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Baauer’s ‘Harlem Shake’: Gentrification Goes Viral


Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” that squeaky, wubby trap-dance instrumental that has, over the past few weeks, gone full-on viral thanks to endless videos of people dancing to the song, is a moderately interesting slab of post-drop dubstep or EDM. But the Harlem Shake is already a dance. A once-popular and very loaded dance, at that. A few decades old, it rose to the mainstream in 2001 thanks to Harlem rapper G. Dep (“Let’s Get It” and “Special Delivery”) and later on, in a slightly mutated form, as the Chicken Noodle Soup via DJ Webstar’s 2006 song of the same name. And the actual Harlem Shake — a joyful, free-for-all rhythmic vibration of one’s body — is quite different from the meme dancing found in these “Harlem Shake” videos, which is just kind of people wilding out in front of a camera.

Appropriately, the television show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, a post-Chappelle, Ego Trip-torch-carrying show on FX, cleverly reminded viewers of this fact by posting their own Harlem Shake video. It begins with the staff of the show dancing to Baauer’s production, but it ends with a single dancer doing the Harlem Shake properly, and Bell giving him the thumbs up. Then, there is Harlem MC Azealia Banks’ rap over “Harlem Shake,” which is perhaps the only well-advised thing she’s done as of late. Typically, Banks would soon ruin the goodwill of putting some actual Harlem into “Harlem Shake” by calling Baauer a “faggot” — and releasing a video for the song in which she doesn’t do the real Harlem Shake, either — but the voice of someone from Harlem usurping this song for a few days felt vital.

However obvious, “That ain’t the Harlem Shake” grousing is important. And it helps unpack many of the problems with the song and meme. Who knows and who cares how Banks vs. Baauer began, but a recent interview with The Daily Beast has the Brooklyn producer explaining that he had asked Banks not to release her rap over his song, but she did it anyway. Welcome to 2013, Baauer! So, here’s a song by a dude from Brooklyn called the “Harlem Shake” that exploded thanks to Internet support and share-culture pilfering who is now attempting to control its dissemination, while it goes viral. There’s a level of calculation here that seems to belie the free-culture Internet ethos it’s exploiting. That matters.

And coupled with “’Harlem Shake’: The Making and Monetizing of Baauer’s Viral Hit,” a Billboard interview with many of the people involved with marketing “Harlem Shake,” it becomes apparent just how heavy YouTube monetizing is involved in this campaign. In short, every time someone throws up a video featuring Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” the owners of the song, Mad Decent, can remove that video, or if they want, monetize it. So, they have a monetary stake in these videos they are encouraging people to produce. Not that it matters too much, because only the illusion of an “organic” campaign matters here (and it’s all about gaming the system, anyway), but this is a very 2013 cash-out version of going viral. The whole goal of going viral hinges on making money later on, but here, it’s the proliferation of the video/song — the viral-ness of the thing — that brings in money.

Yesterday, FADER observed that the “con los terroristas” sample which kicks the song off comes from T&A Breaks 3: Moombahton Loops & Samples, and has its roots in a 2010 remix by DJ duo the Philadelphyinz (one-half of the duo, Skinny Friedman, has been covered on this blog). When asked in a Reddit session where he got the sample, though, Baauer said he “found it on the innerweb.” And while that is not necessarily untrue, it does seem disingenuous. What would be the reason for not citing one’s sample source here? Once your song is embraced by dancing middle schoolers, it seems pretty bizarre to try to maintain some integrity about sampling. It’s a small detail, but it’s one more way that “Harlem Shake” should rub people the wrong way, at least a little bit.

Harlem Shake as a viral campaign also brings to mind Diddy’s “Get Off” contest from 2006. Back then, Diddy hit MySpace and encouraged fans to shoot videos of themselves dancing to then-Press Play single “Get Off.” It was a more innocent time for the Internet, for sure, and going viral was, if one could contrive it, just some free, fun advertising. There were not yet YouTube companies to hunt down every person using your song and slap some advertisements on it. The campaign didn’t ever take off because “Get Off” wasn’t much of a single (it was relegated to a bonus track on Press Play eventually), but also because it seemed like everybody sensed they were being hustled by Diddy. We’re far more trusting of the Internet now. Though maybe the most significant thing to take away from Diddy’s “Get Off” contest, in contrast with “Harlem Shake,” is that here was a rapper from Harlem, pretty much doing a Harlem Shake contest of his own, with the good sense to keep the term “Harlem Shake” out of it!

The gentrification of the song is important, even if it just seems like more “SMH white people” craziness. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote something about why the dance subgenre of “trap” differs from trap-rap enough that no one could mix up the two. That’s still true, but the web success of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” does illustrate how having the right resources can Google-bomb something else out of existence. Try searching “Harlem Shake,” even with a telling, early 2000s-related second term and the result will be overwhelmingly skewed towards Baauer. Even “original Harlem Shake” yields videos from the early days of this campaign. This is not the co-opting of a style or dance the way that say, New Orleans bounce, Baltimore club, or even trap-as-EDM (which retains the elements of trap-rap and just rearranges them) have penetrated hipster enclaves. What’s happening here is one kind of thing being turned into another thing entirely. “Gentrification” almost feels too kind here. This feels more nefarious, even if it is being enacted by people who don’t seem to know any better.

One way to maybe feel a bit less depressed about this is to consider this tweet from user Gordon Voidwell: “The evolution of the harlem shake is the evolution of harlem, nyc, itself.” So, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” reflects the unavoidable shift and evolution of hip-hop culture and its elements, particularly in a whitening, increasingly cozy New York.  While we’re at it, here’s one more important “Harlem Shake”-related tweet from Atlanta producer DJ Burn One: “To truly get the full experience of cracker trap make sure you listen while making a mayonnaise sandwich or kissing your dog in the mouth.”