The Number Ones

March 2, 2013

The Number Ones: Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

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. Book Bonus Beat: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music.

The Harlem shake was a real dance — a complicated herky-jerk liquid shoulder-arm flail thing that was very difficult and looked cool as hell. The first time that the world saw the Harlem shake was in 2001, when Diddy protege G. Dep featured it heavily in his “Special Delivery” video. (G. Dep’s only Hot 100 hit, the Diddy/Black Rob collab “Let’s Get It,” peaked at #80. G. Dep has a wild life story, and I wish I could get into it in this column, but this damn thing is going to be complicated enough already.)

For about a year, you’d see a whole lot of Harlem shaking in rap videos. Lil Bow Wow did it all the time. Then Harlem rappers started turning the dance into a punchline — Cam’ron: “Kill you, shoot the funeral up, and Harlem shake at ya wake” — and the dance went away. That’s what dances usually do. About a decade after the Harlem shake came and went, though, a dance-craze song called “Harlem Shake” went all the way to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This “Harlem Shake” had only a vestigial connection to the actual Harlem shake, and it wasn’t supposed to be a dance-craze record. It was just an obscure DJ in Brooklyn, making a track to throw up online. It took a strange and unlikely confluence of factors to push “Harlem Shake” to #1, and that story is a whole lot more interesting than the track itself. The track isn’t bad, but it almost instantly became tiresome. It was a meme, and memes go away, too.

I wonder if Baauer, the DJ who made “Harlem Shake,” knew that the Harlem shake was a dance. He definitely didn’t know that it would become a different kind of dance craze, and he didn’t seem that happy about it. Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” was first a random internet loosie, then an independently released single, then a random-ass cultural phenomenon. It was full of uncleared samples, and by the time the legal paperwork was all cleared up, the craze was dead. The song never even appeared on a proper album, but it will always evoke a very specific moment in pop culture history, for better and worse.

Baauer didn’t have much to do with the craze, but he’s the guy who made the track, so let’s start with him. Harry Bauer Rodrigues comes from Philadelphia, and he moved around the world as a kid before going to New York’s City College. (When Baauer was born, Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” was the #1 song in America.) From an early age, Baauer was into dance music. He claims that he started sneaking into clubs at 13, and he interned for the hipster dance label Trouble & Bass at some point. When he made “Harlem Shake,” Baauer was at home in his Brooklyn apartment, throwing samples together for fun.

There was a context for this. In the late ’00s and early ’10s, lots of dance DJs were playing around with different genres, coming up with hybrids that would sound cool when you were drunk and high out of your mind, possibly at some kind of brand-sponsored party on a Brooklyn rooftop. I went to a bunch of those parties, and I can tell you that the guy at the forefront of that whole scene was Diplo, a Philadelphia DJ who made a name for himself by mashing Southern rap with coked-up indie rock and ’80s new wave jams. Diplo helped introduce the world to M.I.A., and he co-produced her Clash-sampling 2008 hit “Paper Planes.” (“Paper Planes, M.I.A.’s highest-charting lead-artist single, peaked at #4. It’s a 10. As a guest, M.I.A. will eventually appear in this column. Diplo’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2015 Skrillex/Justin Bieber collab “Where Are Ü Now,” peaked at #8. It’s another 10.)

I was around for all this stuff. I went to multiple Diplo parties, interviewed Diplo at least once, and got into at least one internet-driven mini-beef with Diplo. (He thought I was mocking him and his friends in a blog post, and I thought I was affectionately mocking him and his friends in a blog post. We were probably both right.) A whole scene of likeminded DJs sprung up around Diplo, and Baauer was somewhere in that matrix. Specifically, Baauer was part of an EDM subgenre known as trap-rave — or, even more unfortunately, as just trap. DJs like Baauer took drum-programming patterns from Southern rap — the music that was really called trap — and juiced it up with chattering samples, chaotic whistles, and dubstep drops. That’s what Baauer did when he made “Harlem Shake.”

The idea for “Harlem Shake” came from “Miller Time,” a 2003 track from Plastic Little, a kind of joking/not-joking Philadelphia rap group. Plastic Little were part of Diplo’s extended circle, and they would dump ridiculous punchlines all over knowingly obnoxious samples. Their whole deadpan style foreshadowed future indie-popular rap groups like Das Racist and maybe the Cool Kids, and I really liked them. Plastic Little were never hugely popular, but they were in the conversation for a few years. I think I saw them open for Vampire Weekend at the Bowery Ballroom once, right around the time the first VW album came out.

On “Miller Time,” there’s a moment where Jayson Musson, the group member alternately known as PackofRats and Hennessy Youngman, invokes the dance: “If you bring a 40 bottle to battle me, I’ll just punch you in your face then do the Harlem shake.” Musson later claimed that the line came from a real experience. He was in a fistfight with someone, and he ended it by smiling at the guy and then doing the Harlem shake until the guy just walked off. It’s not as good as Cam’ron’s punchline, but it’s not bad. Baauer got that part of the song stuck in his head, and he slowed Musson’s line down to a crawl and then piled a bunch of other sounds on it.

You can clearly hear Jayson Musson say, “Do the Harlem shake” on “Harlem Shake.” It’s one of the track’s climactic moments. But there’s a lot of other stuff in there, too: Handclaps, sirens, pitched EDM ramp-ups, a lion roaring, a squeaky voice proclaiming the phrase “con los terroristas.” That last thing was another sample. Baauer didn’t remember where he heard it, and it probably came from another hipster dance producer’s sample, but the phrase originally came from “Maldades,” a track that the Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Héctor El Father released in 2006. It could’ve been almost any Héctor El Father track, but it was that one. “Con los terroristas” — “with the gangsters,” basically — was a kind of catchphrase for him.

When he first posted “Harlem Shake” on SoundCloud in 2012, Baauer wasn’t too worried about those samples. He wasn’t exactly a big-name producer, and the track wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. It was just one of several that he put up online that day. But people liked “Harlem Shake,” and it started to percolate. The Scottish DJ Rustie played it during a BBC radio mix, and Diplo, who’d started an indie label called Mad Decent, heard the track and picked it up. A month after Baauer first posted the track, Diplo released it as a free download through the Mad Decent sub-label Jeffree’s.

Pitchfork got behind “Harlem Shake,” giving the track an enthusiastic review. On the site’s YouTube show Selector, the New York rappers El-P and Despot freestyled really nicely over the Baauer instrumental. I’m not sure that I even heard “Harlem Shake” until it appeared in the lower reaches of Pitchfork’s 2012 year-end list. I wasn’t working at Pitchfork anymore when “Harlem Shake” came out, and I was a dad who was no longer immersed in hipster dance circles. But Larry Fitzmaurice, the guy who reviewed the track, and Eavvon O’Neal, the host and creator of Selector, are both friends and former co-workers. Larry writes for Stereogum sometimes now. When I heard the track, it sounded instantly familiar. There were so many tracks like that.

“Harlem Shake” was around for the better part of a year before anyone noticed. Then, early in 2013, a guy named George Miller put “Harlem Shake” in a YouTube video. This is not the Mad Max director George Miller; it’s a Japanese-born YouTube comedian who had an alias called Filthy Frank and a channel called DizastaMusic. In one of those videos, Miller and his friends, all wearing goofy costumes, kind of dance to the first 30 seconds of “Harlem Shake.” As the track ramps up, they just sort of stiffly hump the air. Then, when the Plastic Little sample and bass drop come in, they flail around frantically. Is it a dance? Or is it just, like, a thing to do? I cannot tell you.

We are wading into some deep internet water here, and I must confess that I simply do not understand this shit. It means nothing to me. Maybe there’s something primally satisfying about wilding out when the bass-drop hits, or maybe it’s just one of those internet things that are simply defined by their lack of meaning — the Skibidi Toilet of its day. But that “Harlem Shake” video caught on. Implausibly enough, George Miller later found his own pop stardom under the name Joji, and he’s positively thriving right now. Joji’s highest-charting single, the 2023 piano ballad “Glimpse Of Us,” peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.) It’s entirely possible that Joji will eventually appear in this column.

The “Harlem Shake” meme spread quickly, as memes do. Pretty soon, rules, or at least guidelines, emerged. Masks and outlandish costumes were usually involved. Often, it would be one person moving around during the ramp-up, while everyone else went about their business quietly. Then, when the bass-drop hit, everyone would suddenly be moving around senselessly. It would usually cut off at the first lion-roar, sometimes while briefly going into slow-motion. Not everyone followed those guidelines, but it just kind of became a thing that people did — the Miami Heat, various college teams and soccer clubs, cops, military servicemen, TV writing staffs, NASCAR drivers, Mitch McConnell’s reelection team, future Number Ones artist Travis Scott. There was a Simpsons couch-gag parody. The indie-pop duo Matt & Kim got the Guinness people to show up when they set a record, getting a few thousand people to make a “Harlem Shake” video at one of their shows. (Matt & Kim’s only Hot 100 hit, 2009’s “Daylight,” peaked at #95.)

For a minute there, thousands of new “Harlem Shake” videos were going up every day — one every few seconds. Kids were getting suspended for making “Harlem Shake” videos at school. A few Russians were arrested for making a “Harlem Shake” video on a war memorial, and a couple of Israeli soldiers went to prison for shooting another one near their armories. During the Arab Spring, “Harlem Shake” videos became a culture-war weapon, as protesters would film their own “Harlem Shake” videos as a way to needle people in power.

You can probably point to plenty of reasons that the “Harlem Shake” thing took off the way that it did, despite not actually being funny and despite annoying those of use who remembered that the Harlem shake was once an actual dance that required skill and style. These videos were cheap and easy to make. They didn’t take long to watch. Sometimes, they were visually arresting. Even when they weren’t, you might still stick around for 15 seconds to see the beat-drop. But I think something else was going on, too. I think the “Harlem Shake” became a vessel for a certain kind of forced workplace jocularity. Consider, if you will, the WeWork staff doing the “Harlem Shake” — a clear example of bosses forcing all their underlings into a specific tech-friendly vision of party mode. The song even sounds like a bubble popping.

If the “Harlem Shake” meme had happened a month earlier, there is no way that the song would’ve reached #1. But “Harlem Shake” came along shortly after another meme-driven hit flew up the charts and absolutely dominated YouTube around the globe. Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” another song that became a vehicle for antic snark, went all the way to #2 on the Hot 100 despite not traveling through traditional distribution models like pop radio. (It’s an 8.) For a Korean-language dance-rap novelty, that was a triumph. But “Gangnam Style” was inarguably way more popular than Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” the song that kept it out of the #1 spot. So Billboard‘s staff made a crucial adjustment. YouTube was the platform that people were really using to hear music, so Billboard started factoring YouTube streams into the Hot 100 tabulation. The first week that YouTube streams became part of the equation, “Harlem Shake” debuted at #1.

The change was a good one, and it made sense. YouTube was, and is, probably the main way that people consume music today. Mad Decent monetized all those “Harlem Shake” videos, so the label started getting paid whenever people watched them. The song wasn’t getting any airplay, and people weren’t buying the single in vast numbers. Most of the time, they weren’t listening to the whole thing — just the first 30 seconds, a preview of the TikTok culture to come. In that moment, though, “Harlem Shake” was an inescapable part of culture, and its shockingly long chart reign reflected that.

Naturally, the uncleared samples in “Harlem Shake” came back to bite Baauer and Mad Decent. Plastic Little and Héctor El Father didn’t know that they were sampled on the track until it took off, and the song reached #1 so quickly that it must’ve been head-spinning for everyone involved. Héctor El Father, who’d retired from reggaeton and become an evangelical preacher by that time, told The New York Times, “It’s almost like they came on my land and built a house.” Eventually, Mad Decent came to a settlement with everyone involved. Héctor El Father got a songwriting credit, as did two members of Plastic Little.

Baauer himself had no idea what to make of it. In a Pitchfork interview a few months after the song reached #1, he said it was a “mindfuck… People started to call my phone, I’m like, ‘How did you get my number? Who the fuck is this?’ People saying, ‘We’d like to have Baauer on Good Morning America to do the Harlem Shake.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck no!’ It felt invasive.” He also said that he hadn’t seen any money from the track yet, and he seemed genuinely dismayed at the legal hassle that it would entail. Sometimes, he’d accept DJ gigs and then infuriate the crowd by refusing to play “Harlem Shake.” It must’ve been a real monkey’s paw situation: The whole world hears your music, but only 30 seconds of it, and only when they’re looking at something stupid.

Even all these years later, it’s hard to evaluate “Harlem Shake” as a track, or as anything other than meme-fodder. Since I heard “Harlem Shake” before the meme took off, I have vague memories of being like, “Oh, yeah, pretty cool” before scrolling to something else. But I can’t really access those memories now. I can say that “Harlem Shake” has a certain goony energy. The synth-whistles are grating, but they’re grating on purpose. The samples are all arranged in satisfying ways. I like the lion roar. (In retrospect, it’s probably lucky for Baauer that the lion never threatened to sue.) As a song, though, it sounds incomplete.

“Harlem Shake” isn’t exactly an instrumental, since it has those samples, but it’s functionally an instrumental. As such, it’s the only instrumental track that’s topped the Hot 100 since Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” in 1985. I think that’s fun. I also think it’s fun that “Harlem Shake” functions a bit like the Champs’ almost-instrumental “Tequila,” which topped the pre-Hot 100 singles chart in 1958. Like “Tequila,” “Harlem Shake” is a big, stinky groove with a bunch of fun, goofy things happening, all ramping up to a couple of climactic lines. “Tequila” is a much better song, though. And because of the way meme culture tends to work my nerves, I never need to hear “Harlem Shake” again.

Mad Decent didn’t really have to do anything to capitalize on “Harlem Shake,” so it never really did. The label commissioned a video for the track, but they didn’t like how it turned out, so they never released it. There was talk of a rap-star remix, too, but that also never happened. The single still went double platinum. The label never released a Baauer album, and Bauuer never made the Hot 100 again. I bet he’s fine with that.

Baauer kept cranking out singles, and he worked with a bunch of artists who will eventually appear in this column: Rae Sremmurd, Future, M.I.A. He finally released his debut album Aa in 2016, and then he got a Grammy nomination for releasing another one in 2020. His tracks routinely show up in movies, ad campaigns, and other corporate-sponsored situations. He’s got a sustainable career, and I’m sure he regards the whole “Harlem Shake” phenomenon with the same bemusement as the rest of us. I hope so. That’s the healthy way to approach something like this. Meme-fame is a strange and unpredictable beast, and when it’s over, you have to let it go. Maybe some random bedroom producer will eventually sample “Harlem Shake” on a track that becomes a TikTok hit, and then that kid will have to pay Baauer.

GRADE: 6/10

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BONUS BEATS: One of the rappers who Mad Decent reportedly approached about a “Harlem Shake” remix was Azealia Banks, who actually comes from Harlem and whose career was taking off around the same time as the track. Baauer later explained that he didn’t like her version of “Harlem Shake,” so he asked her not to release it. She posted it online anyway, and he got SoundCloud to take it down — a strange decision for a track that was already full of uncleared samples. This might’ve been the first time that the world truly got to see Azealia Banks truly go social-media nuclear and drop tons of slurs on someone, a tradition that continues to this day. She is still very talented, and I like her version of “Harlem Shake” better than the original. Here’s the video that she made for it:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Diplo’s Major Lazer project sampling “Harlem Shake” on “Talk ‘Bout Me,” a 2013 collaboration with Baauer and dancehall star Popcaan:

(Major Lazer’s highest-charting Hot 100 hit, the 2016 Justin Bieber/MØ collab “Cold Water,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: I don’t remember Pitbull and Lil Wayne, two rappers who have appeared in this column, beefing with each other, but apparently they had an issue for a minute. Pitbull chose to address it by rapping over “Harlem Shake” on his 2013 track “Welcome To Dade County.” Here it is:

THE 10S: Rihanna’s stripped-back ballad “Stay,” a stark and devastated duet with Mikky Ekko, peaked at #3 behind “Harlem Shake.” I want it to stay. It’s a 10.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now on paperback via Hachette Books. Handclaps. Stuttering sirens. A high-pitched whine increases in frequency before a deep voice comes in: “Buy the book here.”

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