The rise of "Harlem Shake" from niche hit to Billboard No. 1 super-meme has been delineated in any number of thinkpieces and Web 4.0 infographics, but the mystery of how Baauer would end up making money off a song that contained unlicensed samples has remained mostly unsolved.
Unsolved, that is, until Diplo cleared things up. During a lengthy and wide-ranging interview at the second weekend of Coachella, the Mad Decent label boss explained how he was able to help Baauer -- despite the fact that the young producer had signed an indemnity form that held him solely responsible for any intellectual property disputes that arose from "Harlem Shake."
"We didn't know there were any samples in the song to begin with," Diplo said. "But when it came to clear the samples -- because otherwise he would make negative money -- we wanted to help him out."
The line "do the Harlem Shake," arguably the most important sample in the song (and certainly in the cornucopia of viral videos that feature people losing their collective minds as soon as that vocal hits), is a sample from "Miller Time," a song by rap collective Plastic Little. "Jayson [Musson] was in a band called Plastic Little and he hit us up and said the album never got licensed or published, so we just cut a deal where he could make some money off that," Diplo explained.
"Harlem Shake" also has a Puerto Rican connection, as Hector Delgado (now an evangelical preacher) is the man behind the voice that says "con los terroristas" in the songs intro. Delgado also sought compensation. Cue Diplo: "The Puerto Rican guys, they kept calling me because I know everyone in Puerto Rico, so I just sorted that out. It wasn't even them, it was Universal Publishing."
Diplo says Mad Decent (and Jeffries, a sub-imprint which signs individual songs, as opposed to artists) passed on giving the record to Universal to distribute and went to Warner instead, a potential cause of added frustration for Universal. "But we had enough clout that we sorted it out," Diplo said. (In March, the New York Times reported that Universal was negotiating a settlement with Mad Decent, and Delgado's folks told Rolling Stone that Mad Decent was being "more than cooperative.")
Samples aside, "Harlem Shake" represented much more than a meme for Diplo. "Honestly, that record was the thing that saved the label, because a year ago we were going to fold because we couldn't figure out how to make money," he explained while sipping on a beer in front of Major Lazer's trailer at Coachella. "Then we just started giving music out for free and it worked out."
The evolution of "Harlem Shake" led some, including the Guardian, to ask if the song would end up "killing sampling." It seems the answer is a simple "no."
For more on Diplo, including his controversial thoughts on the electronic dance music world, how Major Lazer became a force in Caribbean culture and why he distrusts major labels, head over to our full interview.