The Number Ones

January 14, 2006

The Number Ones: D4L’s “Laffy Taffy”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Simply by existing, D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” caused an existential crisis in the rap world. By 2005, rap was a vast and varied landscape. It had its own traditions, its own sense of prestige and importance, and “Laffy Taffy” violated all of that. If this song could become a success — a track with a barely-there beat that sounded like a toddler pushing buttons on a touchtone phone and guys rapping about sex and candy in ways that were only barely coherent — then what had rap become? Where was it going? I was still pretty new to New York when this was happening, and New York was still pretty new to the idea that rap’s birthplace was no longer its focal point. In New York, heads looked at “Laffy Taffy” the way English villagers might’ve once looked at Viking longboats.

In the larger music business, D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” didn’t cause an existential crisis until it reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. If I can summarize the widespread reaction to that event, it would be something like: This? And maybe also: What? The record business was in freefall at the time. Nobody bought CDs anymore, and while people were buying tracks on iTunes, those tracks were only earning the record labels 99 cents at a time. Also, people were buying tracks like “Laffy Taffy.” D4L, an Atlanta rap group, had been total nobodies before “Laffy Taffy” blew up. Their one album didn’t really sell at all. After the popularity of “Laffy Taffy” died down, D4L promptly ceased to exist. It’s easy to picture boardrooms full of panicking suits asking each other how they were supposed to sell this.

On top of all that, there was the little matter of “Laffy Taffy” being just widely despised — the type of song that perpetually haunts snarked-out “worst song ever” lists years later. For 90% of the people who heard the song, “Laffy Taffy” was a travesty. Not me, though. I’m the 10%. I think “Laffy Taffy” is good.

“Laffy Taffy” was not a song that was engineered to reach #1 on the Hot 100. Its success was an accident, a fluke of timing and fate. I generally find stories like “Laffy Taffy” a whole lot more interesting than the meticulously planned superstar moves that usually dominate the pop-chart conversation. “Laffy Taffy” has a whole lot of context to it. The D4L song is an Atlanta club-rap record, and Atlanta club-rap has its own particular history.

In the mid-’00s, Atlanta was only just coming to its own as the new global capital for rap music. In the post-Outkast era, the city had a few stars who seemed to be cut from the Jay-Z mold and who demanded to be taken seriously, guys like T.I. and Young Jeezy. (T.I. will eventually appear in this column. Jeezy will eventually be in here as a guest. Jeezy’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2005 Akon collab “Soul Survivor,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.) Guys like T.I. and Jeezy didn’t intersect much with the people who made dinky, faddish club tracks, but those artists often came from the same neighborhoods, and they often had similar criminal histories.

Goofy Atlanta dance-rap tracks had been finding national crossover success since the early ’90s, but hits like Kris Kross’ “Jump” and Tag Team’s “Whoomp (There It Is)” didn’t exactly promise an era when Atlanta would dominate rap. (“Whoomp (There It Is)” peaked at #2 in 1993. It’s a 6.) “Laffy Taffy” doesn’t really belong to the same family-friendly rap-novelty tradition of those songs. Instead, “Laffy Taffy” was one of the early signature tracks from the genre known as snap music, a strange new sound that developed in the clubs when crunk evolved in some unpredictable directions.

In 2004, when the crunk era was still at its peak, Dem Frachize Boyz, a group from Atlanta’s rough Bankhead neighborhood, signed with Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label and got to #79 on the Hot 100 with “White Tee,” an ode to the gigantically long plain-white T-shirts that were ubiquitous in Black Southeastern cities at the time. (Maybe those shirts were popular everywhere? I don’t know, but I can tell you that long shirts were a huge deal in Baltimore. Kids would be wearing shirts that reached down past their knees.) “White Tee” wasn’t as noisy or urgent as that moment’s crunk anthems. Instead, it had a springy, nagging bounce to it. In the video, Dem Franchize Boyz did a dance where they all suddenly jerked to the side in unison — the move that would become synonymous with snap music. (I don’t think they were snapping their fingers while doing the dance yet.)

“White Tee” was a minor hit with a weirdly long tail. Gucci Mane, the Atlanta rapper who would later define the city’s dominant trap sound, first got himself noticed with “Black Tee,” a “White Tee” parody about rocking darker colors to commit crimes. (Gucci Mane’s two highest-charting lead-artist singles, the 2017 Migos collab “I Get The Bag” and the 2018 Bruno Mars/Kodak Black collab “Wake Up In The Sky,” both peaked at #11. As a guest, Gucci will eventually appear in this column.) “Black Tee” should tell you something else about the emerging snap sound. The songs might’ve been light and playful and catchy, but the rappers who made those songs were often straight-up criminals, or else they were people with criminal connections. Local drug dealers, looking for ways to clean up their money or to make a different kind of local impact, would sometimes fund local rappers or sign them to the nascent indie labels that they’d founded. Sometimes, the drug dealers even became rappers themselves.

Dem Franchize Boyz came from Bankhead’s Bowen Homes projects, and early in their run, before they signed with So So Def, they’d been partially bankrolled by another Bowen Homes native who was making money in the streets. A lot of the particulars of the early snap scene haven’t been properly documented, presumably partly because many of the principal figures don’t want their activities on record. But Carlos “Shawty Lo” Walker is no longer with us, and there’s a lot of material on the man, especially in Joe Coscarelli’s Rap Capital, a great 2022 book about the whole Atlanta rap universe.

In Rap Capital, Jacoby Hudson, a Bowen Homes neighbor who later became Shawty Lo’s defense lawyer, describes Lo like this: “I don’t know who the fuck came up with him being a rapper. He wasn’t no rapper… He was tough. He was fat. He would hurt you, he would hurt your family, he would do all of that. But when he got older, people started to love Carlos.” Shawty Lo grew up with his grandmother in Bowen Homes. She died when he was 17, and Lo was on his own, squatting in the apartment where his grandmother had once paid rent. Local kingpins would hire Shawty Lo because he could fight, and when some of them got locked up, Lo took over and became a local kingpin himself. He made himself beloved by spreading his wealth around the neighborhood.

After managing to skate with just a year in prison on charges that could’ve had him locked up for decades, Shawty Lo decided to put his street money into something that wouldn’t land him back in prison. He built a studio and invested in local rappers. One of those rappers convinced Lo to try rapping himself. As a rapper, Shawty Lo never had anything resembling technical skill, but he had a weird sort of charisma, and his verses all came out in a slow, simplistic wheeze that didn’t sound like anyone else. Around the same time that Dem Franchize Boyz started to blow up, Shawty Lo formed his own rap group, and he called it D4L — short for Down For Life.

Later on, the members of D4L and Dem Franchize Boyz would get into a minor short-lived feud over the question of who’d actually pioneered the snap music sound and its attendant dances — a beef that was pretty bewildering for those of us who weren’t there when snap first became a thing. Either way, the rappers in this tiny scene didn’t come up through established rap channels, through battles or talent shows or mixtapes. They were just guys who were around. But D4L had something that Dem Franchize Boyz didn’t. D4L had exactly one natural-born star. D4L had Fabo.

Online, I can find precious little biographical info little about Fabo, the hoarse and rubber-limbed rapper who was the driving force behind “Laffy Taffy.” I’m just learning now, via Discogs, that Fabo and Young Dro, the great future T.I. protege, were both all over a 2000 mixtape called The Tight IV Life Training Camp. (Young Dro’s biggest hit, the 2006 T.I. collab “Shoulder Lean,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8.) Fabo could rap fast, but his real gift was wildness. By the time that D4L made their 2005 album Down 4 Life, Fabo was a legitimate maniac, an out-of-control chaos-agent howler with a gift for berserker melodies. My favorite D4L track will always be Fabo’s solo showcase “Scotty,” the beautiful psychedelic bugout about popping some ecstasy and starting to see spaceships on Bankhead. When I’m getting high and walking my dogs late at night, “Scotty” stays in heavy rotation.

Fabo is one of the two reasons that “Laffy Taffy” blew up the way that it did. The other reason was that beat, which is so spacey and simple that it almost sounds alien. The “Laffy Taffy” beat came from the young Bankhead producer K-Rab, and it might be the single most pure and primal example of the snap music sound. K-Rab, who also rapped, had made his name with “Poole Palace,” an Atlanta anthem that paid tribute to a local club and that became its own dance.

In an interview last year, K-Rab talked about the day that he made the “Laffy Taffy” beat:

I was on daddy duty this day. I had to bring my son to the studio. I had him in there. He running around. I’m in there, trying to work, but I keep hearing him. He just keep “unh unh unh, unh unh unh.” I’m like, “Man, what are you singing?” I started playing it on the keyboard, and it made him happy, to hear me doing the song. So I ended up making a full beat. I put it in Fabo’s folder, and told him, “Man, I got something for you. I want you to check it out.” When I came back to the studio later on that day, it was nonstop people coming into the studio to hear the song that Fabo created off that beat.

The “Laffy Taffy” beat doesn’t just sound childish. It is childish. It’s an adaptation of a two-note riff created by a literal toddler. There’s barely anything surrounding that beat, either. It’s a few drum-machine snaps, some 808 drumrolls, and nothing else. The track is just strikingly strange and minimal. Compared to “Laffy Taffy,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is “God Only Knows.” I don’t know how anyone can hear that hypnotic nothingness and then start enthusiastically barking about asses, but a man like Fabo is driven by forces that someone like me can never hope to understand.

In a 2016 Complex interview, Fabo said that he came up with the idea for “Laffy Taffy” late one night in the studio, after he’d been at a strip club and brought a couple of girls back with him: “‘Laffy Taffy’ means shaking your behind. I just got tired of people saying booty, and I wanted to come up with another name on it… I was just in the booth saying something like, ‘Tootsie Roll,’ at first, and was like, ‘Nah.’ I had this piece of candy in my pocket and pulled it out and said, ‘Girl, shake that Laffy Taffy.’ And from there, we just perfected it. It was just that moment.” Maybe Fabo remembered that the Tootsie Roll line was already taken. In 1994, the Florida bass duo 69 Boyz got to #8 with their single “Tootsee Roll.” (It’s a 7.)

Laffy Taffy was a weird choice to inspire a song about butts. Laffy Taffy itself is a strictly second-rate candy. Its square shape doesn’t really remind me of any body part. It starts out really hard and then gets stuck in your teeth when it gets squishy. If I have a big bag of Halloween candy in front of me, I’m only getting to the Laffy Taffy after I’ve finished all the Starburst. Anyway, Fabo loves candy. In that Complex interview, he elaborates: “Everybody who know me know I’m the candy man. I always have some candy in my pocket. If you run into me and are like, ‘Yo, give me some candy,’ I guarantee I have some candy for you.” If I ever run into Fabo, I’m definitely asking him for candy. I love candy, too.

On “Laffy Taffy,” Fabo sounds insane. His nutso voice contrasts beautifully with the beat, filling up all that empty space. He’s practically wailing in there: “Giiiiirl, shake that Laffy Taffy!” He sings a tiny bit of New Edition’s “Candy Girl,” a #46 hit in 1983. On his verse, Fabo’s candy references are almost mind-bogglingly dumb, but he makes them work by hollering them at the top of his lungs. He’s looking for Mrs. Bubblegum! He’s Mr. Chick-O-Stick! He wants to dun-nun-nun — oh! ‘Cause you so thick! Girls call him Jolly Rancher! Because he stays so hard! You can suck him for a long time! Oh my gawd! Those lines aren’t going to win any literary prizes, but if you can’t have fun while listening to that, then you and I are not the same.

The other “Laffy Taffy” verses are thoroughly anonymous. Shawty Lo isn’t even on the song, and fellow D4L members Mook-B and Stuntman sound both clumsy and bored. Stuntman even brags about a pretty awful violation of strip-club etiquette: “Security guard don’t scare nobody, damn right I touched that ho.” I never pay those guys any mind. (I do kind of like the way that Stuntman says, “Here go Mr. Choc-o-lit.”) Fabo is the star of “Laffy Taffy,” and his parts are the ones that everyone remembers. I love Fabo on “Laffy Taffy.” I still don’t understand how he’s never popped off as a solo star.

D4L somehow got a deal through Atlantic Records, though it doesn’t seem like the label invested a lot of resources in the group. The Down 4 Life album doesn’t have big guest appearances, and the “Laffy Taffy” video is almost hilariously sloppy and amateurish. The Houston rapper Mike Jones, having a moment of his own at the time, makes a cameo at the beginning, clumsily discussing the prospects of “Laffy Taffy” in Houston with Shawty Lo. (Mike Jones’ highest-charting single is 2005’s “Back Then,” which peaked at #22. Jones also got to #5 as a guest on T-Pain’s 2005 track “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper).” That one is a 4.) Most of the “Laffy Taffy” video is just the rappers and girls. The only one who looks happy to be there is Fabo, who does a dance move with his leg that looks difficult and potentially painful.

“Laffy Taffy” was an instant generation-gap song. Older rappers and fans seemed to take the song’s popularity as something resembling a personal insult. Busta Rhymes rapped on a remix, but his co-sign didn’t make as many waves as Ghostface Killah’s outright disgust. On the Just Blaze-produced banger “The Champ,” Ghost called out “Laffy Taffy” by name: “My arts is crafty darts, why y’all stuck on ‘Laffy Taffy’?” (Ghost was fighting for chart space himself. His biggest Hot 100 hit, the Ne-Yo collab “Back Like That,” came out around the same time, and it peaked at #61. Last year, Ghost got to #22 as a guest on Kendrick Lamar’s “Purple Hearts.”)

But “Laffy Taffy” didn’t need the approval of rap’s older generations. The kids liked the song. “Laffy Taffy” blew up without much help from radio. Instead, the song really took off as a ringtone. Ringtone sales had become a billion-dollar industry, but those rings still sounded tinny and ugly. (The first iPhone wouldn’t come out until 2007.) For a song to sound good as a ringtone, it had to be synthy and minimal. It had to sound cheap. Snap music fit the bill, to the point where plenty of people started referring to the genre as “ringtone rap.” “Laffy Taffy” sold millions of ringtones.

“Laffy Taffy” also sold a whole lot of one-dollar iTunes downloads. My colleague Chris Molanphy once wrote and podcasted about the week-after-Christmas phenomenon — the time when kids use their Christmas money to buy the noisy, boisterous, irritating things that they want for themselves, rather than the relatively sedate music that their parents might buy as Christmas gifts. That’s how Nirvana came to famously knock Michael Jackson out of the #1 spot on the album chart in 1992, and it’s also how D4L topped the Hot 100 for a single week in 2006. Nirvana and D4L might not have a ton in common, but they’ve got that. The week after Christmas 2005, “Laffy Taffy” sold hundreds of thousands of downloads. For a while, it was the most downloaded song in history. A whole lot of kids got iTunes gift cards for Christmas that year, and a great many of those kids wanted to hear “Laffy Taffy.”

The “Laffy Taffy” single ultimately went triple platinum, but the Down For Life album didn’t even go gold. D4L followed “Laffy Taffy” with “Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me,” a similarly simple snap track that allowed all the non-Shawty Lo members to show that they could rap fast. That song peaked at #72, and D4L never released another single. The group effectively broke up after that. In the popular imagination, D4L were total one-hit wonders. In rap itself, D4L deep cuts became cult favorites; tracks like “Scotty” and “I’m Da Man” were widely sampled, and you can hear plenty of echoes of their style in something like the West Coast sound that DJ Mustard popularized a few years later. D4L had a style and a personality, but they didn’t have any other songs that caught on with the general population.

After D4L broke up, Mook-B and Stuntman basically disappeared. Fabo remains intermittently active — sometimes showing up on other people’s songs, sometimes appearing in random places like a commercial for the regional fast-food chain Krystal. Rappers still invoke his name when they’re talking about getting extremely high. Weirdly, though, the one D4L member who really had a solo run was Shawty Lo, the one who didn’t rap on “Laffy Taffy” and who basically couldn’t rap. Lo released his 2008 debut album Units In The City, briefly feuded with T.I. over who was more Bankhead, and made it to #31 with “Dey Know” a 2007 track built on a hammering marching-band beat. It couldn’t have sounded any less like “Laffy Taffy.”

“Dey Know” was Shawty Lo’s only Hot 100 hit as a solo artist, but he stuck around for a while. In some circles, he was famous for having 11 kids by 10 different women. At one point, Oxygen apparently greenlit a Shawty Lo reality show called All My Babies’ Mamas, but someone realized that this was a terrible idea, and the show was pulled before it aired. In 2016, Shawty Lo crashed his Audi and died. He was 40.

D4L were over the moment that “Laffy Taffy” fell from the #1 spot, but snap music hung on for a while longer. Shortly after “Laffy Taffy” reached its peak, Dem Franchize Boyz made it to #7 with the snap dance-craze song “Lean Wit It Rock Wit It.” (It’s a 7.) In this column, we’ll see more snap music in the days ahead.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Laffy Taffy” parody from a 2005 episode of The Boondocks:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Soulja Boy interpolating the “Laffy Taffy” hook into something even cruder on his 2007 track “Booty Meat”:

(Soulja Boy will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a scene from a 2018 Atlanta episode that makes strange and memorable use of “Laffy Taffy” and the snap dance:

(Donald Glover will eventually appear in this column. I’ve been looking forward to using that Bonus Beat since that episode first aired.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Tyga rapping over a “Laffy Taffy” sample in the video for his 2021 single “Mrs. Bubblegum,” with Fabo in the video and everything:

(Tyga’s highest-charting single, the snap-influenced 2011 track “Rack City,” peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: 2 Chainz also raps over a “Laffy Taffy” sample on his 2022 track “Neighbors Know My Name,” and Fabo also shows up in the video. Here it is:

(2 Chainz’ highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2013 Wiz Khalifa collab “We Own It (Fast & Furious),” which peaked at #16. That same year, 2 Chainz also got to #3 as a guest on Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty.” That one is a 7.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Get loose! Get low! Don’t by shy! Buy it here!

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