15 Years Ago, Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” Gave Us One of Hip Hop’s Most Iconic Dance Moves Ever

We revisit the genius of “Lean Back” 15 years after its release.

Daniel Schwartz

These days, any given hip hop dance craze is guaranteed to be co-opted by some foreign body in desperate need of clout. Fortnite stole the Shoot and the Milly Rock, Ryan Seacrest butchered the Shiggy, Hillary Clinton single-handedly murdered the Nae Nae. It’s only a matter of time before Joe Biden tears his rotator cuff attempting to hit the Woah.

By contrast, the "Lean Back," popularized by Terror Squad’s 2004 smash hit of the same name, was so smooth, so understated that it was virtually immune to corporations, politicians, and aging celebrities angling to extract it of its value. It was a classic case of addition by subtraction. Fat Joe took the Rockaway, a popular Jamaican dance at the time that involved crossing one’s arm and rocking back to the beat, and reduced it to a simple, reclining motion. The Lean Back was more than a dance—it was a state of mind, a lifestyle.

It all began with a seductive, strings-driven Scott Storch beat, which Joe found so tantalizing that he was terrified to rap over it for two months. When he eventually gave it a shot, the chorus and dance came into existence out of a single stroke of creative genius. “With the hook, the Jamaican shit was out at the time [Elephant Man’s ‘Signal di Plane’], ‘Rockaway, Rockaway! Signal the plane, signal the plane!’” Fat Joe said in an interview with Complex. “So I was like, ‘I need to make a fucking dance.’ So I was like, ‘My niggas don’t dance, we just pull up our pants, and do the Rockaway.’”

“Lean Back” was inescapable during the summer of 2004. It spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and launched Remy Ma’s career into orbit. (“The whole concept of the album was to make the whole group shine, not just Fat Joe,” Joe told the New York Post during a 2004 interview. “I wanted to jump-start the careers of everyone in the Terror Squad. I’m tired of everyone saying Fat Joe is the greatest.”)

Joe and Remy married a party anthem with verses grounded in New York City’s grand tradition of lyrically-minded, iron-tough rappers.

But the single had another legacy: it predicted the era of snap music that dominated rap radio from 2005 to 2007, when many singles came with instructions for a new, infectious dance—songs like “Lean With It, Rock With It,” “Walk It Out,” “Shoulder Lean,” "It’s Goin' Down,” and “Crank That (Soulja Boy).” The difference was that all of those songs came out of Atlanta. Joe and Remy married a party anthem with verses grounded in New York City’s grand tradition of lyrically-minded, iron-tough rappers.

Anyone who claims that "Lean Back" is for club-goers who were too cool to fully bust a move are wrong. The Lean Back, in fact, offers just the right amount of cool. Pulling up one’s pants (a simple, dignified gesture) and moving in sync with a crowded dance floor, suggests you’re not above the people around you. “Lean Back” represents one of the many high points of Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s respective careers, and not just because the song was #1 for three weeks.

They made the ultimate club song. They got people who don’t ordinarily dance to do so. Possibly even more importantly, they invented a dance move that doesn’t stop you from drinking.

Stream Terror Squad's True Story which features the infamous single, "Lean Back," on all streaming platforms now.