Thirty years ago, Paula Abdul won her first Grammy Award, for Best Short Form Music Video for “Opposites Attract.” Directed by the husband-and-wife team Candace Reckinger and Michael Patterson (who’d worked on the animation for A-ha’s equally iconic “Take on Me”), the virtual duet between Abdul and bad-boy feline MC Skat Kat was an instant classic, and a loving homage to the pop star’s classic-Hollywood idol, Gene Kelly — specifically Kelly’s dancing duet with cartoon mouse Jerry (of Tom & Jerry) in 1945’s Anchors Away.
But the “Opposites Attract” video almost never got made at all.
“I wanted to be able to give a gift to Gene Kelly for all the gifts he’d given me of inspiration,” Abdul tells Yahoo Entertainment. “So that’s why I went into the record label, and I said, ‘Look, I know I have six singles out.’ It was groundbreaking then; I was the first female artist to have four consecutive No. 1s, six singles that were in the top five or top 10. Then I just said, ‘I want to do a long-form video.’ They said no, because they thought initially that I was asking for another single. They said, ‘You’re already oversaturated at radio. We don’t want people to hate listening to you!’ I said, ‘Well, not as a single, but just so I could give a gift to Gene Kelly’. … I had the whole idea of what I wanted to do. So at the end of the day, they agreed to let me do the video. Then Virgin Records loved the outcome, and they released it as a seventh single, and that went on to sell almost 8 million more records.”
Abdul recalls working with human body-double dancers filling in for her anthropomorphic cat partner — including tap-dancer Bill Bohls and street dancer Michael Chambers, a.k.a. Boogaloo Shrimp of Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2 fame (see Chambers’s live-action alternate performance below). “Back then, there was no motion-capture; everything was painstaking, artists painting cell by cell. … It was epic, extensive work to put this character together,” she says. Boogaloo Shrimp’s rehearsal scenes lent MC Skat Kat much of his vibrant, sassy personality — as did rapper/actor Derrick Stevens, a.k.a. Derrick Delite, who later released the much less successful spin-off album The Adventures of MC Skat Kat and the Stray Mob and a couple little-seen Reckinger/Patterson-directed music videos of his own. (Reckinger and Patterson also designed a line of never-released MC Skat Kat dolls.)
“Opposites Attract” became so huge that part of its lore, to this day, is that Weeds actor Romany Malco actually supplied the voice of MC Skat Kat — a myth that Abdul herself has perpetuated, even in this Yahoo Entertainment interview. Malco himself laughingly sets the record straight, telling Yahoo, “I was at Virgin Records trying to get my own record deal, and they were employing me by having me write for other artists, including Paula Abdul. And so, I would demo stuff. And then Paula was like, ‘I like this kid, would he be interested in writing for this animated cat?’ … And that’s how it was that music. But Paula Abdul tells everybody that it’s me! I’m like, ‘Why do you do that?’ She goes, ‘It makes a better story!’”
Malco, who had his own rap group R.M.G. in the early ‘90s, admits, “I afraid that wrapping the Skat Kat would tarnish my image,” but the “Opposites Attract” collaboration eventually, unexpectedly helped him break into film and television. “Many years later, they linked me to John Leguizamo, and that’s how I got into the film industry, because John Leguizamo wanted to rap like the cat,” Malco chuckles. “John was like, ‘I want to rap like this for The Pest [a 1997 film for which Malco was the music producer]. And then someone that I had worked with back then connected us. And that’s how I started acting.”
As for Abdul, “Opposites Attract” opened career doors for her as well. The Grammy and the extra 8 million in record sales were nice, of course. But the biggest reward for Abdul — who famously got her start choreographing for Janet Jackson, before becoming a superstar in her own right with Forever Your Girl, one of the most successful debut albums of all time — was getting to pay tribute to her hero, Kelly, who as a result became her friend and mentor.
“I always go back to my very first inspiration that allowed me to know this is my calling,” Abdul says. “It was when I was 4 years old and my family sat down and watched an MGM musical called Singing in the Rain. I was introduced to Gene Kelly at that tender age, and I was mesmerized. My parents told me that I walked up to the TV set, and I said, ‘This is my daddy!’ My father said, ‘No, I’m your father. That can be your TV dad.’ I kissed the TV, and I stood right in front of the TV, and I kept moving, dancing around. And that just led me on a path that I never looked back.”
Abdul eventually received a formal invitation to meet Kelly at his Beverly Hills home and play him the “Opposites Attract” music video; she recalls being a “nervous wreck,” circling the block for 45 minutes because she was so excited that she arrived for their appointment way too early. “Finally, I just pulled over, and I was waiting for it to become the time of the meeting — and I heard tapping on my car and it was him going, ‘Are you going to park and come in?’” she recalls with a laugh. Once Abdul and the dance legend got to chatting, it was “as if we had known each other forever,” and they quickly struck up a friendship that lasted until Kelly died in 1996. And in a full-circle moment, Kelly even arranged for Abdul to be digitally superimposed, MC Skat Kat-style, into a Diet Coke commercial that utilized Kelly’s — wait for it — old Anchors Away film footage.
“They removed Frank Sinatra and plopped me in. [Kelly] coached me. I would go over to his home, and he’d be at the piano with the stick, going, ‘All right, Abdul. On the count three, between three and four. … One, two, three again, again!’ It was incredible,” Abdul marvels. “I was literally mentored and taught by [Kelly]. … I just remember that I was so giddy, I kept pinching myself. I just couldn’t believe that I was able to give a gift of gratitude, and then receive the biggest gift back.”
The 63rd Annual Grammy Awards take place this Sunday, March 14. This year’s nominees for Best Short Form Music Video are Beyoncé, Blue Ivy & Wizkid’s “Brown Skin Girl,” Future’s “Life Is Good” featuring Drake, Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” Harry Styles’s “Adore You,” and Woodkid’s “Goliath.”
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by John Santo