The allure of City Girls’ “Twerkulator” isn’t surprising. The single is the rap duo’s first release since last year’s City On Lock, a project that came out, ironically, when many cities were locked down last June. If the viral success of “Twerkulator” feels different from the rest of their buzzworthy songs, like “Pussy Talk” or “Fuck Dat Nigga,” that’s because it is: For months, the song remained unreleased because the duo couldn’t get permission to use a sample that made the basis for the beat. And although the original challenge has over 16 million views on TikTok, we still haven’t heard more than a minute of the song—until today.
City on Lock, including “Twerkulator,” leaked online ahead of its release. But when the album was dropped the next day, the song was conspicuously missing from the tracklist. It wasn't until last March that “Twerkulator” began bubbling up again when TikTok user @layzchipz created the cheeky dance that became synonymous with the song. As the challenge grew more popular, fans wondered when they’d be able to stream the song in full. The answer, unfortunately, wasn’t great. “Twerkulator didn’t get cleared sorry guys,” Yung Miami wrote on Twitter, with a face palm emoji. The song samples Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force’s 1982 genre-bending classic “Planet Rock.” And while fans were looking for “Justice for twerkulator!!!!!!!!!!,” as Yung Miami also tweeted, the “Twerkulator” saga only reiterates how complicated working with samples is.
Music licensing is tricky territory. Multiple people can be credited as writers and producers (and thus, rightsholders) on one song, and those who contribute to the song’s lyrics, melody, and production all need to be accounted for. While we don’t know the specifics of why “Twerkulator” wasn’t cleared—a rep for the duo declined to get into specifics when I asked in March, and a rep for Afrika Bambaataa said the artist is not involved in negotiations—it can be difficult to track down everyone who has a say in approving the use of a song, and even harder to get them all to agree to license it. “Twerkulator” also includes an interpolation of a refrain from Cajmere's "Percolator"; Reps for Cajmere did not respond to VICE's questions about the saga. Plus, legally sampling a song isn’t just confusing—it’s often costly.
That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been an effort from the industry to make this all a little easier to understand. In 2019, Spotify tried to provide clarity on the process of clearing both publishing and masters licenses. “There isn’t a central database or a central way to clear these songs,” Mara Kuge, president of Superior Music Publishing, told Spotify. “It’s something that has to be negotiated with all the parties that own the song you want to sample.”
In 2018, Nicki Minaj was in an eerily similar situation to City Girls. Tracy Chapman sued Minaj for cribbing the melody of “Baby Can I Hold You” on “Sorry,” featuring Nas, which was supposed to appear on her fourth studio album Queen. In a string of since-deleted tweets, Minaj claimed she didn’t know her song borrowed elements from the tune, and even asked Chapman for help clearing the record. In the end, Chapman won $450,000 and “Sorry” did not appear on Minaj’s album. This month, Los Angeles Times revealed that although Daft Punk had been paying to sample Eddie Johns’ 1979 song “More Spell on You” on their biggest commercial hit, “One More Time,” Johns never received any money for it and spent years homeless. The reality of music’s flawed system is that many artists do not own their music, and even when they do, getting compensated is not as easy as it should be.
After months of practicing the dance and with new CDC rules underway, it’s safe to say, it’s time for the Twerkulator. For a song the internet unofficially coined a contender for Song of the Summer three months early, it’s a win for City Girls and Afrika Bambaataa and The Supersonic Force. As it turns out, Bambaataa’s management told VICE he does have his own thoughts on the “Planet Rock”-inspired track. “They only get 4 words out of me: I like the song.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.