undeclared. And while later smashes from Linkin Park, Evanescence and Staind all were able to reach the top five of the Billboard Hot 100, “Butterfly” remains unaccompanied on its perch, still the only nu-metal song to top the chart in its history.

Andrew Unterberger
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