Douglas Martin teaches the weekly Harlem Shake class at his local dance studio.
In 2001, it was pretty safe to say the once-golden name of Bad Boy was looking tarnished. Biggie Smalls, the label’s main draw—and the greatest rapper in the world—had been dead four years. Ma$e found greener pastures on the grassy knoll of Christianity. The Lox threw their shiny suits in a garbage fire, actively campaigned to be released from the label, and spent a healthy portion of their debut for Ruff Ryders throwing shots at Puff. (Including but not limited to the Madd Rapper-esque comedic brilliance of their Diddy-inspired persona, called “J. Jerkin’ Niggas.”) Bad Boy’s R&B division consistently delivered gold and platinum records, but it was at a time when most artists with major-label backing could record 55 minutes of sneezing and receive an RIAA plaque.
The personal woes of Sean Combs cannot be understated during these tumultuous times as well. There was “Come With Me,” the massive-but-abortive “Kasmir”-sampling tune from the Godzilla soundtrack (a creative failure too great to omit from this analysis), because apparently Jimmy Page wanted to buy one of those aquariums from the “Hypnotize” video. A year later, Puff appeared in the opulent, dramatic video for Nas’ “Hate Me Now,” which resulted in thorny issues regarding religion and a second-degree assault charge.
1999 was the year Puff’s second solo album dropped. Forever was as ambitious as 1997’s No Way Out—probably even more so—but crumbled under its own heavy weight without the strong talent on hand for his first go-round. There were memorable guest turns (during the peak era of posse cuts, “Reverse” is surprisingly enjoyable), and the parts not including Combs on “I Hear Voices” are still masterful almost two decades later. But Forever was mostly the work of a svengali who was finally convinced he was the star. Imagine if all those Top 40 bangers written by Max Martin and released during the time period we’re referencing here were performed by him too.
All of this to say little of the gargantuan media clusterfuck of Puff’s gun trial, where he would bribe his driver, throw labelmate (and noted Biggie soundalike) Shyne under the bus by hiring him a legal team separate from his own, and end up getting dumped by his famous girlfriend. The latter scenario would lead to his biggest solo (er, solo-ish) hit in years, but that’s a discussion for another time. Scattered during this time were very good singles from Shyne, a major hit from Black Rob rivaling only “Bling Bling” in its main colloquialism’s ubiquity in the ranks of middle-aged white people, and a breath of levity in the singles on The Saga Continues.
One of the songs from the latter featured Combs (at this time, known as P. Diddy), Black Rob, and a young, headband-sporting showstealer who was already on fish and spaghetti before the plate showed up in the video. The song was “Let’s Get It,” flipping a sample of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” at that point one of the most-flipped samples ever in hip-hop. Perhaps the smallest success charts-wise of the fun-run which would lead to a slight-but-well-needed uptick in Bad Boy’s diminished influence, “Let’s Get It” would lead to one of the sterling singles in the label’s embattled mid-period.
Where were you the first time you tried the Harlem Shake? Was it while watching the video for “Let’s Get It” for the umpteenth time on BET? Were you actually from Harlem and were doing it when it was still called the Albee? Did you miss the boat and not get it until it was co-opted by meme culture, or the Bauuer song, or the sorta bland indie-rock group?
(Truth is, you’re probably not reading about a 15-year-old G. Dep song if one of the latter choices was actually how you came into it.)
It’s not easy to forget the video for “Special Delivery” if you’ve sat through it more than once during its heavy rotation cycle in 2001. It starts with an increasingly impatient kid standing in torrential downpour, wearing a red tall tee with the words “G DEP” screenprinted on. I was going to make a joke about tall tees being a relic of the early-2000s, but we all have a calendar year’s worth of Yeezy Seasons and fashion designer John Elliott to thank for its resurgence, but I digress.
This cinematic video also features Black Rob narrowly avoiding numerous traffic violations, Diddy showing all the telltale signs of having a stroke (while trying hard not to make another of his artists the #2 in their own video), a bunch of cartoony sound effects I don’t remember being there, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Craig Mack cameo, and a presumably expensive Bad Boy mock-up of the FedEx logo. Spoiler alert (in case you were dying to know what happens at the end of a video that has existed for most of your life and don’t want anyone to ruin it for you): The kid gets his package at 6:58 the next morning.
The video for “Special Delivery” also features young people who can actually dance doing the Harlem Shake, something rarely experienced in the wild. For the most part, casual dance interpretations of the move exclusively involve moving one’s shoulders and arms like they’re made of Jell-O, or shaking your fists like you’re doing the Cha-Cha and trying to play a prank on your buddy with Pepsi cans.
As for the song itself? It’s a slam dunk, even after all these years. The beat is so danceable in its simplicity it’s pretty much inimitable, though not from lack of trying from homebound beat makers looking to get put on in the earliest parts of this century. The hook bookmarks the verses in a way you’d use a receipt or a Post-It note to keep your place in a novel, it serves its purpose in such a frivolous way, it’s hard not to get a little mad at yourself for needing it at all.
G. Dep’s verses are part and parcel to the song’s success. He’s not offering genre-defining depth, mind-bending wordplay, or an eternally memorable turn of phrase, but the kind of writing good enough for a single designed for people to perform the Harlem Shake and other poor renditions of popular dances in the service of having fun. His arrangement of rhyming syllables are deft, and his quiet confidence makes his discarded packs of Phillies and cartons of Good Humor sound all the more enjoyable.
Like many found in the music industry, a set of mechanical hands designed to wring artists of their talent for all its worth and discard them, G. Dep’s story doesn’t exactly contain a happy ending. A cursory Google search will yield a mass of results related to his struggles with drug addiction and his confession to a 1993 armed robbery which led to him being convicted of second-degree murder in 2011. Footage from a prison interview turn up on YouTube as frequently as the videos for the songs which made him famous. Bad Boy never ascended to the heights the label forged a perch on before the struggles which led to Dep’s short time as one of its marquee artists, though they are still enjoying a good run with the recent 25th Anniversary celebration tour and box set.
Most of us who participate in art do so in order to create something bigger than us, something that will last long past we do. “Special Delivery” never became another in Bad Boy’s long line of industry-crushing hit singles. Praising it at its most hyperbolic, it was a minor hit at best. But as evidenced from a recent scene on Action Bronson’s popular food and travel series Fuck, That’s Delicious (and the flagrantly under-documented life of yours truly), sometimes you just have to find a good spot somewhere with a lot of space, turn your car stereo up to tortuous volumes, leave the car door open, press play on “Special Delivery,” and approximate the Harlem Shake in the parking lot.
Some songs were designed to shake up the world, and others were just meant to put smiles on faces every time it comes on.