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Updated: Jul 22, 2023

In his powerful song ’Dead Right Now’, young superstar Lil Nas X says: When you get this rich and famous, everybody come up to you singin’ "Hallelujah, how'd you do it?”

Always controversial, this increasingly iconic star now has the most amazing list of awards and honours, and all by the age of 24. Known for his boldly queer visuals and social media presence, Lil Nas X has received numerous accolades, including two Grammy Awards, five Billboard Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, two BET Hip Hop Awards, two iHeartRadio Music Awards and two American Music Awards. He has also been awarded by the Songwriters Hall of Fame, as the youngest honoree of the Hal David Starlight Award. "Old Town Road" ranks as the highest-certified song in the United States, with 17-times platinum status and the longest run at number 1. He ranked on the Forbes Under 30 list in 2020 and Time's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2021.

So, Montero Lamar Hill, aka phenomenon Lil Nas X, how DID you do it?

To answer that question, let’s take a close look at the genesis of his first explosive breakthrough hit, ‘Old Town Road’:

The track has one of the most interesting back stories in the history of pop music, and this is the basic info on Old Town Road (as someone said 'the huge country hip hop song we never knew we wanted’). And for emerging artists everywhere, it’s an incredible, and ultimately inspiring story.

In 2018, Lil Nas X dropped out of college to pursue a music career even though he was discouraged to do so by his parents. He moved in with his sister, spending time obsessively promoting his music on the Internet while having just three hours sleep each night. Lil Nas X found the beat for "Old Town Road" in October 2018 and began writing the song after his sister told him he had to move out soon. The sample he found called ‘Ninety' and picked up for just $30 on BeatStars, was created in the Netherlands by Kiowa Roukema, who operates professionally as DJ YoungKio. Add $20 for recording the vocal at Atlanta studio CinCoYo, and you have a total initial investment of $50. It is estimated that Lil Nas has made $15m from it.

The day after the session at CinCoYo, the original version was released independently on December 3, 2018, as part of the growing "Yeehaw Agenda" meme, a movement utilising cowboy fashion and culture (it came in the wake of Lil Tracy's 2018 single "Like a Farmer", which was later remixed by Lil Uzi Vert). Lil Nas X’s sleepless nights familiarising himself with internet platforms and low-to-no-budget strategies came in handy as he promoted the song via SoundCloud, Instagram and Spotify. He began creating memes to promote "Old Town Road” and it was picked up by TikTok users (Lil Nas X’s first music video for OTR was composed entirely of footage and clips from the 2018 Western action-adventure game, Red Dead Redemption 2).

The $30 sample purchased from YoungKio turned out to include an undeclared sample from the Nine Inch Nails, but Trent Rezner liked the track and approved the use. He would later be rewarded with his first Nine Inch Nails number one, as part of the ‘Old Town Road’ team.

Lil Nas X has been accused of unscrupulously building a six-figure online following as a ‘tweetdecker’, and using search engine optimisation, such as shamelessly asking questions on Reddit about his own track to encourage people to check it out. He certainly showed internet savvy and TikTok was soon awash with dance videos using the track. On March 16, the song landed on the Billboard country chart, but was later removed as being too far out for their definition of the genre. That controversy only fanned the flames and when it was hitting 15 in the Billboard main chart, Columbia Records stepped in and signed up the track. The label’s boss Ron Perry called Billy Ray Cyrus to see if he would participate in a remix, and Billy Ray added his extra vocals during March of 2019. By early April, his daughter Miley was banging on his door early one morning to tell him that his version of OTR was just moving from number 2 on Billboard to number 1. And there it stayed, for a record-breaking 19 weeks, until finally toppled by Billie Eilish.

Back in the 1980’s, Chaka Khan recorded a song which boldly straddled the line between R&B and Country, called ‘Best In The West’:

So the idea of a fusion between Soul Train and Grand Ole Opry wasn’t brand new. However, the blend has certainly reached its zenith to date with ‘Old Town Road’. Add its award-winning videos, and the result is a surrealistic, raggedy, unforgettable and heart-warming comment on style, success and race in the US today, and the world is all the better for it.

Since Old Town Road, Lil Nas X has proved his talent over and over again, with great songs and hits such as Industry Baby, Montero (Call Me By Your Name), That’s What I Want, Panini etc. But it all had to start somewhere and that magical $50 starting point was the magical ‘Old Town Road’.

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