Every rapper is one hit away, and sometimes it takes just one guest verse to make an MC a star. A high school senior who goes by the name Semi, however, may hold the record for making the greatest impact with the shortest rap. Late in October of last year, he became famous for two bars – really 1.5 bars – in a Vine entitled “another 6 sec rap.”
“I’m Semi, I stay automatic/ money add then multiply, I call it mathemathematics” is how it goes, except Vine’s airtight time limit doesn’t even permit him to finish the last word (you hear enough to get the idea). More than that simple, catchy couplet, however, what made the video pop was how much seemed to fall into place in those 6 seconds. Instead of rapping a cappella, or over a familiar hit song, like most Vine rap memes, Semi had his own beat, a loping bounce with a portamento synth riff sliding from one high note to an even higher note and back. The camera rotates around Semi nearly 180 degrees, first looking upward and eventually down as he turns his neck to face the camera, catching a basketball hoop in the background as a younger kid tosses a ball (and misses).
It’s hard to know how many views anything gets on Vine, but when ”Another 6 Sec Rap” was uploaded to Worldstar Hip Hop, it clocked 2 million views. It was also quite likely the shortest song to appear on any year-end lists in 2013 – it appeared on the Cocaine Blunts list of the year’s best rap, and on Noisey’s own list of the best music videos of 2013, where Brandon Soderburg asked “Who is this kid? Where does he live? What is his deal? When does he get a record deal?”
As it turns out, Samiyan is a high school senior who lives in Edgewood, a Maryland suburb north of Baltimore, where he was born (Semi is a nickname he picked up in the 9th grade). I met him there for his first interview since becoming Internet famous, at the Harford County Public Library, although it took us a few minutes to locate each other. I’d of course seen Semi on camera before, but both of us were thrown off by our foot of height difference. Oddly it was Semi, who’s never seen me before, who said “I didn’t expect you to be so tall.” Also, I didn’t recognize him with his eyewear, although within a few minutes he takes them off and admits that they’re an affectation. “I kinda got these glasses to make me look a little smarter, but the lenses, like, popped out.”
Before it became the vehicle of his celebrity, Semi thought he missed the boat on Vine, which was only available for iPhones for the first few months of 2013, and he had an Android. “When it finally came to Android, I’m all like ‘Y’know what, I don’t even like Vine, it’s not gonna last,’” he remembers. When he did begin to make videos in September, he mostly did his own spin on pre-existing Vine trends, like ”face ass” freestyles – although the 17-year-old isn’t familiar with the 2008 hit that inspired the meme, “Lookin’ Boy” by Hot Stylz.
Soon, though, he began making beats, also on his phone, which proved essential to his creative breakthrough. He insists, however, that much of what people love about his Vines is often accidental or out of necessity, like the creative camera angles on “Another 6 Sec Rap.” “The kid in the background, he wanted to shoot the basket, and he ended up missing, so I tried to move the camera away from him missing,” he laughs. “He made the second shot, but then it almost hit him in the face.”
Likewise, the video’s famous catchphrase came about when he was simply filling out syllables to fit the meter of the rhyme. “Honestly when I first made it, I noticed I said ‘mathemathematics,’ but I was like, ‘No one’s gonna notice.’ Besides, I only had a couple hundred followers on Vine anyway,” he remembers. Accidental or not, that became part of the video’s hook. A YouTube commenter even issued a complex explanation that Semi might be wise to pass off as his own: “(M)oney (A)dd (TH)en (Multiply), I call that MATHM-Mathematics.”
It was the Worldstar exposure that gave Semi the biggest jump in fame, both in the Twittersphere and in his own high school. “That’s when everyone started caring about it. It was like ‘Yo, you know your vine’s on Worldstar?’ That’s really all I hear all day.” As with anything on the internet, reactions as the video spread were often hyperbolic or sarcastic, if not both. Semi hasn’t let the praise get to his head, although it has expanded his vocabulary. “I didn’t even know this was a real word, but people kept calling me ‘the GOAT,’ but it’s like an acronym, ‘the greatest of all time,’” he says (in fairness, Semi was 4 years old when LL Cool J released the album G.O.A.T.).
That Semi is young and inexperienced is, of course, all part of the videos’ charm, although there’s always the chance that many viewers cruelly think they’re laughing at him, not with him. He’s aware of this dynamic, shrugging, “I’m only funny when I’m not trying.” But in the age of Terio and Sharkeisha, when kids are getting dragged unwittingly into viral fame with sometimes disturbing subtext, Semi is in a better position: he’s getting attention for something he created, literally holding the camera himself and controlling every element, instead of merely being caught in the act of being accidentally entertaining.
Whether this is the beginning of a real rap career, however, isn’t clear to anybody, including Semi. I’m the first journalist to have tracked him down offline, and when I mention how refreshing it is to interview someone who doesn’t have media training or scripted answers to every question, he points out, “You’re, like, media training me right now.” He doesn’t have many answers for questions about favorite rappers or favorite songs, and isn’t too familiar with the nearby Baltimore hip hop scene, beyond King Los, the city’s current biggest star, now signed to Bad Boy Records. His interest lies more in cyphers – not participating in them in real life so much as watching footage online. “I just type in ‘Baltimore cypher.’ But sometimes I’ll stick in ‘New Jersey cypher,’ ‘Philly cypher,’ anywhere.”
“If I were to want to rap for real, that’d be a good kickstart,” he says. Right now, he still tries to make at least a Vine a week, but hasn’t found the time or the tools to do much in the way of recording – he says he has two songs recorded, not exactly enough for a mixtape. The 17-year-old is, of course, busy with school, and with an after-school job at Wendy’s, and has some college applications to fill out.
Still, Vine has recently proven a potent commercial force – songs by the West coast rappers YG and Sage The Gemini began as Vine sensations, with countless users dancing to the songs and creating comedic memes around them, until the attention spilled over to YouTube hits and iTunes sales, driving the songs up Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Sometimes like that, of course, can’t happen to a kid making original tracks like Semi unless he copyrights his songs, and uploads them somewhere besides Vine. But the fact that he’s creating work specifically for Vine, not merely excerpting existing tracks, is exactly what makes him unique. And if it never adds up to 15 minutes of fame, Semi seems happy with the 6 seconds he’s gotten. “Honestly, I’m trying to keep this Vine thing going until I meet a celebrity.”
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