'Black Beatles': Inside Rae Sremmurd's Unlikely Smash

'Black Beatles': Inside Rae Sremmurd's Unlikely Smash

by Brittany Spanos | January 5th, 2017 11:46:AM EST

Last June, Rae Sremmurd had only two days left to hand in their second album, which the hip-hop duo hoped would build on the success of their exuberant 2015 debut, SremmLife. But they needed a hit – the two singles they released early in 2016 failed to catch fire. That's when their producer Mike Will Made It called a last-minute meeting to play them some new beats. One stuck out: a mellow, mechanical bass stutter that inspired the duo's main creative force, 23-year-old Swae Lee, to write about "living the rock-star lifestyle." That night, he hit on a theme: "Black Beatles." "It was a dope phrase," says Lee. "I've always loved John Lennon's swag – I like his glasses."

It worked. At press time, "Black Beatles" was perched at Number One on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 – a position it has held for seven non-consecutive weeks since November – while its rowdy video (in which Sremmurd play guitars on a roof, suggesting the Beatles' '69 farewell concert) had earned more than 290 million YouTube streams. "I'm not sick of it yet," says Zane Lowe, who plays the song often on Beats 1. "There's a hook every five seconds. One of the craziest things about that record is how strange it is. It's really inclusive, it references old geezers and all sorts of mad reference points. It's quite psychedelic. It's a really odd record."

Since forming in 2013, Sremmurd – brothers Khalif "Swae Lee" and Aaquil "Slim Jxmmi" Brown – have been aiming to make music that's, as Lee has said, "acceptable, but weird as fuck." The Brown brothers grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, before moving out as teenagers and into a duplex, hosting huge parties where they showed off their music. In 2011, they became Dem Outta St8 Boyz, making it as far as a talent competition on BET. Later they moved to Atlanta and caught the attention of Mike Will Made It, who'd recently produced much of Miley Cyrus' Bangerz. He signed them to his label, EarDrummers, which the brothers renamed themselves after (read their name backward). Will produced 2015's SremmLife, whose title doubled as a philosophy: "the good life, the family, safe sex and paychecks," Lee has said. Will told Rolling Stone at the time, "I look at them like a hood 'NSync."

"It's rare that you get double acts anymore," says Lowe. "I really liked their chemistry. It was youthful, but had a musical maturity." While producing "Black Beatles," Will recruited friend Gucci Mane, who recorded a verse after he was released from prison following a stint on a gun charge. "Gucci said, 'Man, this shit a banger. I'm gonna hop on it,'" Will has said.

The song took off this past fall after Florida high school students invented a viral phenomenon, the Mannequin Challenge, when they posed, frozen, for a YouTube video. "Black Beatles" would become the challenge's unofficial soundtrack – even Paul McCartney released a video of himself standing motionless as the song played.

"When you've reached a Beatle, it's the ultimate co-sign," says Lee. Though Sremmurd don't claim to be Beatlemaniacs, they had an encouraging meeting with McCartney at Coachella in 2014. "He didn't even know us, but he was just talking to us," says Lee. "I guess it was our aura."

Lee says Sremmurd are already in the studio working on "new bangers": "We broke into the pop world, out of the hip-hop world. I think all those hits before this built our fans up for this bomb to drop."

Topics: Rae Sremmurd
Rolling Stone