Web Exclusive Essay
Soulja Boy and Dance Crazes
During the summer of 2007, U.S. pop media seemed saturated with talk show hosts and pro athletes dancing along to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).” By the time an official music video was shot in late July, the dance craze was already approaching an apex, with new videos appearing daily on MySpace and YouTube. Close inspection of the phenomenon reveals a diverse array of overlapping audiences exploiting “Crank Dat” as a producerly framework for the expression of personal, social, and political messages. Steeped in southern hip-hop’s independent tradition, teenage rapper Soulja Boy Tell ’Em championed the songs, dances, and videos produced by these audiences in pursuit of his own commercial success. “Crank Dat,” for all its confusion, contradiction, and welcoming incompleteness, is a valuable demonstration of spreadability in practice.
In the dominant narrative of the 1990s, hip-hop was driven to pop dominance by a rivalry between Los Angeles and New York City. Excluded from mainstream media channels, artists living in the southern U.S. were forced to develop an alternative hip-hop industry supported primarily by locally grown “indie” record labels with connections to regional radio personalities, nightclub DJs, and mom-and-pop record-shop owners (Grem 2006). This independence enabled the southern artists to develop innovative sounds and styles quite distinct from their coastal peers. In 2003, with CD sales flagging, major record labels turned to these indies in search of new talent to revitalize the industry. Among the many southern styles attracting attention, snap music deviated the most from the conventional hip-hop template. Snap’s minimal drum programming and repetitive lyrics destabilized unquestioned hip-hop norms such as the value of complex wordplay and the use of funk and soul samples.
Snap records such as “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It,” by Dem Franchize Boyz, explicitly call on listeners to get “loose” and move their bodies. True to the genre’s name, the music video for “Lean Wit It” depicts crowds of dancers freezing on the third beat of every bar to flamboyantly snap their fingers. Such a wholesale embrace of dancing was simply not compatible with the hard gangsta pose prevalent among contemporary New York City and Los Angeles artists. New York rapper Fat Joe makes the tension plain in his 2004 hit “Lean Back,” when he professes that “gangstas don’t dance,” over a decidedly bouncy, southern-inflected beat. Unlike the joyful abandon of Dem Franchize Boys, the dancers in Fat Joe’s video plant their feet and twist at the hip in a self-conscious antidance far removed from the breakdancing and pop-locking that once characterized New York City hip-hop.
By 2006, snap music’s nationwide visibility was on the wane, but a small group of young hip-hop producers continued trading fun, often parodic, snap songs on the music-sharing website Soundclick. Many of the lyrics in their songs turned on the same goofy phrase: “Crank dat!” The producers were connected in parallel on other sites, and the songs, lyrics, jokes, and videos they created frequently migrated back and forth across these platforms. As the “Crank Dat” phenomenon grew, some of the participants created dances to the songs and uploaded videos of themselves performing the steps.
Shortly, there were a number of songs and dances floating around with similar titles: “Crank Dat (Robocop),” “Crank Dat (Roosevelt),” “Crank Dat (Mega Man),” and so on. The same snap simplicity that drew criticism from hip-hop traditionalists proved a fertile foundation for the young music makers on Soundclick. Whereas the densely layered, sample-based recordings characteristic of coastal hip-hop can intimidate or confound tenderfoot producers, snap’s minimalism makes it highly legible to newcomers. Individual drum hits stand out from the sparse sonic structure, and the basic snap rhythm is easily reproduced using low-cost software such as FL Studio or Garageband. Each new version of “Crank Dat” provided a blueprint from which subsequent versions could be produced.
DeAndre Way, better known today as Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, was one of the snap producers actively posting music to Soundclick in 2006. As a high school student in Batesville, a town in the rural northwest corner of Mississippi, Way learned to make animations, to edit photos, and to record music on his home computer. Following a pattern set by other commercially successful southern artists, the aspiring rapper soon produced a hip-hop mix tape, found a manager, and started performing on the weekends in roller rinks and at teen dances. Week after week, he documented this slow grind toward pop stardom in home videos, cell phone pictures, and short journal entries posted to his MySpace blog.
Way, like several other Soundclick users, created his own version of “Crank Dat” titled “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy),” incorporating a looping steel-pan melody, a catchy refrain, and his own quirky slang. Throughout the track, his lyrics instruct the listener to perform various movements: “crank it,” “roll,” “superman,” “lean/rock,” “supersoak,” “roosevelt,” “shuffle,” and “jig.” To the average hip-hop fan, some of these movements would be familiar, but others, such as the roosevelt, were peculiar to the Soundclick niche from which “Crank Dat” emerged.
Soulja Boy catalyzed and accelerated the “Crank Dat” phenomenon when he reposted a video by the Cash Camp Clique to his MySpace page on February 25, 2007. Above the video of three teenagers dancing to “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy),” Way wrote, “Dis is how u do da dance to my new song. Just punch to da left or right den crank it 3 times.” Within a month, he had collected and reposted half a dozen videos of other people doing “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy),” each time garnering more comments and attention to his MySpace blog. By the end of the springtime, his page had received millions of views, and his songs on Soundclick were being downloaded tens of thousands of times (de Leon 2007). On May 15, Soulja Boy signed a contract with a major record label due in large part to the online popularity of “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy).”
For a particular cultural artifact to spread, its expressive potential must be accessible across seemingly disparate audiences. The Cash Camp Clique demonstrated, through their idiosyncratic clothes, slang, dancing, and southern accents, multiple points of entry into the “Crank Dat” phenomenon. And Soulja Boy, by debuting his song as the soundtrack to another group’s homemade dance video, implicitly invited viewers to create further variations. The audiences that took up this invitation kept only the elements they found relevant. They felt free to create new dance steps, to rework the audio, to alter the video, and to introduce their own symbols of local significance.
The thousands of videos that make up the “Crank Dat” phenomenon present dimensions of hip-hop culture that are typically absent from conventional pop channels. References to video games, comics, professional sports, and anime appear alongside self-conscious performances of nerd, jock, geek, and preppy stereotypes. This light-hearted imagery inevitably commingles with culturally specific markers of ethnic, racial, and gender-based difference—signs frequently referenced in the public comments left by viewers. Not only did video makers use the “Crank Dat” framework for self-expression and identity play, but they took advantage of the discursive affordances of YouTube and MySpace to engage in discussion and debate around the videos they created.
In the first year of Way’s career as Soulja Boy Tell ’Em, he rarely performed the role of rapper or producer. Rather, he acted as curator, cheerleader, and embodied symbol for the collective “Crank Dat” phenomenon. Realizing the potential value of his popular MySpace blog, Way reposted select videos, rewarding the creators with social capital in the form of visibility, respect, and esteem. He frequently encouraged fans to become producers and tried to inspire friendly competition among them, challenging listeners explicitly in his lyrics, “Y’all can’t do it like me / so don’t do it like me.” Occasionally, reflecting on the curious trajectory of his career, he credited the “fans” for his success. On the day he signed his major-label contract, Soulja Boy blogged, “I still need yall support all da fans yall da ones who helped [me] get signed! i luv yall!”
DeAndre Way’s goals were not radical. As prefame blog posts from 2006 attest, his aspirations did not stray far from the title of that summer’s Cam’ron single: “Girls, Cash, Cars.” Yet it is precisely the unremarkable nature of his ambitions that makes this story worth examining. Way was not trying to undermine the conventional music industry—quite the contrary—nor did he attempt to control “Crank Dat” after signing a major-label contract. By maintaining this balance, Way enabled powerful reciprocity between the popular productivity of his peers online and the amplifying apparatus of the pop media industry.
de Leon, Krishtine. 2007. “Youngest in Charge.” The Source 216 (December): 54–59.
Grem, Darren E. 2006. “The South Got Something to Say: Atlanta’s Dirty South and the Southernization of Hip-Hop America.” Southern Cultures 12 (4): 55–73.