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If the spring of 2018 brought “Grifter Season,” the summer of 2019 heralded the rise of scam rap: a Detroit-based movement whose stars rap openly about credit card theft or identity fraud, while name-checking bitcoin, VPNs, and Tor. But years before rappers were hosting "scam conventions," a 16-year-old named DeAndre Cortez Way was online in Batesville, Mississippi, tinkering with Limewire. Way would eye popular downloads on the peer-to-peer file sharing service and upload his own songs under the same names. For a brief moment in the spring of 2007, any user looking for a Top 40 track ran the risk of downloading something else: a snap single called “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” by Soulja Boy Tell’em. It was a bait-and-switch, a kind of duckrolling or Rickrolling before it had a name, but instead of Rick Astley, you got the stylings of a scrawny kid in Flavor Flav shades.
“I was on LimeWire, and I was like, shit, I’m going to blow up my song,” Soulja Boy told me from his artist trailer after a show at HARD Summer, a music festival held at an off-season Nascar track in Fontana, California. “I’d put it on there, but change the title so they clicked on it. I would just take a name—Britney Spears, 50 Cent, Michael Jackson—anything that was on the radio, anything people wanted to hear at the time, I would just upload it and change the title. After I did that, it just started getting millions of downloads. It was so fast, like overnight.”
At this point, Soulja Boy’s origin story has become an essential anecdote in online folklore. By May of 2007, “Crank That” wormed its way onto the airwaves and got him signed to Interscope Records; it went on to spend seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100; it pioneered the viral dance challenge; and in 2008, became the first American song to sell 3 million digital copies. Soulja Boy evolved into the quintessential internet artist: he parlayed digital savvy, charisma, and crunk tracks into online fame; documented the entire process in videos, social media, and self-made websites; and left behind a model for web use as a tool for self-promotion.
“He is a Christlike figure for Internet rappers,” Complex’s Drew Millard wrote in 2015. “Soulja wasn’t just facilitated by the Internet,” Pitchfork’s Meaghan Garvey added that same year, “he was the Internet.” It echoed what the rapper had long been saying of himself: “While sitting in a downtown LA studio,” Brian Petchers recalled in Forbes, “Soulja Boy turns to me and says, ‘I invented the Internet.’”
But if there’s any aspect of the internet Soulja Boy captures best, it is the highly permeable boundary between things that are real, funny, and resoundingly good, and those that are less than legal, mildly uncanny, and deliriously fake; the parts plagued by bad fonts, laden with 404 Errors, hounded by porn pop-ups, and primed to take your money. These days, Soulja’s Facebook page is flooded with spam. His subreddit, once inundated with clickbait, has been converted into a joke page for memes about the Nintendo Kirby character, King Dedede—a villainous anthropomorphic penguin. Even his social life spawns rumors of constant fakeouts—he supposedly once sold Migos rapper Quavo fake lean. Asked about it, Soulja Boy laughed: “I can’t speak on that.” All that to say: if Soulja Boy invented the internet, he also workshopped its scams.
Over the past 12 years, the rapper has faded from mainstream attention, but not without leaving behind a trail of mixtapes, brilliant grifts, and semi-legitimate business ventures so gnarly and brazenly mediocre it’s hard to trace them all. Just this April, Soulja Boy got jail time for faking evidence about completing his community service. But the rapper bounced back as he always does, emerging in July, five months early on good behavior. Three weeks later, he gave his first public performance in months at HARD Summer. After a short set peppered with old hits, an honorably stoned Soulja Boy sat down in his trailer, a golf-cart ride away from the stage, for an informal accounting of every alleged SouljaScam, some of which he owns, others he vigorously denies. “I was always tricking people,” he said of his LimeWire days. “Just trying to get my name out there.”
Soulja Boy wouldn’t get threatened with small claims court until this year. But the impulses that got him there—alternately genius and gorgeously half-baked—were in play from day one. In June of 2006, months before anyone got catfished by “Crank That,” a 15-year-old Soulja Boy logged into Wikipedia, then just five years old, to pen the biography of, as he put it, “Soulja ‘DeAndre Way’ Boy.” The short graph, filled with adolescent typos and narrative asides rarely seen on the platform now, described his Atlanta roots; his first attempts at music (“in Middle school attendin ‘Parks Middle School’ (zone 3) Soulja Boy took his talent a little bit farther”); his move to Mississippi; his friendship with producer Young Kwon; and some early tracks (“Doo Doo Head”). “As of now Soulja Boy is sure to land a deal soon,” he concluded. “Soulja Boy is the next big thing to arise in the Hip Hop Scene. Only being 15 years old of age and accomplished this much.”
The entry was spot-on. For one, it predicted the record deal that would come within a year. For another, it got reported for violating publication standards just one minute after going live. A user named Yanksox flagged the page as meeting Wikipedia’s “criteria for speedy deletion” (the crime: it did “not credibly indicate the importance or significance of the subject”). But the post also captured the mood Soulja Boy operated in for years and, to some extent, still does: a mid-aughts DIY internet, where rules were more like guidelines, writing was blunt and bloggish, videos were raw and improvised, and graphics ranged from spammy to very bad (in Soulja Boy’s first-ever YouTube video, uploaded a few months earlier, his font of choice is Comic Sans).
Nothing captures that mood better than his old social media. An early and prolific poster on Myspace, YouTube, and Bebo, Soulja Boy’s most emblematic page was on SoundClick, a ‘90s streaming relic and proto-SoundCloud, which Soulja Boy calls the “Billboard charts of the underground.” It was here that he first uploaded music and first found an audience; at one point, Soulja Boy claimed, he averaged 19,000 downloads a day. Unlike his Myspace (which now links to a shirtless Brazilian guy named Douglas), Soulja’s SoundClick is still active. The profile includes 109 songs; four available for sale at $1.25 a pop; a four-question interview (“Q: Your musical influences. A: The Fans”); phone numbers for his agent, label, and infamous personal line; short codes for Soulja Boy TV and the Soulja Girl Ringtone; an email address for his Sidekick LX; and a promise (“Whoever Buys The Most Albums and take a picture and proove how many copies they bought and upload it and post a comment on my page or email the picture to firstname.lastname@example.org Will Win A Spot on my TOP FRIENDS FOREVER! You will never get taken down!!!”).
His early efforts went beyond editing other people’s websites. Soulja Boy made many of his own. The idea was to send off as many digital missives as possible, flooding the online market just to see what stuck. “I would make tons of websites,” Soulja Boy said. “I just made a couple at first. But then, once I made Souljaboytellem.com, it just caught on. Everybody started clicking on it. So I just kept going with it—Souljaboytellem.com.”
The URL later became the name of his first album—a commercially successful and massively influential debut, but one which critics hailed with vaguely rockist disdain, some calling it a scam of its own. (“The only hoe that got Superman’d on SouljaBoyTellEm.com,” a Rap Reviews user wrote in 2007, “is anybody who spent $14.99 on this album.”) Still, the next few years were successful for Soulja Boy and inextricably tied to his online identity. He called his second album, which produced three hit singles, iSouljaBoyTellem; he marketed his third, The DeAndre Way, to 4.9 million fans on a now-defunct app called “Say Now,” which allowed stars to call their followers en masse; even his 2008 home invasion, by all accounts a traumatizing experience, yielded a viral video craze called the #SouljaBoyChallenge. In 2011, when a documentary crew trailed him to make Soulja Boy: The Movie, the 90-minute film was told entirely through YouTube comments.
But soon, Soulja’s standing began to change. The rapper had long been accused of ripping off lesser-known artists, but now, he was the one getting eclipsed, in part by a close friend: collaborator, and fellow internet forefather, Lil B. Lil B represented a kind of update in the digital celebrity: spammier (he had hundreds of Myspace accounts, thousands of songs); meme-ier (his discography includes dozens of hooks where he just repeats celebrity names ad nauseam—Miley Cyrus, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Bellamy, to name a few); and popular on a growing platform, Twitter. Soulja Boy tried to level up. He started selling Twitter engagement: follows ($1.99), shoutouts ($2.99), retweets ($3.99). He kept releasing music—by now, he has dropped 60 mixtapes, 14 EPs, six studio albums, and dozens of assorted singles and features, some of which are patently excellent (the mixtape Juice is filled with anthemic, if lyrically uninspired bangers and blessed with the tagline: “Power. Respect. Juice.”). But as his popularity waned and streaming annihilated artist earnings, Soulja Boy dove deeper into another enterprise: the world of small-time hustles.
In the trailer at HARD Summer, it’s almost a hundred degrees and Soulja Boy is bundled up: red hoodie, denim jacket, black trainers. Maybe it’s the heat or the hour (late) or that he hasn’t spoken publicly in months, but conversation trends toward the monosyllabic. He lobs words like a pitching machine set on slow (see: his No Jumper interview, a case study in awkward silence). That makes discussing his business ventures hard. The list is so long now he can’t remember them all: “Man. Probably like, damn. I don’t know. Too many. Not enough. I need more.”
What might make them forgettable is that Soulja’s approach to business is a lot like how he first made websites—that is, opening a lot of them and seeing what works. He signed an early sneaker deal in 2008 with the Dallas clothing company Yums (“You Understand My Style”), but his first real attempt, he says, came with a streetwear line called BLVD Supply, which launched in 2013 alongside his brand of hookah pens, Phantom Smoke. Next, after signing on to star in the Hollywood edition of Love & Hip Hop, he announced the Soulja Boy Official App, where fans could chat, game, and stream new music. And in 2015, Soulja Boy launched his own sneaker line called SBeezy Lights, a pair of Vans-looking things with LEDs around the edges.
None of these ventures went well, but some had funnier implosions than others. His Yums line was quickly discontinued. The hookah pens and BLVD Supply apparel appeared in several music videos, but never quite took off (the Phantom Smoke website is now defunct; BLVD Supply still exists but has no mention of Soulja Boy on its website; an email request for comment was returned by Mailer Daemon; and its Facebook page is peppered with complaints about unreceived merchandise). He was allegedly fired from Love & Hip Hop for posting a video on social media wherein he threatened an ex-girlfriend while brandishing a gun (he denies that he was fired), and the Soulja Boy Official App, though a pioneering move in the first boom of personal apps, barely attracted followers until this spring, and has been overrun by catfish models and fans pushing their SoundClouds. His sneaker business, SBeezy Lights, is still active, although they mostly sell T-shirts now. When the first shoes debuted, they were immediately compared to several off-brand wholesale models, available on Amazon for as little as $25, and his follow-up designs were identical to the popular Adidas NMD.
This is key in the SouljaScam narrative: most of his subsequent products would bear a stark resemblance to knockoffs on Alibaba or Amazon, sometimes sold at a mark-up, other times at an extreme discount. In 2016, he waded into the short-lived hoverboard scene—a market populated almost exclusively by Chinese knockoffs, differentiated only by cheap logo stickers—with yet another website, this time called SouljaBoard.com. (The now defunct site was designed so hastily, a Wired article noted, it still had dummy text on its “About” page). That particular SouljaScam soon achieved meta status, when Buzzfeed reported that the rapper had himself been swindled out of almost $175,000 in a credit card fraud that accounted for 75 percent of the site’s purchases.
The setback didn’t slow Soulja down. He went on the next year to announce a deal with World Poker Fund Holdings, a company that describes itself as a digital gaming platform, but which has minimal online presence. The partnership became a joke when the rapper tweeted that the company had paid him $400 million to put him on their “celebrity owned social gaming site,” CelebrityWorld.com—a stunning figure, which was quickly debunked by Forbes when a reporter determined the company’s market cap was then just $52 million (It has since fallen to $9.4 million, according to CNN Money; WPHF’s CEO Travis Kasper disputed that estimate, but admitted he did not know the current cap. According to Kasper, nothing has come of Soulja’s partnership, but may in the future).
And in 2018, in what may have been his weirdest, but somehow sweetest and most sublimely-Soulja Boy move, the rapper claimed he’d bought a Subway franchise in southern California. The investment made news again just a month after he bought it, when the rapper posted a furious video upon discovering his employees had cut out early.
“The Subway, that shit went viral, man,” Soulja Boy said on the thought process behind the SouljaSubway. “You gotta think outside the box. Like bitcoin. I have bitcoin. I made a song about it. I’ve got too much bitcoin.” (When contacted by The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Subway denied that Soulja Boy was ever a franchise owner.)
But perhaps Soulja Boy’s most overtly uncouth effort came in December of 2018, when he launched two new websites: SouljaGame.com and SouljaWatch.com. The former initially offered two gaming consoles: the “SouljaGame Classic” and the “Original Soulja Game Handheld.” He later added the “SouljaGame Mini.” These machines not only resembled Nintendo products, but claimed to carry more than 3,000 games, including several versions of Pokemon, Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario World. Similarly, SouljaWatch.com hawked a product identical to an Apple Watch, but much, much, cheaper: it started at $19.99 and came in several colors. (“Would I buy a SouljaWatch? Hell yeah,” Soulja Boy said. Asked about the watch he was wearing—gold, giant face, diamond-encrusted—he added: “Oh this? It tells time.”) The store also offered a suite of Apple-adjacent products: the SouljaPad, SouljaPods, and SouljaPhone, giving new meaning to a line from his 2015 Complex profile. “I have no doubt that if he’d picked up programming instead of music,” Drew Millard wrote, “you’d be reading this on a SouljaPhone or SouljaPad right now.”
The fallout was fast. Within weeks of the launch, Nintendo sent Soulja Boy a cease and desist, forcing him to pull the consoles from the market. Representatives for Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication of this article, but by late December, the products disappeared from SouljaWatch.com. The SouljaGame.com domain now redirects to the Nintendo website. Not long after that collapsed, SouljaWatch.com came under fire from customers who claimed they never received their extremely- discounted, blatantly knock-off SouljaProducts. In mid-January, Complex ran a lengthy article on one writer’s hellish journey, dating back to Dec. 5, to obtain a $19.99 SouljaWatch shipped from Russia. The headline: “I Think I Got SouljaScammed.”
Soulja Boy completely denies any wrongdoing. “Man, that’s another rumor they started,” he said. “I think someone ordered something and when the website went down, they didn’t get their stuff in time—as fast as they thought. So they went and said that, but it wasn’t true.”
Still, several people who spoke to The Daily Beast claim they were swindled out of anywhere from $10 to $200, and many, many, many more claim the same on Twitter. One customer, an 18-year-old Pizza Hut employee named Andres, told me he bought a pair of SouljaPods on Feb. 6 for $19.99. Texts provided to The Daily Beast confirmed that Andres’ order would arrive within 2-6 shipping days, but by mid-March, he had not received them. After he tweeted at the store, Andres said, the pods arrived on April 6, but “were trash and horrible,” with latency delays and a crappy Bluetooth connection—a raw deal for wireless earbuds. Another buyer, a Twitch streamer called ConnorEatsPants, said he paid $200 for SouljaPods and a SouljaGame console to use on his channel. They never came. He says he filed for a PayPal chargeback and received a refund for the console, but not for the SouljaPods. “I’m still waiting on that,” he said, nine months later.
Eventually, the SouljaWatch.com website came down. Soulja Boy claims it was hacked by a cameraman, though declined to elaborate. He quickly replaced it with another: SouljaStore.com. It’s one of the last remaining websites of Soulja’s spammy tech empire (RIP: SouljaBoyTellem.com; SouljaBoy.com SODMG.com; SouljaGame.com; SouljaWatch.com; PhantomSmokeHookah.com; and SouljaBoard.com. A few are still holding strong: SouljaElectronics.com, SBeezyLights.com, and the inscrutable SouljaBoy.org). You can still buy SouljaPods 2 at SouljaStore.com. The rest is mostly jewelry, clothes and items without obvious copyright infringements. Back in the trailer, Soulja Boy told me he’s spent the past three weeks in the studio. He’s coming out with a new album this year; also, an esports franchise. “I got some stuff planned,” he said. “Some cool stuff. Stuff people will like. I want to sell things I want to buy. Something cool, something new. I’m like, a rapper—what would I want to buy? What would I like?!”
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