> Santana’s “Maria Maria” (Feat. The Product G&B)

Santana’s “Maria Maria” (Feat. The Product G&B)

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Before 2000, Carlos Santana had never won a Grammy. He’d only been nominated three times, all for instrumentals, and he’d lost out on all three awards. That changed. On Grammy night 1999, Santana ended the awards telecast by performing “To Zion” with Lauryn Hill, who pretty much swept the show that year. One year later, Santana reigned over the Grammys in even more commanding fashion. That night, Carlos Santana took home eight statuettes, tying Michael Jackson’s Thriller-era record for the most Grammys that one person had ever won in one night.

Santana’s Supernatural album actually took home nine awards; Santana would’ve broken Jackson’s record if he’d had a songwriting credit on “Smooth,” the out-of-nowhere smash that had dominated the Hot 100 for months at the end of 1999. “Smooth” songwriters Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur won Song Of The Year, and Santana also got Record Of The Year and Album Of The Year — a clean sweep of the big three categories. If Grammy voters could’ve figured out a way to hand Best New Artist to Santana, they probably would’ve done that, too. The night ended with Bob Dylan and Lauryn Hill handing Album Of The Year to Santana — pretty good company.

That night was certainly a vindication for Carlos Santana, who’d been recording for more than three decades and who was suddenly bigger than he’d ever been. It was even more of a vindication for Clive Davis, the Arista Records boss who’d masterminded Santana’s grand comeback. Davis had originally signed Santana to Columbia in 1969, and he’d taken on the mission of putting Carlos Santana back on the radio after many hitless years. Clive Davis is one of the most mercenary hit-chasers in the history of the music business, and Supernatural was a monster of a hit. By Grammy night, it had sold eight million copies in the US alone, and it was on the way to 15-times platinum. But Supernatural was also the kind of story that the industry functionaries and studio musicians who vote in the Grammys could get behind. A boomer icon, famous for virtuosity and for genre-blurring hybridism, had captured the mass imagination in a time when teen pop was on the rise. How could Grammy voters resist?

Clive Davis had launched Santana’s whole Supernatural project at his annual pre-Grammy party in 1999. A year later, he watched proudly as his old friend Carlos Santana won every award the business could think to heap on him. At that point, Clive Davis was 67 years old, and plenty of people probably assumed that he was about ready to retire. At Davis’ own label, plenty of people questioned the wisdom of pouring money into an album from a middle-aged guitarist whose hitmaking days seemed to be long gone. But Supernatural proved that a commercially savvy exec like Clive Davis could turn an unlikely prospect into a blockbuster success when everything lined up just right.

Clive Davis and Carlos Santana didn’t need any further vindication after Grammy night, but they got it anyway. “Smooth” is the Supernatural smash that everyone remembers, the song that captured its moment completely. But “Smooth” wasn’t the only hit on Supernatural. The album’s second big single wasn’t just a victory-lap hit, and it didn’t just cruise to the top on the strength of the appreciation for “Smooth.” Instead, “Maria Maria” held the top of the Hot 100 for nearly as long as “Smooth” itself had done, and its success represented the absolute peak of the period when Wyclef Jean had positioned himself as the prestige equivalent of Puff Daddy.

Wyclef Jean was already a very, very big deal before “Maria Maria.” Wyclef had been born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, and he’d moved to the US with his family at the age of nine. Two of Wyclef’s cousins, Pras Michel and Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, moved to the US around the same time. Wyclef arrived in Brooklyn, then moved to Newark and East Orange, New Jersey. In the early ’90s, Wyclef, Pras, and Lauryn Hill teamed up to become the Fugees. Lauryn Hill was the group’s obvious breakout star, but Wyclef produced most of the group’s records, and he tended to position himself as their frontman. The Fugees didn’t last. After the huge success of their 1996 sophomore album The Score, the group broke up, largely because Wyclef and Lauryn’s romantic relationship ended badly. Wyclef went solo, and his 1997 album The Carnival went double platinum. Clef’s highest-charting solo single, the weirdly beautiful drug-trafficker folk-rap lament “Gone Till November,” peaked at #7. (It’s a 10.)

For a few years, Wyclef was inescapable. Much of Lauryn Hill’s album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill had consisted of shots at Wyclef, but Wyclef pretty much acted like he hadn’t noticed. Instead, he embraced his role as a shameless genre-smashing entertainer. The press loved him — an immigrant rapper who wrote in multiple languages, played guitar, and did onstage backflips. Wyclef also remixed and rapped on Destiny’s Child’s first big hit, 1997’s “No, No, No,” which peaked at #3. (It’s an 8.)

Wyclef’s various proteges — Pras, Canibus, John Forte — didn’t really work out, for any number of reasons. Canibus had been the most hyped-up rap rookie of 1998, and he’d gotten a lot of attention for a fun feud with LL Cool J. (Canibus’ anti-LL broadside, 1998’s “Second Round KO,” peaked at #28; it’s his only Hot 100 hit.) But when it came time to release an album, Canibus spent half of his single rapping from the perspective of a sperm. You can’t become Puff Daddy when your Biggie is the guy talking about “look at me, I’m jizz.” It’s been 24 years, and I still can’t get over “I’ma be the one to fertilize that egg.” The fact that Wyclef and Canibus were allowed to try this lunacy suggests that the music business had a whole lot of faith in Wyclef’s hitmaking abilities.

Wyclef signed on to work with Santana after Lauryn Hill had already done it, and this must’ve been a no-brainer for Clive Davis — one more of-the-moment rap hitmaker who wanted in on his project. Jerry Wonda had been working as Wyclef’s regular co-producer ever since the early Fugees days, and he’d also been the music director for the Fugees when they’d been on tour. During one of those late Fugees tours, Wyclef and Jerry Wonda went to visit Carlos Santana in his San Francisco studio, and they came up with “Maria Maria” within a few hours. Jerry Wonda played bass, and he and Wyclef concocted the beat on an MPC and a drum machine.

The “Maria Maria” drum pattern would’ve been familiar to anyone who’d been listening to rap for long enough. Herbie Hancock’s jazz fusion group the Headhunters had released their album Survival Of The Fittest in 1975, and its opening track was a long, hard-vamping Pointer Sisters collaboration called “God Make Me Funky.” (Herbie Hancock’s highest-charting single, 1974’s “Chameleon,” peaked at #42. The Pointer Sisters’ two highest-charting singles, 1978’s “Fire” and 1981’s “Slow Hand,” both peaked at #2. They’re both 7s.) The loping drum break from the “God Make Me Funky” intro had already shown up on tracks from people like Biz Markie, N.W.A, De La Soul, and Prince. Wyclef and Jerry Wonda turned it into the spine of their “Maria Maria” beat.

The “God Make Me Funky” drum break is the only sample on “Maria Maria,” but it’s not the song’s only example of the sampling mindset at work. Years later, Wyclef admitted that the keening central riff from “Maria Maria” had come from the Wu-Tang Clan’s anthemically dusty 1993 anthem “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit.” (The highest-charting single credited to the full Wu-Tang Clan is 1994’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” which peaked at #60.) On the Wu-Tang track, that riff had been all ominous swirling tension — a sound of forces gathering for battle. In translating that riff to “Maria Maria,” Wyclef turned it into something bittersweet and contemplative. That’s what sampling is supposed to do — taking a sound, stripping it of its context, and recasting it in a completely different light.

Most of the “Maria Maria” lyrics came from Wyclef freestyling in the studio. Listening to “Maria Maria,” that’s a little too obvious. “Maria Maria” is supposed to tell the story of a Latina woman who’s struggling and looking for a come-up, whether she’s in Spanish Harlem or East Los Angeles. Maria lives like a movie star, but she sees suffering all around her — streets getting hotter, eviction letters in the mailbox — and she tries to picture a better world. But Wyclef leaves her story rough and unfinished. We don’t know how things turn out for Maria; we just know that she reminds Wyclef of West Side Story. (Wyclef’s lyrics were always a little on the nose.) The song’s most memorable parts don’t really have much to do with Maria herself. There’s the cool Spanish-language chant from Santana himself, which helps to ground the track. And there’s the bit about the guitar “played by Carlos Santana,” which almost hits like product placement.

Wyclef might’ve come up with those lyrics while freestyling, but he doesn’t rap on “Maria Maria.” He’s on the song to play hypeman and to make sure everyone knows he’s there, but the lead “Maria Maria” vocals came from a pair of Wyclef proteges who never made another hit. The Product G&B is the duo of Long Island natives David “Sincere” McRae and Marvin “Money Harm” Moore-Hough. Sincere had called a New York studio to talk to a friend, and when Fugees member Pras answered the phone, the two of them ran six blocks to meet him. Pras introduced the singers to Wyclef, who eventually signed them to his Yclef imprint. Wyclef presumably gave the duo the “G&B” in their ungainly-ass name. It stood for “Ghetto & Blues,” even though “ghetto” is not a genre of music.

The Product G&B made their debut on 1998’s “Here We Go,” a track that Wyclef contributed to a Funkmaster Flex compilation, and they also guested on a couple of tracks from Pras’ album Ghetto Supastar. When the Product G&B got the call to work with Carlos Santana, they’d never heard of him. Years later, Money Harm told Billboard that they didn’t recognize Santana in the studio: “He came in with magic marker drawn on his sneakers, and we were thinking he’s a guy who brings in the guitars or something, and he’s actually Santana. You would have thought he was somebody’s grandfather coming from the bus stop, real talk.” Both members of the Product G&B got songwriting credits on “Maria Maria,” as did Carlos Santana and two of his percussionists, Karl Perazzo and the late Raul Rekow. (Rekow had been playing congas for Santana since the late ’70s, and he died of cancer in 2015. He was 61.)

In both concept and execution, “Maria Maria” is a rap song, albeit one with no actual rapping. In its stitched-together immediacy, “Maria Maria” finds a slippery sense of groove that’s got virtually nothing to do with Santana’s whole Latin rock sound. Santana himself plays acoustic and electric guitars on “Maria Maria,” but he’s practically an accent on the song. The loping beat and the rumbling Spanish chant have always been the coolest, spaciest things about the track. The lead vocal, from Product G&B member Sincere, has a nice pleading quality, and it sticks to the beat just fine, but it’s also fairly anonymous.

I heard “Maria Maria” a lot in 1999 and 2000, and I don’t remember any point when I was either excited or dismayed to hear it. The song was always just there. It works for atmosphere, and it’s catchy enough to stick in your head, but it never sounds like much more than the sum of its parts. The high-pitched guitar riff can be a little grating — way more than it ever was in a Wu-Tang context — but the low-key glide of the track compensates. Still, “Maria Maria” never touches its own lofty ambitions. Sincere sings in Spanglish about poor Maria’s tribulations, but the track is too lightweight to express any real sense of desperation. It ultimately sounds like little more than a brand extension for all the parties involved, and that’s really what it was. A song can’t top the Hot 100 for 10 weeks on goodwill alone, but the goodwill toward Santana has a lot to do with the song’s success. Its anodyne nature probably helped, too; like “Smooth” before it, this was a song that could plausibly play on just about any radio format.

After “Maria Maria,” Wyclef was probably feeling himself a little too much. Later in 2000, he released the truly ridiculous album The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book, which was full of goofy-ass experiments like Kenny Rogers singing “The Gambler” over the beat from Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says.” Lead single “It Doesn’t Matter” featured the Rock and attempted to cash in on the popularity of Attitude Era WWE. It didn’t work, and the song missed the Hot 100 entirely, though it stands a very funny time capsule. Ultimately, only one track from The Ecleftic made the Hot 100; the Mary J. Blige collab “911” ultimately peaked at #38. Wyclef’s career was damaged, but it wasn’t over. We’ll see him in this column again as a guest rapper.

The Product G&B never even got to release an album. In 2001, they had a single called “Cluck Cluck” on the Dr. Doolittle 2 soundtrack, but it missed the Hot 100 completely. Another early single, “Tired Of Being Broke,” featured a pre-shooting 50 Cent. (50 will eventually appear in this column.) Carlos Santana recorded a guest spot on the duo’s track “Dirty Dancin.” But all those singles underperformed, and J Records, Clive Davis’ post-Arista label, cancelled its plans to release the duo’s Ghetto Blues LP. It’s pretty crazy to see someone sing lead on a massive #1 hit and then completely disappear, but that’s what the Product G&B did. Apparently, though, the duo is still together and still occasionally recording. As of this 2017 Billboard interview, Sincere was studying to become a registered nurse.

The gargantuan success of Supernatural was a one-off thing, and Santana never recreated it. In 2002, Santana followed Supernatural with Shaman, another album full of collaborations with au courant pop-star guests. For lead single “The Game Of Love,” Santana worked with Michelle Branch, and the song made it to #5. (It’s a 4. Michelle Branch’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2001’s “All You Wanted,” peaked at #6. That one is a 6.) Santana followed “The Game Of Love” with “Why Don’t You & I,” a song that had two different versions — one with the Calling’s Alex Band and another with lead Nickelback yarler Chad Kroeger. That single made it to #8. (It’s a 3. The Calling’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “Wherever You Will Go,” peaked at #5; it’s a 4. Chad Kroeger’s highest-charting solo single, the 2002 Josey Scott collab “Hero,” peaked at #3; it’s a 6. Nickelback will eventually appear in this column.) Shaman went double platinum, and it sent a couple of singles into the top 10, but that was small potatoes after Supernatural.

In the past 20 years, Santana has mostly avoided that kind of clumsy attempt to recapture what he’d done with Supernatural, and he’s mostly stayed away from the pop charts. Santana hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since his 2007 single “Into The Night,” another Chad Kroeger koellaboration, peaked at #26. Even when Santana reunited with his “Smooth” partner Rob Thomas on the 2021 song “Move,” it didn’t chart. But Santana has been doing just fine for himself even without making hits. He opened a chain of Mexican restaurants called Maria Maria. He reunited with the classic Santana lineup, including Journey members Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, for a 2016 album. He continues to tour heavily.

Maybe Carlos Santana has been touring too heavily. Last month, he was hospitalized after collapsing onstage during a Detroit show. Soon afterward, Santana said that he was just dehydrated and that the was fine; his touring schedule resumed. A couple of weeks after that, Santana turned 75. It’s hard to picture a situation in which Santana will appear in this column again. But then again, that last comeback was pretty unlikely, too. Clive Davis is 90, but he hasn’t retired yet. Maybe we just need to get these guys back together.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: I could put a lot of things down in this section, but there’s only one “Maria Maria” recurrence that really matters. In 2017, DJ Khaled released “Wild Thoughts,” a huge Rihanna/Bryson Tiller collab that’s almost entirely built around “Maria Maria” sample. At this point, “Wild Thoughts” is basically the last major Rihanna hit. It’ll probably keep that distinction for a while, since Rihanna now seems more into being a new mom and a lingerie/makeup billionaire than recapturing her pop-star glory. Here’s the “Wild Thoughts” video:

(“Wild Thoughts” peaked at #2. It’s a 7. DJ Khaled and Rihanna will both eventually appear in this column. Bryson Tiller’s highest-charting lead-artist single, 2015’s “Don’t,” peaked at #13.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Toni Braxton’s sleek, glitchy fuck-you “He Wasn’t Man Enough” peaked at #2 behind “Maria Maria.” It’s an 8.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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