Number Ones: Baauer 'Harlem Shake'

'Harlem Shake'
Mad Decent

The new #1 single this week is 'Harlem Shake' by Baauer, a DJ whose real name is Harry Rodrigues. 'Harlem Shake' debuts at #1, and last week's #1, 'Just Give Me A Reason' by P!nk feat Nate Ruess, falls to number two.

Released on Diplo's record label Mad Decent, Baauer's 'Harlem Shake' features samples from Plastic Little's 'Miller Time' (which is where the "do the Harlem shake" line comes from) and Hector El Father's 'Los Terroristas'. Interestingly, for a song that's now a #1 both here and in the US, neither sample was legally cleared, and Hector El Father, a reggaeton artist who now claims to be devoted to Jesus, is still deciding whether to sue or not. According to Gavin Ryan at Noise11, 'Harlem Shake' is actually the 1000th #1 single Australia has had; charts in Australia go back to 1940, when 'South of The Border' by Gene Autry was the highest selling single.

'Harlem Shake' is the most unmelodic #1 single in Australia since the 1995 track 'Here's Johnny', by Dutch producers Hocus Pocus. 'Here's Johnny' fascinated me as a teen, because it featured almost no melodic content whatsoever. Apart from the spoken vocal samples (most famously from the infamous Jack Nicholson scene from The Shining), 'Here's Johnny' was all rhythm and sound. The bass plays the same note for the whole song. The drums remain mostly unchanged. The dissonant synth noises didn't utilise traditional music notes. What I remember thinking about 'Here's Johnny' was that it was proof that you didn't need melody to be catchy; catchiness, sometimes, can be all about rhythms; that sometimes rhythms are the hook.


I'm not entirely convinced that 'Harlem Shake' is catchy in the same way that 'Here's Johnny' is, mind you, but it's similar in its relentless rhythms. The only melodic content in 'Harlem Shake' is that synth noise that bounces through the "everybody dancing at once" section, staying at the same note until it slides up through two or three semitones. Other than that, 'Harlem Shake' is all about rhythm. In its rhythms and sounds, it fits somewhere on the spectrum between 'bass music', and early 2000s US hip-hop. Bass music is the umbrella term that includes dubstep; where the bass dropping is a major part of the dynamic. And, well, the bass drop in 'Harlem Shake' is a major part of its appeal. But there's also the syncopated, stuttering rhythms in 'Harlem Shake' which reflect the stark sound and stop-start rhythms of US hip-hop in the days when Timbaland and the Neptunes ruled the school. “I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track,” Baauer said in an interview with the Daily Beast. “And then I tried to just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could."

Of course, Baauer sampled someone saying 'Do the Harlem Shake'. The early 2000s saw a mild dance craze within the hip-hop community called the 'Harlem Shake'. According to a Rap Basement post from 2008, the Harlem Shake was invented by Albee, a Harlem dancer, and had been floating around for years before it was picked up by Puff Daddy protege G Dep, who featured the dance in his song 'Let's Get It'.

Elsewhere, Ma$e's 'Breathe, Stretch, Shake' seems one of the more obvious attempts to cash in on the dance, in 2004. According to Rap Basement, the Harlem Shake involves "moving one shoulder down towards the ground, as to which to other shoulder is not able to be seen. As you are doing that, you are also shimmying. After you do that, you then switch your shoulders by continuing to shimmy your arms in the same movement and then you just SWITCH." 

Interestingly, there's been a bunch of controversy about 'Harlem Shake', often to do with the strained relationship between the black community in the US and the wider culture. Azealia Banks recorded a rap over the top of 'Harlem Shake', releasing it, with video, soon after the meme broke. According to Baauer, this was against his wishes: “She had a version that we were going to release because I’m a big fan of hers. We knew she likes to beef with producers. So she laid something on ‘Harlem Shake’ and it was so/so. Didn’t love it. And that was a little while ago, and since all this video stuff happened, our plans all changed. Because of that, we decided to just release the song on it’s own with no vocal version. So we told her, ‘Please don’t release your version.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m going to put it online anyway.’ And we said, ‘Please don’t. We’d really like it if you didn’t.’ And she did.

Banks, infamously, was unimpressed with Baauer having her version of the song taken down, turning to homophobic slurs against him. Songs that feature new raps over old beats aren't exactly uncommon in the world of underground hip-hop mixtapes, and—in my opinion—Banks' version improves the song considerably. Her languid vocal rhythms provide a much needed focus and counterpoint. But there's certainly some irony in a producer who didn't legally clear the samples he used in a song, taking down another version for copyright reasons. Banks likely feels dissed by Baauer's intent to exploit her fame until he didn't need to anymore, which is perhaps why she went over the top criticising Baauer on Twitter. (Though, maybe it's all a calculated move to provide respectable music news outlets with a story to publicise the whole thing.)


The residents of Harlem (perhaps the most famous black community in the US) don't exactly feel that the Harlem Shake has anything to do with them; the video going around shows interviewees baffled by the phenomenon; they didn't think it had anything to do with them and wondered whether it was, in fact, racist. In fairness to Baauer and the viral video makers, you'd probably get exactly the same response if you walked around showing people at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne videos of LMFAO and their benighted zombie minions doing the 'Melbourne Shuffle'. But given the long history of racism in the US, you understand where they might be coming from.


And of course, more important than the song itself is the meme.

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