The Nine Lives of MC Skat Kat, Paula Abdul’s Co-Star in “Opposites Attract”

The animated rapping cat helped propel “Opposite’s Attract” to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1990—and he still occasionally pops up in some surprising places.
MC Skat Kat and Paula Abdul on tour in 2017.
MC Skat Kat and Paula Abdul on tour in 2017. / Ethan Miller/GettyImages

It’s common to see pop stars acting like cartoon characters. That’s basically part of the job description. It’s quite another thing when a pop star actually is a cartoon character.

That was the case in 1989, when Paula Abdul released “Opposites Attract” as the sixth and final single off her blockbuster 1988 debut album, Forever Your Girl. The song is a duet between Abdul and a boyfriend with whom she has little in common, and in the music video, the role of her unlikely male companion is played by one MC Skat Kat, a suave animated feline who deftly dances alongside the superstar. He even gets his own rap.

The video proved a sensation, and thanks in no small part to MC Skat Kat, “Opposites Attract” became the fourth single off Forever Your Girl to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time, only three other pop stars had scored that many chart-toppers on one album: Michael Jackson, George Michael, and Whitney Houston.

In retrospect, MC Skat Kat may seem like little more than a cute idea—a funny artifact from a time when hip-hop was just starting to crack the mainstream. But it took a lot of creative people to bring the character to life. One guy wrote the song, two others voiced MC Skat Kat’s singing parts, and another did the rap, which was written by yet another person. Then there were the directors, animators, and dancers who made the streetwise tomcat explode onto the small screen.

This is a strange showbiz tale that involves Hollywood legend Gene Kelly, Weeds actor Romany Malco, an unknown Minnesota rapper, and the son of the guy who co-wrote “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock.” A whole lot of opposites attracting, in other words.

A Last-Second Song

Before she was a household name, Paula Abdul was known to industry insiders as a gifted dancer and choreographer. She served as head choreographer for the Laker Girls and devised the dance routines for a string of Janet Jackson music videos in the mid-’80s, including “Nasty.” She even choreographed Tom Hanks’s beloved piano dance scene from the 1988 film Big.

Abdul’s jump to music came with Forever Your Girl, which includes three songs written and produced by Oliver Lieber, son of Jerry Leiber, the songwriting legend who, alongside Mike Stoller, wrote or co-wrote rock classics like “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” and “On Broadway.” Jerry Lieber was responsible for “Forever Your Girl,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100; “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” a No. 3 hit; and “Opposites Attract.” By the time “Opposites Attract” was picked as the LP’s sixth single, Abdul’s “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted” had also topped the Hot 100.

Lieber wrote “Opposites Attract” at the tail end of the Forever Your Girl sessions. As Lieber told Rediscover the ’80s, Gemma Corfield, head of A&R for Abdul’s label, Virgin Records, called in a panic one day saying they needed one more song for the album. Lieber didn’t really have anything, but he bluffed and told Corfield he was working on something called “Opposites Attract,” a title he lifted from an old paperback he saw in a used bookstore. He then played Corfield a groove he’d whipped up on the Akai MPC-60, a drum machine/sequencer he’d just purchased.

Studio Portrait of Paula Abdul
Paula Abdul in 1989. / Lynn Goldsmith/GettyImages

Lieber told Corfield he’d finish the track in a week, and using the title as his guide, he endeavored to write a song about two lovers with very different personalities. He thought the lyrics would come solely from the female perspective, but then he happened to chat with longtime Prince associate David Z, who told him “Opposites Attract” should be a duet.

Lieber knocked out the lyric in less than an hour and recorded the male singing portions in Minnesota with The Wild Pair, a.k.a. Bruce DeShazer and Marv Gunn of the Prince-adjacent group Mazerati. (You can hear the Wild Pair on Prince’s 1986 smash “Kiss,” which was originally going to be a Mazerati song.) Lieber then flew to L.A. and had Abdul record her parts. “Opposites Attract” became track three on Forever Your Girl, and at this stage, there was no talk of cartoon cats.

The Birth of MC Skat Kat

Growing up, Paula Abdul loved classic Hollywood musicals, and she idolized actor, singer, and (most importantly) dancer Gene Kelly. In the 1945 musical comedy Anchors Aweigh, Kelly dances alongside Jerry Mouse, the animated rodent from the Tom and Jerry cartoons, and that sequence made a huge impression on Abdul.

“I wanted to be able to give a gift to Gene Kelly for all the gifts he'd given me of inspiration,” Abdul told Yahoo Entertainment, explaining how she came up with the idea for mixing animation and live action in the “Opposites Attract” music video.

The job of executing Abdul’s idea went to Mike Patterson—who animated a-ha’s iconic video for 1985’s “Take On Me”—and his wife, Candace Reckinger. This was the heyday of MC Hammer, one of the first rappers to rule the pop charts, and Patterson and Reckinger were hired to create a cartoon character with modern hip-hop flair. There was a simple reason it had to be a cat.

“Cats are cool,” Reckinger told Vulture. “And they don’t do what you want.” 

Patterson and Reckinger teamed up with animator Chris Bailey to design the look of MC Skat Kat. The three struggled to achieve the right balance of retro and modern but eventually landed on something they could agree on. When they showed their designs to Virgin Records, label bigwig Jeff Ayeroff said he didn’t like the cat’s outfit. “Hey, why can’t he dress more like you,” Ayeroff said to Patterson. At the time, Patterson was wearing baggy pants, suspenders, and a tank top, and that became MC Skat Kat’s wardrobe.

Needing music to match the visuals, the label tasked Oliver Lieber with remixing the album version of “Opposites Attract” and adding a rap segment. Lieber found his MC while listening to the Minneapolis community radio station KMOJ, where Derrick “Delite” Stevens was a DJ. Lieber loved Stevens’s voice and called the station to ask whether this smooth talker also rapped. As it happened, Stevens was in a local hip-hop group called The Soul Purpose, and he agreed to appear on Abdul’s single.

Stevens recorded his parts at Prince’s Paisley Park studio a couple of weeks later. Interestingly, the rap was written by Romany Malco, an actor who’s since appeared in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Baby Mama (2008), as well as on such TV series as Weeds and A Million Little Things. (In interviews, Abdul often credits Malco with performing the rap, who told him she does it because it “makes a better story.”)

Romany Malco
Romany Malco, who wrote MC Skat Kat’s rap. / Tibrina Hobson/GettyImages

At the time, Malco was in a rap group called R.M.G., and while he feared his association with MC Skat Kat would hurt his reputation, it wound up helping his career. As Malco told Yahoo, actor John Leguizamo wanted to rap like MC Skat Kat for the 1997 film The Pest, and someone put him in touch with Malco. This is how Malco broke into acting.

A Shrimp In Cat’s Clothing

Before animating MC Skat Kat with their team of artists, Patterson and Reckinger filmed Abdul grooving alongside dancer Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, who famously appeared in the ’80s films Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Chambers had the energy to dance with Abdul for two very long shoot days—15 and 24 hours, Reckinger told Vulture—and he was great at providing “walks, attitude, positions, and reactions” for the animators to run with.

“Back then, there was no motion-capture; everything was painstaking, artists painting cell by cell,” Abdul told Yahoo. “It was epic, extensive work to put this character together.”

There was at least one hiccup during the shoot, and that was a slippery floor that made it difficult for Abdul to tap dance in high heels. Fortunately, a resourceful gaffer knew a way around this problem: He poured Coca-Cola on the ground and dried it with a blow-dryer, creating just enough stickiness for Paula to avoid injury.

The Cat’s Meow

Upon its release, the “Opposites Attract” music video blew up on MTV, propelling the single to No. 1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks in February 1990. The clip earned Abdul a Grammy for Best Music Video - Short Form. It remains her only Grammy win.

The response to the video was such that MTV apparently wanted to make MC Skat Kat its official mascot. The network even considered greenlighting an animated series that sadly never happened. (Reckinger told Vulture they lost out to Beavis and Butt-Head.) But that wasn’t the last the world would hear of MC Skat Kat.

In 1991, Derrick Stevens reprised the role of the cartoon cat on the album The Adventures of MC Skat Kat and the Stray Mob. Although MTV played the video for “Skat Strut,” which included a cameo from Abdul, the single stalled at No. 80 on the Hot 100, and the album flopped.

“Here I was, this 20-year-old kid not knowing too much about the music business, but I remember telling them, ‘The way you guys want to market this is probably wrong,’ ” Stevens told City Pages. “They wanted to market the cat to Paula’s audience, and I told them, ‘What you have to understand is, a good percentage of Paula’s audience might not even be into rap music.’ ”

Also in 1991, MC Skat Kat appeared alongside Stevie Wonder, Tone Loc, Kenny Loggins, Pat Benetar, Bette Midler, Barry White, and various others in “Yakety Yak, Take It Back,” a time capsule of a public service music video urging people to recycle. The song is an updated version of The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” yet another classic co-written by Jerry Leiber.

Nine Lives

In the 30-plus years since its release, “Opposites Attract” has never really gone away. In 1997, Abdul guested on the short-lived series Muppets Tonight and performed the song with a character called Clifford. Two years later, Abdul and Skat Kat showed up on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

A 2005 episode of The Family Guy features doofy protagonist Peter Griffin standing in for MC Skat Kat and dancing with Abdul on an “Opposites Attract” parody called “I’m Dressed Like a Cat.”

In 2015, Abdul and a cat-suited James Corden lip-synced “Opposites Attract” on The Late Late Show. The following year, MC Skat Kat—voiced by Derrick Stevens—turned up on an episode of American Dad! The scene ends with a down-on-his-luck Skat Kat asking about a janitor job. Times had apparently been tough since that debut album tanked.

MC Skat Kat was looking much more sprightly in 2017, when he joined Abdul on Dancing With the Stars and on tour. In 2019, he guested on a medley of her greatest hits at the Billboard Music Awards. A few years later, in 2022, the pair made a brief cameo in the film Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

“Opposites Attract” conquered the charts, won a Grammy, and earned a permanent place in popular culture. But for Abdul, the best part came when she was able to meet her idol, Gene Kelly, and play him the video he inspired. They became instant friends, and in another instance of innovative filmmaking, Abdul was able to replace Frank Sinatra in a scene from Anchors Aweigh and dance with Kelly in a 1991 Diet Coke commercial.

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