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.
It can be tough to remember an era when Azealia Banks was known more for her music than her acerbic outbursts, and even more difficult to recall a world that existed before her debut single, “212.” But Canadian electronic musician Jacques Greene remembers those simpler times. “Azealia had moved to Montreal for the summer [of 2011], my friend was her manager at the time,” he says. “He asked us to show her around the city and we quickly became friends.”
Banks had been making music since 2008, bouncing around between affiliations with Diplo and XL Records with little to show for it other than an impressive demo version of an Interpol cover. “It was this funny thing where everything she did felt like it was immediately iconic,” says Greene, “but the day-to-day life of Montreal normalizes things to where she was also just ‘Azealia.’”
Her talent and eclectic abilities were obvious, she just needed something to click. “She had been working on a collection of tracks and there was this one Dutch house-sounding one that was just absolutely insane,” remembers Greene of the song that’d become Banks’ breakout.
In fact, the backbone of “212” was a previously existing Belgian house track. Jef Martens, who produced the original (entitled “Float My Boat”) with his brother Toon under the moniker Lazy Jay, says their song was already a “huge banger in the club scene” by the time Azealia picked it up.
“The funny thing is that even then, I told the label it could become a really iconic track with the right rapper on top of it,” Martens says. “But of course I didn’t know anybody in that scene at the time — and ‘Float My Boat’ did so well as an instrumental, so nothing really came of that idea. Until one day a girl hears the track, writes a vocal over it, and voilà: ‘212’ was born.”
Martens says he had “no hesitation whatsoever” clearing “Float My Boat” for Banks’ usage. “What she did with that vocal was so incredibly awesome,” he says, adding that it only took him “a few seconds” to decide to green-light “212.”
Banks crammed three distinct moods — the nimble, cutesy rapping of the first two verses, the airy, detached bridge, and the aggressive hook (“This shit been mine, mine!”) — into a compact, catchy product. Cementing the song’s popularity was its video, which showed Banks, clad in a Mickey Mouse sweater, goofily dancing with two dudes: Greene and fellow electronic producer Lunice, both innovators in their own right over the past decade. “The shoot was a perfect moment of spontaneous creativity. The kind you can’t rehearse or re-formulate,” recalls Lunice. Greene says he still gets recognized in airports as “that kid from that one video.”
The impact was immediate, with blogs breathlessly declaring “212” “a jaw-slackening demo reel” (Pitchfork), “a dancefloor-ready jam” (Fader), and “3 minutes and 25 seconds of pure filth-pop” (NME). “The minute that video went online, a bunch of musicians, tastemakers, big artists, etc. started sharing it over Twitter, and so the thing caught fire in a matter of hours,” Martens recalls.
“212” sounded like the future, but perhaps not Banks’ own future. Despite going on to drop some truly impressive music throughout the decade, she never quite fulfilled the raw potential radiating off the debut hit. In the age of soupy Spotify-core, the Internet doesn’t hold the same promise of boundless genre-mashing that it once did; “212” stands as one of the few lasting beacons of hope from that more optimistic time.
“Honestly I think it’s one of the most relevant songs of the decade,” says Martens, recalling the song’s impact. “It is the ultimate fusion of hip hop and electro house. Not that it hadn’t been done before, but never in a way that it came together like that, effortless, without feeling like a mix of two genres or cultures. To me, that is why it’s a work of art. It has a weird unifying quality.”