Inside Atlanta's Booming Hip-Hop Dance Scene

Kids with the right moves are racking up huge YouTube views, but where's their future?

At a Chick-Fil-A in Lithonia, 25 minutes east of Atlanta, Benny "King Imprint" Muyumba is sipping a lemonade. It’s late afternoon and school is out. Nearby, kids dart between tables and study sessions.

They don't seem to recognize the 18-year-old sitting at the booth, but it's a fair bet that they would if they saw him move: Muyumba is a dancer and filmmaker with more than half a million YouTube subscribers and a cumulative 169 million views for the videos he's uploaded there. Atlanta is a city with three major rap radio stations, but for kids who care, Muyumba’s channel is the way to stay up on the latest dance moves and hits. "King Imprint" is the now.

Muyumba and his brother started making videos using his laptop camera and posting them on YouTube when he was in the eighth grade. That trial-and-error phase can deter many young hobbyists, but Muyumba – who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has lived with his family in Atlanta suburbs since 2006 – kept at it, and soon he got a real camera of his own. "I was trying to record comedy videos as well as dance videos," Muyumba says, bashfully. "It just did not go well at all."

As Muyumba progressed, he began adapting to newer Atlanta dances and trends using with his DIY filming techniques, finding traction — a July 2014 video of him doing Bobby Shmurda’s "Shmoney Dance," which drew over 50,000 views. His real breakthrough came later that summer, when he posted a video of him and his brother doing the "Whip Dance" to DJ Carnage’s "Bricks." The Whip was brand-new, and Muyumba's video became one of its top search results, eventually garnering 17 million YouTube views. Clearly, Muyumba had tapped into something.

Though Muyumba was able to achieve quite a bit on his own, the particular types of moves that filled his videos can be traced back to another group of young Atlanta talents: We Are Toonz. The quartet of dancers and rappers inspired much the dancing that populates Muyumba’s YouTube channel via a simple dance called the "Nae Nae," which almost single-handedly revitalized Atlanta's dance scene in 2013, and went on to become a national phenomenon. Before dance videos made that kind of overnight rise possible, regional musicians largely depended on Atlanta's legendary strip club circuit and its DJs to catch a break. After the Nae Nae, that system seemed slow, outdated, elusive: Young Thug's "Stoner" blew up in large part because fans used it to soundtrack Nae Nae videos. And all Toonz needed to change the game was some free time between classes and a smartphone.

"The Nae Nae is the next [evolution] from the 'Crank That' era," says Christopher "Crash Bandit" Major. Northwest of downtown Atlanta, We Are Toonz — Major, Kavin "K.B." Bing-Gardner, Tavin "Levi" Bing-Gardner, and Calvin Larmar "Callamar" Glass — are lounging in the back of Billboard Studios enjoying a Chick-Fil-A meal of their own. They've just returned from a Japanese tour, and are still reckoning with the fact that a little dance they made in high school now propels them around the world. "It was based off a skit in mocking the ratchet girl in the club, and we put a snap with it," adds Levi Bing-Gardner. The basic move is a simple one: Dancers jump up with knees bent and wave a hand in the air, which helps explain how quickly it gained traction after Toonz posted an Instagram video in 2013 in which they performed the nae nae in a circle, accompanied with plenty of "hooooo-ahhhhh" ad-libs. Once they put it on YouTube in the fall, the Nae Nae went global.

The Nae Nae differed from earlier Atlanta dances because of its "four count." Coined by Toonz, the style of dance is built around a four-measure musical structure, which provides freedom for a dancer to freestyle, then return in place on the fourth beat with a Nae Nae or "Hit Dem Folk" move, which involves throwing back one’s arms and fists in the air. "You're building up the hype for that last move," says Levi Bing-Gardner. "Whatever you’re doing, whatever your move is, you're trying to make it a big move and capture the biggest reaction from the crowd."

In November 2013, We Are Toonz kept the Nae Nae's momentum going by creating their own song ("Drop That Nae Nae"). It was hardly necessary, though – their style had already taken on a life of its own, spawning countless other dance videos inspired by it, including the "Drop" (Freco & Merlo), the "Hit Dem Folks" (DeeJay2Hunna, Lil DyDy), the "Whip Dance" (FamousToMost), and the "Yeet." (Lil Meatball) Each iteration offered a mutation, evidence of a palpable, sudden genesis of moves happening beyond Atlanta’s high schools: The Yeet originated with a video of a middle-school boy in Dallas, and the Hit Dem Folks came out of Columbus, Georgia. All fit the four count pattern, insuring their adaptability. A year later, dance videos from Atlanta had a vastly expanded vocabulary of moves; what was a singular dance just a year prior was now a growing movement for the city and beyond.

For Nosakhere "Mr. 2-17" Andrews, the rise of the Nae Nae and all the rest felt like déjà vu. "If we [had] Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat back when 'lean wit, rock wit' was around, man, you already would’ve known what would’ve happened," he says, sitting in an American Deli in Atlanta's Zone 6 – his neighborhood, and home to Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman. Though Andrews is only 21, he knows how fast Atlanta trends can move: He's been making music, filming himself, and rapping since middle school in the late 2000s. It was a boom time for Atlanta rap, as crunk (Lil Jon), trap (T.I., Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane), and snap (Dem Franchize Boyz, D4L) combined to renew the city's status as the Southern music capital. New dances were multiplying, too, as the "Lean Wit Rock Wit," the "Pool Palace," the "Whoop Rico," and variations on Soulja Boy’s vastly influential "Crank That" (the "Batman," the "Roosevelt," the "Yank") went from Atlanta to the world.

Andrews's earliest videos – homemade, goofy clips where you can see him hanging out or rocking out to his own music in a tall tee – are still hosted on his YouTube page. "I used to document my life, having fun," Andrews says. That act of constant digital recording has preserved his era of Atlanta youth culture for those too young or too far away to experience it firsthand: His YouTube page features videos of him and his friends doing the "Whoop Rico," a video for his proto–Nae Nae song "#RunItUp," and studio footage of him producing 2 Chainz’s minor 2015 hit "El Chapo Jr." Even with more successs and attention in his direction, Andrews's YouTube channel remains a document of his his near-decade growth as a producer, rapper, and video director.

The biggest influence on Andrews's approach to media is Soulja Boy, who kept cameras rolling in the wake of his "Crank That" fame, providing a template for young black kids to invest in their own ingenuity and creativity, and their own community of fans. This formula has worked for rappers like Lil B and Chief Keef, as well as dancers like Muyumba – allowing the world a window into their work and personalities, and documenting them as origin points of American youth culture.

On an unseasonably warm late January night, a group called ThaKrew are gathered on an empty suburban street a few minutes south of downtown Atlanta. Their videographer, Jason Linder, lives nearby, and they've just emerged from his home to shoot a video here. Distorted trap beats start playing from a small portable speaker, and the trio of dancers – Jordan "Hotspot" Brown, Daquan "Yvngquan" High, and Myles "Kingcinco" Autry – quickly get into a groove.

ThaKrew, who attended the same North Atlanta high school as Muyumba before he moved out east, came to prominence during the original wave of the Nae Nae in 2013. They owe their fame largely to a small tweak they made to the dance: Brown switched up the Nae Nae's ad lib from "hooo-aaahh" to a guttural, yelping "yeeaaah," which was easier for people to yell in unison and became the standard phrase used for four count dances. ThaKrew have gone on to make original music ("Krew-libs") and their own dance (#KrewSlide"), cameo in videos with rappers like K Camp, and collaborate frequently with the beloved local dancer SheLovesMeechie. They're a group that revels in the creative freedom of Atlanta's scene, constantly trying new ideas to see how far they can push.

Tonight, they're dancing to mixtape hits from Atlanta rap stars Future and YFN Lucci. Shivering, with their hands jammed into their pockets between takes, they break down takes of the Hit Dem Folks under a streetlight. When a car passes, Brown works with it, improvising alongside someone’s mom in a Corolla, waving his hands like an orchestra conductor. The rolling bass of Future's "Wicked" forms the backbone of their routine, the trio reacting and shifting along with the beat. The violence in the lyrics melts away once ThaKrew start to move: When they dance, there is nothing but positive energy.

The types of videos created by ThaKrew and Muyumba — though receiving thousands of views — remained a relatively local phenomenon until late 2014. The game changer? Richard "Silento" Hawk. By July 2015, the 18-year-old from Atlanta was riding high at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart with "Watch Me," featuring a devastatingly simple hook – "Watch me Whip / Watch me Nae Nae" – and lyrics that name-checked an assortment of older rap dances, including the Stanky Legg and the Crank That. Hawk's sly innovation was to extract the Whip and the Nae Nae from their four count dance origins and make them even easier, recontextualizing them as individual moves that nearly anyone could do.

Hawk's song grew organically on Vine at first, but it wouldn't have ballooned into a national smash single without viral dance companies such as TuneCore and DanceOn, who promoted it through professionally produced YouTube videos. One of those promotions, #WatchMeDanceOn, involved professional YouTube dancers recording and uploading video of themselves performing the dance with that particular hashtag in order to raise awareness of the song. The plan worked: Hawk’s own music video now has nearly 700 million views, and he's completed the cycle of becoming a living meme by appearing on Ellen, where he listened to Ellen Degeneres crack cringeworthy Sir Mix-A-Lot jokes and performed alongside a white father and daughter, whose own video of the dance also went viral.

Yet Hawk's overnight fame has already dissipated. His Chris Brown–lite singles "All About You" and "Think Its You" have not gotten anywhere near the same amount of traction as "Watch Me," in part because they abdicated the dance formula and aimed instead for a strong pop hook – a subtle admission that even if executed perfectly, it’s hard to repeat the elusive success of a dance phenomenon. Dance songs spread less because of the artist’s own charisma, and more because the dance is exciting, easy to learn, or fun to do. Eventually, they're powered by sheer ubiquity. If a video isn't hitting numbers, the smartest move is always to find a new song to dance to and upload another clip — a lesson that was well understood by the next dance song to take over the country after "Watch Me."

Northwest of Georgia, in Memphis, 22-year-old entertainer Richard "ILoveMemphis" Colbert decided in 2014 to try and capitalize on the social media–driven teen dance trend. His early songs, like "Google Me" and "#ChopItUp," were naked attempts to follow the success of the Nae Nae and all that came in its wake. None of these songs broke out on a national stage, but they got him some local buzz and established him on Instagram and YouTube. Colbert found a crucial moment of inspiration after seeing people doing the Quan – a dance originating in a YouTube clip that shows Rich Homie Quan executing a loose sashay across a Tampa, Florida, stage last January. The Quan is easy and fun to imitate, and an insightful friend suggested that Colbert write a song to go with it. Thus was born his Top 40 single "Hit the Quan," the spiritual sequel to "Watch Me."

Colbert pushed the song to success by starting the #Hitthequanchallenge on social media, inspiring thousands of fans to dance to his song on Instagram and Vine. On YouTube, at least, the clear winner was Muyumba. "I was like, 'Let’s hit a video to that, show the love,’" says Muyumba, who had just gotten out of dance practice in early July 2015 and was itching to shoot a quick video for the buzzing song. "I got home and put the video together, and it wasn’t doing numbers like it did. Then, all of a sudden, something switched and it just started up – a million, 2 million, 5 million, 10 million."

Today Muyumba's "Hit the Quan" clip has more than 60 million views on YouTube, over three times as many as Colbert’s original video (roughly 20 million). This worked out well for Colbert, as did all the other, less successful dance videos set to "Hit the Quan": Each #Hitthequanchallenge and subsequent view went into boosting awareness of his song, which eventually got him a platinum single and, naturally, an Ellen appearance. Muyumba has no issue with his work fueling Colbert’s renown; Rich Homie Quan himself – whose recognizable name and distinctive onstage dance made Colbert's song possible – says he has no issue with what these younger artists have made. "If I can inspire anybody to even make a song or get some money your own way, do it," explains Quan. "I salute him. [He] don’t owe me anything."

Muyumba may have the most YouTube subscribers, ThaKrew and We Are Toonz are innovators and founders, and Colbert and Hawk have the chart hits. But the Atlanta dance community’s truest star is SheLovesMeechie. The 20-year-old dancer, who is currently on tour with Rae Sremmurd and danced in Future’s "Fuck Up Some Commas" video, presents himself with a swagger that many other dancers humbly hide. Where others attempt to keep a slightly more PG image to their dance and music, Meechie has no such qualms, and his social media existence is full of partying, smoking, and antics.

Meechie currently has more than 600,000 followers on Vine; it’s the medium where his hyperactive dance moves and personality shine best. His YouTube channel, meanwhile, went down last year in response to copyright claims over the music he danced to. (Muyumba says he faced a similar issue a couple of years ago.) Meechie's manager, Ori Chitayat, blames the music industry: "It happens all of the time with dancers. They need songs to dance to, and they get big and the labels start seeing them generating hits and earning revenue from it."

But the music business can be good for dancers, too. Last year, the Atlanta management firm Street Execs, which handles 2 Chainz, Travis Porter, and Young Dolph, among others, sought out Meechie to help promote "Walked In," a single by its rising artist Bankroll Fresh. At the same time it serviced the song to blogs and radio, Street Execs seeded it with Meechie for dance videos. The gambit paid off: The song, which was produced by Atlanta dance historian Andrews (check the "2-17 on the track" tag on the beat), became one of Fresh's biggest hits with over 4 million YouTube views. (Tragically, Bankroll Fresh was shot and killed outside a Street Execs studio early this month.)

Muyumba has made deals with artists, as well, accepting money for music that appears in his dance videos. He says the amount varies, but his rate generally starts at only a few hundred dollars. He and other dancers have to balance the goals of putting on music that they’re passionate about and pushing music that comes with money attached – and sometimes the songs that do best for are unexpected ones that he and his friends enjoy. "It’s so unpredictable," Muyumba says, laughing. "I could start a trend today."