Almost as memorable as Aaliyah’s voice on her hit “Are You That Somebody?” is the baby cooing in the background. Though subtle, the soft voice adds a sentimental tone to the classic ’90s R&B hit. But Aaliyah wasn’t the only artist to utilize this distinct sound effect.
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It all started when producer Timbaland got a call from Aaliyah’s manager Barry Hankerson in 1998 asserting that Aaliyah was contracted to sing the theme song to the Dr. Dolittle film and asked Timbaland to write and produce the said song in a matter of hours. A master of his craft, Timbaland co-wrote the track with his frequent songwriting collaborator, Static Major, and produced it under time constraints.
Interestingly enough, Timbaland wanted to incorporate the beat from the “Oompa Loompa” song from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory into the track. “I took that rhythm and I listened back to it and I was like, ‘Man, that’s a dope addition,'” he explained during the 2023 Pop Conference in New York City (quote via NME). “That’s what I was trying to attempt but in a hip-hop way. I gotta thank Willy Wonka for that.”
But that’s not the only unique flavor he added to the track. Timbaland had a CD in the studio with the sound of a baby cooing and pitched it to the group. It surprisingly pulled the song together, which was confirmed by Aaliyah’s reaction.
“I was talking to Aaliyah from where she was sitting on the couch, and I just hit the button and it was in key, everything was perfect,” Timbaland recalled at the conference. “I put it in the song and she said, ‘Oh that’s so cute!’ [It was] the missing piece of the whole beat to me.”
Turns out this mysterious baby’s voice has appeared in several songs over the years. Prince’s hit “Delirious,” “Look Around” by the Rascals and “Bugg’n” by Canadian and Scottish duo TNGH are among the other wide-ranging songs the coo can be heard in, according to Red Bull Music Academy. The report also states that the voice was documented as early as 1964 on the appropriately titled track “Happy Baby” off the album, Authentic Sound Effects Volume 8. Released via Elektra Records, the album was engineered by Michael Scott Goldbaum, who was also presented with the task of recording real-world sounds to use in music for the label. One of the sounds was that of the baby, whose identity continues to be a mystery.
“I honestly do not,” Goldbaum told Red Bull author Jeremy D. Larson about whether he remembers who the baby was. “It was so long ago and I recorded so many people. I can’t recall. It wasn’t anyone I knew. I recorded so many things and it was so long ago.”
This small, yet legendary voice helped “Are You That Somebody?” became one of Aaliyah’s biggest hits. It peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay and Rhythmic charts, as well as No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1999.
(Photo by KMazur/WireImage)