Jackson wrote this song, which can be interpreted as an angry attack on the tabloid press and others who hounded him. A struggle with fame and being misunderstood were common themes for Jackson, and in this song he lashes out at those who take advantage of him: "They eat off of you, you're a vegetable."
At the end of this song, the chorus is "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sas." The line is borrowed from Cameroon native Manu Dibango's 1972 song "Funky Soul Makossa
." Jackson did not have permission to appropriate the song, and reached an out-of-court settlement with Dibango over the use.
Bruce Swedien, who was an engineer on the Thriller
sessions, claimed this song is about
"Michael's brothers' wives and how they were always creating trouble."
This was the fourth of seven US Top 10 hits from the Thriller album. It is by far the top selling album of all time worldwide.
" is mentioned in the lyrics, "Billie Jean is always talkin' when nobody else is talkin'. Tellin' lies and rubbin' shoulders, so they called her mouth a motor." This briefly tells the story of the groupie that claimed Jackson was the father of her child and was the subject of the song, which was also on the Thriller
Various drum machines were used on this track. It's likely that the main rhythm comes from a LM-1 drum machine, which was the first programable machine that used real drum samples. Engineer Bruce Swedien recalls using a Univox. Greg Phillinganes, Michael Boddicker and Bill Wolfer are all credited on synthesizer on this track, and Jackson is one of three people credited for "bathroom stomping board," which gives you an idea of how many sounds were combined to create the backing track. Live musicians include:
David Williams - guitar
Louis Johnson - bass
Paulinho da Costa - percussion
Jerry Hey - trumpet and flugelhorn
Larry Williams - saxophone and flute
Bill Reichenbach - trombone
Rihanna sampled the "mama-ko, mama-sa, mama-ma-ko-sa" chant from this on her 2007 international hit single "Don't Stop the Music
At Jackson's 2001 tribute special, Whitney Houston, Usher, and Mya performed this to start the show, which was made into a two-hour TV special.
Julia, Maxine and Oren Waters sang backing vocals on this track. Along with their other sibling Luther, they performed as The Waters and backed hundreds of artists, including Herble Hancock, Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart.
The UPC code on the album cover contained seven digits that were rumored to be Jackson's telephone number. People with that number in many different area codes got swamped with annoying calls.
In 2008 Jackson re-recorded this song with Akon as "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' 08." It was his first entry on the Hot 100 since "One More Chance" peaked at #83 in 2003. This version was included on a special 25th anniversary edition of Thriller.