Meet Baauer, the Man Behind the Harlem Shake
Move over, “Gangnam Style.”
Just days after a cringe-worthy Super Bowl commercial for Wonderful Pistachios sounded the death knell for Psy’s cross-cultural viral smash, a new Internet meme has usurped that once-ubiquitous horse-gallop dance.
It’s called the “Harlem Shake.”
For the uninitiated, it consists of users uploading videos to YouTube that last about thirty seconds in length and feature the opening of electronic music producer Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake.” The videos begin with the song’s sample of a man giving a shrieking siren call of “Con los terroristas!”—Columbian Spanish for “with the terrorists”—followed by one person, usually in a ridiculous mask or helmet, dancing to the song alone as the beat builds. He or she is surrounded by others who are stationary, blissfully unaware of the dancer. When the directive, Then do the Harlem shake is uttered about 15 seconds in, the bass drops and the video metastasizes into pure chaos—the entire coterie engaging in paroxysms of dance for the next 15 seconds in outrageous outfits, and wielding bizarre props.
The first video was uploaded to YouTube by amateur comedian Filthy Frank on February 2. As of February 15, over 40,000 “Harlem Shake” videos have been uploaded to YouTube, totaling over 175 million views. The cast of the TODAY show, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, and even a battalion of the Norwegian Army have gotten in on the act.
Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake,” meanwhile, has shot all the way to No. 1 on the iTunes Charts.
It’s Friday, February 15, and I am huddled with Baauer in a tiny bathroom inside the green room of Webster Hall, a 1,500-capacity venue in Manhattan. It’s the only place where we can find some peace and quiet for his first interview since the song went viral. The night also marks Baauer’s first show in his adopted home of New York since the song exploded. It is, predictably, very sold-out.
“It’s gotten absolutely insane,” he says. “All I did was make the song so it’s kind of a weird place for me to be at. I birthed it, it was raised by others, and now it’s like my weird, fucked up adopted teenage kid coming back to me.”
Baauer, 23, is a tall, slight fella with a boyish face and big, goofy smile. He was born Harry Rodrigues in West Philadelphia, but moved around a lot when he was younger due to his father’s job as “a financial consultant for international companies.” He lived in Germany from age four to seven, then London from seven to 13, then to Connecticut from 13-17, then one more year in London before heading off to college in New York.
“I got used to not having the same friends all the time and all that shit, but it got me to appreciate new places, people, and cultures,” he says.
While his father always played jazz and classic rock—in particular Led Zeppelin—around the house, Baauer took a shine to hip-hop as a 13-year-old in the suburbs of Connecticut, listening to Dr. Octagon, Madlib, MF Doom, and others. One evening, he stumbled upon videos of The DMC World DJ Championships on YouTube, which made him want to become a DJ.
His first DJ gig was at his local venue in Connecticut: Toquet Hall Teen Center.
“I was playing some Basement Jaxx, Eric Prydz’s “Call On Me” … I was so excited for it,” he says with a laugh. “It was basically my friends who showed up. That was a big, climactic moment for me at the time.”
Baauer moved to New York in 2007 to study audio technology at City College. After living in Harlem for two years, both on and off campus, he settled in Brooklyn in 2009, and currently resides in Bushwick.
“[Brooklyn] does have an attitude about it,” he says. “There are a lot of artists and musicians there so the general vibe is very creative, as opposed to Manhattan which is very business-y and rushed all the time.” He adds, “I really love New York and identify with it so decided to stay here.”
After getting involved in “millions of failed projects,” including a MSTRKRFT-ish duo called SX N DRGS (Sex and Drugs) and the DJ name Captain Harry, producing dance music, he became more influenced by hip-hop, particularly trap, which fuses hip-hop with electronic dance music. About a year ago, he changed his name to Baauer.
“It’s my middle name … I threw another ‘a’ in there to spice it up a little bit,” he says with a chuckle. “Also, there’s an ice hockey equipment company called Bauer. And I’m also more than happy to be associated with Jack Bauer.”
As Baauer, he rededicated himself to his craft.
“This time last year, I had just started the Baauer project and I told myself I was going to really commit to this one thing and pursue it full-time. So I just started practicing all the time making beats. I’d start a beat and make myself finish it by the end of the day.”
Back on May 22, Baauer released his now-signature track, “Harlem Shake,” on Diplo’s label Mad Decent.
“I just had the idea of taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track,” he says. “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. The dude in the beginning I got somewhere off the Internet, I don’t even know where, and the lion roar just makes no sense.” He laughs. “There’s the sound of flames in there, too, it’s just really low.”
While the Harlem Shake is an actual, shoulder-swiveling, Harlem-originated dance that’s been around since 1981, Baauer says the name for his track is not an homage to this, or his two-year stint uptown, but merely the track’s sample, Philadelphia rapper Plastic Little’s “Miller Time.”
“A friend had shown me that track where he says, then do the Harlem shake, and it just got stuck in my head for a while, so I used it,” he says.
About a week-and-a-half ago, Baauer began noticing people posting the 30-second videos to his Facebook page.
“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ But it didn’t strike me as the beginning of something,” he says. “There’s an underwater one that I particularly like. I really like any one where they try to do something crazy with it.”
Now that the song has gone viral, Baauer has seen a definite change in his live shows. The other night in Chicago, he describes a scene involving people dressed as Optimus Prime, a ram, and a goat, all going apeshit. While people always responded positively to “Harlem Shake,” now, he says, “it’s absolutely insane.”
He even found himself in a Twitter beef with outspoken rapper Azealia Banks.
Banks released a remix of “Harlem Shake” to SoundCloud, which Baauer’s team subsequently had removed since she did not have permission to release it. Banks then accused Baauer of “coccblockin” on Twitter, and then later got more volatile, tweeting to Baauer and co., “you guys are all faggoots.... May you drown in faggotry.”
“I’m not happy about it,” says Baauer. “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.”
Silly rap beefs aside, Baauer has big plans for the future. He’s already done remixes of everyone from No Doubt to Prodigy, and says he’d like to emulate Diplo, “doing my own thing but also contributing to major pop acts and giving them my sound.” His first full-length EP will drop sometime this year on LuckyMe Records and, according to Baauer, will feature Aluna from AlunaGeorge and Just Blaze. He’s had meetings with Columbia Records and hints at a potential upcoming collaboration with rapper A$AP Rocky.
In addition to recording, he’ll also be performing live at a slew of upcoming festivals, including SXSW in Austin, WMC in Miami, and Coachella in Indio, California, as well as a co-headlining tour with rapper Danny Brown in Europe and Australia, followed by a stateside tour with RL Grime over the summer.
The “Harlem Shake” videos, meanwhile, have totaled over 175 million YouTube views and counting. And, according to Billboard, Baauer and the label that put out the track, Mad Decent, stand to make quite a pretty penny with it since they, through various deals, will collect revenues for each and every one of these YouTube views.
So as far as the “Harlem Shake” madness is concerned, Baauer couldn’t be happier about it.
“I think it caught on because it’s a goofy, fun song,” he says. “But at the base of it, it’s my song and it’s making people want to dance. That’s the best feeling in the world to me.”