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.
More than a thousand songs had hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 before “Harlem Shake,” but none had arrived there in quite the same way as the 2013 single by Brooklyn-based electronic producer Baauer. The song — a frenetic trap banger built from buzzy synths and high hat — debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 on March 2, 2013, the same week Billboard started factoring YouTube streaming data into the chart’s methodology. Its viral nature kept it in this position for five weeks.
These millions of streams were generated by the countless DIY videos made in conjunction with the track and then uploaded to YouTube by fans worldwide. The Simpsons made one. A regiment of Russian soldiers made one. You probably made one. The premise for these videos was simple, and strange: One bizarrely dressed individual dances in a room full of normies, with no one paying said oddball any attention as the song’s synth ramps up. When the drop comes, the scene suddenly shifts and everyone in the room is dancing, doing push-ups, spinning around in circles and generally wilding all the way out. It was absurd and unstoppable.
“Every day there was some new crazy thing happening with it,” says Paul Devro, who signed the track to Jeffree’s, a sublabel of Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint created to service experimental electronic music. “We were trying to do a music video, and then it was like ‘Why are we even making a music video when there are millions of them already out there?’”
He’s barely exaggerating: For a while the label attempted to aggregate every new video onto a blog, but eventually gave up as the volume became too much to manage. In 2016, The Guardian reported that on February 10, 2013, a new “Harlem Shake” video was uploaded to YouTube every 21.6 seconds. This barely contained pandemonium was inspired by the original clip by YouTube personality FilthyFrank, who matched the song’s rapid-fire pace — a dizzy build up and drop within the first 20 seconds — to his commensurately frenetic video editing. The structure and loopiness of the track guided the silliness of the millions of videos it inspired.
But the success of “Harlem Shake” also highlighted the fact that it had been made, unknowingly by Baauer, with a pair of uncleared samples. One came from Jayson Musson who commanded to “Do the Harlem Shake!” on a 2001 track by his group Plastic Little. Another – the song’s signature “con los terroristas” vocal intro – was taken from a 2006 track by Puerto Rican reggaeton star turned preacher Héctor Delgado.
Amidst the viral swirl, the mission at Mad Decent became clearing these samples. Given their prominent usage, the label faced the possibility of being sued for 100 percent of the song, twice. “Luckily it didn’t go down that way,” says Devro. “We did end up making some money. But the samples were definitely a big hurdle.”
Beyond what “Harlem Shake” accomplished as a meme and a turning point in technology’s influence on measuring hits, the track also helped introduce instrumental, experimental electronic music, and the EDM trap subgenre, to audiences worldwide — and even to the pop charts. “Now it’s so normal to hear a track like that,” says Devro. “But there was no real music like it before.”