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Rita Wilson Talks Coronavirus Nightmare, Unlikely Naughty By Nature Collaboration

“It was like learning Shakespeare if you’ve only ever read Fun With Dick and Jane,” the actress-singer says about her “Hip Hop Hooray” remix

Robert Trachtenberg*

Over the past three decades, Naughty By Nature’s Vin Rock has heard everyone from toddlers in South Africa to basketball arenas packed with New Kids on the Block fans perform his group’s 1992 anthem “Hip Hop Hooray.” But even he was surprised last month when he saw Rita Wilson post an Instagram video of her take on the song while she and her husband, Tom Hanks, recovered in quarantine from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ after someone inboxed me with the link,” he says. “She has skills. She had the flow, the cadence … everything. A lot of our fans are like, ‘Wow, she really killed it! We don’t even know all the lyrics to that song.’ She threw everyone off guard.”

Wilson and Rock started talking online and teamed up for a “Hip Hop Hooray” remix to benefit the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. “I’d like to personally thank Miss Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks for their support on this entire project,” says Rock. “All of our fans are like, ‘Hey Naughty, you have to bring her on tour so she can sing the song with you guys.’ That’ll definitely be a goal.”

Miss Rita Wilson herself spoke about her COVID-19 nightmare, her recovery, how “Hip Hop Hooray” aided during the difficult time and how her son, rapper Chet Haze, got her into rap in the first place.

I just spoke to Vin from Naughty By Nature. He’s still just so incredibly excited and proud that you covered his song.
This is surreal. I’m so thankful for that song, but I’m so thankful that they didn’t think it was something horrible! We haven’t gotten to meet yet, but we’ve spoken on the phone and I’m really enjoying getting to know him. It’s been super fun.

He told that he’d love to play the song with you at one of their concerts once that’s possible again.
Oh my God! I’m in! You don’t have to twist my arm!

How long were you and Tom in Australia before you felt the first symptoms?
About six days. Maybe a week? They don’t even know how we got it because when I flew down, I was wiping that plane down like Lady MacBeth. I had my wipes and my gloves and hand sanitizer. I wouldn’t go to the bathroom without taking a hand sanitizer. I was washing my hands like crazy. The flight attendants were like, “Uh-huh, we’ve seen this before.” They didn’t even bat an eye.

My son was traveling with me and he thought I was exaggerating and being ridiculous. But when we got to Australia, we were fine. Nothing happened. I was rehearsing with my band because I had two shows down there, one in Brisbane and one at the Sydney Opera House. Even at rehearsals, I was wiping down my music stand, my microphone, my door, the door handles, bathrooms…everything. I could not have been more fastidious about that and not shaking hands with people. Social distancing wasn’t a term yet, but we stayed separated from people.

I did my show on a Saturday night at the Opera House and the next day we did a tour of the [Sydney] Harbour. That afternoon, I just started feeling tired. The next morning, I got up and did a morning show. Again, I was wiping everything down. We then got back to the Gold Coast, which is where we were staying. That night I remember thinking I was very achy and that food had no taste. I didn’t put it together yet because I have no sense of smell or taste. I just thought the food was bland.

What happened next?
The next day, really, really bad headaches started happening. Then came a really extreme fever and chills and shivering, the sort where you teeth chatter and you can’t control it. So we were tested and it came back positive. Tom and I had slightly different symptoms. He didn’t have the shivering and the chills or a severe headache.

We were advised to go to the hospital because it was still pretty new at the time and Australia, being an island, was very concerned about containing this. So we did what they were advising and went to the hospital for three days. That’s because on week two, things can shift and take a different turn. They were concerned about that.

Did they give you any sort of treatment?
I took Chloroquine, which was maybe something that was helpful. Maybe it wasn’t. But the side effects made me extremely ill. The fever did go away, but I don’t know if it cured the disease. The side effects were extreme nausea and vertigo and, like, no muscle strength at all. I was very weak.

Hearing that you tested positive must have been terrifying. You didn’t know if you’d wind up on a ventilator or what was going to happen. I can’t even imagine.
You are terrified, but two things happen: One is that if you’ve ever been through any kind of health crisis, you understand that it’s out of your control. All you can really do is do the best you can. And coming out of breast cancer five years ago, I realized that, “Well, okay, let’s hope it doesn’t take a turn.”

We felt enormous strength from the prayers and well-wishes of the people. When my mind started to go dark, I’d feel buoyed by all the support that was out there for us in the world. I really, really felt it.

Being on a different continent where you’re away from your doctors and much of your friends and family couldn’t have made this easier.
I have to say the Australian healthcare was extraordinary. In a way, I’m really thankful that we were there because they were so prepared. They had recognized that they have to be very careful because they have a lot of tourism from Asia. So they were very prepared from early on and had masks, tests and guidelines that they were following. We were thankful to be there.

As awful as it was that Tom had it too, at least it meant the two of you could be together during this whole thing.
I’m so thankful for that. Imagine if my flight had been delayed a week and I couldn’t come to Australia and he was down there doing the movie by himself? I would have been experiencing a little of what our kids were experiencing. “Are you really okay? What are you doing down there? What can you tell us?” It was a little bit easier because we were going through similar experiences.

I think the news that you had Tom had it was a turning point for a lot of people. I remember seeing that on the news right when they delayed the NBA season. At least to me, that’s when the true threat of this really sunk in and it felt like anybody could get it.
We only became aware of that after the fact because we didn’t have any American news media to watch since we were in the hospital. We would read things online, but the impact of the announcement didn’t make it to us for a couple of days. We understood that people were obviously concerned, but we were also aware that this is a virus that is unpredictable and there’s so much unknown about it.

What was your life like during the quarantine period?
Mostly it’s resting and just sleeping a lot. You’re just happy to be out of the hospital and at home. I travel with my paints and was painting when I started to feel better. I didn’t have a lot of ability to focus, so I couldn’t do things that I would normally do, like take care of business or anything like that.

That’s kind of what led me to “Hip Hop Hooray” because I learned it for a movie [Boy Genius] and it was so complex and intricate a song and my brain was goofy. I though to myself, “I wonder if I can still remember that.”

I literally tried to see if I knew the words because the movie was maybe a year ago. I said to myself, “I’m going to do this every day so that I don’t forget how to do it.” And my mom had Alzheimer’s, so I’m always looking for little brain exercises to see if I can make some new neural pathways. And much to my surprise, I remembered most of it.

What made you decide to share it online?
I though to myself, “Maybe this could be a way to tell people that I’m doing okay and I’ve come out of the worst of it and that life is going back to normal and I’m getting healthier.” And so I thought I’d just make a little narrative of it. I had absolutely no idea it was going to take off the way that it did. Then when Naughty By Nature posted it and gave it their stamp of approval, I was really excited and somewhat relieved.

It’s a deceptively complicated song.
Yeah! Can we just talk about that for two seconds? It is so hard! It took me a month to learn it when I learned it for Boy Genius. My character had to perform it at a teenager’s birthday party to distract them from something else. It took me a month to lean it. It was like Shakespeare, couplets. I had to learn two lines at a time and build on it. There are four or five verses in the song and nothing is repeated besides “Hip hop hooray.” The lyrics are different and the rhythms are different in each line and I didn’t know what everything meant. I didn’t know what “vamping” or “O.P.P.” meant or all that stuff.

I had to use the Urban Dictionary and try to assemble some meaning that I could attach to it because it was like learning Shakespeare if you’ve only ever read Fun With Dick and Jane. It was like a whole new learning curve to me and I loved it.

It made me think, “Gosh, there’s really so much craft that goes into a song like this.” The song is nearly 30 years old, but it made me realize how far we’ve come from the days of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis where rap and hip-hop didn’t get much respect in the music industry, especially from the Recording Academy. We’ve gone from that to Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer Prize for his album.

When I first started writing music, Kara DioGuardi, the songwriter, said to me, “Do you have something you want to say?” Music is a way for people and artists and musicians to say something. I asked Vin Rock about this the other day. He said they’re paying homage to all the hip-hop artists that came before them and I loved that. There you go. It’s poetry. It’s Shakespeare. It has been and continues to be an important voice in music.

What’s funny is that I don’t know anybody that doesn’t know the chorus. And I don’t know anyone that knows all the verses besides you.
Listen, if you sat down for a month and were getting paid to learn it, you’d probably learn it too!

Your son Chet is obviously a big hip-hop fan. Did he get you into it over the years?
We were totally exposed to hip-hop and rap when he was a teenager. He loved it like a lot of people in his generation. I remember taking the kids on a trip to Disneyland for a 14th birthday party or something. One of the kids had the clean version of The Marshall Mathers LP or maybe another Eminem album. I can’t remember, but we were playing it in the car and all these kids were listening to this intense rap with really interesting lyrics.

Glenn Frey of the Eagles taught me a really interesting thing since our kids went to school together. He said, “You can’t just play your music for your kids all the time. You have to let them play their music too since you’re going to learn from them.” I was really thankful for that bit of advice because it’s a bridge to connect with your kids. You can say, “Do you think what they’re saying on this song is the truth or do you think they’re making it up?” or “Wow, that’s kind of misogynistic. Do you think that’s the way women should be treated?” It can be a bridge to all sorts of conversations.

Are you thinking about covering any more hip-hop songs in the future?
I have no plans. I don’t think the hip-hop community has to be worried about me doing anything expect maybe performing live with Naughty By Nature. But I have just so much respect for the genre. I want to take a deep dive and get more informed. Maybe I’ll do a remix and maybe a rapper can rap while I do a little melody thing like Rihanna with Eminem.

Maybe you’ll add “Hip Hop Hooray” to your live repertoire.
I hadn’t thought about it, but why not? I’m open to anything. A few years ago, I did a show at the Cafe Carlyle in New York. I did The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and I didn’t even know what the song was about. I thought maybe botox or something!

So how are you feeling now? Are you 100 percent back to normal?
Yes. We are respecting social distancing guidelines ever since we’ve been home. We are technically cleared to go out in public and obviously to leave Australia because they would let us leave if we weren’t clear to go. We’ve still been quarantined at home with social distancing. If we go out for anything, we take the proper precautions.

You’ve now been through two really frightening health scares in the past few years. Have they given you a new appreciation for life?
Yeah. When I had cancer, it really did change the way I looked at life and it really did make me feel like I wanted to live every day to the fullest. I don’t look at time as something that is just endless. I look at it as being finite and I’m really trying to do the best that we can with the time that we have every single day of our lives. But it also made me really focus on music because I feel like I do have a lot to say when it comes down to it. It’s the format that I feel is the most immediate.

I also feel that way about the movies that I’m producing because I believe that the context that we put art out in the world is important. It’s got to say something. I’m just looking at life in a very different way. You become more deeply grateful. And I never forget about it and I know this probably is not a subject for Rolling Stone, but I wake up every morning with prayers of gratitude that I woke up.

You’ve also got the coronavirus antibodies now. That puts you in a better position that most people.
We’re part of a study now about antibodies. We donated blood and hopefully these antibodies can be used for the development of a vaccine. We also want to see if we are able to donate plasma as part of the study, but also as part of these experimental treatment that they’re doing.

I keep thinking about the first concerts after all this ends. They’re going to be so joyous, at least when everyone in the audience feels safe. Just imagine what it’ll be like to walk onstage that first time.
Oh my God. Yeah, it’s such a beautiful thing to think about. I I did Stagecoach last year. And there was something so amazing about all those people out there enjoying music, enjoying each other, having a great time. And to think that we’re not going to have that for a while. To be able to get to that point again is going to be very emotional.

This is somewhat random, but I just heard that the Wonders from that That Thing You Do are going to reunite later this week to watch the movie along with fans live on YouTube.
That’s so amazing! I need to go see Johnathon Schaech’s page and see what they’re doing. That sounds like so much fun. But of course, let’s not forget that beautiful Adam Schlesinger, who wrote “That Thing You Do,” passed away from COVID. That was really heartbreaking for us because we heard he was doing better and we were relieved. And then came the bad news.

He was just 52. It really shows anyone can die from this. It’s terrifying.
Exactly. That’s what makes this virus so scary. You have no idea. It can strike anybody. Hopefully we’re on the other side of it and the curve continues to flatten and we keep doing the right thing as a country.

In This Article: Rita Wilson