Music News
5:51 pm
Thu February 21, 2013

Where Does The Harlem Shake Actually Come From?

Originally published on Fri February 22, 2013 10:26 am

It's called the Harlem Shake. The University of Georgia men's swim and dive team did it underwater in Speedos. The Norwegian army did it in the snow. The latest viral dance video craze starts with one dancer — jamming out on his own — surrounded by what appear to be oblivious bystanders. But then, all of a sudden, everybody's dancing.

The meme started when YouTube comedian Filthy Frank took "Harlem Shake" by Brooklyn-based Latino producer Baauer and played off the wild dubstep drop 15 seconds into the song. That's when everything gets wild.

But this Harlem Shake is not quite like the original. Filmmaker Chris McGuire even went out on the streets of Harlem to get reactions to the videos. To quote one resident, "That's not the Harlem Shake at all. That's humpin', and that's not the Harlem Shake."

So where did the original dance actually come from?

"It's been around for decades. Most people trace it back to a street dancer named Al B, who used to entertain the crowd at the Rucker tournament, which is a legendary basketball league in Harlem," says Jay Smooth, Harlemite and host of the hip-hop video blog Ill Doctrine. "It was brought into the mainstream by one of my Harlem neighbors, Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs, who brought the dance into a couple videos he made with one of his artists, G Dep."

As dance styles do, the trend faded as it stayed true in Harlem. But when the meme appeared on YouTube, it wasn't anything like what Al B did.

"You'd shimmy really quickly and swing your arms back and forth, then freeze and start up again," Smooth tells NPR's Melissa Block. "[Al B] had a really elaborate story as far as what he saw as the origin of the dance, tracing it back to mummies in Africa, I believe, who couldn't fully use their bodies because they were wrapped up in the mummy robes."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The University of Georgia men's swim and dive team did it underwater in Speedos. The Norwegian Army did it in the snow. And there are copycats by the thousands. We're talking about the viral dance video craze the "Harlem Shake."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM SHAKE")

BAAUER: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: It starts with one dancer jamming out on his own, surrounded by what appear to be oblivious bystanders. But then, all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM SHAKE")

BAAUER: (Singing) And do the Harlem Shake.

BLOCK: ...everybody is dancing - or really flailing and thrusting. People love it. Millions of views on YouTube. But ask people on the streets of Harlem about this Harlem Shake...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Oh, no good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That's not it. This is not what the Harlem Shake is at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah. I'm just kind of bummed out. That's definitely not the Harlem Shake.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That's not the Harlem Shake at all. That's humping, and that's not the Harlem Shake.

BLOCK: Not the real thing. Those voices collected in Harlem by filmmaker Chris McGuire. So what is the original Harlem Shake? Where did it start? We're going to ask Jay Smooth. He's host of the hip-hop video blog "Ill Doctrine." And he joins me from New York. Jay, where did this come from, this Harlem Shake that we're talking about, originally?

JAY SMOOTH: The original Harlem Shake, as a Harlemite, I can attest to it being part of a family of dances that's been around for decades. Most people trace it back to a street dancer named Albee, who used to entertain the crowd at the Rucker tournament, which is a legendary basketball league in Harlem.

And it was brought into the mainstream by one of my Harlem neighbors, Sean P. Diddy Combs. So from then on in the last '90s, the Harlem Shake became a mainstream dance craze and then faded away from the mainstream spotlight, but it's still been around locally. So when this meme suddenly appeared on YouTube with people not only not doing what we know as the Harlem Shake but seeming to dance as badly as possible...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Vibrating really.

SMOOTH: I mean, the Harlem Shake was always a bit silly, but it was never this silly. So a lot of people suspected we might be getting made fun of here.

BLOCK: Well, (unintelligible) go back to that original Harlem Shake, you're saying it started with the guy at the Rucker tournament, Albee. What did it look like? What was he doing?

SMOOTH: Sort of a rhythmic shimmying back and forth. You know, you'd shimmy really quickly and swing your arms back and forth and then freeze and then start up again. And he had a really elaborate story as far as what he saw as the origin of the dance, tracing it back to mummies in Africa, I believe, who couldn't fully use their bodies because they were wrapped up in the mummy robes, so he was approximating the dance that they would do.

BLOCK: And he called it - Albee called it a drunken shake (unintelligible).

SMOOTH: Yeah. Another alternative theory of his was that it was the shakes that you might get if you were an alcoholic. That's true.

BLOCK: So from there to the University of Georgia's swim and dive team and a cast of thousands, millions perhaps.

SMOOTH: It - yeah. Well, it's sort of - there was a song named "Harlem Shake" by a Brooklyn-based Latino producer, Baauer, sort of a - part of the dubstep tradition. And a YouTube comedian named Filthy Frank made a video playing off of that tension and release in dubstep music where the beat drops and you just want to go wild, so they started doing really silly dances.

And then an Australian skateboard crew named Sunny Coast Skate thought that this video blogger's dance was funny, so they did their imitation. And so it's sort of an example of how a cultural artifact can fly around in this sort of global game of telephone. And these questions of appropriation can rise up, but there isn't really any intent to steal or make fun of. It's jut the way that ideas propagate nowadays.

BLOCK: Well, Jay, thanks for setting us straight about the Harlem Shake. Appreciate it.

SMOOTH: Oh, thank you. And I would just request that we make a compromise and have at least one person in the videos doing the actual Harlem Shake.

(LAUGHTER)

SMOOTH: They meet each other halfway.

BLOCK: Jay Smooth, host of the hip-hop video blog "Ill Doctrine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARLEM SHAKE")

BAAUER: (Singing) And do the Harlem Shake.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.