Throwback Thursday

Remember When Ringtone Rap Ruled the World?

A couple of weeks ago, my friend overheard a trilling sound from my phone. It was a familiar one, because their eyes lit up and mind started twisting out a formula to say the right thing. “Is that the Power Rangers wrist communicator?”, they asked.

“Yeah,” I responded.

They laughed, noting the novelty of it: “It sounds like Kim Possible. But why do you even have a ringtone?”

The truth was, people heard that Power Rangers wrist communicator whenever anybody would text me, and Future’s “March Madness” whenever anybody called me. Before that, it was Drake’s “Trophies." Anytime either of my parents called? OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean," a tradition unlike any other because it’s been the only ringtone my parents have ever had as long as I’ve owned a cellphone.

Ringtones, the simple notifiers that somebody was trying to reach you, didn’t truly become en vogue until the mid-2000s. My initial introduction to them came somewhere around 2001, when I heard “So Fresh, So Clean” being played in a polyphonic way from someone’s old rectangular Nokia.

You know: this kind of Nokia ——->>

Admit it, when this dropped in September 2000, you played one game on it, "Snake." It was the only app you needed, and you wasted hours on end playing it. Fifteen years later, there are a ton of apps but only one thing that has remained sort of constant — the use of the ringtone.

Even though ringtones were a show of personality and even a little creativity — you could associate a different ringtone to each person who actually called you — it became a staple for hip-hop before the end of the ‘00s. For a while, that little sonic Caller ID moved the registers seismically during that period, from a decent $68 million retail in 2003 to over a half billion in sales in 2006.

Think about every one-hit wonder that arrived beginning in 2007, right around the same time the iPhone was originally released. Shop Boyz’ “Party Like a Rockstar” owned the clubs for a little while. Same for D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” and Dem Franchise Boyz’ “White T” and “I Think They Like Me." Mims' "This Is Why I'm Hot", Jibbs' "Chain Hang Low", Hurricane Chris "Ay Bay Bay", all terrible rap singles. All of them came and went. All of them dominated for brief stints and couldn’t leave our lives fast enough. Just take a glance at the Billboard Hot Ringtones chart. Yes, Billboard once dedicated a chart solely to ranking the popularity of ringtones. They’ve since used the same metric for Twitter and what’s “trending," once again confirming that nothing moves the needle with music more than technology. The winner for the week of January 27, 2007? Jim Jones’ “We Fly High." By comparison, the highest-charting rock band was Hinder. You remember Hinder, don’t you? They had one super-popular single at the time “Lips of An Angel”.

Still don’t? Here’s the video to refresh your memory. In a list populated by the likes of Bow Wow’s “Shortie Like Mine," Fergie’s “Fergalicious” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats," “Lips Of An Angel” won out.

Of all the one-hit wonders, from Baby Boy Da Prince’s “The Way I Live” to DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out," nobody benefited more from the ringtone game than two men: Soulja Boy and Chamillionaire.

In November 2005, the Houston rapper released The Sound of Revenge, his long-awaited major-label debut that followed the massive thrust of his Houston contemporaries that entire year. Of the singles involved with the album — among them the Lil Flip-assisted “Turn It Up” and “Grown & Sexy” — it was “Ridin’” that not only made Cham a Houston legend, it put him in the history books as well. “Ridin’” not only won a Grammy or two, it was also the highest-selling ringtone of 2006 at 3.2 million buys. This is not a shot at Chamillionaire at all; it merely tells that his reign happened to exist at the same time as a minor trend in the machine. Now he's a venture capitalist and the forefather to maybe a ton of scatterbrained but so-so-good freestyles.

Soulja Boy? He was the absolute king of running on a trend. He stood atop the mantle of dance-rap with “Crank Dat” and then single-handedly decided to occupy every lane that came after him. He did Atlanta trap, he did Houston’s hallucinogenic screw, he did it all. For a while, this rap chameleon existed solely to entertain teenagers and goofballs like my college self who taught “Yahh!” in its original form was the most hilarious thing ever. Remember, hip-hop has given plenty of grace to a number of people. Right now, a few are given said grace to the likes of Post Malone & Slim Jesus. Technically, any song of the moment could fit into the “ringtone rap” category as they appeal to current trends and emotions. I dare you to Google Slim Jesus and his awful, infuriating on multiple levels “Drill Time” because this is the only sentence I will ever write about him or that song.

Now, ringtones are pretty much a passing fad, a sign of how fast consumers have left the market and managed to grab their favorite ringtones for free. Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” officially holds the record as the most bought ringtone of all-time, registering more than 5 million in sales. Billboard hasn’t updated its chart in over ten months, but the queen of the chart? Taylor Swift with “Shake It Off."

Gotta admit, ringtones still are kind of a neat novelty. And I still move whenever I hear Future’s “March Madness” coming from my phone.

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell