"I’m always thinking: What if I’m not promoting the song hard enough?"
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
"Old Town Road" became the longest-running No. 1 song in Hot 100 history the new-school way: the Internet. But all the groundwork that made the song famous happened the old-school way: Two broke teenagers who were not above shameless self-promotion.
In 2018, a 19-year-old named Montero Hill living in Atlanta, Georgia, bought a beat for $30 from the online store of another 19-year-old living in the Netherlands. They didn't even know of each others existence until one day when Dutch producer YoungKio (real name: Kiowa Roukema) was tagged in a bunch of Instagram and TikTok videos of teenagers around the world uploading clips of themselves in cowboy hats, dancing to a song with his beat.
The song it had become was "Old Town Road," released by Hill under the name Lil Nas X. These videos were the results of Nas X's latest promotion: the #Yeehaw challenge. YoungKio DM'ed Nas X immediately, but not for money.
"I said, 'Yo, bro. This s--t is fire. I wanna help promote it. If you can just put produced by Young Kio in the title, this will help me grow as well,'" the producer told Billboard. "He was cool with it. We didn't really have any connection. It was just him buying it from my beats store and me finding out after."
For a song that was a born on the Internet, and now invoked as a shorthand for the modern hit-making, "Old Town Road" is a fundamentally traditional song: It rhymes back with black. Its key instrument is a banjo. Nas X raps -- but with five words per bar, it's easy enough to sing along with, another reason kids love it. Whether or not Nas X intuited all of that in crafting the song, he didn't have to think too deeply about the marketing.
When he first uploaded "Old Town Road" in December of 2018 on SoundCloud, he created dozens of memes about the song that drove digital stickiness; he flooded popular internet dwellings like Reddit. He was a disciple of Meme Culture. Unlike teen idols of the past, Nas X would figure out how to command a stage, strike a power pose and handle fans IRL, on the fly. But being funny on the Internet? That's what today's stars have to be. And Nas X has that down cold.
"I’m always thinking: What if I’m not promoting the song hard enough? What if this never goes for me?” Nas X told Billboard in his September cover story. “I was sick because of smoking, not sleeping because I’m always promoting my music. I was stressing so much more during that period because it was my first song to move at this height, this speed. One wrong step and it can all slip up.”
The other side of this being a teenage-driven phenomenon is that no one thought to check out who actually owned the publishing of the sample until long after, excuse the pun, the horse had left the stable. YoungKio's beat that Nas X purchased for a pittance sampled a little band neither had heard of at that point: Nine Inch Nails. Nas X was demoralized. After all that metaphorical legwork, pushing the song on digital platforms, he was going to have it taken down and would have to start all over. But NIN frontman Trent Reznor, whose artistry also began a new frontier of digitally manipulated sound, was understanding.
"I’d heard maybe the first 20 seconds of ["Old Town Road"], and it’s like, “All right. It sounds like 'Ghosts' with a trap beat..." Reznor tells Billboard, about when he was informed Nas X's hit sampled his band's 2008 song "Ghost IV – 34." "I just said, “Of course. Don’t stop it,' I know how that s--t goes, it’s fine... I don’t see it as my place to step into [his] spotlight. It’s built on something I did, I [just] provided some material for it."
Though the song was viral enough as a Lil Nas X solo track to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100, it really went supernova after country veteran Billy Ray Cyrus added a swaggering verse of his own. Not only did Cyrus' surprisingly natural bars flesh out the previously sub-two-minute song, but giving it added Nashville cred following a lengthy debate about whether or not the song was technically "country" -- one ignited when Billboard made the decision to remove it from its Country Songs chart in March.
With the cross-generational collab driving extra attention and countless streams towards the song, it quickly shot into a different stratosphere than the rest of the pop world was operating in for most of 2019. Sixteen weeks, a clever music video and several additional remixes later, the song set Billboard chart history with its 17th frame atop the listing, beating out Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's Justin Bieber-featuring "Despacito" for the all-time record.
Lil Nas X says that he let out an "evil laugh -- but playfully" when he heard the news that the song, which he had originally just made as a lark for his Twitter followers, had just set the hallowed Billboard record. "It was just like a realization kinda moment.... that I had finally reached an unspeakable goal, that I wasn't [even] aiming for initially."