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Bootleg Remixes Used to Be Frowned Upon — Now They’re Turning Songs Into Chart Hits

"Watch This (ARIZONATEARS Pluggnb Remix)" is the latest unsanctioned rework to gain an official release — and storm the Billboard Hot 100

Last year, the 18-year-old producer ARIZONATEARS spent two days crafting a beat that pairs a calm piano with a synthesizer that trills like an over-caffeinated bird. While searching the internet for vocals to add to the track, he came across “Watch This,” a leaked song from the rapper Lil Uzi Vert that had never officially been released. 

“I felt it was a good fit,” ARIZONATEARS says. He wove Uzi’s staccato boasts — “I can make the whole crowd mosh pit, watch this!” — into his gleaming instrumental, and uploaded the results to SoundCloud in August.

Five months later, TikTokers started feasting on ARIZONATEARS’ “Watch This,” using it as the soundtrack for thousands of daily clips. As a homemade remix of a leak, the track was doubly unauthorized. But it was also now a TikTok hit, so Uzi’s label, Atlantic Records, moved to make it official, dropping “Watch This (ARIZONATEARS Pluggnb Remix)” at the start of February. (Atlantic declined to comment for this article.) 

While ARIZONATEARS suggested a handful of potential listening scenarios in a post celebrating the release — “playing video games with the boys, and driving in your car” — it appears that the track has been enjoyed in a wide variety of circumstances: It earned around 1 million on-demand streams opening week, according to Luminate, and more than 9 million four weeks later, rising to No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100 dated March 11th. 

This is hardly the first unsanctioned remix that has taken off and been turned into a legitimate label release: See Imanbek’s billion-stream rework of SAINt JHN’s “Roses,” for example, which became a global hit in 2020. But this process of transformation — a bootleg that goes on to become a commercial behemoth — appears to be happening more frequently. 

Last year, Southstar had a hit with “Miss You,” a contentious, initially uncleared dance version of Oliver Tree’s “Jerk,” while another unauthorized-turned-official-remix of “Jerk” by Twisted has amassed more than 135 million streams on Spotify alone. On the goofier end of the spectrum, last year also brought an official version of “Jiggle Jiggle,” two producers’ mega-viral remix of a joke-rap from an old TV show, which is closing on 100 million Spotify streams. The first two remixes out-performed the original, while “Jiggle Jiggle” and the new version of “Watch This” made internet crazes eminently monetizable, even without a real original to speak of. 

Bootleg remixes that earn an artist’s blessing can also help push the original further up the Hot 100. Beyoncé recently released the “Cuff It – Wetter Remix,” an official version of an initially unauthorized mash-up — Beyoncé meets Twista — that was popular on short-form video platforms. The remix helped drive “Cuff It” from No. 15 on the Hot 100 to No. 6. Coi Leray executed a similar move in December by releasing a sanctioned version of DJ Smallz 732’s remix of her single “Players,” after it soundtracked hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos. 

Since the rise of Napster, the music industry has worked hard to stop the spread of unauthorized remixes online. ARIZONATEARS says his SoundCloud account was shut down last year because he posted bootlegs — it’s since been reinstated — and Esentrik, the DJ with the bright idea of pairing “Cuff It” with Twista’s “Wetter,” had previously earned copyright strikes for posting unauthorized remixes of Beyoncé tracks. 

But it’s never been easier to manipulate audio, and the mission of music tech companies like BandLab and Boomy is to make it even easier going forward — to demolish any remaining barriers to music-making. On top of that, it’s become a truism around the music industry that Gen Z listeners “want to put their fingerprints on the song,” as Ole Obermann, TikTok’s global head of music, said at a conference earlier this year. 

When that happens, there now appears to be an established path for those to potentially become legitimate releases. If an unauthorized remix of a track is resonating with audiences, “we’re not shutting it down — we’re figuring out how to make it work,” says J. Erving, a longtime manager and founder of the distributor and artist services company Human Re Sources. 

“There’s a calmer attitude about it all,” adds John Fleckenstein, COO at RCA Records. “When you see something being heavily consumed and enjoyed by fans, chances are there’s something there that you should be helping along – and eventually monetizing and finding a way to commercialize.”


The fact that the industry is looking more favorably on (or at least, showing less hostility towards) bootleg remixes is exciting for producers like Esentrik. “There’s been an ongoing battle between the remix culture and record labels,” he says. “This has been happening for so long. To have an artist as big as Beyoncé say, ‘Let’s OK this [remix] because it’s a great idea,’ is huge.”

That said, producers are still often forced to circumvent automated copyright infringement detection systems that will identify their remixes and lead to takedowns. When Esentrik put out his version of “Cuff It,” he initially “buried it” in a 45-minute mix of edits so he wouldn’t be flagged. “DJs were the only ones who really had it,” he explains. 

The remix started to attract interest thanks to a video on Twitter in October, and Esentrik discovered he had done too good a job of concealing it: Listeners were complaining that they couldn’t find it anywhere. “I scrambled to upload it on YouTube,” he recalls. “And then all the traffic started going there. And then it made its way to TikTok a couple of days later.”


When a member of Beyoncé’s team messaged Esentrik, he was initially skeptical. “I read it and I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is real,'” the producer says. ARIZONATEARS was also wary of being scammed. He lives in Hawaii, far from the music industry’s power centers. “I didn’t know who Atlantic was — I didn’t even know what labels are,” he says. (His name is an homage to both Arizona Ice Tea, which he loves, and the Swedish rapper Yung Lean, who droned about “Arizona tears” in the 2013 track “Lemonade.”) The producer only started to believe he was talking with an executive at Atlantic after he saw a screenshot of an official ID card: “This guy’s the real deal.” 

Not long ago, labels relied on the presence of big-name producers or featured vocalists to jolt remixes to life. While they still do this — Ariana Grande’s appearance on the remix of The Weeknd’s “Die for You” recently powered it to the top of the Hot 100 — they now also have the option of drawing on a much larger talent pool of dedicated remixers. “There are millions of people now doing stuff like this [reworking tracks], and there are so many ideas,” Esentrik says.

As Erving puts it: “You never really know where the spark is gonna come from.”