Ten years ago, when he was 16 years old, DeAndre Cortez Way "discovered the internet." But he wasn't using it the way most teenagers do–chatting with friends and expressing angst over platforms like AIM, MySpace and Live Journal. Way's mission on the internet was to introduce himself to the world as Soulja Boy—and to pioneer promoting music using social media. Currently, he has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, 4.83 million followers on Twitter, and over 700,000 followers on Vine. How did he become a social media savant? I got him on the phone and asked! "I just give the fans what I think they would like to see; it’s all entertainment," Soulja Boy told me. He added:
My approach is to just get more followers, interact with my fan base, find out what’s my demographic and feed that core fan base. Just be dope, do dope stuff, post dope pictures, tweet back to the fans, make yourself accessible. I just think, when I was little, what I would want to see my favorite rapper doing? Or what I would want him to do? And I just do that.
He sees social media as part of the business: "People see me and ask for pictures, I take pictures. I just try to keep myself updated so that people know what’s going on with Soulja Boy. If you don’t see me on TV for a week, then you see me on Instagram [or] you see me in a new video on YouTube. You go to my Facebook page, I’m uploading pictures so fans can see what I’m doing. Social media is a dope way to reach out to the fan base."
His Vines and Instagrams usually consist of Soulja Boy with things (money, cars, hoverboards) and Soulja Boy promoting things (his new single or mixtape, his hoverboards, his light-up sneakers). Along with French Montana, Floyd Mayweather, 50 Cent and Chief Keef, Soulja Boy is known for posing his money phone. He's most likely the first rapper to do it—proof of his innate ability to innovate. He definitely claims to be the inventor of the money phone, telling me:
I’m the first rapper to have a stack of money—it’ll usually be like $30,000 dollars, that’s what I’m looking at right now—put it beside my face, and say "Hellooo, what’s up man, what’s going on?" I been doing it since I was like 16 or 17. My inspiration for that came from just having a whole bunch of money. Everybody do it now. It’s not me for me to be like, "That’s mine, I’m the money phone." You can ask anybody, everybody knows Soulja Boy, he’s been doing that forever. I just had a whole bunch of money in my hand, and put it beside my ear trying to be creative for a photo, and it just stuck. I got a song called "Money Phone," but it ain’t out yet.
Soulja Boy's career began with uploading songs to SoundClick for music listeners to download at $1.00 per song, with half going to SoundClick and half going to the artist. According to a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Soulja Boy ended up making over $100,000 dollars and averaging 19,000 downloads per day. He would also upload songs to LimeWire (remember that?) under the tags of much bigger artists, like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and Michael Jackson, to get more attention and listens. But Soulja Boy really started to flourish once he was introduced to MySpace and YouTube. In 2007, he self-released his first official single, "Crank Dat," and then uploaded both a music video and an instructional dance video to YouTube, which at the time had only been around for two years. And this was all without a record label support. "Crank Dat" landed Soulja Boy a record deal, stayed on the Billboard Hot 100s chart for seven weeks, and was the first single to sell 3 million digital copies.
Soulja Boy was a viral sensation before virality became a thing, paving the way for other internet rappers like Lil B, Riff Raff, Migos and Chief Keef. Even Silento's huge 2015 hit, "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)," uses moves from Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat." And like Silento, whose viral and chart-topping hit was dubbed by some as the worst rap song of 2015, hip hop traditionalists were not open to Soulja Boy's child-like style of rap. But in 2008, Kanye West was one of the first rappers to co-sign him, writing on his blog:
Soulja Boy is fresh ass hell and is actually the true meaning of what hip hop is sposed to be. He came from the hood, made his own beats, made up a new saying, new sound and a new dance with one song. He had all of America rapping this summer. If that ain’t Hip Hop then what is? A bunch of wannabe keep it real rappers that ain’t even relevant, recycling samples trying to act like it’s 96 again and all they do is hate on new shit? Niggas always talk about the golden age but for a 13 year old kid, this is the golden age!!! That song was so dope cause everything he said had a hidden meaning… that’s Nas level shit… he just put it over some steel drums which is also some Nas shit if you had the 2nd album cassette with the bonus track “Silent Murder” on it… Ain’t no fuckin’ rules to this shit and that’s what real hip hop is to me.
The two later ended up working together in the studio—on songs that were, unfortunately, never released. But Soulja Boy definitely sees Kanye in himself (or himself in Kanye). To be sure, Kanye and Soulja Boy are both visionaries. In our phone chat, Souljah Boy declared:
I’m going to be next Kanye. Kanye be in interviews talking about "I’m the inspiration, I’m the most innovative artist and woo-woo," come on man, I’m Soulja Boy, I brought the internet to the people. I produced my own first album and it went platinium. "Crank Dat" went platinum. Kanye gotta give me some credit, man. I ain’t gonna lie though, I worked in the studio with Kanye and he gave me credit—and it’s cool, but the people just need to know that I’m coming next. He got ideas, he got his shoes, he got his [clothing line], I got ideas, I got my shoes, I got my clothing line, and I’m younger. So just put that in there. I feel like I’m the next Kanye, but in a good way. Put that in there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.