The untold truth of Old Town Road

If you've encountered a suspiciously large number of people lately talking about "horses in the back," chances are you've encountered fans of "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X. The viral hit song and its Red Dead Redemption 2 themed music video emerged in December 2018, and its catchy mashup of trap music and country has taken the internet by storm while propelling the song's young creator to fame.

Whether you love the song dearly or hate it with the fullness of your heart, it's hard to deny that it's a perfect example of the current unpredictability of the music business. After all, at what other point in history could a virtual unknown get as much attention with a single unassuming song that wasn't even published the traditional way?

Even so, you might not have realized that the full story behind the song is even stranger than it first appears to be. Here's the down-low on "Old Town Road."

The artist

The artist behind "Old Town Road" is known as Lil Nas X. As Time tells us, the man behind the name is Montero Lamar Hill of Atlanta, Georgia. In September 2018, Hill ignored the protests of his parents and dropped out of college at 19 to see if he could carve out a career in music. (Spoiler: He could.)

However, according to New York Magazine, country trap stardom was not Hill's first rodeo, as he is an extremely savvy online influencer who was a notorious internet presence even before he made it big with "Old Town Road." The singer-rapper's first foray to web fame was on Twitter, where he operated @nasmaraj, a popular engagement bait account that was nominally about Nicki Minaj fandom but often peddled other popular online fare such as viral threads and memes. In the plainest terms, the @nasmaraj account was suspended for spamming and artificially inflating its stats in March 2018, but based on the current phase of his career, Hill clearly still knows how to work either the online crowd or the spammy systems that helped him grow on Twitter originally.

"Not country enough," says Billboard

When the genre-busting "Old Town Road" debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart (and also placed on the genre-blind Hot 100), it was easy to predict that the song would ruffle a few feathers. And some of those feathers belonged to Billboard itself. Rolling Stone reports that the chartkeepers stealthily removed "Old Town Road" from the Hot Country Songs list soon after it first charted, and they told Lil Nas X's label, Columbia Records, that the song's inclusion was a mistake in the first place.

Initially, Billboard tried to keep the removal low-key, but Rolling Stone managed to get a statement that included these lines: "When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version." Billboard later clarified its position by saying the specific grounds for the song's country chart disqualification were its trap beat, lack of country airplay, categorization issues and, oddly, "no involvement by Sony Music Nashville." They also said that further chart adjustments are possible.

Genre turmoil

Determining a genre for something as decidedly genre-bending as "Old Town Road" is difficult at the best of times. Even Billboard, which specifically dropped the song from its Hot Country Songs chart, openly refers to it as a "viral country trap hit." (Don't worry; then they rattle off a number of reasons the song isn't really country country.)

Rolling Stone suggests that the closest possible label to "Old Town Road" is probably "contemporary country," but points out that the rigid genres Billboard still uses are more than a little outdated, and that artists have combined hip-hop with country before Lil Nas X. For instance, Jason Aldean's rap-country song "Dirt Road Anthem" had no problem making it to the top of the Hot Country Songs list in 2011. They also note that while Nashville seems to consider "Old Town Road" as a pretty clear gimmick, it's far from the first one they've encountered. in 2018, a yodeling 11-year-old named Mason Ramsey was propelled to country charts by a very similar viral sensation. He was allowed to remain on the charts. After all, who doesn't like yodeling?

Breaking records

To put the massive success of "Old Town Road" in context, consider this: In April 2019, Lil Nas X's song was streamed more than 143 million times in a single week. Apart from making the track a runaway success, this absurd figure also broke a pretty significant record that was formerly held by none other than Drake. CNN reports that the Canadian rapper had held the record for most streams per week with his 2018 hit track "In My Feelings." But the 116.2 million streams for that song paled in comparison to "Old Town Road," which crushed it by almost 27 million streams. Pitchfork goes on to note that the version of "Old Town Road" that broke the record was specifically the Billy Ray Cyrus remix which, in a way, was also a record: It gave Cyrus the first No. 1 hit single of his career.

Lil Nas X celebrated the event in the only way such an unbelievable thing could be celebrated, really: By freaking out on Instagram.

Rapstar Games

The original "music video" for "Old Town Road" has tens of millions of views on YouTube. It also is a compilation of footage from Red Dead Redemption 2. It's easy to assume that an entertainment juggernaut like Rockstar Games might react to the unauthorized use of their hard work by slapping Lil Nas X with a lawsuit and a side order of cease-and-desists, while screaming at YouTube to get the "Old Town Road" video taken down forever, but Gamespot reports that so far, the company has addressed the song's runaway success with little more than a wink and a stealthy thumbs-up. Instead of suing the pants off Lil Nas X, they started following him on Twitter, and when Columbia Records signed the artist, he was greeted with welcome texts that used the Red Dead font (or at least an extremely close approximation).

Of course, the gaming company's tolerance of the video's existence may not be entirely altruistic. Red Dead Redemption 2 might already be one of the world's most popular video games, but being inseparably associated with one of the hottest pop culture phenomena of early 2019 can still do wonders for its street credibility.

Just another attempt to go viral

Lil Nas X fully admits that he aimed for "Old Town Road" to go viral, and that it wasn't even his first try. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he says his previous attempts included Facebook comedy videos, Instagram influencing and, eventually, Twitter. For him, third time was the charm: "That is where I really was a master. That was the first place where I could go viral."

Eventually, he decided to jump into music, but the banjo-filled song-rap of "Old Town Road" didn't immediately come to him. First he tried to take a more typical musical road that resulted in "middle-of-the-road Soundcloud rap." Even when Lil Nas X ultimately landed on his now-famous country trap tune, it was far from an overnight sensation. As Stereogum describes, the artist embarked on a tireless social media promotion cycle to turn his song into a meme, and ultimately lucked out on the video app TikTok where a snippet of the song became connected to the viral Yee Haw transformation challenge. (Think "Harlem Shake," but with cowboys.) As it turns out, a bunch of teens constantly hammering a song into each others' heads as a meme is a pretty effective way to make a song successful.

A wild Billy Ray Cyrus appears

When most people were still trying to figure out what to make of "Old Town Road," country legend Billy Ray Cyrus had already made up his mind. As NBC News reports, Cyrus says he decided from the beginning that the song ticked every box of a good country tune. "It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time," he later wrote on Twitter. "It's honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?"

However, Cyrus didn't just walk in the studio one day and offer Lil Nas X a hand. Lil Nas says he had been trying to reach the country singer for a while during the promotion stage of "Old Town Road" in hopes that Cyrus might retweet the song, but he wasn't able to get a hold of the man. When the rapper signed with Columbia Records, he asked them to put him in touch with Cyrus, and to his delight, the country musician was well aware of the Billboard situation of "Old Town Road" and was happy to collaborate. The two hit the studio and hit it off, and the resulting remix of "Old Town Road" is now even more popular than the original. Lil Nas X says Cyrus was extremely supportive and pleasant, and he claimed on Twitter that the country star even gave such an inspirational talk that the younger artist almost teared up.

Not done with Billboard yet

Much has been made about Billboard dropping "Old Town Road" from its Hot Country Songs chart, but they didn't exactly scrub the song from their rolls. Lil Nas X was still free to dominate a number of other Billboard charts, which he certainly must have been pleased about. On April 8, 2019, "Old Town Road" was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the Streaming Songs chart, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and Hot Rap Songs chart. The Billy Ray Cyrus version of the song has continued to dominate the Hot 100 for several weeks, and may do so for a while yet. The song was so unstoppable that it even made it back on the country charts, at least in a fashion. As Taste of Country notes, "Old Town Road" debuted at No. 53 on the Country Airplay chart on the week of April 13, mere weeks after Billboard deemed it "not country."

The song's runaway success has made Lil Nas X one of the fastest new artists to make the top of the Hot 100 list, which puts him in the prestigious company of people like Bradley Cooper (for "Shallow," naturally) and … uh, whoever made the "Harlem Shake" song.

Peer reviews

Wherever there is art, you'll also find a gaggle of artists giving their own opinions about said art. Regardless of where on the art spectrum you personally rank "Old Town Road," plenty of famous folks have stepped forward to offer their two cents about it. In April 2019, a Billboard interviewer got country stars Brothers Osborne to renounce the song, though their criticism mostly appears to concern their feeling that Lil Nas X hasn't paid his rightful dues in the industry. (Sounds a little salty.) On the hip-hop side of things, the Source reports that Harlem rapper Dave East has dissed "Old Town Road," to the utter indifference of Lil Nas X.

On the other hand, Rolling Stone notes that more open-minded country dudes such as Keith Urban clearly don't mind the song. Urban covered it, and obviously Billy Ray Cyrus, who featured on the remix, is on board. Other celebs with no horse in this particular race — like Justin Bieber, Mark Ruffalo and Will Smith have also come out in support of the track.

The song makes Billboard and country music face their racist past

As Paper points out, it says something about country music that Lil Nas X was bluntly removed from the country charts, but when the Billy Ray Cyrus remix of "Old Country Road" reached No. 1, a sign congratulating Cyrus (and Cyrus alone) was erected on Music Row in Nashville. Though this particular sign was probably bought by Cyrus' own label or publisher, it's still a celebration of a white man singing the same hit that was ostracized for not being country when it was performed by an African American man. Was the rejection just a musical matter, or is there an underlying racial element?

According to NBC News, the "Old Country Road" incident is forcing country music (and, for that matter, Billboard) to face its murky past. Influential black country artists like Arthur Alexander and O.B. McClinton have historically never charted very well and have struggled to get airplay on country radio, and historian Patrick Huber says the country genre has a strong historical tendency to downplay and ignore its significant African American influences. Meanwhile, Billboard has been defining what should and shouldn't be "country" since the days it was still called "hillbilly music" and featured tons of artists with a history of performing in blackface. With "Old Country Road," Lil Nas X makes the industry review its rotten roots and, hopefully, work toward a more inclusive future.

The producer

Lil Nas X may seem like he came out of nowhere, but he was putting in tons of effort to make his track a viral hit. On the other hand, the man behind the song's underlying beat didn't see it coming in the least. According to Billboard, YoungKio is a 19-year-old Dutch producer and online provider of "type beats" — background tracks reminiscent of a specific rapper's sound (so called because they come with names like "Kendrick Lamar-type beat"). Lil Nas X bought the beat and because the purchase doesn't require the producer to be credited YoungKio had no idea he had become part of the country trap revolution until it started gaining traction. The producer contacted Lil Nas X on Instagram, offered to help with promotion, and asked if his name could be added on the song's credits as a producer. The rapper agreed, and these days, YoungKio's inbox is full of beat requests from artists big and small, including Lil Pump and Rico Nasty. He's also planning to continue his collaboration with Lil Nas.

Still, the producer probably doesn't need to work too hard to recreate his most famous beat. After all, the original wasn't exactly difficult to make — YoungKio has admitted that the "Old Town Road" beat is essentially just a sample from a Nine Inch Nails song called "34 Ghosts IV" that he sped up to give it a trap vibe.

The making of a stage name

Lil Nas X might sound like a supergroup consisting of Lil Wayne, Nas, and DMX, but Montero Lamar Hill actually took the name from the same place that made him a star: the internet. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Hill says he first used "Nas" as his internet alias, and decided to add "Lil" because he found it funny that so many rappers use that particular prefix. As he built his online fanbase, he was pretty much stuck with the name but couldn't resist tinkering with it one last time when he added the X, which he says is a representation of the ten years he estimated it would take before he's at a "legendary level."

Despite the fact that his stage name comes from a relatively innocent place (insofar as the internet can be called that), Hill still fully recognizes its debt to the rap great Nas, whom he says he considers a legend. In fact, XXL reports that Hill has considered changing his artist name because he doesn't want to disrespect Nas.