Baauer's 'Harlem Shake': Billboard Cover Story

Phil Knott


"It's literally unbelievable," he says of his song shooting to No. 1. "It's amazing to have this track recognized by the world"

On 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.


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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. 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.

'Harlem Shake' Debuts Atop Revamped Hot 100

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 (see story, page 24), 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 (see story, page 24), 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.

"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."

This is an excerpt from the March 2 issue of Billboard. Buy a copy, subscribe and check out the iPad edition.