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How Vine Changed Music

The video app transformed black youth culture in six seconds or less

On October 27, 2016, the last good thing about the internet was cut off. In a curt Medium post, the social video app Vine announced that it would be shutting down in the coming months. On Twitter — the much bigger company that bought Vine in 2012 for a reported $30 million — fans rushed to post their favorite six-second loops of cute children, happy accidents, teenage comedians, and whatever category Duck Army might fit into. Vine was a place where humor flourished, particularly humor from black youth. But the app’s longest-term legacy is a musical one. In the last four years, Vine has functioned as a springboard for countless modes of musical expression that might never have found their way to the public without it.

Vine rose up the app-store charts swiftly after its January 2013 public launch, but the platform lacked an immediate star. Enter TerRio, an eager first-grader from Riverdale, Georgia, who inadvertently became the first true Vine star and musical meme. The original TerRio Vines were amusing amateur videos that showed him dancing while someone off-camera held the phone and encouraged him. Maleek, the teenager doing the recording, and his catchphrase “Ooh, kill ’em!” became TerRio’s signature. Soon, internet fame befell TerRio, and the music world came calling.

Later that summer, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill released a song called "Ooh Kill ’Em" that sampled the best-known phrase from TerRio’s Vines. Not even a year old, the app had found a clear path to musical impact. That impact went beyond rap, as the phrase “Ooh, kill ’em” soon became prime fodder for the Jersey club scene. A hyperactive music style whose creators chopped up the most memorable parts of songs and pop-cultural ephemera now had an app that did half the work for them. Club producers in New Jersey, Baltimore, and Philly all saw their audience of young black kids gravitating toward Vine and began churning out remixes of popular Vines like “Bish Whet,” “A Potato Flew Around My Room,” “Do It for the Vine,” and many others. Far from its original purpose, Vine had created a perfect pipeline to funnel black youth culture into new musical contexts.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, young black artists were finding other intriguing ways to work within the app’s six-second parameters. The city’s often-vibrant dance scene had been stagnant for a few years before 2013, when a group called We Are Toonz created the Nae Nae. Inspired by the TV show Martin, the simple dance involved jumping out on bended knee with one arm in the air. The Nae Nae grew through Vine, and the songs that kids chose to accompany their Nae Nae rose in popularity right along with it. Young Thug’s “Stoner” was one of the early tracks that populated these Vine-powered videos, helping to jumpstart his career. We Are Toonz’s success in reviving Atlanta dance created a blueprint for acts like the Bay Area’s Sage The Gemini, who found viral success with his songs “Gas Pedal” and “Red Nose” on the strength of twerking Vines.

Many dancers eventually grew out of Vine’s six-second limit, but the app’s forecasting ability continued to sharpen. In late 2013, the Compton rapper YG released “My Nigga,” which quickly became a Vine favorite. The song’s hook, sung by Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan, repeated the song’s title phrase in a concise, catchy snippet that Viners dubbed over numerous unrelated videos. Long after the wave had crested, YG was left with a platinum single and a national profile. On the other side of the country, in early 2014, Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda released “Hot Nigga,” a fairly tough gangster rap song that happened to feature a brief, immensely Vine-able moment where he throws off his cap, performs a slight wine, and the shot cuts away before the cap falls back into frame. Immediately, dozens of Vines started popping up with Bobby dancing to other songs. “Hot Nigga” became a Top 10 hit, and Bobby Shmurda signed a major deal with Epic Records; as the year ended, though, he and his crew were arrested on multiple charges, ending their six seconds of fame. (Shmurda was sentenced this fall to seven years in prison after a plea deal.)

Halfway across the country in Chicago, the summer of “Hot Nigga” saw another young black talent experiencing the other side of Vine “success.” Kayla Newman, a.k.a. Peaches Monroee, coined the phrase “eyebrows on fleek” on Vine, only to see her creation appropriated by numerous national brands — introducing the teenager’s words into mainstream parlance and business models while leaving her uncredited and outside of the profit stream. MTV News’s Doreen St. Félix traced this arc for The Fader last year, observing just how little worth black people’s creativity was assigned by platforms like Vine (and, it would seem, by the laws of the United States).

If Bobby Shmurda signaled a tipping point for the app, Young Thug showed up once again to push it over the edge. Last year, he released the single “Best Friend,” borrowing liberally from Louisiana artist Tokyo Vanity’s Vine of her and her friend repeating the phrase “that’s my best friend.” While this drew some minor blowback, his use of Newman’s “on fleek” in the chorus of the same song went more or less unremarked. The fact that Thug — another highly talented young black creative who happens to be signed to a major label — found success with phrases originated by two black girls on Vine is a telling sign of the way the app ultimately treated its content creators. Those with an existing toehold in the corporate world could find monetary success through Vine — and they often deserved it — but outsiders could rarely do the same. Vine offered a clear window into so many forms of black expression, but its millions of views never promised a single dollar in return.

What made YG and Bobby Shmurda’s parallel success on Vine so thrilling at first is that both their songs, and the videos that repurposed them, were very outwardly black in a way that differed from the overly white nature of most social media environments. Upon hearing of Vine’s looming death, many people sought to find the single perfect video to sum up its importance. It’s a task that felt nigh impossible, but then I remembered a particular Vine of President Obama. The three-year-old clip shows the president shaking hands with a white staff member, then with NBA star Kevin Durant. The stiff white handshake is matched with tranquil backing music, but as the president turns toward Durant, YG’s “My Nigga” comes in, ringing out as the two black men clasp hands to embrace. The loop highlights layers of code switching and centuries of racial power dynamics — and the joy of hearing “My nigga, my nigga, my nigga” over an image of the president of the United States lasts far longer than six seconds.