by Chris Randle
“The Monkey Man,” a dance rap single by Lil Buck and Lil Deezy, became a minor local hit on Louisiana radio around the start of this year. I found out about it soon after – not from a Baton Rouge urban station, from the blog Cocaine Blunts. The signifiers here are, um, racially loaded, though probably without intent given that Lil Buck was born in 1997. And what interests me most isn’t the track per se but how it spread the meme of its signature dance, one reworked and expanded by the duo’s listeners.
I don’t know exactly when the song was first released; the video above is the earliest Youtube clip of it being performed. At this point it’s barely a dance at all: The only moves are a running-man-like step, that charming belly-rubbing motion and the occasional dip. The MCs seem both halting and nonchalant, which must be a common reaction from young teenage boys caught in the act of choreography. Awkwardness was so prevalent at the school dances I remember that it became far less mortifying than the rest of adolescence. But the routine mutated as it appeared on a few Louisianan playlists. Several weeks later the same Youtube account uploaded this clip:
The structure is more elaborate now – we’ve got some simian chest-beating and that weird falling-backwards trick. (I like how quickly the song itself switches between monkeys and gorillas.) Finally, a couple of months after that, “The Monkey Man” was formalized by what appear to be trained dancers. Their new slide-hop move is fun, but my favourite aspect of the clip is that little girl’s extreme seriousness:
In the first chapter of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, a revisionist history of American pop music, Elijah Wald notes an obvious yet overlooked fact: Before recorded music became ubiquitous, and even for decades after that, hit songs were routinely and invisibly altered by the unknown players who transmitted them. This often-inadvertent process never disappeared – Wald mentions Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” as a later example. The spread of wax simply made it a rarity rather than the norm. I’ve seen it argued that this phenomenon is resurfacing online, but the internet mainly seems to facilitate comprehensive remixes (which are not quite the same thing) and exacting covers (quirkily smug or reverent novelties).
Perhaps dance is now the medium best suited to gradual folk development. It’s inexpensive, susceptible to small mistakes or improvisations by its performers, and still pursued en masse by amateurs in a way that music or painting no longer are. I chose “The Monkey Man” because the marginal, localized popularity made its evolution easier to track; there are far vaster examples of the same. Soulja Boy’s #1 hit “Crank That” inspired literally dozens of musical variations, let alone unwitting choreographic ones. The clearest continuity here forms a major theme in Wald’s book: Whether in 1910 or 2010, predominantly male, older music writers have rarely understood the modish dance crazes adopted by young women who dance.
NEXT TIME: Morris dancing! Probably.