It showed up in the lower reaches of the Billboard top 10 last week: A giddy new dance-craze record, one made by a couple of teenagers who’d had absolutely no music-business experience before they took your teenage cousin’s smartphone by storm. Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall, both from Detroit, aren’t just teenagers; they’re young teenagers — as in, 15 or thereabouts. They don’t have an album, and there’s a good chance they never will. But right now, they have the #8 song in the country. “Juju On That Beat,” their song, is a transparently goofy piece of work, a song about dancing and partying and absolutely nothing else, one where the dance instructions are the main point of the thing and the other lyrics are just taking up space. We’ve heard a million songs like this one, and we’ll hear a million more. Sometimes they break through, and most of the time they don’t. This one broke through.
The story of “Juju On That Beat” is a pretty fun one — one about the way kids develop their own cultural artifacts and only the quickest-thinking corporations figure out ways to capitalize on them in time. Hilfigerrr came up with the song, initially calling it “TZ Anthem” and getting it out into the world by starting a #TZAnthemChallenge hashtag. Pretty soon, kids were filming their own versions and posting them. For some reason, it became a thing with white girls, and then it became another thing for people on Twitter to argue about whether the white girls in the videos had made fools of themselves or not. (You will find so much of this if you do even the tiniest bit of Googling.) Two guys dressed as clowns, apparently part of a dance crew called @FreshTheClowns, went viral doing the dance a couple of months ago, and someone at Atlantic had the bright idea to sign Hilfigerrr and McCall, and to get the song out into the world in a form that people could buy. All this happened in a few months, and if you, like me, are an adult, there’s a good chance that you missed all of it.
We’ve seen variations on that story time and again over the past few years. The story of “Juju On That Beat” is the story of “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” and it’s the story of “Hit The Quan.” It’s also the story of practically every dance-craze record in the past 60 years or so. (And it’s the story of the dance-craze song’s younger cousin, the viral-craze song. “Juju On That Beat” is in the top 10 because of videos that people are posting on social media, which is the same reason Rae Sremmurd’s great “Black Beatles” was able to ride the #MannequinChallenge all the way to #1.)
We’ve had dance-craze records for about as long as we’ve had recorded popular music. They’re always fun, and they never really leave a lasting footprint. They don’t need to. It’s a pop tradition worth defending. Kids are going to have fun with a song like this for a few months, and then, when they hear the song a few decades later, they are going to feel the bittersweet pull of nostalgia — the same way their parents or grandparents do when they hear their own versions of those records. (Play Kylie Minogue’s version of “The Locomotion” around me sometime and watch me go through my own little mini-Proustian internal journey.) But there is something that sets “Juju On That Beat” apart, and that thing is “Knuck If You Buck.”
If “Juju On That Beat” sounds familiar to you, it’s because of “Knuck If You Buck.” Hilfigerrr and McCall’s track samples the 2004 track from the Ellenwood, Georgia rap group Crime Mob. It’s a strange choice for a dance-craze track. Crime Mob producer Lil Jay was a clear disciple of Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul and Juicy J, and his beat for “Knuck If You Buck” is an eerie horror-movie tingle, simple and hypnotic and built from ghostly keyboard notes and slam-your-head-in-a-car-door drums. And as someone who’s been in love with “Knuck If You Buck” from the first moment I heard it — honestly, it’s probably one of my 40-or-so favorite songs of all time — I can’t properly explain how weird it is to hear these two fresh-faced little kids chirping their dance instructions over that beat.
“Knuck If You Buck” isn’t a song for dancing. It’s a song for fighting. It’s a song about fighting. The members of Crime Mob were all kids, not much older than Hilfigerrr and McCall, when they recorded the song; if I’m remembering right, they ranged in age from 16 to 20. The male rappers in the group all had huge, heavy voices, but they seemed to be there entirely to complement Diamond and Princess, the two charismatic-as-hell girls. When “Knuck If You Buck” was still new, I was completely in love with its garage-band intensity — of the idea of these kids, recording together in isolation, making something capable of starting roller-rink riots. And while “Knuck If You Buck” was their best song, it wasn’t a fluke; Crime Mob’s entire self-titled 2004 album is full of hypnotic low-budget bangers like that.
It’s not like Crime Mob were too good for novelty dance songs; “Rock Yo Hips,” the first single from their 2006 sophomore album, Hated On Mostly, was their own attempt at one. And it’s not that Crime Mob are these towering artists whose song shouldn’t be used for silliness like “Juju On That Beat.” They didn’t last. Even before they released that second album, one member of Crime Mob (Killa C, the “throwin’ bows like Johnny Cage” guy) went to jail for child molestation. They went their separate ways soon after, and I don’t know what any of them are doing now. If anything, I’m happy that a new generation of kids is getting to hear that beat, even if the catchiest part of “Juju On That Beat” (“You ugly! You your daddy’s son!”) is nowhere near as catchy as the catchiest part of “Knuck If You Buck” (“They be like Saddam Hussein, Hitler, and Osama Bin Laden!”). Lil Jay will presumably make a chunk of money in royalties, and the fact that Crime Mob were on Atlantic had everything to do with Atlantic’s ability to turn “Juju On That Beat” into a salable product so quickly. (According to Billboard, Atlantic was able to clear the sample within 72 hours.)
It’s just that it’s weird. Think about Soulja Boy’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” which is effectively the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of this new generation of dance-craze songs. What if that song hadn’t had that distinctive steel-drum beat? What if, instead, it had used the beat for Audio Two’s “Top Billin’,” or even the beat from Silkk The Shocker’s “It Ain’t My Fault”? That would be weird, right? On top of that, “Knuck If You Buck” topped out at #75 on the Billboard chart. I know it shouldn’t bother me that “Juju On That Beat” is already way more popular than its source material ever was, but it totally bothers me. It’s irrational, and it makes me sound like the grandma on the “Juju On That Beat” intro who needs to have the dance explained to her. But I can’t let go of the idea that “Knuck If You Buck” deserves better. Dance-craze records are a tradition that will never die, but the records themselves are ephemeral. “Knuck If You Buck” is eternal.
1. Big Baby Gandhi – “Ban This Dick America”
It takes a real level of talent to face down this godforsaken historical moment with anger and humor and swagger.
2. Gucci Mane & Future – “RR Trucks”
“Gucci Mane LaFlare, and to dis me is risky / Future pouring lean like it’s motherfucking whiskey / I’m the type of rich they know I’m strapped but don’t frisk me / It’s 2016, I’m on my 16th Bentley / When I get a chance to vote, I’m voting for Monica Lewinsky / Cuz I’ma paint her face like Leonardo DaVinci.” Gucci!
3. PeeWee Longway – “Master Peewee”
The No Limit nostalgia on Usher’s “No Limit” was cool, but it needed deeper levels of Ice Cream Man-era nostalgia. And now, thanks to Longway, we get to hear Mr. Serv-On namechecked on a 2016 rap song.
4. P Money – “Gunfingers” (Feat. JME & Wiley)
That vocal effect that P Money uses on the chorus makes me think of trash-compactor robots, which makes me think of Wall-E, which makes me happy. Also: Crusty grime uncle Wiley just absolutely massacres this.
5. Smoke DZA & Pete Rock – “Milestone” (Feat. Jadakiss, Styles P, & BJ The Chicago Kid)
Rosy ’90s New York rap nostalgia goes down a whole lot easier over a beautiful beat from one of that era’s greatest producers.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
REPORTER: Mr. President, what's your favorite Wu Tang album?
TRUMP: What kind of question is –
[Pence grabs podium]
PENCE: BAN ALL RAP!
— Coward Dean (@StuntBirdArmy) November 9, 2016