The Harlem Shake: It's All About Trap

21 February 2013

The Harlem shake, an early 80s New York dance move that briefly flirted with mainstream popularity two decades later when it popped up in a rap video, is back.

Sort of.

Harlem Shake, a trap-influenced track from Diplo-hyped and Just Blaze-collaborating Brooklynite Baauer, has gone places that its namesake dance never made. The track dropped early last summer, and made a bit of a mark within dance music subcultures, as well as a name for Baauer. A few of us here in India dropped it at parties in the metros, and that was that.

Until February 2nd, 2012.

On February 2nd, Filthy Frank, a New York teenager, uploaded a video of his friends dancing to the Harlem Shake (though not actually doing the Harlem shake). Shortly after, a group of five Australian teenagers uploaded their own take. The rest was Internet magic. Viral is as viral does, and YouTube will now show you thousands of videos of people doing more or less the same thing while listening to the song. The meme’s originators claim that all of the versions have had a combined 175 million views, and whether that’s right or not, it’s surely gained a few million views since we started this paragraph. It’s been watched a shitload of times, which is roughly as accurate as is relevant for our purposes.

The meme has now been recreated by a silly long list of individuals, many celebrities among them. The list includes news anchors, American football teams, Ryan Seacrest, Stephen Colbert, grandmas, NASCAR drivers, and a washing machine. There’s an Indian version, although its makers don’t seem to understand exactly how the meme works. And today, even the Times of India has gotten hip to the track, which means it’s officially dead.

Perhaps most notably, Harlem hip-hop force Azealia Banks dropped a quick and dirty music video in which she raps over the track and looks ridiculously good in the process. Baauer apparently asked her not to release the track – a rather strange request in the sample heavy post-Internet/mixtape era - and was spurned by Ms. Banks. This led to some classless Internet beef between the two artists with Azealia calling Baauer a “faggot” way more times than was strictly necessary, providing yet more publicity for the track.

For what it’s worth, Azealia Banks didn’t actually do the Harlem shake in her video either.

We’re less interested in all those videos than in what this means for the music. In the wake of all this viral madness, Harlem Shake has rocketed to number one on US iTunes charts. That’s a pretty serious achievement for a once pseudo-underground BK producer. But beyond the impact on record sales, this is an interesting path for a meme to take. Although Gangnam Style and dance memes before it have surely boosted soundscan numbers, they’ve tended to originate with takeoffs on the original music videos themselves, not a 30 second video uploaded by a handful of bored teens.

Much has been said about the meme, and although we don’t agree with all of their conclusions, we’d suggest that our readers peep Spin’s take on issues of cultural appropriation brought up by the track, the meme, the dance, and the beef.

But for us, it’s always about the music. If you want to shoot your own version of the meme, the track is almost certain to be played when Trap DJs (Su-Real and Flash Hardcor) take over Bonobo, Mumbai on 22 February. They'll be dropping Baauer along with a full night of trap and trap influenced music, the first time such an event is hitting Bombay. Bring your silly costumes. Then get wild.

**More info on this event and others happening across the country can be found on our events page here**

For now, here's the death of the meme:


Words: Kerry Harwin



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