FADER Explains: Harlem Shake

February 15, 2013

More than a decade ago, a guy named Jayson Musson, then a Philly art student, got into a bloody fight with a guy who'd been painting over his graffiti around town. He wrote a song about the fight, and last year, it was sampled into a new song, called "Harlem Shake." This month, piggybacking onto an idea hatched by a weirdo video blogger, thousands of people uploaded clips of themselves dancing along with "Harlem Shake." It's a lot to take in, so here's the whole story of how Musson's lyric made it into a producer named Baauer's hands, and how Baauer's song ended up in a million videos.

Where the fuck did all these "Harlem Shake" videos come from?

Since the beginning of February, people have been sharing 30-second videos soundtracked by Baauer's track "Harlem Shake" (coincidentally, premiered on this site last May) at an astonishing rate. Reportedly, as many as 4,000 videos have been uploaded in a single day, and in two weeks, more than 12,000 videos have been created, generating more than 44 million total views. In a "Harlem Shake" video, a person, usually masked, thrusts along with the music while others mundanely go about their day-to-day. Then, when the *drop* drops, action explodes: people change costumes, remove their shirts and generally lose it. If you haven't seen them already: here's FADER Label's Matt & Kim wilding with fans at a concert and the UGA swim team flopping around underwater.

Whose idea was the "Harlem Shake" video in the first place?

Filthy Frank, a 19-year-old currently studying communications in New York who has about 13,000 subscribers on YouTube. Reached by phone, he explained the genesis of his "Harlem Shake" video, the one that started it all. "I was in a room with a few people. One of my friends was just playing the song on the speakers and I asked what [it was], and it just happened to be 'Harlem Shake.' As soon as the drop of the song came, we just started going crazy. We thought, well, we could turn this in to something good." Frank started making videos as a hobby when he was 12, and sounds almost disappointed that this particular video, which he says took about three days to inspire more successful imitators, was the one to leave such a mark. "I guess I'm proud [of starting the meme]. It's a shame, that was probably the video I put the least amount of work into. [But] I'm very happy it got that kind of exposure. I think I got just enough credit. At first I was upset, like, what's going on, I made this. I already had a fan base before, as Filthy Frank, and [my followers] were concerned that I was gonna hit the mainstream big time. They were upset about me going viral. I realized not getting that much publicity was better 'cause I have a dedicated cult following, and I would lose their respect." Frank wasn't a big Baauer fan before making his video, and says he still isn't. "That was probably the first song I'd heard by Baauer," he said. "I listen to a lot of hip-hop and a lot of jazz. I'm not really into music like Baauer's, I just thought that song was cool."

Who is Baauer?

Baauer, born Harry Rodrigues, is a 23-year-old Brooklyn-based producer. He spent time living in London, as a tween he aspired to be a turntablist, later he DJed house records and started making house tracks on Reason. A couple years ago, he says, "I tried out making a hip-hop song one time after sucking at making house music for a long time…it felt really natural. I really liked cutting up sample and trying to vary hip-hop beats." He posted "two pages" of Soundcloud tracks before Rustie featured "Harlem Shake" on his popular BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix last April; in May, Mad Decent imprint Jefrees released "Harlem Shake" as a single. For all his sample-snipping and interest in rap beats, Baauer's become associated with what's been called "trap" music, a style of production similar to mainstream EDM, which mixes dubstep drops with rap's artillery fire drum programming. The sub-genre spread in 2012 thanks to artists like Baauer, TNGHT and Flosstradamus, labels like Jefrees and various music outlets. Much has been written exploring the origin and impact of last year's crop of "trap" producers; for more, start with Miles Raymer's feature for the Chicago Reader and David Drake's article for Complex.

But isn't the Harlem Shake already a dance? Why isn't anyone in the videos doing it?

It is, and it's hard to say. The original Harlem Shake rose to prominence in music videos throughout the '90s and early '00s, notably G-Dep's "Let's Get It." In 2003, Al B, a fixture around Harlem's Rucker Park playground, took credit for inventing the dance. He said he started shaking in the early '80s, mimicking the shakes of alcoholics, and that the dance was first called "the albee," after his name. He claimed the Harlem Shake's origins were ancient."That's what the mummies used to do," he told Inside Hoops. "They was all wrapped up and taped up. So they couldn't really move, all they could do was shake." Some say Al B's dance traces back to Eskista, a dance originated in Northeast Africa. But, as Harlem residents have expressed, there's no good reason why the stars of popular "Harlem Shake" videos aren't doing the actual Harlem Shake. Actor and amateur filmmaker Chris McGuire screened "Harlem Shake" videos on 125th street and asked passerbys what they thought. The general consensus, as communicated by the McGuire's February 18th video? "That's not the shake, B."

If it has nothing to do with the dance, why is Bauuer's track even called "Harlem Shake"?

That's really the most interesting part. It's because of something Jayson Musson, a member of the early-oughts Philadelphia party rap crew Plastic Little, did at the end of a fight with a rival graffiti writer. Baauer's "Harlem Shake" samples a line—then do the Harlem shake—from Plastic Little's 2001 song "Miller Time." Over email, Musson, now a New York-based artist best known as Hennessy Youngman, told the incredible origin story of the meme's title-inspiring lyric:

The lyric came about as a result of getting into a fist fight over graffiti back in 2001, the same year that "Miller Time" was made. A friend of mine told me this kid was crossing me out, so logically I began crossing him out. Then one night after a [Plastic Little] show, I heard that the writer I had issue with was waiting to see me outside the venue. So I head outside with Kurt [Hunte], who is also in Plastic Little, to I guess talk with this guy. As I walk outside, I hear someone call me by my graffiti name so I turn to see who it is, only to be greeted by a 40 bottle to the face. Despite sneaking his opponent with a bottle, this kid got his ass beat (he was really bad at fighting). After several minutes, I got pretty bored with throwing punches so I grabbed him by his collar and tried to put his head through the passenger side window of a parked car. It didn't go through luckily, but it created a lull in the fight where the two of us just stared at each other covered in blood. This was my first fight and I didn't know how to properly "end" a fight, so I just smiled at him and did the Harlem shake, blood gushing from glass cuts on my face. The other kid, I guess not wanting to fight anymore, or maybe not wanting to fight someone who just danced at him, got on his skateboard and took off without his shoes. That's why "Miller Time" ends with the line, And if you bring a 40 bottle to battle me/ I'll just punch you in the face/ then do the Harlem Shake.

Musson realized "Miller Time" was sampled by Baauer last week, half a year after "Harlem Shake"’s initial release, when the meme took off and Plastic Little's Kurt Hunte pointed it out. "I didn't believe him at first because I had heard the song and never even thought twice about the vocal sample, " Musson says. "The only thing I found peculiar about the track was the use of the phrase 'Harlem Shake' itself. I was like, Who the fuck is rapping about the Harlem Shake in 2012? That shit is so old." He's not mad that Baauer didn't ask permission for the sample. "I'm cool with it," Musson says. "That's how artists do… I think the production is phenomenal. If I was the spry young man I was many years ago back in my rapping days, I'd definitely be at the club trying grind up on numerous lady folk to his song while spilling Maker's Mark and ginger ale on their shoulders. But I'm a Buddhist now."

Musson made contact with Baauer recently, and Baauer confirmed using "Miller Time." Their exchange was captured on Instagram by Musson, who explains, "I just emailed him to make sure it was actually Plastic Little and to thank him for doing something useful with our annoying music. He was a stellar young gentleman about it and expressed genuine surprise that his song got as big as it did." Musson's similarly impressed with the videos: "I never thought that white people would be capable of dethroning Filipino Prison Dancers on YouTube. But hey, we're living in Obama's America, right?"

Where'd Baauer get the song's other prominent sample, of someone yelling Con los terroristas?

The story of the terroristas sample is expectedly convoluted. In a since-deleted blog post, DJ Apt One, of the Philly DJ duo Philadelphyinz, explained his "small role" in the song's creation. The sample first emerged in 2010, employed as part of a Philadelphyinz remix of Gregor Salto, DJ Gregory and Solo’s track “Con Alegria.” In 2011, that vocal sample was made available, a cappella, as part of T&A Breaks 3: Moombahton Loops & Samples, a compilation put together by DJ Ayres and Tittsworth. Baauer, who spent time living in Philly while working under the name Cap’nHarry and DJed at least once with Philadelphyinz, used the sample (presumably pulled from the T&A collection) and sent DJ Apt One the track in 2012. "We all appreciated the local incestuousness of ["Harlem Shake"'s] creation," wrote Apt One. "I can't be happier for Philly and for Baauer getting some shine!" On a February 18th Reddit AMA, Baauer dodged a question about the sample, saying only: "found it on the innerweb."

How does Baauer feel about all this?

Not bad. At first, he endorsed a number of "Harlem Shake" videos via retweet, but remained otherwise tight-lipped about the song's delayed success. On February 14th, a rep said, "He's deliberately not talking about it yet," and that he would "be making a statement next week." Baauer started talking on February 18th, first telling The Daily Beast, "I think ["Harlem Shake"] caught on because it’s a goofy, fun song...But at the base of it, it’s my song and it’s making people want to dance. That’s the best feeling in the world to me," then answering questions on Reddit.

Since videos with his song in them have racked up so many views, is Baauer making a ton of money from YouTube now?

It's hard to say. Yesterday, Mad Decent label manager Jasper Goggins told Billboard "Harlem Shake" is the "biggest thing we've released on Mad Decent as a label." As of yesterday afternoon, INDmusic, the company Mad Decent hired in 2012 to help monetize YouTube videos that use the label's songs, has used YouTube's Content ID system to tag over 4,000 YouTubes featuring "Harlem Shake," together collecting over 30 million views. It's possible that Baauer stands to make a nice bit of that money from those views, but according to record labels interviewed for this recent Guardian article, artists don't always make very much from these deals. The song has certaintly seen a big digital sales boost—it's currently #1 on iTunes in the US and climbing internationally—but his rep says Baauer will profit most from his mostly sold out tour.

FADER Explains: Harlem Shake