Soulja Boy is somehow only 25. That’s barely old enough to rent a Bentley, but he’s been driving them since he had a license.
It’s been nine years since “Crank That” created the template for DIY Internet rap stardom and the modern viral dance phenomenon. That’s the distance between the rise of Run-D.M.C. and Wu-Tang — several generations in rap time.
With a single YouTube video, the then-17-year-old Soulja Boy altered the concept of the Superman in a way matched only by Nietzsche and DC Comics. DeAndre Way sold millions of ringtones, spent nearly two months atop Billboard’s Hot 100 and inspired innumerable ’90s babies to start making music on their laptops.
Interscope and Collipark Music helped propel the high school senior to stardom, but it all stemmed from a song produced and written in his bedroom and uploaded to MySpace. Though many initially derided him as a one-hit wonder, his legacy is secure at an age before many legends even dropped their debut albums.
“I was the first rapper to get signed strictly off the Internet, the first to sell millions of copies of music that I’d already uploaded for free,” Soulja Boy says, shortly before a studio session in L.A. Over the last several years, he’s split time between a local house and a condo in Atlanta. He films episodes of Love & Hip-Hop in L.A., and notes that it’s easier to stay out of trouble here.
“I have major label meetings and they tell me that the blueprint for new artists is the one I wrote,” Soulja Boy continues. “They need to be heavy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. When I came out nobody was doing YouTube videos or video blogs; now everyone does.”
What we recognize as modern marketing 101 was once a radical innovation. As a teenager, Soulja Boy intuitively understood what major labels pay millions to decipher. Even if some critics initially dismissed him, his peers immediately recognized the achievement.
That’s partly why he was an ideal choice to headline this Saturday's Nature World Night Out Fest at Union, alongside Antwon, Trash Talk, the Wedidit crew and other celebrated DIY rap, punk and beat producers. Even though Soulja Boy spent years on a major label, he always moved like an independent artist — albeit one with the opulent tastes of a Moscow oligarch.
When Lil B and Riff Raff were still semi-obscure, Soulja Boy was one of the first to reach out to collaborate. Drake paid homage by transforming a late 2013 Soulja Boy mixtape cut into the anthem “We Made It.” Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne rapped over Soulja Boy beats, too. More recently, he’s recorded with Migos and Lil Yachty, one of Atlanta’s fastest-rising rappers, who personally reached out.
“I don’t really care about the credit — the credit was the money,” Soulja Boy says. “If I didn’t get paid I’d be bitter, but they gave me millions. Whether people admit it or I get awards, the fans know … the new artists know.”
Most recently, he dropped his latest mixtape, King Soulja 5, and he plans an official album later this year. He mentions that his most recent spark came from watching the movie Steve Jobs — specifically how Apple’s founder constantly reinvented himself, beat Bill Gates and made billions using technology to shape the world.
“It’s all about being creative. Anyone can do anything now,” Soulja Boy says. “All you have to do is go to your computer, Google ‘FL Studio’ and download it. Even if you’re a 9- or 10-year-old, you can make a dope-ass beat. All you need to do is put time into it. That’s what inspires me — those tools that help you get to the next level.”
Soulja Boy headlines the Nature World Night Out Fest Saturday, Feb. 27, at Union Nightclub. Tickets and more info.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.