American DJ and producer Baauer had been recording music on his own since as early as 2002. He recorded Harlem Shake in 2012 in his bedroom studio, then uploaded it on his SoundCloud page. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Baauer explained that his original intention was to “just make it the most stand-out, flashy track that would get anyone’s attention, so [I] put as many sounds and weird shit in there as I could.” He also described the musical direction of the song as “taking a Dutch house squeaky-high synth and putting it over a hip-hop track”. This resulted in what The Fader classified as trap music, “a style of production similar to mainstream EDM, which mixes dubstep drops with rap’s artillery fire drum programming”.
However, the song only gained worldwide success later due to a YouTube trend. The videos would be 30-seconds long spoofs set to the song and eventually reached over 3.000 in number. This led Billboard to call the trend “the biggest viral sensation since PSY’s Gangnam Style”. Despite the name and the dancing theme of the videos, Baauer’s song has nothing to do with the actual Harlem shake, a dance style introduced in the 1980s.
Pitchfork attributed the song’s worldwide appeal to its “type of menacing, world-smashing bassline”. Los Angeles Times felt it had more to do with its “convergence of hip-hop, dance and rock”. On the other hand, both Resident Advisor and The New York Times stated that Harlem Shake eventually is nothing more than a novelty song.
Harlem Shake spent 5 consecutive weeks at number one in Billboard Top 100 before being dethroned by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Thrift Shop (featuring Wanz).