In the 2½ years since Rae Sremmurd broke out with the rowdy hit single “No Flex Zone,” this Southern hip-hop duo has established itself as a reliable source of renewable energy.
Its two studio albums — 2015’s “SremmLife” and August’s “SremmLife 2” — are full of boisterous thrills, with brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy shouting sticky catchphrases over lurching beats. And the twentysomething rappers are even livelier in concert: Bouncing across the stage like each had inhaled a bag of Halloween candy, the two use those catchphrases to encourage their young fans to go wild (or turn up, as the saying goes).
Yet Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy had a different goal in mind Monday afternoon on the set of ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” and that was to go as un-wild as possible — to stand completely still while a guy with a camera weaved between them.
This, of course, was the Mannequin Challenge, the latest viral-video phenomenon after the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Harlem Shake. In this one, believed to have been started by a group of Florida high school students, participants are filmed frozen in place, in many instances as Rae Sremmurd’s song “Black Beatles” plays in the background.
Hillary Clinton took the challenge aboard her campaign plane. Rob Kardashian and pregnant Blac Chyna did it in a hospital delivery room. Even Paul McCartney joined the craze, tweeting a video that had him standing motionless with one hand on a piano. (“Love those Black Beatles,” the white Beatle wrote.)
Now, the Rae Sremmurd brothers were getting in on the act, posing silently with ESPN’s Neil Everett and Nicole Briscoe inside the network’s studio in downtown Los Angeles.
“Everybody turn down!” Swae Lee said, grinning as he flipped the duo’s usual instructions.
What does the Mannequin Challenge mean? And why has it become so popular? It’s the Internet, which is to say it’s anyone’s guess.
What’s clear, though, is that the meme has been a boon for Rae Sremmurd.
This week, “Black Beatles” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with 144,000 paid downloads and 43 million streams, according to Nielsen Music, bumping the Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” which had been atop the chart for 12 weeks. And that was before Nicki Minaj released a remix of “Black Beatles” early Tuesday called “Black Barbies.”
At a moment when listeners are discovering and sharing music in new ways, the success of “Black Beatles” demonstrates one of the unlikely paths a song can take to become a hit.
“It’s the social media era — you never know what’s gonna happen,” Swae Lee said before the “SportsCenter” taping as he and Slim Jimmy stood in a dressing room perfumed with marijuana. “If you make some good music, it might just—”
“It could even be some bad music,” interrupted his brother, who wore a robe made of yellow feathers. “If you have some little thing that can get people’s attention, it can go crazy.”
The rappers were quick to credit the kids in Florida for launching the Mannequin Challenge, which Swae Lee called “really creative.” He insisted that the use of “Black Beatles” in many videos was an “organic” development in which they had no hand.
“This was from the ground up,” he said.
“We’re not trying to make a song for no challenge,” added Slim Jimmy. Then Swae Lee — whose songwriting skills recently led him to co-create Beyoncé’s “Formation” — demonstrated what such a tune might sound like.
“Sticky Wall Challenge / Climb up the wall!” he rapped, clunkily.
“We ain’t doing that,” Slim Jimmy said.
Asked which Mannequin Challenge video was his favorite, Slim Jimmy said, “When Hillary Clinton did it, I knew it was going off. And Paul McCartney.”
“That was the ultimate co-sign,” Swae Lee said.
Both brothers described “Black Beatles’” reaching No. 1 as a validation, especially given the criticism they’ve received from rap purists who say the duo’s music is too lightweight.
“To all the haters, it’s like a slap in the face,” Swae Lee said, laughing. He singled out “the Instagram trolls” as a particularly vile bunch, which pointed up the fact that, for a pop star, the social media era — and the access it provides newly empowered fans — can cut both ways.
But that was a worry for another time. On Monday, the duo was thinking about moving by standing still.
“We’re about to do ‘SportsCenter,’ ” Slim Jimmy said. “Next it’ll be time for us to do it at the Super Bowl.”