Six Degrees of Aunt Jackie

A Harlem dance goes viral.

About six months ago, a Harlem-based record producer and rapper, Jason Fox, uploaded a video for a song called “Aunt Jackie” to his MySpace page. It’s a terrifically catchy track, with stabbing synthesizer crescendos and the sort of click-clacking drum machine beat scientifically proved to induce an early-’80s nostalgia trip. Fox makes no bones about his old-school leanings. In the song’s chorus, he raps: “I got the feeling when I’m chilling with my Aunt Jackie/ The type of music when you used to make your aunt happy/ The type of sound these young’uns don’t know/ It’s a new rap music with an old-school flow.” The sentiment might be have sounded patronizing delivered by an actual old person, but it’s charming coming from Fox who, technically speaking, is a “young’un” himself.

As for the “Aunt Jackie” video: It looked like crud. The picture was grainy, the camera work herky-jerky, the song only half-audible through a sludgy background din. But the spectacle of Fox and his crew, the Hood Presidents, rapping, clowning, and dancing on a Harlem sidewalk beneath a movie marquee was impossible to resist: The homemade aesthetic only enhanced the mood of youthful exuberance run delightfully amok, the feeling of being teleported back to hip-hop’s hardscrabble good old days. In the ensuing months, the “Aunt Jackie” video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on MySpace and YouTube, steamrolling into a viral hit. “Song of the year, this just might be,” Fox raps. He just might be right.

For New York partisans, “Aunt Jackie” has special appeal. New York rap has been slumping for a decade at least. The hip-hop industrial complex is still New York-based—the city is home to rap moguls and superstar MCs—but the musical zeitgeist long ago shifted to feisty regional scenes in points south and west. “Aunt Jackie” carries the hope of a rejuvenated New York grass roots; the New York it inhabits it feels a lot more like Atlanta or Houston or Oakland than the gilded city of Jay-Z and P. Diddy. In fact, “Aunt Jackie” has already inspired at least one spirited old-style New York beef. Two weeks ago, a new video by a baby-faced Bronx rapper called Spades (and a few of his baby-faced friends) popped up on YouTube under the title “Aunt Jackie Diss.” (A note on the YouTube page explains: “Don’t be alarmed… This beef is legitimate. NO HATING HERE! WE KNOW THEM.”) The song taunts Fox for biting the rapper Cassidy, features an eerily perfect impersonation of the mush-mouthed rapping style of Hood Presidents’ Audi Rob, and concludes: “HP not doing it/ One turn/ One shot/ It’s a one-hit wonder.” The truth is, neither crew’s skills are anything to write home about. But there’s something heartwarming about these two groups of junior MCs squaring off in raggedy homemade videos. It’s enough to put a sentimental old fart in mind of the Roxanne Wars of his youth.

As the months have passed and the YouTube views have piled up, it’s become clear that the “Aunt Jackie” phenomenon is only peripherally about “Aunt Jackie” the song. It’s really about “Aunt Jackie” the dance. I’m fuzzy on the chicken-and-egg issue here. The original “Aunt Jackie” video begins with a kid addressing the camera: “They call this dance the ‘Aunt Jackie.’ Now, I don’t know what the fuck the ‘Aunt Jackie’ is.” Can we infer from this that the “Aunt Jackie” dance was invented by Fox and his Hood Presidents crew, and was unveiled for the first time in the video? Or is the opposite true: Is the “Aunt Jackie” song merely a celebration of a pre-existing dance? I will leave this question to folklorists, and simply note that, whatever its provenance, the “Aunt Jackie” was certainly popularized by Fox and his pals, and is, thanks to YouTube, rapidly moving toward mainstream ubiquity—come December, drunken middle managers will be doing the “Aunt Jackie” at corporate Christmas parties a long way from Harlem.

It’s a simple little dance. In the main move, the dancer clasps his hands in front of him, jerking his arms back to his chest and thrusting them out again, while executing a nifty little jump and shuffle step. A secondary step, my personal favorite, involves a kind of exaggerated slow-motion treadmill run, sometimes capped by a spinning half-pirouette. In short, the “Aunt Jackie” is ridiculous—sublimely ridiculous. Tap the words “Aunt Jackie” into the search field on YouTube and you can see dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of young dancers, strutting their moves for the camera: There’s the Parking Lot Aunt Jackie. The Street Corner Aunt Jackie. The Times Square Aunt Jackie. The Windswept Asphalt Aunt Jackie. The Living Room Aunt Jackie. The Dorm Room Aunt Jackie. The Dorm Corridor Aunt Jackie (with bonus cameo by a white kid, doing the worm). The Ironic, Self-Deprecating Aunt Jackie. And, of course, the Aunt Jackie (Corporate Remix)—the “Aunt Jackie” meets Dilbert.

From this onslaught of Aunt Jackie-ing at least one conclusion can safely be drawn. Whatever repercussions the rise of online video has for music and the music business, it’s doing wonders for dancers. One can’t help but suspect that we are entering a new dance craze golden age, in which the emphasis will be laid firmly on the dancing in dance music. Regional steps and styles, zapped across the world via the internet, will compete for global predominance. There are certainly signs, as in the heyday of b-boying, that dancing is once again moving to the forefront of hip-hop alongside beats and rhymes. In the past year, we’ve seen hits championing regional dance, from Cherish’s “Do It to It” to Lil Boosie’s “Do tha Ratchet” to Unk’s “Walk It Out.” And of, course, there was last year’s Harlem-bred dance craze, “Chicken Noodle Soup,” which Fox and the Hood Presidents invoke in “Aunt Jackie,” and which many of the YouTube “Aunt Jackie” hoofers work into their routines, in a kind of Harlem-centric dance mashup. MTV has jumped on the trend, launching a doofy how-to show called “Dances From Tha Hood.” Sure enough, they’ve already broadcast a primer on the “Aunt Jackie.” It looks incredibly corny after watching all the ebullient freestyle hoofers on YouTube—but it may just come in handy as an instructional video for certain rhythmically challenged pop critics.

And what of Jason Fox and his upstart rap crew? They were scooped up by Atlanta superproducer/mogul Jermaine Dupri, for his new Island Urban label. In astatement announcing Fox’s signing, Dupri said: “I think were seeing the life of hip-hop coming back with songs like ‘Aunt Jackie.’ It’s the kids acting like kids used to act when I was growing up, and I love it because, to me, hip-hop has been too cool for school lately.” True enough—but will Jason Fox still be acting like a kid in six months, once he has a diamond studded Rolex and a seat in every VIP room in town? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, “Aunt Jackie” is finally available on iTunes, and there’s a new high-gloss “official” Aunt Jackie video on the Web. It definitely doesn’t have the ragamuffin charm of the one that went up six months ago. But it features lots of cute Harlem kids dancing—and this time you can actually hear the song.