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.
Atlanta native Silentó (real name Ricky Hawk) became an overnight celebrity at age 17 thanks to his dance track “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” which hit the Internet and airwaves in May 2015 to major viral success. After dropping on SoundCloud, iTunes and YouTube, the song — which commands listeners to do popular 21st century dance moves, such as the two mentioned in the song’s subtitle — eventually peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it remained for six non-consecutive weeks.
To create the hit, the now-21-year-old musician contacted hip-hop music maker Bolo Da Producer via Instagram. Although the producer had reservations about working with teens, he obliged, as Silentó was eager to make magic. “For, like, two months he kept trying to tell me, ‘Hey, I got this song, it’s going to be a hit record,’ and I thought it was the craziest idea,” Bolo tells Billboard over the phone.
“I knew what I wanted [the song] to be, so I made sure I accomplished what I needed to before I graduated,” Silento explains. “I stuck to the plan, and I made my dreams come true.”
“Watch Me” owes much of its success to the dance entertainment brand DanceOn, which partnered with music distribution company TuneCore to generate more buzz around the song. Camille Moussard, former Head of Video at TuneCore, tells Billboard that after monitoring the song’s reach on apps like Vine and Instagram, she reached out to DanceOn, who enlisted dance superstars to help bring the track to supersonic levels.
“It was kind of like putting two ingredients together,” she says. “One was the dance and the influencers of the dance network, and the other one was a song that everybody was eager to listen to, but they just didn’t know about it yet.” The dance-heavy music video for “Watch Me” has been watched over 1.6 billion times on YouTube, making it one of the most-viewed clips in the platform’s history.
Countless hip-hop dance crazes and challenges sprung about almost immediately after Silento’s hit, from budding artists like ILoveMemphis (“Hit The Quan”), Ayo & Teo (“Rolex”) and Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall (“Juju on That Beat”). While the 2010s appeared to be the prime time period for dance fads to catch on thanks to social media’s rapid growth and influence on culture, none seem to have had the same enormous impact that “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” experienced. Its success on multiple fronts displayed the true power of online communication, hashtags and video sharing.
“For a hit record, it has to be the perfect song, perfect beat, perfect timing, perfect everything,” Bolo explains. “Plus, having the dance come from Atlanta, which is a very young, dance-oriented city, [there were] a lot of groups dancing to it online, and it spawned so many videos on these apps.”
Silento is now reportedly an independent artist after leaving Capitol Records, which he first signed to in 2015. During his career, he’s worked with artists like pop-rockers The Vamps and pop singer-songwriter Dawin. After a few unforeseen delays, he released his debut album Fresh Outta High School in Aug. 2018 and its sequel in December of that same year. In late-October 2019, he dropped his third project, the Silento Mob mixtape.
On the impact of his “Watch Me”, Silento says that his monster debut single “inspired people to have fun” in a world that can, at times, push the opposite. “It was pretty important, and with [the song], I stayed cool and current,” he smiles. “You gotta find a way to balance it out.”