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After the third time MySpace deleted their band's page, Matt Mihana, then age 17, and Nabil Moo, then age 18, considered abandoning both the site and the band. It was impossible, the site's police said, that one song was garnering 50,000 plays a day; the duo was obviously using software to ratchet up the numbers. So they got deleted once. Then again. "After the third time we got deleted," says Nabil, now 19 years old, "we were like, 'Should we give up?'"
But the numbers were improbably, insanely real. Kids could not stop listening to one of only two tracks uploaded under the duo's moniker, I Set My Friends on Fire. And the track was a hastily uploaded joke, a brutal, screaming version of a pop-rap song whose popularity was also largely Internet-propelled: Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat." To date, their version of the song has been played on MySpace more than one million times and has spawned numerous copycat sites, further spoofs, and tribute videos.
It has also, in the process, drawn a lot of attention to the band's other songs and landed it, on the strength of just a handful of those, a bona-fide record deal with punk rock's holy grail: Epitaph Records. I Set My Friends on Fire's debut album, You Can't Spell Slaughter Without Laughter, will be released October 7. Welcome to the crowd-sourced method of A&R in 2008. "The Internet's a powerful thing," Nabil says, laughing, aware he's just uttered the understatement of the century.
The duo is chipper and animated on a recent afternoon at — where else? — a Starbucks in their stomping ground of — where else? — Kendall. Although the guys have done several e-mail and phone interviews, this is their first real-life sit-down, so they're refreshingly eager to talk. They're also bolstered by the presence of Nabil's 28-year-old brother, Kamal, an L.A.-based entertainment lawyer who has become the band's manager and minder/chaperone. He distributes frappuccinos and slices of marble loaf cake before settling down with his iPhone, which he'll use continually to check — what else? — the band's MySpace page.
Matt's parents are Egyptian, and Nabil's are Jamaican, but both boys grew up in Miami; Matt attended Palmetto Senior High, and Nabil went to Palmer Trinity. They met about three years ago as members of a more traditional, straight-ahead band called We Are the Cavalry — "cavalry, like the guys on horses, not Calvary, like the cross," Matt is quick to point out. That band broke up when the guitarist moved to Texas to attend college and the drummer "went to the Rocky Mountains to find himself."
That left only Matt and Nabil, who decided to branch out on their own, just the two of them and a fuck-the-world 'tude. "We decided there would be no limits and we'd do whatever we wanted. We wouldn't care what people said; it would start off with our own pleasure," Matt says. Nabil had inherited a small home studio setup from Kamal and began teaching himself how to program beats using Propellerhead's Reason software. Thus was born the band's division of labor: Nabil twiddles knobs and plays some live instruments, while Matt writes lyrics and then alternately sings and howls them. "He does his own thing; he sends it to me through e-mail, and I come back, and we put it together, and that's it," Matt says.
Matt and Nabil decided in August 2007 to create a MySpace page for the act. But they didn't yet have anything recorded. Then Matt was listening to the radio one day when he heard Soulja Boy's improbable hit. "I was like, 'Whoa, what's this? It's stupid and it's funny. How funny would it be if we just did a cover of it?'" He recalls. "At first we didn't agree on it. Even my girlfriend at the time said it was a bad idea. But I said, 'I promise you, something good will come out of it.'"
Nabil hit his home lab and quickly re-created the song's distinctive, but easily copied, calypso-grind beat. Quickly they recorded Matt's vocals, a groaning, mocking, growling take on the rap. They uploaded the track to MySpace and called it a day, intending to try to grow their friends list and promote the track some other time.
But somehow, somebody found it and told two friends. And they told two friends. And the whole thing snowballed as the tune became people's profile song, so it instantly played when their own pages loaded. "My ex-girlfriend and I took a nap, and then we woke up, and I saw all these plays and I thought, No, no, that can't be right," Matt says. By the end of the first week of the page's — and the band's — existence, they had 10,000 Internet "friends." By the end of the next week, that had grown to 20,000. And then MySpace deleted their page and they were back to square one. Then it happened again, and they created a new page again.
The song leaked to the Lime Wire file-sharing service. A number of fake pages sprouted up, all claiming to be the real band, and in many cases adding their own spoof songs.