Photo illustration by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
What's With the Sped-Up Rap Remix Boom?
From Cardi B to Lil Uzi Vert, TikTok is turning up the turntable speed on rap songs old and new. But where does the trend come from, and what does it say about modern music marketing?
Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s collaboration “Bongos” was a very big deal when it came out in September 2023. So it only makes sense that one step in the release was a special EP consisting solely of different versions of the single.
But mixed in with the clean version, dirty version, radio edit, and instrumental of “Bongos” was a track called “Bongos (feat. Megan Thee Stallion) - Sped Up.” Unlike the other versions, it was credited not just to Cardi and Meg, but to an additional strangely named artist: “sped up nightcore.” The track was exactly what you’d expect: the entirety of “Bongos,” but with the tempo and pitch sped up enough that the running time was cut by about twenty seconds.
But why would you speed up “Bongos” by 12 percent? And what exactly does “sped-up nightcore” mean?
Answering those questions takes us inside a trend that is dominating social media and gives us insight into what it takes to break a song today. Here’s a hint: take it fast.
Cardi and Meg aren’t the only rap and R&B artists putting out sped-up versions of their songs recently. Gunna’s “fukumean” received the same treatment, as did Rico Nasty’s “Pussy Poppin,” Lil Uzi Vert’s “Endless Fashion” and “Watch This,” SZA’s “Kill Bill,” Fat Trel’s “Nigga What,” A Boogie Wit da Hoodie’s “Timeless,” and plenty more.
This is happening for the same reason that pretty much everything else in the music business is happening these days: TikTok. Since before the app even had that name — dating back to its days as Musical.ly — speeding up songs to use them in the background of user-generated videos has been a favorite pastime of people on the app. You can check out a 2016 example using a Meghan Trainor song here.
“It was always a trend to do remixes back in the day,” says Southstar, a Berlin-based DJ who is responsible for a popular sped up remix of Oliver Tree’s “Jerk” that the DJ titled “Miss You.” “When YouTube started coming out, there also were pitched up versions of every song. I think that’s just something people like.”
There are predecessors to this, of course, dating back at least to a 1958 sped-up version of “Witch Doctor” by the guy who would go on to create Alvin & the Chipmunks — and, decades later, the sped-up “chipmunk soul” samples of rap producers like Just Blaze and Ye. But the real precursor to this current wave is the obscure early 2000s Norwegian duo Nightcore. They created extremely fast techo tracks. While the group only ever made a handful of songs before breaking up, their influence grew exponentially on the internet. Within a few years, fans were speeding up already existing songs, dubbing the results “nightcore remixes.” Nightcore moved from a band to an approach, or even a genre. The sped-up style became an influence on cutting-edge sounds like hyperpop.
This all set the stage for sped-up songs to begin finding popularity on social media, beginning in the mid-aughts. The trend slowly grew in popularity over the next few years, but began explosive growth just last year. A combination of the increased popularity of TikTok overall and the fact that it was much easier to use music in your videos than on YouTube, given the latter’s intense Content ID system, which constantly scans for copyrighted music, meant that users doing dances or other challenges, each set to a particular song, became the norm. That blended with the sped-up song trend. This is mostly because if a song is sped up, you can fit more lyrical and musical information in a short-form video, which is particularly important if you are, for example, doing a dance trend where you perform a particular move every time a certain word comes up.
More and more TikTok users began creating and sharing their own sped-up remixes on the app and elsewhere, sometimes gaining millions of followers in the process. One of them is Malaysian DJ Jovynn, who has 10.8 million followers on TikTok as of this writing. She discovered the sped-up remix trend on TikTok in late 2022.
“There were so many of them made,” Jovynn tells Okayplayer via email. “Sped-up tracks started picking up quickly into all viral sounds ever since the first viral hit.”
When she started making videos herself, the DJ noticed that speeding up songs helped all of the best parts of a track fit into the 15-20 second window ideal for making videos on the platform. It didn’t take long for her sped-up remixes (in which she often creates mashups of two disparate songs) to start doing big numbers.
“There are many creators on there that are in search of a new trending sound, and posting on the platform provides you with so much potential for your remixes to grow,” she writes.
The next step in the sped-up remix trend was for the remixes to move from short snippets on TikTok into full-length versions of the songs on streaming services.
The reasoning for this is simple, explains Jaclyn O’Connell, owner and artist manager at Bittersweet Media. They admit that listening to an entire song sped up, rather than just a short clip, is strange.
“I think that there's a case to be made that the sped-up version isn't always the version that's the most listenable,” O’Connell tells Okayplayer, before outlining why such a version exists.
“That sped-up version will take off, it'll go viral,” they say. “Everyone starts using it, it becomes a trend. What the labels and the artist teams then do is take that sped-up version and then they waterfall it underneath the original in a release on Spotify, Apple Music, on all DSPs, so when you look up the song or the song comes up for you, you're looking at the sped-up version.”
Sometimes labels will even change the title of a song to include the lyrics from a part of the song commonly excerpted on TikTok. Rico Nasty’s “Pussy Poppin,” for example, now is titled “Pussy Poppin (I Don’t Really Talk Like This),” presumably so people who only know the opening lyrics of the song via a trending TikTok video (a compilation of a few of them can be found here) can search for it.
O’Connell views all of this as a necessary evil. When promoting a song for one of their artists, they explain that their company “always [tries] to turn over every stone, and sped-up has become a part of those stones that we overturn. It gives you another opportunity to go back and market the song.”
This is necessary because, they continue, the life cycle of a song these days is extremely short (“unless you’re Doja Cat,” O’Connell laughs).
“As soon as a song is out or an album's out, people forget and it drops off a cliff,” they say. “So we're constantly trying to find creative and new ways to extend the life of those songs. Sped-up versions, slow versions, remixes, those are all part of that.”
But which sped-up remixes are actually going viral? Well, it can be hard to predict. Winners so far have included everyone from mid-'90s one-hit-wonder rappers to defunct indie-folk bands to pop superstars.
According to one expert, all of these songs have one thing in common.
“The algorithm and users who recreate [a] trend and share the remix both value content that draws emotion,” explains Ashley Hoffman of Secretly Distribution. “That’s a similar quality with a lot of the sped up or slowed down remixes that I've seen.” Slowed-down remixes, sometimes called “slowed & reverb,” is another TikTok-based trend — one that has its origins in Houston's chopped and screwed hip-hop.
Jaclyn O’Connell has a slightly different take.
“It's really about: Is there a cool beat, does it sound nice, and does it go with the content of the video?” they say. “Because at the end of the day, everybody just wants to be their own main character on TikTok. It’s not about the music at all.”
To bolster their point, O’Connell brings up a different viral example: the famous video of Nathan Apodaca skateboarding while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” That video brought “Dreams” back onto the charts.
“That [video] could have [used] any song with that kind of vibe,” says O’Connell. “It didn't matter that it was Fleetwood Mac. It didn't matter that it's this iconic song from this iconic band from a very specific time period. It has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with, does the song go with what my vibe is right now?”
Because the criteria are so vague, tons of artists are trying to make sped-up versions of their tracks serve as TikTok backdrops. And there are plenty of agencies that promise to help make this happen by serving as liaisons between music-makers and key influencers.
O’Connell is skeptical of this approach.
“I say this to my clients: if someone is coming to you and saying we can make your song go viral, they're full of shit,” they tell Okayplayer. “You cannot. If we all knew how to do that, then we would all be doing it, and it wouldn't be a special moment.”
Even if a miracle happens and a sped up remix ends up soundtracking countless videos of strange dances or funny filters, O’Connell says the end result won’t help an artist in the long term.
“Getting a sped up version to go viral is going to give you a couple of streams. It doesn't help you build a business. It doesn't help you build a career.”
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