Let it rain. Clear it out.
Webstar and Young B
September 26, 2006
There’s not a lot of grass at Rucker Park. It’s more of a playground. There’s a basketball court with wooden bleachers and a rusty digital scoreboard; it’s the one that got a namecheck in “Lean Back,” and it’s in a bunch of Street Ball video games, so I guess that means it’s famous. There’s also a little blacktop jungle-gym area and a handball court and a baseball field. It was even more of a playground yesterday. Someone had the idea to use the park as the site for the Webstar record-release party, and it was really a pretty good idea. Webstar is the guy behind the absolutely ridiculous novelty dance song “Chicken Noodle Soup.” It’s basically a kids’ song; precious few adults are willing to risk trying the unbelievably goofy leg-kicking arm-flapping dance that goes along with the song. Byron Crawford called the song “minstrel show rap” last week, and it’s definitely hard to watch the dance without getting uncomfortable blackface vibes, but it’s not like the whole “Chicken Noodle Soup” thing exists to entertain white people. As far as I can tell, it’s an entirely grassroots phenomenon. The song was a local thing that caught on when a bunch of kids filmed themselves doing the dance and posted the videos on YouTube, which eventually led to Webstar getting a record deal from a record industry desperate to latch onto anything that might potentially make money. Other than the MTV camera crews there filming most of the event, I’m pretty sure my brother and I were some of the only white people in the park yesterday. It’s a kids’ song, and kids’ songs tend to be dumb. And so it was heartening to see Webstar holding the record release party in a public park instead of a club where kids couldn’t get in. I’m not sure who put up the money for this thing, but people were giving out free hot dogs and ice cream to anyone who showed up, and someone had set up three or four enormous moonbounce-looking things on the baseball field. It was all really wholesome.
When my brother and I showed up yesterday afternoon, there weren’t a whole lot of people in the park other than the army of enormous security guards in black t-shirts. When the PR guy came to get us, he had trouble getting himself past all the black shirts. When we finally got in, the guards kept asking some unidentified authority figure whether we were supposed to be there. Inside the VIP area, everyone was waiting around for the area schools to let out, for the party’s target demographic to show up. It was a beautiful day. One guy walked around rocking a tarantula-shaped medallion and an enormous wrestling championship belt, and it wasn’t a WWE replica like the ones that Rasheed Wallace handed out to the rest of the Pistons last year; I think he had it custom-made. There was a catering table set up on the handball court. People kept asking me if I wanted to interview Webstar, but I didn’t really have anything to ask him. Hot 97 posters and Webstar banners were everywhere. Young B, the girl who chirpily raps on “Chicken Noodle Soup,” was trying to teach some little kid how to do the dance; it was really cute. Lovebug Starski was DJing under a giant banner that said his name and “If ya’ don’t know! Now ya’ know!,” but he was pretty much just playing the Webstar album over and over at alarming volumes, shouting out anyone halfway famous in attendance (“Pete Rock in the house!”) and dispensing practical advice (“Parents, don’t leave your kids on the baseball field thinking that somebody just gonna be babysitting them!”). The music was all really terrible, mostly just playground chants and beats that sounded like the sort of thing David Banner ends up not using because it’s too simplistic, if you can even imagine that. When Starski went off-script and played Diddy’s “Come With Me” and Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm,” it sounded like the clouds had parted and choirs of angels were singing, but then he went right back to the Webstar shit, and I felt like dying. Eventually, though, the kids started showing up, wearing huge white t-shirts over private school uniforms, carrying lunchboxes, sitting on their parents’ shoulders. Pretty soon, there was a horde of children on the bleachers surrounding the basketball court.
The first time Starski played “Chicken Noodle Soup,” a couple of boys who looked maybe 13 hopped barricades and ran out onto the middle of the basketball court doing the dance. After the first chorus, Starski said, “Y’all got to clear it out for real,” and they left. It was time for the dance contest to start, but MTV’s cameras were still setting up, so Starski played the song over and over again while everyone waited. The MC, some guy named Hunc who I guess promoted the event, yelled out that we had a lost child and could the mother please come to the DJ booth. Finally, a group of kids in Chicken Noodle Soup shirts came out onto the court with their parents in tow. The dance contestants were separated into two divisions: the eight-to-eleven year-olds and the eleven-to-fifteen year-olds, and the younger group was first. Hunc introduced the judges, Nina Sky and Jae Millz, and brought a group of five petrified-looking kids out to center-court and explained that only one would go onto the next round. The kids only looked scared until the song started, and then they were completely in their element. There aren’t too many things in the world cuter than a group of young kids competitively doing the “Chicken Noodle Soup” dance. The judges picked one of the little girls as the winner, and the crowd loudly voiced its disapproval, so Hunc quickly announced that we’d have two girls going onto the final round, that first prize was $250 in cash and that the four finalists would be in the video of the song’s remix with Chris Brown and Ludacris: “If they ain’t in the video, blame Universal.” We got through maybe ten rounds of the song, and then a winner was announced, but I couldn’t really see for all the parents standing around. Hunc wouldn’t give the winners the prize money until their parents showed up: “This is Harlem. They got cash.” Outside the basketball court, kids tried to climb the chain-link fence to get in. The eleven-to-fifteen year-olds were better dancers than their younger counterparts, but a couple of hours of hearing “Chicken Noodle Soup” on repeat made me feel numb. Hunc kept telling the crowd not to boo the kids.
When the dance contests finally ended, security guards frantically tried to clear the court so that Webstar could perform. I’m not entirely sure what Webstar does. He wasn’t rapping or DJing, and he mostly just played hypeman during the performance while other people rapped or danced. His dancers were really good; I especially liked the fat guy who looked like he was trying to give himself a heart attack. His rappers were not so good. He did a few songs that no one cared about, and then it was finally time for the afternoon’s billionth rendition of “Chicken Noodle Soup.” Somehow, people still weren’t sick of hearing it. As soon as the siren kicked in, the whole crowd jumped the barricades and ran out onto the court to do the dance. The performers were immediately overwhelmed as everyone became component parts of this frenzied mass of flailing limbs. Webstar yelled something about how this was Harlem at its finest, a bunch of black people getting together and having fun peacefully. It was sort of beautiful.
So is “Chicken Noodle Soup” a good song? Of course not. It doesn’t have to be. “The Hokey-Pokey” and “Happy Birthday” aren’t good songs either. Kids’ songs are almost never good. “Chicken Noodle Soup” has almost no sounds beyond a kick-drum and an air-raid siren, and Young B’s rapping wouldn’t impress Yung Joc. It’s just an excuse for a dance, and it’ll be a punchline by winter if it isn’t one already. We can’t really judge a song like that on what it is; we have to judge it on what it does. When the first group of baby contestants was dancing to the song, I loved it. After another couple of hours of the dance contest, I could feel the song liquefying my brain. By the time everyone in the crowd jumped the barricades and turned the performance into a massive communal throwdown, I loved it again. And if I never hear the song again, that’ll be just fine.