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A Brief History of That ‘Bad Boys’ Song They’re Always Singing in the ‘Bad Boys’ Movies

How a cautionary tale about wayward youths unwittingly became a pro-cop anthem

In Bad Boys for Life, Marcus (Martin Lawrence) makes an appeal to his partner Mike (Will Smith): Maybe it’s time for them to stop being bad boys and start trying to be good men. It’s an eminently reasonable suggestion — after all, they’re dudes in their 50s, not young turks anymore — but Mike isn’t having it:

Of course, they’re referencing the song “Bad Boys.” You probably don’t know who made the song, but you’ll have the chorus embedded in your brain until death…

Bad boys, bad boys
Whatcha gonna do?
Whatcha gonna do
When they come for you? 

With its laidback reggae groove and chanted chorus, the song became part of the fabric of the Bad Boys franchise. But even before then, “Bad Boys” had become ingrained in the culture — all thanks to a little show called Cops:

One of the first big reality-show sensations, Cops debuted in 1989, its depiction of low-rent crooks making asses of themselves when confronted by law enforcement proving instantly addictive. The show’s cheap production values and tawdry subject matter — the breathless announcer opened each episode informing the viewer, “Cops is filmed on location as it happens” — made it perfect trash TV, and the mindlessly catchy “Bad Boys” nicely fit the stoned-at-two-in-the-morning vibe.

“Back in 1988, I was a Bob Marley fan — still am — and I thought it would be very interesting to counterpoint law enforcement with reggae,” Cops creator John Langley told Entertainment Weekly in 2017 about selecting “Bad Boys” as his show’s theme song. “It seemed to announce, this is not your regular cop show with a Hill Street Blues kind of theme.” He and his team scoured CDs looking for the right track. That’s when a field producer found an album from the group Inner Circle. “I heard the song and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the song for the show.’”

Inner Circle were hardly a new band when Langley stumbled upon them — but they weren’t exactly household names, either. The group formed in 1968 in Jamaica, recording a series of albums that failed to make a dent on the charts. The brainchild of brothers Ian and Roger Lewis, Inner Circle included “Bad Boys” on their 1987 album One Way, never intending it to become a pro-cop anthem. If anything, “Bad Boys” was supposed to be a cautionary tale for young people who were going down the wrong path. “It’s about the youth acting erratically,” Ian Lewis said in a 1994 Billboard interview. “Around the world, the kids are the same in their dress and in their lifestyle. And they all [gravitate toward] the sound of reggae.” 

A decade later in the same Entertainment Weekly interview mentioned above, he went into more detail about the song’s origins:

“The song was written about a teenage young man that I met a long time ago in Jamaica, and he was changing from this nice, young schoolboy into what he thought to be a man. He didn’t quite get his independence from his mom and his dad, and his mom and dad were hardworking people. When I would visit him and just talk to him, he would get mad for nothing. He would say, ‘I want to go outside and play and they don’t want me to play. I want to buy a car, they don’t want me to drive it.’ I’m saying to him, ‘You have to understand, there are rules and regulations. Life has a way after a while to teach certain things that you have to learn for yourself but you have to take the lead from your parents, you know?’ But I saw the rebelliousness coming. Looking at him, the song just came to me.”

Lewis has always claimed that he was confused about what kind of show Cops was — “We were told by the producers … that [it] was a docudrama,” he told Billboard — but the program’s popularity launched “Bad Boys” into the Billboard Top 10 in 1993. And it eventually helped the song find its way into the original Will Smith-Martin Lawrence film.

In Bad Boys, “Bad Boys” is meant to be triumphant — the song is Mike and Marcus’ outlet for celebrating their ass-kicking, crime-fighting selves. And in the new movie, the duo’s young colleagues, part of an elite new police program, start singing “Bad Boys” like it’s their team’s fight song — which it sorta is because they’re cops, right? 

If Ian Lewis feels conflicted about a song he wrote for a troubled kid ending up being coopted by law enforcement and action movies, he’s keeping it to himself. Late last year, the band spent some time on the set of Bad Boys for Life. “The respect that dem show we was just out of this world,” Lewis said at the time. “They actually cut the shooting and came to greet us. Dem sing the song, dem hug we up, dem take pictures. There was like 40 people on the set, and everybody was just a fan. Everybody had an idea who did the song, but dem never know we were authentic, real Jamaican.”

I imagine fans of “Bad Boys” — and Bad Boys and Cops — don’t know a lot about the guys who made the song, or even what the song is about. But we all definitely know the chorus.