At 23, Baauer was building the resume of a DJ/producer on the rise-blog love, festival gigs, the respect of superstar DJs. Then his track exploded, and he found himself on top of the world and the charts.
Feb. 6, 23-year-old Harry Bauer Rodrigues was on tour in Vancouver enjoying the gradual climb of a promising career as a DJ/producer.
Just a year before, he had spent a lazy day making "Harlem Shake" in his bedroom studio in Brooklyn. He gave the track the booty-popping BPM of hip-hop with the buildup/drop arc of dance music, plus Dutch house synth riffs, a rap sample, animal noises and drum'n'bass-inspired sub-bass--an unlikely collection of inspirations, cultural moments and sounds, coming together in one killer basement party. When it was done, he did what any 23-year-old would do: "I put it online, just to show people."
After that, it all happened fairly quickly for Baauer (as a DJ/recording artist he added an extra "a" to his middle name for intrigue). Scottish DJ Rustie dropped "Harlem" in his April 2012 "Essential Mix" for BBC Radio 1. SoundCloud crawler Diplo heard it and snapped it up for Jeffree's, an imprint under his Mad Decent umbrella built to push out singles and EPs from fledgling artists. As an intern for New York-based label/DJ collective Trouble & Bass, Baauer went to the Ultra Music Festival in Miami that March and met his future managers, Ben Persky and Mason Klein of Mixed Management, who already had buzzy artists like RL Grime in their stable and investment from Complete Control, Tiesto's former management team. He sent them demos, including "Harlem Shake." They signed him two days later.
Chicago-based PR agency Biz3 heard "Harlem" through its client Diplo and offered to represent Baauer for free on the strength of the track alone. It was released as a free download in June, to instant acclaim. Cool-kid bloggers assigned it to the growing "trap" movement. (The catch-all term has shifted from its original reference--a subset of early-2000s Southern hip-hop--to a new school of producers marrying that scene's bass-driven minimalism with electronic music's sonics.) Diplo and dubstep king Skrillex played it, and Corin Roddick from Purity Ring named it one of his top tracks of 2012.
Baauer signed to high-powered DJ booking agency AM Only, under agent Callender, who convinced Jay-Z producer Just Blaze to go on tour with the young talent. (The two hit it off, and their studio collaboration, "Higher"--a Jigga-sampling hip-hop cut for the rave generation--has garnered nearly 700,000 SoundCloud plays since it was posted Jan. 18.) Along with slots at South by Southwest, Ultra and Coachella, Baauer was prepping for a residency at Light, the new Cirque du Soleil-themed Las Vegas nightclub booked and marketed by Swedish House Mafia manager Amy Thomson. By all accounts, things were progressing nicely.
"I was stoked," says Baauer, wearing his omnipresent full-tooth smile and an Aztec-print button-down from his Billboard cover shoot, which he asked to keep. "I was feeling very positive and very ready to go."
And then, "Harlem Shake" exploded.
On the night of Feb. 7, in what seemed like a few hours, YouTube was deluged by homemade videos set to the track, mimicking an original by amateur comedian Filthy Frank: A figure in a crazy mask and/or outfit starts thrusting, shimmying or otherwise moving to the building synths and snares. Everyone else in the frame goes about their business, unaffected. Then those drums pick up steam, the syncopated sub-bass kicks in, a sample of Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little's self-released cut "Miller Time" commands "Do the Harlem shake" and the cast of the video goes carnie-crazy: punching blow-up kangaroos in the face, slithering around on the ground in sleeping bags or just running in circles. The action goes into slow-motion just in time for Baauer's sample of a lion roar. And after about 30 seconds, it's over.
The meme--so short, it's perfect for smartphone views--is still rolling as of this writing, with more than 93,000 videos posted to YouTube, including ones featuring Playboy Playmates; a battalion from the Norwegian Army; a walrus and two sea lions from the San Antonio Sea World; media all-stars like Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon and "Today" anchors (including Al Roker as Cupid); and countless suburban stoners, office-cubicle dwellers, college sports teams and chicks in bikinis.
The 103 million-plus aggregate views have won Baauer healthy online revenue thanks to Mad Decent's deal with video agency INDmusic, a deluge of booking offers, a Twitter feud with Azealia Banks (who released her own rap over the track without permission) and more than 300 press requests--all the trappings of a viral hit.
But they've also snagged him something else: a No. 1 on the revamped Billboard Hot 100, making him the first formerly unknown artist to debut at that summit, outpacing and outranking music's other video-launched hit, PSY's "Gangnam Style," which peaked at No. 2.
"It's literally unbelievable," Baauer says. "It's amazing to have this track recognized by the world."
But unlike PSY, Baauer didn't make a splashy video--or any video at all. He didn't even issue a challenge to his fans to do so (a favorite marketing trick of brands from Doritos to Pepsi to Lincoln). There was no prize, no "get," for making a "Harlem Shake" video, apart from the satisfaction of knowing you had the attention of the online community, or the actual experience of the shoot with your friends.
"PSY was an artist backed by a large machine," says Geoffrey Colon, VP of social media agency Social@Ogilvy. "Anyone who follows K-pop knows that all the artists are almost overproduced for social media. The videos are even made for small screens so you can share them.
"Baauer is totally different," he continues. "He wasn't behind this. There was no label pushing this. It took off because people liked the music, thought the videos were hilarious and wanted to put their own creative expression on the song itself."
"Harlem Shake" is more than a meme or a hit; it's a moment of cultural convergence--of hip-hop meeting dance and pop, of consumer technology enabling creativity, of offline socializing leading to online social sharing. It's the newly of-age and independent millennial showing the world how to dance to his beat, in the form of young Baauer.
With all the success, Baauer has a blank check to do whatever he wants. And so, his next move will be...exactly what it would have been two weeks ago.
Apart from a single online interview and this story, Baauer will not do any press behind the "Harlem Shake" phenomenon. He won't be opening for any big artists on their shed tours. You won't see him on morning shows or late shows. He'll board a plane to Europe on Feb. 26 to play a short string of club dates, finish a track with house duo AlunaGeorge and work on an EP for LuckyMe, the Scottish label/art collective setting the pace for the trap sound-all to which he committed before the "Shake" shook.
The response is partly to maintain what was coming to be the Baauer brand--cool young upstart with the co-sign of a hip-hop legend, prolifically pumping out blog and club fodder. But it's also an admission that like the creator of any social movement, Team Baauer is no longer in control of "Harlem Shake."
"The song's gone. It's a No. 1," manager Persky says. "You can't hide from it; you can't change the name of the artist. There was definitely a fear at the beginning, like, 'Oh, shit. Will people not be able to look past this?'"
Despite the twerking coed swim teams driving his current fame, Baauer is no opportunistic pan-flash. The young producer is in a class with his buddy Skrillex: bright talents with the production prowess of digital natives, who grew up consuming music across genre lines, and therefore creating tracks that sounds like nothing that came before them.
"Baauer represents a lot of cool things right now about young kids making music who don't play by any rules," Diplo says. "That's what we look for in artists; they don't just follow suit, they come up with their own thing."
"I would be freaked out if he was a one-trick pony and there was no more music," Persky says. "And I'd probably be doing all the 'Good Morning Americas'; $20 million this year and done. But the truth is, he has so much music. He is just a fucking genius. How he samples music, how he hears music is unparalleled. That's why we're so excited."
In his 23 years, Baauer has managed to live in many of the world's musical hotbeds: With a businessman father whose job required frequent relocation, he was born in Philadelphia, spent his youth in Germany, his "formative years" in London and took a detour to Connecticut before going to school in New York--Harlem, if you can believe it, home to City College, which has "a really good audio technology program," he says. There, he developed the sampling skills that made seasoned studio man Just Blaze "step back, like 'Damn,'" according to Persky, when they first worked together.
Despite that prowess, Baauer has no detectable arrogance: He looks more 16 than 23, a tall kid in high-tops, who still has an unaffected wonder about the world around him.
"That's one of the reasons we worked so well tougher," Just Blaze says. "No ego, no pretention: 'Let's just make something cool.'"
He's not a gamer or a sports guy--more a foodie and "culture kid," Persky says. "He loves to travel and enjoys being on the road, even places like Milwaukee. He was like, 'What an amazing city.'"
That natural curiosity and sense of adventure extends to his relationship with music. Baauer geeks out about Just Blaze's discography ("'Public Service Announcement' might be the most incredible beat ever"), the new Hudson Mohawke mix of Disclosure's breakout U.K. hit "White Noise" ("So tight"),and even early-2000s 170-plus BPM micro-genre happy hardcore ("I can't believe I'm saying this, but I loved it"). He grew up devouring leftfield hip-hop like Dr. Octagon and Mad Lib.
Baauer wanted to be a scratch DJ like the guys in the DMC Championship videos online, and got two turntables and a battle mixer for his 13th birthday. "To my dismay, it was a lot harder than it looked," he says with a laugh. A friend taught him how to mix house music instead, which he did throughout college, throwing 500-person parties in suburban Connecticut basements that often got shut down by the cops. That DJ prowess is coming in handy now as opportunities for big gigs increase.
"The conversations went from, 'Hey, we don't really understand this but we see what's going on and we'll make it work,' to 'Hey, what time do you want him to play the festival, and who do you want to play before or after him?'" Callender says on the before and after of "Harlem Shake." The summer will see slots at Sonar (headlined by Skrillex), Roskilde, Pitch, Hideout, Graz and other European festivals; a back-to-back tour with fellow trap star and Mixed Management client RL Grime, supported by Grime's buzzy Los Angeles producer collective WEDIDIT; and perhaps the release of a single with Diplo. In September, he'll kick off a hard-ticket headlining tour of the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia.
For his part, Baauer doesn't care to associate with the troublesome "trap" label. "I know how putting a name on it kind of helped expose that type of sound to a new audience, and now all kinds of kids are listening to it," he says. "But as a label it's not one I want to use for myself. For me, I just prefer to say, 'I'm in hip-hop, not in trap.'"
But that's not to say he wants a typical hip-hop career.
"If I could be successful and keep doing weird things, that would be perfect," he says. "Keep doing strange new stuff but on a big scale, that would be my ideal."
Big strange stuff like funny dance/hip-hop/animal-noise tracks that spawn global viral video memes?