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How ‘Return of the Mack’ Helped the World Get Its Swagger Back

In the mid-1990s, an unknown U.K. artist named Mark Morrison wrote a song in prison about getting over being cheated on. Decades later, that worldwide smash’s remixer and video director talk about its lasting appeal — and the demons that long haunted its creator

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

I graduated college in 1997, so the songs that were big that summer are forever imprinted on me. How could they not be: That summer was my first taste of adulthood, my first few months of being free of school. Everything seemed wide-open, which was very exciting and also terrifying. Consequently, songs weren’t just songs — they were a soundtrack to that new phase of my life. I didn’t realize it, of course — only later, hearing them again, do I recognize how they formed the sonic and emotional background of what was going on.

“Return of the Mack” was one of those songs, an anthem of macho swagger that young guys like me and my roommate leaned on. We were the furthest things from macks — we had very little game. But “Return of the Mack,” which peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. charts in June 1997, gave us hope. We had no idea who Mark Morrison was, but he was singing for us.

Morrison is sometimes thought of as a one-hit wonder, which isn’t remotely accurate. In the U.K., where he grew up, he had several Top 10 hits. But in the States, “Return of the Mack” was his sole smash, and he fell off our radar afterward. (My roommate bought a later single, called “Who’s the Mack!,” curious if Morrison had repeated the successful formula of the hit. He had not.) 

But his inability to sustain a career has done nothing to diminish the impact of “Return of the Mack.” The song remains incredibly popular on services like Spotify, and it pops up in the strangest places, including politicians’ public appearances. “Return of the Mack” is an absolute banger, but the main reason why it’s still so beloved is the same reason my roommate and I obsessed over it back in 1997. Every once in a while, we all want that swagger. It’s a song about getting your heart broken, being reduced to tears and then putting yourself back together, determined to make your ex sorry that she ever cheated. Even if you haven’t been newly dumped, “Return of the Mack” is the jet fuel for anyone plotting his comeback. But none of us could have imagined the guy giving us that shot of confidence would be so complicated and troubled.

Morrison was born in 1972, spending his childhood in Leicester. He performed as a boy, auditioning for a local kids’ production of Winnie the Pooh. He was cast as a beetle. “I was just happy to get into it,” Morrison said later. “My dad took me there on a Saturday morning, and there were a hundred kids trying to get in, so that letter of acceptance was like winning the lottery. I could have played a picture on the wall — I was just happy to see my father’s expression. That acceptance from your parents, making them proud.” His mom and dad had emigrated in the U.K. from Barbados, although the family spent time in Miami when Morrison was a teen. But by 19, he was back living in England. And he was running afoul of the law. For a lot of burgeoning American hip-hop acts, having a rap sheet was a badge of authenticity. But not in England. 

“Gangster rap, real gangster energy, from an artist was an American thing,” Jake Nava, who directed the “Return of the Mack” video, tells me. “The kids who were [going] through the system in England were just not behaving like that. And he was. He was getting himself into trouble because he came from a bit of a — well, actually, I’m not going to say exactly why he was getting himself into trouble, but he was. And that was part of his appeal.”

In the mid-1990s, Morrison was involved in an altercation with several others at a nightclub, which led to the death of Julian Leong. According to the Scottish Daily Record, “The singer punched Mr. Leong in the face and smashed a bottle. He told police he did it to calm the situation.” Morrison spent time in prison at least twice before “Return of the Mack,” which was written while he was incarcerated. Looking back on the origins of the song, he said he wanted to do something about “a love relationship. A boy and a girl, he wants to go into a higher elevation, and she has no confidence in her man, so she leaves him for another. He becomes a mack. She wants him back, but it don’t happen like that.”

Soon after being released from prison, he recorded his first album, Return of the Mack, which featured smoothed-out R&B with a hard edge to it. He had been noticed by Michael “Mickey D” Davis, an A&R man, who was intrigued by Morrison’s persona. “I found out about this guy called Mark Morrison who I’d heard a while back while I was still at EMI,” Davis said in 2020, later adding, “[I saw] this video of [Mark] performing and girls were screaming. I thought, ‘Who’s this guy? Never heard of him and he’s already got girls screaming for him.’ [We] signed him.”

On Return of the Mack, Morrison played the lover man on tracks like “Crazy” and “Horny,” his voice too rough to be called a croon, too high-pitched to have the rawness of gangster rap. “Mark had a very special-sounding voice, that very nasal kind of tone,” Danish producer Mich Hedin Hansen tells me. “You weren’t used to hearing it. At one point you’d think, ‘Is this a joke, or is this for real?’ But then you got used to it — and then you started to just love it. ‘Oh fuck me, this sounds great!’”

In 1995, a year before Return of the Mack came out, the label released two singles: the reggae-flavored “Crazy” and the funk-flavored sex jam “Let’s Get Down.” They both charted in the U.K., but Davis was worried. “[W]e thought we really have one more shot at this,” he said in that 2020 profile. “I wasn’t feeling the production of this third [single]. Mark started saying he wanted a ballad for this next single. I thought, ‘You can’t put a ballad out, without a hit first. We’re just gonna die.’ I wanted us to concentrate on this other song that we really liked.”

But that meant giving “this other song” a new mix. Davis turned to Hansen, who worked under the name Cutfather and at that time collaborated with fellow producer Joe Belmaati. (They went under the moniker Cutfather & Joe.) “I didn’t have a clue who Mike Morrison was because he hadn’t released any music at that point,” Hansen recalls. “But [Davis] played a couple of his demos and said, ‘Would you guys be up for remixing some of this stuff? I think it’s really good, but I don’t think it’s really there.’” 

Hansen had established himself as a writer and producer for artists like Queen Latifah, Patti LaBelle and CeCe Peniston, but he was feeling at a bit of a crossroads. “I had produced Queen Latifah and these obscure underground New York rap records. I [had done] a bunch of Danish pop music kind of productions and then ended up moving to L.A. for a bit,” he says. “And then after a period of time, I went back home [to Copenhagen] and wasn’t really sure what to do.” 

So the opportunity to work on these Morrison tracks was something he jumped at. “At first [Davis] said, ‘Can you do a remix on “Crazy”?’ I got all the files — I brought them back from London — and then about a week later, he called me and said, ‘Please hold [off] on working on that song. We decided to go with another song. I’ll send you over some other files.’ And that was the files for ‘Return on the Mack.’”

Speaking from Copenhagen, Hansen remembers what the original version sounded like. “It was very, very soft and sounded very slow,” he says. “It was just very toothless. It wasn’t really catchy. [The chorus] was obviously catchy — the singing of it was catchy — but the chords around it actually made it less commercial. It was like pop R&B, but in a quite uncool way.” Still, Hansen felt “it was a really cool song,” and once he and Belmaati said yes, their remix came together quickly. 

“It was one of the fastest productions I probably worked on for many years,” Hansen says. “It took maybe two hours to knock [out] all the production elements for the track. It was really super quick. I think I had a lot of the initial ideas. From [my] DJ background, [I thought], ‘Okay, [I’ll take] this beat from this song here, those chords from this song, these samples from these sounds.’ It was pretty much mapped [out] in my head, and Joe was really quick at programming. We ended up using absolutely nothing from the original production.” 

Despite popular assumption, Hansen insists that the drums on “Return of the Mack” aren’t a sample of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” saying, “Obviously, it’s very close to [those] drums. It’s very much like that. Mariah Carey also had a song out using a similar type of drums, ‘Fantasy.’” But as he also acknowledges, “At the time, there wasn’t a huge issue about clearing samples. Obviously, today it would be a completely different thing.” He asks me if I’m familiar with the site WhoSampled, which exhaustively lists all the samples used on different songs. When I say I am, Hansen responds, “I think they pretty much nailed a lot of it,” noting that “the chords were very inspired by a song called ‘Games’ by Chuckii Booker. It was an R&B song at the time, and I just loved that feeling of it. It was a patchwork of ideas from this and that, I would say.”

The original vocals remained pretty much untouched, preserving Morrison’s portrait of a guy dusting himself off after being betrayed. As the narrator explains, “Return of the Mack” is his “comeback song,” and he comes out of the gate bragging and taunting.

Well, I tried to tell you so (Yes, I did) 
But I guess you didn’t know 
As the saddest story goes 
Baby, now I got the flow 
‘Cause I knew it from the start 
Baby, when you broke my heart 
That I had to come again 
And show you that I’d win  

You lied to me 
All those times I said that I loved you 
You lied to me 
Yes, I tried
Yes, I tried 
You lied to me 
Even though you knew I’d die for you 
You lied to me 
Yes, I cried
Yes, I cried

And then comes that wonderful flurry of “Return of the mack”s in the chorus — each of them silky and steely at the same time, each of them impossibly hooky, Morrison serving as his own call-and-response. As the song rolls along, he condemns his ex for cheating on him, letting her know just how much she hurt him. He admits to crying over the betrayal, but he’s determined to move on without her, better than ever. 

As far as Hansen knows, that initial version of “Return of the Mack” that he and Belmaati were given has never been released, but the strutting, popping remix they delivered was as triumphant as Morrison’s words. Which is even more impressive considering Hansen really didn’t consider the song’s themes when he put together the track.

“I must say, it didn’t mean one thing,” he says with a sheepish laugh. “He could have sung whatever. As long as the groove was the right groove and it sounded fucking cool and I could dance to it, then that was it. I think it’s also because I’m a Danish guy. English is not my first language — obviously, I could speak English and I understood everything he was saying. But [the lyrics] weren’t a big part of the production of it.”

After the producers sent their track to the label, “I didn’t really hear that much back,” Hansen says. “I just heard, ‘Oh, we like this, this is cool.’ They sent a check. You had a feeling that it was a cool-sounding record, but he was a new artist and you didn’t really know what was happening.” A few months later, though, Hansen heard from a manager of another artist he was working with that buzz was building in the U.K. for “Return of the Mack.” Hansen called Davis, who told him, “I think this is going to be good.”

When “Return of the Mack” came out in the spring of 1996 in the U.K., it went to No. 1, knocking the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” from the top spot. It was accompanied by a video that played up Morrison’s tough-guy persona, presenting him as a well-dressed, cocky individual prowling London and reclaiming his turf. Like Hansen, Jake Nava had never met Morrison when he came up with his treatment for the clip. In fact, Nava still has the original document. “‘The video I envisage maximizes Mark’s performance, his impact, identity as the mack daddy of British R&B,’” Nava reads to me from his East London home. “It would stand up to American hip-hop videos with its own British twist is what I had going on in my head.” Nava wanted the video to represent two different worlds: “the futuristic uptown and the subterranean downtown.”

A film school alum who also used to run a nightclub, Nava had shot a few videos before putting together his proposal for “Return of the Mack,” running into Morrison soon after and pitching his idea directly to him. Nava shared a bond with Morrison, who similarly had one foot in America and one foot in the rest of the world. “Although he was from Leicester, [he] had American family and had lived in America for quite a while,” says Nava. “So he had a genuinely American hip-hop influence on him.” As for Nava, “I grew up the son of a Black Mexican, and a half-Austrian, half-Dutch white woman in London,” he tells me. “I was a mixed-race person with a mixed culture. My dad was from the ghetto, the barrios of Acapulco, and I grew up in trendy North London listening to Soul II Soul. I was watching American videos, and [what’s] led me on my path, compared to some other peers of mine, was that I was always into Black music. And at that time, the biggest, baddest hip-hop videos mainly were American.”

Working with stylist Karen Binns — “she’s from Brooklyn, but she was the honorary Black American in London” — Nava shaped Morrison’s look, drawing from the singer’s personal style. “The chain was his chain, but the black polo neck and the sharp mod suit [were] totally from the fact that I used to be a little mod,” Nava tells me. “I thought he should be like the Black James Bond.” 

Most American listeners would probably have assumed Morrison was American. After all, the R&B/hip-hop sound of “Return of the Mack” wouldn’t have felt out of place from the rap and New Jack Swing that was popular in the States. Plus, you couldn’t hear his accent when he sang. But the harder image that Black American musical artists projected wasn’t as prevalent in England, which made the Morrison of the “Return of the Mack” video a fascinating anomaly for U.K. music fans.

“We were totally on the tip of bringing high fashion and fusing it with the swag of Black British street culture,” Nava says. “Part of why he stood out was that that particular combination of refined British tailoring and ghetto-fabulous, leather-coat and pimped-out energy was unique to him and made sense for him. It wasn’t like that was established stuff that we ripped off. It was literally mixing the rude boy with the superfly.” 

I reached out several times to Morrison in the hopes of interviewing him for this piece, but I got no response. So I was curious what Morrison was like: How much did he resemble the strutting mack of the video? “He was a bit of a handful” is how Nava puts it. “My dad” — a performance artist — “was a bit of a handful, and so I was more acclimatized than average to dealing with complicated creative personalities, let’s say. And Mark was complicated in his way — he was getting a lot of attention, but he obviously had a bit of a tearaway side to him that did not dissipate just because he was experiencing success.”

And yet, despite the video’s swagger — its homages to gangster-rap but also British gangster cinema — there are also trace elements of melancholy within the narrative. It was absolutely accidental, but when Nava filmed Morrison in the car, he noticed that rain on the window ran across his face, making it look like tears, perhaps hinting at the pain the character was still feeling about losing his girl. “The combination of tough but vulnerable did make his masculinity more layered than average,” says Nava. “[It] did make for a slightly more relatable and compelling emotional landscape for the ‘I’m the man’ vibe of the video that I was going for.” 

Sometimes, U.K. acts conquer their homeland before they cross over to the U.S., and that was certainly true of Morrison, who had four subsequent singles hit the Top 10 in 1996 and early 1997 before “Return of the Mack” began making waves stateside. It never got to the top spot here — “MMMBop” and “I’ll Be Missing You” blocked Morrison’s path — but a new audience was discovering him, although he couldn’t do much to celebrate his success in America.

That’s because he was facing legal problems at home. In October 1996, he got arrested for threatening a cop with a stun gun. “I feared he was going to fire the gun into my body and I hit him on the head with my radio,” the police officer later said. “He was trying to use the gun on me but I struggled with him and prevented it.” Morrison, who purchased the gun in the U.S., claimed he didn’t know it was illegal in the U.K. Nonetheless, Morrison was sent to prison for three months. (He only served about six weeks.) Then, he was arrested at the end of 1997 for an altercation outside of a nightclub. And then, incredibly, the following year, he was sentenced to a year in prison for sending a lookalike to do his community service in connection to his part in the fight that led to Leong’s death. (“I sent someone else to do the community hours, but I never lied about it,” he later told The Guardian. “People asked, ‘Did you do them?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I just didn’t say I did all of them. I’d sold millions of records as I reached the end of my hours. So what was I going to do — eight hours of mopping and sweeping, or go to Europe for promotion?”)

But a 2002 incident was far more serious: He was accused of rape. Morrison was never charged, however, and the police reportedly found no evidence of penetration or DNA. Years later, he was still infuriated about what had happened. “I think some police know when they’ve been fucked over, ‘cause they didn’t put me in a cell, they just let me loiter around,” he said. “A month passes and all I’m seeing is headlines about the case, yet I’ve still heard nothing from the police. So I go and see them, and a man signs a paper and that’s it. I ask when they’re arresting her, and they’re like, ‘Get out — don’t tell us what to do.’ Those women should get the same punishment for crying rape that a man would get for committing the crime of rape. I really believe that, ‘cause they fuck it up for genuine rape victims. That’s what makes me more angry than anything else.”

Meanwhile, his career fizzled. In 1997, he put out an EP, Only God Can Judge Me, whose single “Who’s the Mack!” reached the Top 20 in the U.K. In the early 2000s, he fashioned a proper follow-up to Return of the Mack, signing with Death Row Records. But the album, Innocent Man, failed to materialize, and when Morrison moved to a new label, 2 Wickd, label head (and soccer star) Kevin Campbell gained a court injunction preventing Morrison from releasing it through another label. Morrison remained defiant: “The whole world is waiting for this album and it will come out on December 27th,” he claimed in 2004. “No injunction or judge will stop it. The Mack will return.” The record didn’t arrive until 2006, its title track claiming, “I’m an innocent man / Misunderstood / I’m an innocent man / Just from the ‘hood.”

Morrison hoped that, in a different way than “Return of the Mack,” Innocent Man could be his comeback song. “I was in court more than I was on Top of the Pops,” he lamented to The Independent in 2006 about his bygone heyday, vowing not to let his past define him. Still, he wanted journalists to know how seismic his greatest hit was. “‘Return of the Mack’ was the most important record in Black British music,” he declared. “You say why? At that time nothing was really happening on the Black British music scene. It was Jodeci, R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige. Everything was from America. Then that record came and ever since it went to No. 1, we’ve never stopped having certain spasms of success stories. It restored the faith at radio and TV that Black British artists can make music that is just as good as our American counterparts. We can make quality videos, and give good performances.”

Other R&B chestnuts of the late 1990s have faded into obscurity, but “Return of the Mack” has had remarkable staying power. And a big reason is that Morrison tapped into something many listeners could understand. “Even the toughest, most streetwise guys get their hearts broken,” Nava says. “And the first time you get your heart broken, it hurts, possibly like it’ll never hurt again. Something about that resonated — that combination of absolute bravado, swag, confidence and that relatable vulnerability of someone who’s been hurt by the woman they love, the woman they desire. That was a universal thing that he captured — getting lied to by your girl is something that doesn’t happen to everyone, but when it does happen, you never forget it.”

As a result, “Return of the Mack” lives on, serving as a call to arms for dudes trying to psych themselves up. Macklemore’s raise-the-roof “Can’t Hold Us” starts with the rapper name-checking Morrison’s song, while presidential hopeful Andrew Yang would take the stage to “Return of the Mack,” seeking to siphon off some of its brashness. 

The song has been sampled and covered plenty, most recently last year on “Providence,” by G-Eazy, who had Chris Brown and Mark Morrison himself on the track. But Hansen also proudly points to a 2019 concert clip in which Post Malone, who’d previously covered “Return of the Mack” alongside Craig Robinson and Seth Rogen, tells the audience, “I think that’s the best song that’s ever been fuckin’ made.” 

I ask Hansen, who went on to work with Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue, what makes “Return of the Mack” hold up soundwise. Even he’s not entirely sure. “I’ve heard it a million times, being that close to it, and a lot of songs and a lot of productions that I worked on, after a couple years you think, ‘Oh, okay, this sounds pretty dated now,’” he admits. “But to me, that one is still as fresh-sounding and great-sounding as when we did it. It stands the test of time.”

Hansen was only in the same room with Morrison once, and it was brief. “We met at the [record label] office,” he says. “[Belmaati and I] ended up [remixing], I think, five songs from that album, but we never got into production where we were recording vocals with him. When he was supposed to do the next record, he was booked to fly to Copenhagen and we were booked to have sessions with him, but it never happened. There was all sorts of stuff: ‘Can you book this limo and studio and arrange some girls?’ I don’t know, he never came; it’s weird.” He and Morrison exchange messages on Instagram occasionally: “We just congratulate each other [on ‘Return of the Mack’ hitting 200 million plays on Spotify] and whatever. So there’s a connection there, but we never actually got to work [together], which is hilarious.”

Nava made several videos with Morrison after “Return of the Mack.” He’s also gone on to direct clips for Britney Spears, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé — most notably, “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” When “Crazy in Love” won three prizes at the 2003 Music Video Awards, he got a message from Morrison. “I was pleased about that,” Nava says. “And I did hear from someone that he was around and had been talking about doing some business venture with someone that I vaguely knew — and I thought, ‘Wow, I should get in touch.’ But I haven’t spoken to him in a while.”

If you go to Morrison’s Instagram page, he often posts new Stories. Sometimes, he’s getting a massage. Sometimes, he’s hanging out in Miami. When Return of the Mack celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special-edition vinyl rerelease, he promoted it on his page. But outside of the occasional collaboration, he’s mostly been out of the spotlight. In 2020, he recorded a charity single to benefit Hope Against Cancer. A few years earlier, he was involved in one of the strangest fast-food ads ever, lending “Return of the Mack” to a Burger King commercial for… well, you should just watch this:

Breakup songs come in many forms, but the subgenre typified by “Return of the Mack” is a particularly potent one. From “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to “Found Out About You” to “Cry Me a River” to “I Knew You Were Trouble,” indelible hits have given us a melody and some bitter lyrics to complement our anger and sorrow. But Morrison’s smash emphasized his narrator’s desire to show up his ex. It wasn’t a sob story — it was a tale of triumphing over the odds. 

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Morrison’s personal story somewhat mirrored that of the guy in the song — both of them are looking to rise from the ashes. “People’s demons don’t just dissipate because they’re having success in their career,” Nava tells me. “That’s a bit of a surprise to people who don’t have demons. Mark was a tough kid who came from a pretty tough area of England. I remember his management and stuff were pretty hardcore, and I also remember that, at that time, there were elements within the British music industry that were definitely like America that were affiliated with organized crime. Some of that gangster energy that he was rolling with was authentic. Some of that was stuff that he was having to deal with for real.”

In 2020, Morrison talked about changing his way. He visited his old hometown of Leicester, expressing a desire to help the kids who grew up in the same tough circumstances as he had. “People here look at me and think, ‘We know him, we know he got stabbed, we know he went to prison, but we know he came out on top,’” he said. “Everyone gets a second chance, it took me 20 years to get mine.”

There’s a clip from the early 2000s in which Morrison looks back at the success of “Return of the Mack” and the brushes with the law that followed. He’s wearing shades and a Death Row sweatshirt. He’s got a cigar in his hand. “The future is just, if I can be here on this show another five years from now … and talk about how great 2001, 2002 was, that would be because I worked on me — and the work I’ve done on me is successful.” 

Whether it’s my old roommate or Mark Morrison, or anyone else listening to that song, “Return of the Mack” holds the promise that your comeback is just a few minutes away, embedded in the dream an unknown singer put out there into the world, which everybody embraced as their own.