Ten years ago today, a 15-year-old kid from Batesville, Mississippi uploaded his first video to YouTube. He called it his ”1st EVER YouTube Video!” in a harbinger of the lyrical creativity that would define his chart-topping music for the next few years.
Check it out in its pixellated glory, above. Revel in the audio, which would be nearly unintelligible even if it weren’t horribly distorted and clipped. And oh, that glorious appearance of Comic Sans at the end. Yet this was the beginning of not just a viral dance sensation that rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 2007, but a groundbreaking coalescence of the music industry and the power of social media.
Whether or not you like Soulja Boy’s music, it’s impossible to deny the impact he had on the interaction between the musicians and the internet and his role as a visionary pioneer. For starters, consider this fact: After a months-long beta period, YouTube officially launched on December 15, 2005 with a daily traffic around eight million views. Soulja Boy uploaded his first video just three months afterward, solidly characterizing him as an early adopter. From there, he proceeded to build a brand that anticipated the rise of such platforms as Snapchat and Vine, showcased the sort of day-in-the-life content that helps modern fans connect with their favorite artists, and brought the phenomenon of viral video to the web.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane into Soulja Boy’s halcyon YouTube days, where we’ll witness his rise.
The dance Soulja’s doing here looks like a weird cross between the Bernie and those huge inflatable guys you see outside of car dealerships. (There’s an original Shoulder Lean, too, where he writhes with laughter on that couch behind him for seven seconds.) The key takeaway here is that Soulja Boy’s discovered the power of capturing short, silly slice-of-life moments with the potential to be replayed over and over and over again. Sounds like Vine, right? Granted, the Shoulder Lean is pretty stupid, even by Soulja‘s standards, but for someone just beginning to use a visual medium to chronicle his career, the idea of uploading a snippet of a dance that displays an artist’s human side showed tremendous foresight.
You can hardly call this a coherent music video—it’s composed entirely of disparate clips of Soulja Boy dancing, walking around pointing a camera at his own face, and signing the hood of a car in Sharpie (a separate video in its own right). But it does show a major realization that Soulja Boy had early on: that the relationship between music and videos is circular. In using the medium of YouTube to premiere a song rather than his SoundClick account or MySpace page, he could drive more traffic to his videos—taking listeners looking forward to his latest music from those audio-only sites to his YouTube channel. The video itself, in turn, leads off with Soulja Boy’s name and website, which completes the circle of content. Hell, the song itself—it’s called “Crank Dat Dance,” by the way—contains several references to the website. It’s a prime example of art as promotion, a sort of advertisement that builds an audience for greater art to come.
2006 was when crunk and its derivative genre, snap, were at the peak of their popular influence, to the point that snap was producing one-hit wonders—the definitive signal that a genre owns a particular era. Atlanta rapper Unk hasn’t produced anything memorable since “Walk It Out,” but he had his moment from late 2006 to early 2007, and Soulja Boy was paying attention. This display of dancing served as a notice to his fans that yes, Soulja Boy is also a fan of rappers, and this is a song that Soulja Boy likes. It’s the same mentality that drives artists today to create Spotify playlists to share with their fan base: a desire to connect over common ground and start a conversation about such things as influence and aspiration. In Soulja Boy’s case, the fact that he enjoyed dancing to “Walk It Out” pointed to his future dominance of the snap movement with “Crank That Soulja Boy,” arguably the last and greatest hit song of the genre. Oh, and his dancing here is on point, as is that of his sidekick Arab, whom it was important for audiences to meet, since he played a pivotal role in Soulja Boy’s music.
By the beginning of 2007, Soulja Boy’s music had gained enough traction online that he and Arab could start touring in the Midwest, playing in front of fans who knew and loved them. This sweet 16 party in Chicago showcases the type of hook that would populate his first album—essentially just phrases that were fun to shout with friends. But by filming his performance and presenting to the world just how contagious his songs had already become, he was able to add to the hype machine fueling his rise. When a room full of teenagers is exuberantly yelling “YAHHH BITCH YAHHH,” the rest of the music world begins to pay attention, no matter how objectively bad the underlying song might be. There’s also the fact that this video, though poor in quality, offers evidence that Soulja Boy’s charisma, clear from his other videos, carried through to the stage. Above all, it’s a display of Soulja Boy at his peak influence and strength to that point, carefully packaged and delivered not just to fans eager to devour any new music, but also to A&R people.
This is where things get interesting, because this is obviously not the “Crank That Soulja Boy” music video that accompanied the song’s release on Interscope Records and introduced the track to the mainstream listening public. It’s not even clear whether Soulja Boy is in this video, as none of these three guys looks like him. But this is the earliest video version of the song and dance you can find on YouTube, and regardless of whether or not Soulja Boy himself is here, it’s instructive in illustrating the meteoric trajectory of “Crank That,” because it’s either the source of the viral craze or an early example of the virality itself. (It’s also important to note that without Soulja Boy’s prescient ability to build an independent brand, as delineated in the previous videos, “Crank That” likely wouldn’t have achieved the critical mass necessary to go viral.)
The true brilliance behind the song and its accompanying video was both its replicability and Soulja Boy’s encouragement of that replicability. Rather than keeping the song and dance to himself, he thrived on people’s imitation of his work, which encompassed both live-action recreations and pop culture mashups that we can recognize today as progenitors of the meme. He famously made an instructional video to teach fans how to do the dance, and though it’s no longer on YouTube, it was instrumental in increasing crowd participation in the construction of Soulja Boy’s brand and success. By walking people through “Crank That Soulja Boy” step-by-step and fostering their own takes on the original, Soulja Boy effectively gave them ownership of the song, increasing their engagement in and commitment to the craze.
When the official music video for “Crank That Soulja Boy” dropped in August of 2007, it included homages to the original’s viral nature—prominently featuring web footage of early imitators and people watching the dance on their computers and phones. With the might of Interscope behind it, the song became a full-blown movement, and Soulja Boy had cemented his legacy as a key figure in the way music is spread on the internet. He effectively gave birth to what we might call “social music,” wherein YouTube and other visual platforms (as well as the impossibility of enforcing copyright online) allow the listeners to take part in the creation of music’s influence.
Let’s see how Soulja Boy’s doing now, shall we?
He’s been out of the public’s eye for years—perhaps because better rappers and producers eventually caught up to his level of online brilliance—but his ethos of transparency hasn’t changed one bit.
One last fact that might blow your mind: Soulja Boy, by now a seemingly ancient figure in music, is younger than Taylor Swift.