No Rich Homie Quan song has ever charted as high as "Hit the Quan." What does that mean?
Screenshot of dancers @SurprisinglyFamous and @Math_Yuu in the most popular "Hit the Quan" video
In April, Rich Homie Quan released the video for “Flex (Ooh, Ooh, Ooh),” the latest in a string of a half dozen platinum and gold hits the Atlanta rapper has enjoyed since 2013. In July, a heretofore unknown Tennessee rapper going by the name @iHeartMemphis released “Hit The Quan,” a song celebrating a dance move that Rich Homie Quan popularized in the “Flex” video, with the instruction to “get down low and swing your arm.”
By any usual standard, “Hit The Quan” could be considered an amateur’s amusing spinoff of a hit by an established star. But this week, “Hit The Quan” reached a new peak: number 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. That’s higher than “Flex,” which reached number 26 over the summer. It's higher than every other song Rich Homie Quan has ever released, too, including his biggest hit, Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle,” which peaked at number 16 in 2014. The tail is wagging the dog, in a way that illustrates how virality drives chart hits in 2015. Both rappers performed their respective hits at the BET Hip Hop Awards this week—separately, despite the unusual way the two songs have been tied together in the public mind. It was probably appropriate foreshadowing. There are going to be people dancing to “Hit The Quan” who have never even heard of Rich Homie Quan, if there aren’t already.
“Flex” has been certified for platinum sales and has dominated urban radio for the last few months, peaking at number two on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. “Hit The Quan,” by contrast, has only climbed to number 44 on the same chart. On the Streaming Songs chart, however, “Hit The Quan” sits at number six, slightly higher than the number 11 peak reached by “Flex.” This is despite the fact that Rich Homie Quan’s song has over 65 million plays on Spotify, and @iHeartMemphis’s song isn’t even available on the popular streaming service.
So how is “Hit The Quan” bigger than the rapper the song took its name from, if Rich Homie Quan’s song is beating it in sales, radio spins, and Spotify streams? The answer, you can probably guess, is video. Billboard began factoring streaming video into the Hot 100 in 2013, with Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” hitting number one and demonstrating that a user-uploaded video counts just as much as a professional clip produced by the artist. Quan’s official video for “Flex” has over 75 million views on YouTube, while the original YouTube upload of “Hit The Quan,” by @iHeartMemphis’s label Buck Nasty Entertainment, stands at 23 million views. More popular, however, is a user-uploaded “Hit The Quan” video, with 33 million views. That video features a couple of teenagers, identified by their Twitter handles much as @iHeartMemphis is, demonstrating a dance for “Hit The Quan” that incorporates both the original Rich Homie Quan arm-swinging move, as well as an intricate series of dance movies tailored to @iHeartMemphis’s lyrics.
It’s this interactive element, of a dance that people can learn, make their own videos of, and laugh at others attempting, that makes “Hit The Quan” bigger than “Flex” despite all the other factors in Rich Homie Quan’s favor. Most of these videos spread via Vine, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with no one particular source video driving traffic, with some of the most popular clips featuring a New Orleans local TV news team and movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hitting the Quan.
Last year, Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” rose up the Hot 100 due in part to the Vine-friendly popularity of the rapper’s “shmoney dance” in the video. Would Rich Homie Quan be enjoying greater success if he’d been the one to capitalize on his viral dance move? That’s impossible to know, but Quan will likely continue making radio hits after “Flex.” It’s harder to say what the future holds for an artist like @iHeartMemphis. Pinning your identity to an already established, well known artist with the title of your first hit can be shaky ground to build a career on. It can work, though: Once upon a time, Taylor Swift’s only hit was a song called “Tim McGraw,” and we all know how quickly she moved on to bigger and better things. On the other hand, the singer Tyler Dean who scored a minor hit called “Taylor Swift” was never heard from again.
Like any big song, “Hit The Quan” already has its imitators. In August, Future and Drake shared a video for their hit collaboration “Where Ya At,” and a dance move in the video by DJ Esco, Future’s tour DJ, quickly went viral. Within 3 weeks, an enterprising young unknown rapper named Bar.Dineroo had come out of the woodwork with ”Hit The Esco.”
“Hit The Quan” is hardly the only rap hit to benefit from this phenomenon in 2015, or even the biggest: For months, the Hot 100 has been dominated by “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” by Silento, a previously unknown Atlanta teenager. “Watch Me” reached number three on the biggest pop chart by rolling several viral dance crazes, most of which were never attached to a major pop hit, into one song. The Nae Nae was first popularized by the group We Are Toonz, whose 2013 single “Drop That NaeNae” only got to number 18 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under chart, essentially a list of songs that never quite made it to the Hot 100. The Stanky Leg, another dance referenced by Silento, originated in “Stanky Legg” by GS Boyz, which hit number 49 on the Hot 100 in 2008. The virality of a song like “Watch Me” is the gift that keeps on giving –Hillary Clinton danced to the song on television last month, minting it as the kind of cultural phenomenon that even presidential candidates want to get in on. And though it peaked on the charts weeks ago, it rose three spots on the Hot 100 this week thanks to yet another viral video, this one featuring a pee wee football team.
“Watch Me” isn’t alone in combining multiple smaller hits into a bigger phenomenon. After Lil Will’s “My Dougie” hit number 19 on the Bubbling Under chart in 2007 and Audio Push’s 2009 single “Teach Me How To Jerk” failed to chart, Cali Swag District’s “Teach Me How To Dougie” rolled both songs together into something bigger than the sum of its parts, peaking at number 28 on the Hot 100. In some ways, it recalls the way dance crazes inspired multiple hits in the 50s and 60s. But Chubby Checker’s recording of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist,” though it begat many other twist-themed hits, was never eclipsed in popularity by “Twistin’ USA” or “Peppermint Twist.”
There is one song Silento references in “Watch Me” that peaked higher on the Hot 100: Soulja Boy’s 2007 chart-topper “Crank Dat,” which effectively kicked off the YouTube era of hip-hop dance crazes. Soulja Boy’s inspired dozens of other songs like “Crank Dat Spiderman,” but none of them approached the popularity of the original. And Soulja Boy only hit number one once he’d used YouTube as a springboard to dominating radio airplay—because, of course, Billboard wouldn’t start counting YouTube hits on the Hot 100 for another five and a half years.
We live in a strange time where the biggest stars and the people who create content don’t necessarily get to determine what the public considers its most interesting form. One of Kanye West’s biggest hits of the last couple years was “Gone,” a 2005 album track that raced up the charts because of a 2013 viral video of a woman dancing to it after quitting her job. One of 2015’s biggest rap hits is “Nasty Freestyle,” obscure rapper T-Wayne’s mixtape version of equally obscure rapper Bandit Gang Marco’s original “Nasty.” Next’s 90s R&B hit “Too Close” just came screaming back into mass consciousness because a college kid stood next to a toilet and sang new lyrics over the song on Instagram. The fickle, capricious public is prying songs and beats and dance moves from the people that originated them the moment someone else does something new with it that we like. It's a new era for music that puts the public in control to a greater extent than we're used to—one of the promises of the digital coming to fruition as social networking reaches a new tipping point. Now get down low, swing your arm, and let the internet show you how to make a hit.
Al Shipley is Noisey's chief statistician. Follow him on Twitter.