Juvenile’s ‘Back That Azz Up,’ 20 years later
An homage to the greatest party anthem ever made
The truths about Terius “Juvenile” Gray’s “Back That Azz Up” are simple. Anyone between the ages of 20 and 55 has either a) thrown a twerk to this song; b) caught a twerk to this song; and/or c) carried with them fond twerk memories of Juvenile’s second and most popular single. The fact that America even knows what twerking is (and didn’t allow Miley Cyrus to drive a proverbial stake through its proverbial heart) is thanks to the bold brilliance of the black girls who (created it and who) swing it, and to Juvenile, Mannie Fresh and Lil Wayne.
The song is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary on Sunday.
And what people forget is that 400 Degreez, the album “Azz” is on, shifted the course of Down South hip-hop. Degreez doesn’t feature the Olympic display of lyricism and storytelling of, say, Outkast’s Aquemini, but Juvenile’s third solo project, drenched in New Orleans drawl, flavor, dialect and, at times, aggression, became the highest-selling album of 1998 with more than 4 million copies sold. 400 is Cash Money Records’ highest-selling project to date — topping even Lil Wayne’s landmark 2008 Tha Carter III. 400, along with Master P’s MP da Last Don, rank as the biggest-selling projects of any New Orleans artists in the past half-century.
The deep popularity of “Back That Azz Up” has origins that date to places such as a now-defunct skating rink in Petersburg, Virginia. Teen skate parties were where things went down back in the day.
If you were a black teenage boy in the mid-’90s and wanted to meet girls (as I was and did), you went skating. If you wanted a clublike atmosphere, you went skating. If you wanted to be seen, you went skating. It was all there: kids in Jordans, Air Force 1’s, white T-shirts, baggy pants, jerseys, jersey dresses and Baby Phat. It wasn’t New York Fashion Week, but for us it was more important.
Soda, pizza, hot dogs, water — food was fuel, and we all needed it for what would come later. It was a mix of kids from the ’hood and the ’burbs that, sure, produced a fight here and there. For the most part, though, we were all there for a good time — and not a long time. The first half of the day, we skated. For the second half, sneakers returned to the wooden floor. That’s what we really came to the rink for: the dance party. And when “Back That” was released officially as a single, that’s all anyone wanted to hear.
It’s more of a call-and-response anthem than it is a traditional rap song, and that’s why it sticks. The clean version uses “Thang” while the explicit version uses “Azz,” and there was a tug of war going on between the two that wasn’t just about profanity. “Azz” is, of course, the raunchier version — and as sex-crazed teenagers who didn’t yet understand the nuances and intricacies of sex, we still wanted to party to what we all at least thought “sex” encompassed. But “Thang” has the all-important “Cash Money Records takin’ over …” and the complete version of Lil Wayne’s outro.
Think about the first five seconds of the record, the violin solo with, unequivocally, the most famous call to arms in music history: Juvenile’s Cash Money Records/ Takin’ over for the 9-9 and the 2000s. Think about Lil Wayne’s closing set, an unassailable soliloquy of ratchetness that so many still hold near and dear: Now after you back it up then stop / Now wha-wha-wha-what, drop it like it’s hot … Wobbledy, wobbledy, drop-drop it like it’s hot. Gumbo and po’boys for the musical soul.
Twerks from girls were an extremely valuable currency back then for us straight male teenagers. And the young women there knew as much. The dance party at the rink was a pregame of sorts to watching BET’s Uncut a few years later. We would all wait for the DJ to spin “Back That Azz Up” because while we weren’t exactly sure what we were doing, we knew we had to be doing something.
You couldn’t be the wallflower when the holy gospel of all heavenly twerkness came on. None of us realized then that the lyrics, so doused in a dominant male sexuality, were so much a part of Cash Money’s greatest hits. To us, then, “Back That” wasn’t about the actual lyrics. It was more about the moment. Unbeknownst to us, the moment and the lyrics would stay with us through high school and college (for those who went), through marriage and divorce.
“Girl / You looks good …”
“Ha” was the first single from Juvenile’s 400 Degreez (more on that in a moment) and made him Cash Money Records’ brightest star. Based in New Orleans, the label rose to regional prominence around the same time that another NOLA conglomerate, Master P’s No Limit Records, was achieving nationwide success. After the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, hip-hop’s focus left the East Coast and the West Coast and planted flags in newfound creative capitals — “newfound” in the sense of the rest of the country finally taking notice.
Cash Money was already living up to its name by the time Juvenile’s 400 dropped. Magnolia Shorty, B.G., U.N.L.V. and others had released a plethora of bayou classics. The Hot Boys — Cash Money’s hip-hop equivalent of the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, and made up of Lil Wayne, Juvenile, B.G. and Turk — helped elevate the label as a group and as they spun off as solo acts.
And the year 1998 was a massive one in rap. DMX crossed over to mainstream success while maintaining an undeniably authentic grimy exterior. A duo of No. 1 albums in the same calendar year — It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood — made him the biggest solo rap artist of the year. Jay-Z’s Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life, the first of his albums to debut atop the Billboard 200, marked the arrival of Shawn Carter as a superstar. Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with its palpable and relatable energy, was an examination of black life, black love and black anxiety.
But it was in New Orleans where the creative needle shifted in a manner that would, via an idiosyncratic chain of events leading all the way to Drake’s present-day dominance, forever change the trajectory of hip-hop and its stranglehold on pop culture. And it was Feb. 24, 1999, the day “Back That Azz Up” was officially released as a single, that New Orleans became a worldwide hip-hop acme. Nothing was ever the same for Juvenile, Cash Money or any party we’d ever attend for the rest of our lives.
“I’m getting a piece of this,” Mannie Fresh recently recalled Lil Wayne saying when he heard a nearly completed version of the record. “There’s no way in the world [“Back That Azz Up”] going on without me being on [it].”
And the video, shot at a concert in New Orleans near Juvenile’s Carter G. Woodson Middle School, was more truly a block party. E-40, Kurupt and their squads were even there — but didn’t make the final cut. Juvenile had actually been performing the song at local clubs a cappella for almost a year before its recording. Credit the production genius of Mannie Fresh for bringing the song — which, in essence, is bounce music’s first shot into the veins of mainstream America — to the musical plateaus it eternally twerks upon.
Fresh is the wizard who gave Cash Money its quirky, syrupy, virulent signature sound of heavy bass and orchestralike backdrops. Fresh produced every song during the early Cash Money years — without using samples. Fresh is responsible for a sound that created its own culture within the culture and made stars of many, placing him in the same company as Dr. Dre, Kanye West and Pharrell. He’s in that pantheon.
The song has largely been bulletproof to criticism. Well, for the most part. It’s raunchy, yes. Literally, it’s misogynistic. It’s also filled with sexual innuendo to points where it’s not even sexual innuendo anymore, but rather foreplay before foreplay.
But “Back That Azz Up” is a wildly, weirdly romantic song — Girl you looks good, won’t you back that a– up/ You’s a fine m—–f—–, won’t you back that a– up — that has survived two decades basically off of the emotion it taps into and the memories it resurfaces. The grimy college house parties. The drunken day parties. The strip clubs where “Back That Azz Up” is unofficially written into its constitution. This song is the anthem of every wedding reception that turns up once the elders leave and the open bar means shirts get untucked and heels get slipped off. This 1999 single, for 20 consecutive years, has been at hearts (and loins) of this generation of black America in a way no other can lay claim to.
But one Juvenile admits he wasn’t initially sold on. And he and his cohort felt they were making for women. “I didn’t want ‘Back That Azz Up’ to be a single. I wanted to be the street, that tough or hard-core … m—–f—–,” Juvenile has said. Being hard-core wasn’t getting him paid, though. “[My brother and my close friend] were like, ‘You need to make songs for the women. That’s your selling point.’ I’m kind of glad they forced me into the whole ‘Back That Azz Up’ thing.”
An entire generation is grateful. The song’s legacy speaks for itself. Drake’s “Practice,” Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and City Girls and Trina’s “Run Them Bands Up” all contain samples and lyrical interpolations of Juvenile’s ode. As do Audio Push’s “Theme Song,” Big K.R.I.T.’s “1999,” G-Eazy’s “Drop” and Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” remix with Nicki Minaj. Cash Money’s lexicon is foundational. The Oxford English Dictionary added “Bling Bling” to its pages in 2003. “Back That Azz Up” is as important to the culture as The Gap Band’s “Outstanding.” As timelessly nostalgic as Rick James and Teena Marie’s “Fire and Desire.” As passion-triggering as Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
“A lot of people don’t know it was met with, ‘Nah, maybe the world not ready for it,’ ” Mannie Fresh has said of the song. “Fast-forward 20 years later, it stood the test of time. I don’t see it going nowhere.”
Actually, there is.
“The day we shot that video, man,” Juvenile said, “it was raining so hard … I thought it wasn’t gon’ happen.” Not even Mother Nature saw fit to stop rap’s most iconic party anthem from assuming its rightful, deserved place in pop culture history.