On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. With fears related to the power of this machine growing (a machine which in reality couldn’t do much more than relay blips back to Earth), the United States began to invest in space-age research and development. Out of this came the United States military-funded ARPAnet, an early cousin to the internet that, in 1969, allowed for one computer to send a message to another. By the end of the 1970s, a man named Vinton Cerf developed a way for all computers to communicate with each other, and by 1991 Swiss computer programmer Tim Berners-Lee designed what we now know to be the internet. Google “who invented the internet,” as I just did, and you will get the same boring story. But I’m here to argue that there is a key figure missing in this history of the World Wide Web. And that figure is a man from Chicago named DeAndre Cortez Way, who you almost definitely know as Soulja Boy.
I vividly remember being squeezed in the middle seat of my mother’s Toyota Land Cruiser on a rainy day in 2007. To my left was my older brother and to the right was his friend, and my job for the car ride was to hold my brother’s iPod Touch while they watched YouTube videos. That day, the two seemed to be obsessed with a new YouTube video titled “Crank That Soulja Boy,” which featured three guys dancing in their living room on grainy footage that looked like it came from a flip phone. After watching this video only once in the car ride I was hooked, and my brother and I spent the next six months standing in front of a computer screen learning the dance. It would be prominently featured in Bar Mitzvah dance circles, talent shows and videos on my mom’s Facebook page. It would also come to define how music would sound and be marketed in the digital age.
Within a year of its release, Soulja Boy’s single “Crank That” set the record for the most digital downloads in the United States with over three million purchases. It peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed on the chart for 32 weeks. In 2008, “Crank That” was even nominated for a Grammy for Best Rap Song, positioning Soulja Boy next to established names like Kanye West, 50 Cent, Justin Timberlake and T.I. But unlike his counterparts, Soulja Boy was not the product of a big record label. His music was not critically acclaimed. He was, however, the most tech-savvy rapper of his time.
Soulja Boy was one of the first artists to embrace the internet as a way of garnering fame. Posting frequently on music sharing sites like Soundclick, maintaining a presence on MySpace and making videos on YouTube, Soulja Boy gathered a large following among youth on the internet. And by doing so, he pioneered a new path toward rap stardom. Artists no longer had to find P. Diddy outside of a nightclub and spit 8 bars at him in hopes of getting signed. Instead, rappers could create an online persona themselves and use that to cultivate a following online, just as Soulja Boy did. Only 13 years later, this has all but become the norm. Prominent rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Playboi Carti and countless others all made their start on the free-streaming service SoundCloud. Kids all around the world right now are rapping over terrible beats that their friend made and advertising those songs on their Instagram stories in hopes of this breakout happening to them too. And that’s beautiful. And that wouldn’t be happening if not for Soulja.
The dance craze that accompanied “Crank That” was perhaps just as influential as the marketing scheme that it precipitated. A song revolving around a dance was nothing new at the time. Dem Franchize Boyz’ “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It,” The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and Unk’s “Walk it Out” were all singles that revolved around a single dance routine. But Soulja Boy took it a step further. In 2007, he released an instructional video alongside his “Crank That” music video and challenged his MySpace followers to post their own videos doing the dance. This brought on renditions of the dance and memes that satirized it, all compounding to bring more attention to the song and artist. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this strategy now seems to define popular rap culture and marketing. With dance “challenges” being some of the most prominent components of apps like TikTok, artists now make songs that seem to only exist for the sole purpose of providing a catchy 15-second snippet that teenagers can dance to in their bedroom.
Take Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” for example. On her own Instagram, Megan would post instructional videos of herself doing a dance that I totally don’t know how to do with the hashtag #SavageChallenge. She would then repost videos of other people doing the same dance on her Instagram story, and all of a sudden a trend was born. The snippet blew up on TikTok, and before long it was peaking at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. After re-listening to the song for the purposes of this article, I realized that I had never actually heard the full song, only that 15-second excerpt. We have Soulja Boy to blame, or thank, for this.
And it’s not just “Crank That.” The main criticism I’ve heard of Soulja Boy is that he is simply a product of his time. That the streaming services and dance crazes and internet popularity of rappers would have happened anyway, and Soulja Boy only served to expedite the process. That the United States’ fear of communism spreading through Eastern Europe was simply the first domino in the unavoidable chain that led to “Crank That” going viral on YouTube. That Soulja Boy was inevitable. And while this linear take is always enough to garner an eye-roll from me, I suppose I can’t argue against it. But one thing that can’t be denied is that Soulja Boy did it, not anyone else. His impact becomes more apparent every day, and will continue for the foreseeable future. He is arguably one of the most influential artists of our generation, and he, by all accounts, invented what we now know as the internet.
Daily Arts Contributor Leo Krinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.