In two years time, TikTok has become the premier app for content creators. Now, hip-hop songs both old and new are taking over.
Words: Kathy Iandoli
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
A teenage girl stands in front of a cell phone camera, smiling and rubbing her hands together, Birdman-style. “He likes my diamonds and my pearls,” she mouths along with the lyrics filling the air, giving a wink as her mother walks out from behind her and finishes the line, “I said, ‘Thank you, I designed it.’” The verse is taken from Tierra Whack’s 2018 song “Hungry Hippo.” Only now, two years after its release, the track has found its home on TikTok, clocking in at over 1 million video creations.
The TikTok videos using Tierra Whack’s song all carry the same exact theme: a teen showing off their looks and a parent proudly taking credit for their genes. This trend is one of many, as the themes replicate across a number of hip-hop hits, both new and old. It’s a pattern that’s evolved from fun videos on the app to full-on marketing strategies, and now everyone from fans to the rappers themselves are involved. The motto in hip-hop for years now has been that “content is king,” though TikTok is now its own kingdom.
On August of 2018, TikTok first arrived in the United States, though its initial story began a few years prior. The Beijing internet technology company ByteDance developed a series of video-sharing social networking apps, one of which would eventually cross the pond. First came Douyin in 2016, launched in China, and then came TikTok in 2017, released outside of China. By this point, the U.S. was already tinkering with the California-developed app Musical.ly, which arrived in 2014. Musical.ly included small, quick clips of users creating fast content to song clips—more for the moment and less thought out.
In 2018, Musical.ly and TikTok merged, making its combined summer debut later that year. With most of these apps that have traveled across social media current over time, the goal is quite simple: to be seen by as many eyes as possible. The now defunct Vine broke the third wall, where the famous and the unknown joined forces. However, what has happened with TikTok is uncharted territory since what was once a vehicle for greater discovery from music to how-to experiences is now becoming its own microcosm of a community. And hip-hop is benefitting from all of it.
The greater world exposure as a result of TikTok’s momentum happened for rapper Lil Nas X after he released his colossal country trap hit single “Old Town Road” on Dec. 3, 2018. TikTok influencer Michael Pelchat, who goes by NiceMichael on the platform, was one of the first to upload the song to the video platform in February of 2019. Three months after the snippet of “Old Town Road” was posted to TikTok, more than 3 million user-created videos featuring the song were made. Within those few short months after Lil Nas X released the track, he scored a recording contract with Columbia Records, repackaged and rereleased the song with Billy Ray Cyrus, and landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 19 weeks. To date, the song is certified diamond by the RIAA, and Lil Nas X himself credits TikTok for its success.
This is more than lightning in a bottle, as trends have continued with no stop in sight. However, it took Wiz Khalifa’s 2017 single “Something New” featuring Ty Dolla $ign for eyes to see that there was a pattern forming where new life was being breathed into old rap songs on the app. Families were making Soul Train lines to Ty’s verse on the song by using a choreographed dance. A shoulder shimmy followed by a hand clap to the beat before jumping to the side for the next family member to join. Celebrity couples like singer J.Lo and former New York Yankees player Alex Rodriguez, as well as Ciara and Seattle Seahawks player Russell Wilson added their family videos, too.
The phenomenon forming led to 4 million video creations of the song on TikTok to date. It was so impactful that Wiz Khalifa himself jumped on board. “When the song started to go, I called Wiz’s management, and I was like, ‘Can we get him to do this dance with his family and help amplify it?’” recalls Isabel Quinteros, Senior Manager of Music Partnerships & Artist Relations at TikTok. “And they did it, which was super dope. That was the beginning of him really leaning in and engaging with TikTok.”
Rap star Megan Thee Stallion arguably worked in reverse with her single “Savage,” released on her Suga EP in March. The song has a staggering 26 million video creations on TikTok and counting. Though in the beginning, the lead single was supposed to be “Captain Hook,” which has more than 5 million creations on the platform. Quinteros’ close relationship to Megan’s camp helped amplify the “Savage” takeover that occurred. “When the [Suga EP] was gonna come out, the label was really pushing for ‘Captain Hook,’” Quinteros says, “and we were like, ‘Well, why don’t we just let the users decide and let’s just see what goes?’” Megan’s label, 300 Entertainment, began their marketing campaign around “Captain Hook,” as the numbers on TikTok were skyrocketing for “Savage.”
According to Quinteros, she advised Megan’s management that once the song matured a little more on the platform, they would run a campaign for “Savage.” A campaign involves promoting it on main pages and in the faces of active creators to spot the trend, jump on board and strengthen it. “When we [ran the campaign in March], the song really exploded because we were able to kind of pull the promotional levers to help it just be everywhere,” Quinteros continues. “I looked it up [in mid-June], and it’s at 26.1 million creations, which is like, incredible. It’s a beast.” Celebrities like Jessica Alba have participated in the “Savage” dance challenge, along with Megan herself, though TikTok influencer Keara Wilson is credited for starting the craze.
“Man, as soon as TikTok culture took it over, it became a whole brand new thing,” remembers “Savage” producer J. White Did It. “I was like, If this catches wind like we think it’s gonna do, this could go No. 1. This was before we even hit the Billboard charts. It was phenomenal.” Thanks to TikTok and the “Savage (Remix)” featuring Beyoncé, the song earned a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 chart position in May. J. White is no stranger to chart-topping singles, as his production of Cardi B’s songs “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” have earned him massive accolades and critical acclaim, but he admits that nothing like this has ever happened. “It really just shook the whole thing,” he affirms of the “Savage” TikTok takeover. “It really did. That girl [Keara Wilson], I appreciate her. She took that dance, Megan posted it, and just seeing all the celebrities dance to it, that was really just amazing.”
The movement extended even further after the Beyoncé remix happened on April 29, along with the “Carole Baskin” version inspired by the Netflix hit series Tiger King. “At first, when the ‘Carole Baskin’ song came out, I was like, Yo, is ‘Carole Baskin’ gonna beat ‘Savage’?” J. White admits with a laugh, “Because it was getting just as much attention as ‘Savage’ was.”
While new hits have been gaining momentum, older songs are continuing to have a second life, ultimately leading to more streams. DeJ Loaf’s 2015 song “Back Up” with Big Sean first started piquing on the TikTok radar in November of 2019, and it’s still going to date. Currently over 1.1 million video creations exist for the song. Kash Doll’s 2019 track “Ice Me Out” has 1.8 million creations while Saweetie’s 2019 song “My Type,” has 1.5 million, the latter having a more structured rollout plan on the platform.
“With Saweetie, ‘My Type’ was an interesting combined effort between her label [Warner Music Group] and us,” Quinteros tells. “They went out and did their marketing thing, where they hired some creators to help, but we also played a really big role in onboarding Saweetie [in May of 2019], ensuring that she had all the proper tools to create good content on the app, and then also brought creators to her performance at the BET Awards that would help drive it, too. So, you had us working internally and the label doing what it does, so we ran those campaigns concurrently.”
Saweetie has since found her stride on the app, joining the ranks of artists like Blueface and Tyga, who are TikTok fixtures. While dance moves have become more popularized than perhaps other forms of content creation, the app also includes recipes, list-style advice (like iPhone hacks), moving memes in support of Black Lives Matter and photo morphing. There is also an entire series dedicated to users recreating artist’s album covers, a popular one being DaBaby’s 2019 debut album, Baby on Baby. DaBaby himself has become a TikTok staple, as his No. 1 single “Rockstar” with Roddy Ricch has its own growing dance craze on TikTok, swerving in a steering wheel motion when DaBaby raps, “Brand new Lamborghini, fuck a cop car.”
The process has gone from TikTok hoping that artists stand by their songs on the platform to entire strategies being built around releases. Still, they’re guided by the metrics. “When we see a sound move, the first thing that we do is reach out to management and let them know the sound is moving,” Quinteros adds. “Once we do that, the manager usually says, ‘Yeah, we’ve been seeing spikes on DSPs.’”
An artist would then be onboarded, with the TikTok-charting song being playlisted or run through sound page scanners for greater visibility. Now, however, there are greater promotional levers they can pull to push things forward, but artist involvement is still a major part of it. “If you see the artist creating something, you’re more likely to jump in,” Quinteros maintains. “Our whole goal here with our users is to make sure they’re having fun and they can create content to the songs that are actually trending.”
Those trends are dictated by TikTok’s customized user settings, though its ability to tap into specific audiences has fallen under the microscope several times, with claims that the app was filtering user data over to the Chinese government. U.S. politicians conducted an investigation on the matter with inconclusive evidence. President Trump has threatened to ban the app in the U.S., but at print time, no definitive actions have been taken. TikTok has repeatedly dismissed these claims, even releasing their security and data privacy roadmap that proves their infrastructure is in place to protect users, both adults and children.
“Tens of millions of Americans come to TikTok for entertainment, music discovery, and creative inspiration, and our community of artists and creators are building livelihoods from the platform, especially during the pandemic,” says Leah Linder, Director of Communications for TikTok. “TikTok has an American CEO, and a growing U.S. team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure. We are fully committed to protecting our users’ privacy and security.”
[Editor's note: On Sept. 18, the Trump administration moved forward with the plan to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores as of Sept. 20. Next month, on Nov. 12, the government will also ban American companies from processing TikTok transactions or hosting its internet traffic. The restrictions may be halted if the company can satisfy the administration’s concerns that TikTok does not pose a threat to U.S. national security.]
Their main focus stateside, understandably, is to continue building upon this craze that has seemingly kept them ahead of the curve, even as other apps like Triller enter the stratosphere.
TikTok’s methodology is based on creating simple content that can be widely replicated by the public to the point where anyone can actively participate. From there, the song attached to the craze finds new success on streaming platforms, like Interscope Records’ new artist, rapper LPB Poody. The 20-year-old Florida native’s 2019 track “Address It” hit 1 million streams on April 7 of this year, but a week later, a local fan uploaded it to TikTok where it quickly grabbed 31,000 video creations.
Due to the track’s popularity it is now at over 15 million streams on Spotify. “Honestly, I feel like TikTok brought way more traffic to it,” Poody says. “I didn’t know there was a dance attached to it on TikTok. Some kid from my city, I guess he had them put that little ‘Mmm, mmm’ part on there, and then they found out about it and it went viral.” In the video for “Address It,” Poody peppered in TikTok creators in homage of the song’s story.
While it seems like a no-brainer that a platform like TikTok would find its audience under any circumstances, the spring-summer coronavirus pandemic has given it even greater appeal. In March, Tyga, who is a TikTok champion with 7.3 million followers, dropped a TikTok video for “Bored in the House,” his song with TikTok creator Curtis Roach. The video creation was quarantine-themed, and soon after, users were offering their own quarantine tales using the song as the vessel, averaging thousands of video creations a month during quarantine.
Much of the success of Megan’s “Savage” on TikTok was also attached to the quarantine, which J. White feels added a layer of positivity to such a negative time. “During our pandemic, we actually brought people together,” he expresses. “In such a dark moment, ‘Savage’ became a light. It was a good energy at a time when we needed it.”
Really, that’s become TikTok’s ethos. While the app has arguably become the latest breeding ground for talent—Quinteros says A&R representatives at labels are constantly requesting intel on TikTok’s musical trendsetters—there is still something very organic about it all. “It’s not like you can go on TikTok and be like, ‘Hey, do this challenge and help my song get to No. 1,’” she explains. “It never works; it’s too contrived. But if you’re on there having fun, users get to know you and love your content, so, when your song comes out, they’ll support it.” Straight to the charts.
Check out more from XXL magazine’s Fall 2020 issue including our 2020 XXL Freshman Class interviews with NLE Choppa, Polo G, Chika, Baby Keem, Mulatto, Jack Harlow, Rod Wave, Lil Tjay, Calboy, Fivio Foreign, Lil Keed and 24kGoldn, a Hip-Hop Junkie conversation with Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, read one of Pop Smoke's final interviews, the making of Young Jeezy's classic album, Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, find out what's going on with T.I.'s upcoming album and movie roles, take a look at where the 2019 XXL Freshman Class is at now, dive into social justice organization Until Freedom's politically charged and much-needed conversation with the 2020 XXL Freshman Class and more.
See the 2020 XXL Freshman Class