Soulja Boy Tell'em, whose current single sits atop the Billboard 100, walks up to me in the lobby of downtown Atlanta's Omni Hotel and says with feigned seriousness, "Hey man, can I borrow a dollar?" I give him a blank stare before smiling, uncertain whether I should play along or not.
"He a comedian, man," his road manager, Thomas Chappell, says as we cram into an elevator.
It's a fitting introduction, considering everything I've seen and heard about him. To put it bluntly, his music is nothing short of a joke. At least, that was my initial impression a few months ago upon hearing "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" – an archaic-sounding snap track with sterile steel pan drums, finger snaps and bass booming in the background. It sounded like it was programmed by a kid toying around with Fruity Loops, the audio production program.
Actually, that's not far from the truth. Yet the reality is "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" took on a life of its own over the summer, thanks to the constant stream of more than 100 YouTube videos that turned him and the Soulja Boy/Superman dance he created into the biggest pop novelty of 2007, and perhaps the biggest viral song in Internet history. Pretty soon, it had reached No. 1 ringtone status and No. 1 iTunes download. Celebrities such as Beyonce began doing the Soulja Boy dance in their onstage performances, while fans and biters alike paid homage by taping their own copycat versions and throwing them up on the Web. In the process, he amassed a legion of underage devotees, 12 million MySpace page views (at press time), and a healthy dose of skepticism from old-heads who fear Soulja Boy could be the voice of tomorrow.
With his adolescent raps and an affinity for shouting "YUUUAL!" to punctuate his tracks, Soulja Boy may have set rap music back 30 years. But in doing so, he has simultaneously pushed it light-years into the future. Whether you view him as a sign of progress or regress probably depends on what era of rap music you grew up listening to. And even if his label fails to translate his phenomenal Internet celebrity into major sales of www.SouljaBoyTellem.com – his album, which was released Oct.2 – he will definitely leave people inside and outside the industry with plenty to consider.
It's not until I actually sit down to write this story that it hits me: Soulja Boy just turned 17, and I'm twice that age; which means he's the first rapper I've ever interviewed who's young enough to be my son. Not only is that true for a lot of critics, it's also true for most hip-hoppers. For the first time, the generation that helped shape the genre into a dominant cultural force is witnessing its reinterpretation by the subsequent generation. And, as expected, we're a tad critical.
"I feel as if you gotta look at it from my perspective, from my point of view," says rapper/producer Soulja Boy.
While he looks up to 50 Cent for his business and promotional savvy, his musical influences consist of Atlanta-based snap acts like Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L and Ying Yang Twins – acts that have been derided by many for dumbing down hip-hop in recent years. But Soulja Boy isn't making dumb music for adults, he says, he's making fun music for kids. He even addresses it with a song on his album called "Don't Get Mad 'Cause the Kids Like Me."
"I'm in an interview and they asked me who is KRS-One. ... I don't know. I done heard of 'em, but you grew up probably listening to 'em hard," says the Atlanta native. "And now you got Soulja Boy out here: 'Supaman!' And [you've got] these old heads, not old heads, but you know, this other hip-hop generation. And here come Nas saying Hip-Hop Is Dead. I mean, I was just born."
It all began innocently enough, in his father's modest Batesville, Miss., home. There, in a cramped living room with dookey green shag carpet covering the floor and wood paneling lining the walls, hip-hop was reborn and rebooted.
It was the summer of 2006, and the young Soulja Boy (born DeAndre Way) had only been rapping for about a year, after moving from his mother's west Atlanta home to live with his dad. Soon he was uploading his own homemade tracks onto Soundclick.com and getting a good response from listeners. But the real feedback came after he borrowed his cousin's video camera and began to upload videos to YouTube.com of him and his friend Abrahim Mustapha, aka Arab, clowning around and elaborating on snap dance moves such as the Motorcycle, the Poole Palace and the Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It.
"I stayed in Atlanta, Ga., all my life [and] nobody knew who I was. Went to Batesville, Miss., and was famous. Don't nobody stay in Batesville. It's like a little country town, farms and stuff," says Soulja Boy, "but I'm in the middle of nowhere with a computer and DSL Internet, a mic, Fruity Loops and me."
The resulting viral phenomenon soon got the attention of Michael Crooms, aka Mr. Collipark. The Atlanta-based producer and label owner signed Soulja Boy to his Interscope-distributed label (Collipark Music) in May 2007 after hearing good things about him from random kids at the park where his two sons play T-ball. With major-label backing, Soulja Boy's homegrown campaign had the fuel to go global. The "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" single recently broke the Top 20 on Billboard's United World Chart.
Meanwhile, the artist already has his own Stacks on Deck Entertainment joint-label venture in the works through Collipark Music. His friend and dance partner, Arab, is his first signee. In the long run, the music could end up being secondary to the main attraction, however. The legions of young girls who click on Soulja Boy's videos day after day seem more struck by his lifestyle than his rap style. With videos updated daily thanks to his personal cameraman, Soulja Boy has created a reality show that gives viewers a backstage pass into his life behind the scenes.
So, could the boy wonder from Batesville, Miss., be the viral solution the industry has been seeking to combat the downward trend in album sales, or is he just another one-hit wonder? That question will be answered with the all-important first-week sales figures.
"The whole industry ought to be looking at this kid holding their breath," says Mr. Collipark, who believes there's no way Soulja Boy can sell under 100,000 CDs in the first week. "His numbers are going to dictate the pace for any new artist coming out right now.
"It's his music, it's his lifestyle, it's how he's flipped the Internet. And I don't think nobody has done what he's done. And I think in the near future, everybody is going to start trying to copy his blueprint."
ooooohhhh, I'm so excited!! I can't wait to see them together!
come on man you know you got a bromance. you probably still rock that OutKast…
Yes, 14 is the correct answer. I'll pass your info along to the group's manager,…