Making 'Black Beatles': How a Chance Meeting Between Rae Sremmurd, Paul McCartney & Mike Will Made-It Preceded the No. 1 Smash
For three weeks running, Rae Sremmurd's crowd-pleasing party anthem "Black Beatles" featuring Gucci Mane has rocked the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Thanks in great part to the Mannequin Challenge, a viral phenomenon where participants freeze in place on video, the duo -- comprised of brothers Khalif "Swae Lee" Brown and Aaquil "Slim Jxmmi" Brown from Tupelo, Miss. -- scored their first Hot 100 chart-topper. Alongside producer and Ear Drummers label boss Mike Will Made-It, they've become the go-to soundtrack for the latest Internet craze. (Participants include sports teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Giants, as well as Destiny's Child and real-life Fab Four member Paul McCartney.)
As Mike Will tells it over the phone while running to a recording session with Jay Z, "Black Beatles" almost didn't make the cut for Sremmurd's sophomore effort SremmLife 2, the 14-track set that debuted at No. 7 (it peaked at No. 4) on the Billboard 200 in August. His two go-to engineers had gone on vacation resulting in a 15-hour session with one of the engineer's assistants. After suggestions from A&R Aubrey "Aubz" Potter and back-and-forth editing with Swae Lee, Mike Will submitted the melodic earworm several days after the album was turned in to Interscope Records.
Billboard recently hopped on the phone with Mike Will, Rae Sremmurd's Slim Jxmmi, Fakework Management Group founder and Mike Will's manager DJ Mormile as well as Interscope Records vice chairman Steve Berman (Swae Lee and Gucci Mane were unavailable) to talk about the song's rapid Internet takeover, how Sir Paul co-signed the track and the organic creative process that made the chart-topping victory extra special.
Mike Will Made-It: I was able to bring Gucci and Rae Sremmurd on a track together. It was crazy because it seemed like it was destined to be. When [Gucci] was locked up in jail and he had heard Rae Sremmurd’s very first interview on DJ Drama’s radio station, he called me and I had played him "Throw Sum Mo." This was before we pushed “No Flex Zone” and Gucci was like, ‘Yo, what’s the kids' names that you were on the station with? Man, they hard. We gotta do a song.' He told me to get one of his old verses while he was locked up and put Sremm on it and I was like, ‘Nah, man. It gotta be a real [collaboration] like when you get out.'
Fast forward, Gucci got out of jail and I was working on his album and Sremm’s album. When we finished up his album, I was finishing up Sremm’s album and [sent Gucci the "Black Beatles" song] like, ‘Yo this song is gonna be big as f--k.’ After Swae sent me the hook back, I was like ‘Oh shit.’
DJ Mormile: [Rae Sremmurd has] had incredible success early on. They had five platinum singles on the first album but this record just sonically is so fresh and so new. The verses are great but the melody on the hook... it’s just one of those records that I think will start a new sound. I feel like I had that experience and I was blessed enough to be working with Timbaland when he did that thing that kind of changed music with Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake and Keri Hilson -- all those people that made that sound become pop music -- and I feel like Mike is on that path with this sound that’s completely fresh but still urban.
Slim Jxmmi: The hook didn't have any cursing. The vibe of it is a party record but it's just good energy like let's have a good time. That's what separated it [from other songs we've done]. It's not about drugs. It sounds like when New Year's comes in and everybody's partying.
Steve Berman: You can look at college, high school students, millennials, and start to see [Rae Sremmurd] moving in a lot of different directions. You have Mike Will who's not just producer but a full-blown record man, who looks at all sides of it. You have to acknowledge the talent of the guys. They don't see themselves in any particular hole. They don't see themselves being locked into any one group of fans, they see themselves as much broader.
Slim Jxmmi: I said ["Black Beatles"] sounded like a rock record [when I first heard it]. It didn't even feel like a rap song. It's more melodic and it's so fly and fun and catchy.
Mike Will Made-It: When I was making the beat, I couldn’t even tell you that I felt like this was gonna be the biggest song of the year. I started saying [that] when I heard the hook, the verse that I liked from Swae and what Jxmmi did. I had given away this laptop that I was making beats on to one of the younger homies in the [Ear Drummers] camp. I know this sounds crazy but I had bought a new laptop and the first beat I had made on it was “Black Beatles." The beat was [initially] called “First Wavy” ‘cause I knew it was a wavy sound. Swae was there when I was messing around on the beat and he was like, "Yo this beat is hard."
So in the midst of me and [Swae] going back and forth with his verse and how [the song] should be, Jxmmi was pretty much in the mode of, ‘We turned the album in, bruh, I’m not tryna record nothing else. I’m exhausted. This is my little time off before we go on tour like let’s just do this.' ‘Cause we had so many songs in the catalog so Jxmmi was like, we can just use ["Black Beatles]" for the next project. And I was like, "Nah, Jxmmi, Gucci just hopped on it, just put your verse on it right quick.’
So Jxmmi went in the studio and told me he didn’t like what he had did so he just deleted it. So I called the engineer and I was like, ‘Man, don’t let him delete anything -- just send me whatever he does.’ So Jxmmi went in the next night and he told me he wasn’t feeling it, and his engineer sent me what he did. I heard it and I hit him and I’m like, ‘Bruh, you snapped. You trippin’ bro.’
Slim Jxmmi: My verse was inspired by "Day Tripper" by the Beatles. Swae Lee came up with the title for "Black Beatles." We was freestyling and he said that then we went in and recorded it.
Mormile: Being in the business after 20 years, you kind of know when a record feels like something when the same tastemakers and people that give me shit about the records start calling. To be fair, Rae Sremmurd was one of those groups that I think people didn’t know was a thing at the beginning. It really went from a one-hit wonder to "holy crap" in like five seconds because "No Type" was so good and came so quickly after "No Flex Zone" but this is a whole different level of smash than we’ve had so far with this group. I knew from day one it was a No. 1 urban record and it was gonna be a big crossover record but as far as a record that can unseat The Chainsmokers when we start going to Top 40 radio, that’s like a nuclear missile.
Steve Berman: We put an album out [SremmLife 2] and immediately started seeing signs of having something special with this song. And then very quickly we got incredible support from both Apple Music and Spotify, who started putting the song in key playlists and showing support for the group ... The urban team [at Interscope] was building a story on this record and was really capitalizing on what was going on ... That led us to connecting with a video. [Rae Sremmurd] is so good visually as well as musically, and when our video hit in September, it really connected the dots. We had a great Jimmy Kimmel Live performance, and all of a sudden, we saw signs of a song that could really take this group to the next level.
Mike Will Made-It: When I was still at Interscope, I told them about Rae Sremmurd and we were talking about signing them. I was like, ‘This is the hood Backstreet Boys, the black *NSYNC. This is the most ratchet pop is gonna get and this is the most pop hip-hop is gonna get.’ I always said that and just to be No. 1 on the Hot 100 not chasing a sound or anything, it’s surreal. It’s a dream.
Steve Berman: I think it's really important to know the moment of the magic that some high school in Florida used the song as the soundtrack to the Mannequin Challenge and posted it. With the group being so in touch, they immediately reacted and grabbed it. It was like we were watching it in slow motion but it happened so fast. On Nov. 3, they did it at their show and we exploded virally after that. Then it became the phenomenon.
Slim Jxmmi: The very first Mannequin Challenge [I saw] was the school [in Florida]. They had tweeted at us, used "Black Beatles" in their video and kids were just frozen. Somebody was dunking, somebody was lifting weights, somebody was doing pull ups. It's like all types of cool stuff going on. I looked at it and was like, man, we got to do this. And we did it, and everybody just caught on. It was like a wave.
Mike Will Made-It: You know what’s crazy. When I was first running around with Rae Sremmurd, they came to my DJ set at Coachella. This was my first time at Coachella, this was their first time at Coachella and we went to go see OutKast. The one person that we met backstage was Paul McCartney and we were like, what the f--k? It was crazy ‘cause when he saw us, he knew who I was and I was like, 'This man don’t know who I am' but he was showing love, went out of his way to chop it up with us and dipped out of nowhere. So a couple of years later, I think that’s why Jxmmi felt so comfortable to say “Black Beatles, this man Paul McCartney related.” We just know he was actually like a super cool dude when we met him.
Slim Jxmmi: This was early in our career so I didn't really speak to [Paul] because I was enchanted by his presence. He's a big figure and I couldn't believe I was really seeing Paul McCartney. This was really me being new to the industry so I wasn't used to seeing stuff like that so it was amazing ... He solidified us because I said [on the song] "Black Beatles me and Paul McCartney related." Because you know we is. All of us is just people. I really feel like it's bridging the gap between hip-hop and people having this stigma on hip-hop. I feel like it's a certain way that a rap record has to be and I think we're proving that there's no rules.
DJ Mormile: It’s their time now. This song is the song that is just gonna catapult them into everybody’s vocabulary. Every song’s not gonna go No. 1 worldwide and have a challenge or a worldwide meme attached to it but I feel like [Rae Sremmurd] writes No. 1 records, that’s what they do.
Mike Will Made-It: I’m a producer, not just a beatmaker but a producer. Putting together a hit record is like putting together a puzzle. I’ve been part of a lot of different, successful records so you kind of have that feeling. I never knew that ["Black Beatles"] would be No. 1 on Hot 100. I never even knew that I could even produce a record that could even go that far. Miley [Cyrus]’s song "We Can’t Stop" went No. 2 and I thought that was the biggest song ever. Even [songs I worked on like] Beyonce's "Formation" or Rihanna's "Nothing Is Promised" didn’t go No. 1 on the Hot 100. I was just like, it’s not easy to get to that spot.
DJ Mormile: For Mike to have his first Hot 100 No. 1 record that is 100 percent his production and his group that he signed and the guy that gave him his start, Gucci Mane, all on one record, it’s like everything coming full circle. We didn’t have to do anything weird -- we didn’t have to sell, we didn’t have to put some crazy pop beats. We just did it our way.
Slim Jxmmi: All we've accomplished since we started has been amazing but the energy now is bigger. It's more explosive. People are more into what we do. It's less pressure on us because for the second album, people were saying, "What it's going to do?" It's just tight that we didn't worry about that. We always put a lot of pressure on ourselves because we got really high standards so we want to be good. We want our stuff to be at its best when we do it. And when we do our shows, we want our crowds to have the best time that they ever had at a concert.
Mike Will Made-It: ["Black Beatles"] sounds new every time, even the beat. I like making weird stuff but [I think] how do I channel what was I thinking about that day, what mood was I in, what smoothie did I drink, what did I eat. Another thing I think about is if Swae didn’t send back that hook, what if? Like I got so many hooks from Swae. I could’ve just overlooked this song ‘cause I was mixing and mastering Gucci’s album and another super successful pop artist at the same time. Like what if I overlooked this? I just had a No. 1 on the Hot 100 with the person that gave me my first shot and I was the person that gave Rae Sremmurd their first shot and they’re signed to my record label. I got my first No. 1 on the Hot 100 with them. I wouldn’t want it with anybody else.