Hip-hop wouldn’t be where it is today without Soulja Boy. It might seem like that statement is as outlandish as the ones Soulja himself made about Kanye West and Drake on The Breakfast Club earlier today, but once you take a second to think about it, it’s true.
Back in 2007, when the cocky, colorful, and yes, influential young rapper was just DeAndre Cortez Way, a 17-year-old kid from Atlanta, rap was on the ropes. Sure, that was the year the genre delivered classics like Graduation and American Gangster, but it was also the midst of the biggest commercial downturn for the music industry and rap, still one of the newest and most niche genres despite its popularity on the radio, was hit the hardest.
Of the 20 best-selling albums that year, only two were from hip-hop artists — Kanye West and Jay-Z. Rap music was beset by rampant bootlegging, dwindling promotion budgets, and the general air of panic as the recording industry suddenly had to contend with file sharing and nosediving profits as consumers shifted their listening habits from physical sales to digital downloads, and it didn’t seem like anyone knew exactly how to fix it.
Enter Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em.
This isn’t to say that Soulja Boy singlehandedly saved the day. 2007 also saw the advent of the dreaded “360” deal and the rise of cheap, homegrown studios that made it easier for anyone to pursue a dream of musical stardom. In fact, it was that new technology, along with the slow ascent of social media and streaming sites like Youtube, that helped Soulja Boy go from a high schooler dancing in his bedroom to a household name.
When he uploaded the song “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” to Youtube, no one could have expected it would take off the way it did. It became so huge, so ubiquitous, so inescapable that it had toddlers, grandmothers, pastors, and politicians performing its dance. It was the first truly crossover viral success, setting the blueprint for both independent artists and labels to promote potential hits, as a whole generation of future stars from Bobby Shmurda to 2 Milly to Silento would come to use the formula of pairing an easy-to-learn dance with the title of their latest single as a pathway to notoriety, culminating most recently with BlocBoy JB, whose “Shoot” attracted the attention of Drake, making it a nationwide hit.
Soulja Boy himself became one of rap’s biggest stars, as well as one of its first troll antiheroes, renowned as much for the reactions to his runaway fame as for his own string of hits. Ice T notoriously remarked that Soulja “single-handedly killed hip-hop,” provoking a reactionary wave of battle rap revivalism that eventually led to the success of more straightforward rap icons like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, and of course, Drake, who may have been the biggest beneficiary of Soulja’s blueprint to date — in more ways than one.