The 'Harlem Shake' Walked So TikTok Could Run

Ten years on, the song is still instantly recognisable. Yet many people still don’t know who made it or how it became so famous.
Photo of a group of people inside a bathhouse, caught mid-dance while wearing weird costumes.
Photo: Getty Images/ YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / Staff

This article originally appeared on VICE Greece.

It might be hard to believe now, but there was once such a thing as an “Age of Innocence” on YouTube. It was a time of web romanticism, when our current online dystopia was yet to materialise and we were still trying to understand how life was going to play out on social media. 

It’s in that period - between the late 2000s and early 2010s - that all the elements of our current viral internet culture began to emerge – the memes, the dance crazes, the short and compilable clips. One faithful 2013 trend embodied them all: the iconic “Harlem Shake”. Basically, it was a 30-second clip of someone thrusting their hips in the middle of an unsuspecting crowd, then when the dubstep beat drops, 15 seconds in, they break into dance, too.


From regular people in their homes, to students in auditoriums, to the Norwegian army in the snow – everyone did the “Harlem Shake”. The whole thing had an absurd quality to it; the clips’ mundane setting contrasted with the silly costumes people wore, while doing equally silly moves. But it was also joyful - and very easy to replicate. Effectively, the “Harlem Shake” walked so “About Damn Time” could run.

Ten years on, the song is still instantly recognisable to millions. Yet many people still don’t know the artist who created it, or how it became so famous.

It all began in 2012, when Brooklyn-based DJ Harry Bauer Rodrigues, aka Baauer, sampled the track “Miller Time” by hip-hop group Plastic Little to create a heavy-bass instrumental track, inspired by Dutch house music. He then took the iconic opening line - “con los terroristas” (“with the terrorists”) - from “Los Terroristas” by Puerto Rican artist Hector Delgado. 

Initially, Baauer sent the song to anyone he knew in the industry, without much success. Eventually, Diplo's Mad Decent label ended up releasing it as a free download in May 2012, but it took a few more months for the internet to fly with it. 

On the 30th of January, 2013, the first version of the trend was born when YouTube comedy channel DizastaMusic used the song in a sketch with people dancing around, flailing their limbs in weird outfits. On the 10th of February, some Australian teenagers from the channel TheSunnyCoastSkate replicated the dance. Their video went super viral and was copied across the world.


According to Google Trends results, by the 11th of February, 12,000 “Harlem Shake” videos had been uploaded on YouTube. By the 14th of February, that number rose to 40,000, with 175 million views. The videos skyrocketed the “Harlem Shake” through the charts and it eventually landed on top position of the Billboard Hot 100 for five weeks in a row. By this point, the 24-year-old DJ no one had heard of was well on his way to earning a double platinum record.

But there was a catch. Back in the day, upcoming artists like Baauer would use Soundcloud as a sort of “free” resource to share demos and beats, or just try things out. As it turns out, Baauer hadn’t exactly cleared the samples with Plastic Little or Hector Delgado because, as he put it in a 2013 Pitchfork interview: “I was in my fucking bedroom on Grand Street.”

Hit by a number of copyright issues, Baauer later claimed in the interview he was in talks with his lawyers and hadn’t seen any money from the track. Mad Decent ended up settling with Plastic Little and Delgado for an undisclosed amount in April 2013.

Besides this controversy, Baauer was also criticised for using the term “Harlem Shake” without referencing its original creator. Before it became a viral hit, the “Harlem Shake” was a dance move invented by a Harlem resident known as “Al B” to imitate drunk people. It was then popularised by music videos in the 80s and 90s, including by rapper P. Diddy. The track by Plastic Little, sampled by Baauer, also mentioned the move - which is probably where he got the name from.

After the release of the song, Baauer went on to have a successful career as a DJ and music producer, although he never managed to make another hit of that magnitude. He’s now collaborated with huge names in the industry, including Tom Morello, The Prodigy, Missy Elliott, Kodak Black and Gorillaz. His second album Planet's Mad was nominated for a Grammy in 2021.

Today, Baauer is still playing in big festivals and clubs all over the world. His new single “Let Me Love U” dropped a couple of months ago. Not bad for a guy who was just goofing around in his room, with other people’s work on Soundcloud.