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The Harlem Shake vs. “Harlem Shake”

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HarlemThough it may come as a surprise to those of us who spend basically every moment of our waking lives looking at stuff on the internet for work or for …other reasons, the internet meme known as “Harlem Shake” hasn’t really died yet.

TV shows, offices, your Mom and your Aunt continue to make Harlem Shake videos and share them on the internet. This has raised hackles in some quarters, since these “Harlem Shake” videos have basically nothing to do with the actual dance The Harlem Shake, a totally unrelated phenomenon which predates this meme by some 30 years.

First, an explanation of the current “Harlem Shake” meme. The only reason the meme carries that name is that the music in the “Harlem Shake” videos is a dance track called “Harlem Shake” (note: not The Harlem Shake) by Harry Rodrigues, a 23 year old Brooklyn based electronic music producer who goes by the name Baauer. Rodrigues uploaded the track to YouTube in August of last year. It was well-received by devotees of the electronic music subgenre known as trap and was picked up by Diplo’s Mad Decent label, but didn’t really penetrate mainstream culture.

“Harlem Shake” did reach number 80 on Pitchfork’s list of the 100 best tracks of 2012. This write up by Pitchfork staff writer Miles Raymer pretty much perfectly describes its charms:

“Harlem Shake” is easily one of the most obnoxious singles of 2012. Its tempo is harshly overclocked so the drum and hi-hat fills have a twitchy strobe-light quality, and the beat itself frequently goes half- or double-time at seemingly random moments, and then drops out altogether. Repeatedly. The melody is a nagging little three-note riff played with a squelching synth tone that Baauer pans in a way that suggests a tiny, glow stick-twirling insect flying around your head. There’s also a sample of what might be a lion growling that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. But properly deployed obnoxiousness is a valid route to aesthetic nirvana, especially in the dance music world, where coming up with wiggy synth tones has become a veritable competitive sport. It’s impressive that at age 23, Baauer’s already contending with the champions.

Enter Filthy Frank, a YouTube video blogger known in part for releasing videos in which he and his cohorts move around spastically (it would be too kind to call it dancing) to different music wearing pink lycra bodysuits, Power Ranger costumes, and other outrageous outfits. In the aforementioned obnoxiousness of “Harlem Shake” Filthy Frank saw an opportunity. On Feb. 2, he uploaded this video, which as of my writing this had accumulated over 12 million views and 18,000 comments. This is typically described as “the original Harlem Shake video,” which started the craze and led to, well, this.  As this Vulture post by Lindsey Weber describes, “These videos feature a backing trackby Baauer, a.k.a. electronica producer Harry Rodrigues, and show, at first, a single person jerking to the beat before cutting to an entiregroup of people dancing erratically (twerking, jumping, you name it) to the track. Problem is, no one’s actually doing the Harlem Shake.

As this post by Tamara Palmer on The Root points out the actual Harlem Shake dance has nothing to do with anything going on in these videos and in fact dates back over thirty years. In Palmer’s description: “Al B, a man who used to dance during breaks at the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park in Harlem beginning in 1981, has gotten much of the Internet credit for inventing the original Harlem Shake, a dance characterized by wild jerking of the arms and upper body. At one point, it was referred to as the “Albee.”

The Harlem Shake/Albee dance entered mainstream hip-hop culture when dancers were seen doing it in the videos to several hip-hop songs in the late 90s and early 2000s, most prominently the 2001 video for G Dep/P Diddy/Black Rob’s “Let’s Get it” embedded below:

As you can see there’s zero similarity between the shoulder popping, quick arm movements, and altogether more complex and better looking dancing in this music video and the spastic jerking of the current wave of “Harlem Shake” videos, not to mention the fact that approximately 99.9% of the participants in the current “Harlem Shake” videos appear to be white and the new videos have no connection whatsoever to the proud and storied African-American neighborhood of Harlem, a connection which the real Harlem Shake dance did have, both in the fact that the dance originated in Harlem and was popularized in videos for songs from Diddy’s Harlem-based Bad Boy records.

A few blog posts have been published clarifying the distinction between the actual dance The Harlem Shake and the internet meme “Harlem Shake,” but there’s already a lot of confusion. For instance, the usually reliable Know Your Meme fails to make the distinction at all in their Harlem Shake entry. It seems likely that due to the huge popularity of these “Harlem Shake” videos, from now on most people will associate the words Harlem Shake not with black people dancing well but with mostly white people dancing badly.

The Harlem Shakedown [The Root]

Five Great Hip-Hop Videos Featuring the Actual Harlem Shake, not that Fake-Ass One [Vulture]

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