Jerky boys and girls
By all accounts, Sunday is still a school night, but none of the few hundred teens who took over a block in downtown’s deserted warehouse district in early May seemed to care. Many of them stayed out past midnight, done up in bleached afro mohawks and tight turquoise pants, hoping to get some camera time in the video for New Boyz’s song “You’re a Jerk.”
The sunburned film crew had been working all day, starting on a residential street in Inglewood that basically had to be shut down because of the crowd. The only promotion for the shoot happened a day earlier, when Ben J and Legacy, the two teenage members of New Boyz, announced the address in the away messages of their AOL Instant Messenger accounts. Asked if he expected such a turnout, DJ Skee, the video’s executive producer, replied, “I had no idea.”
“You’re a Jerk” is a simple but appealing concoction. There’s little to it besides a methodically pacing keyboard line, twitching electronic drums, some serious bass and a couple of 17-year-old rappers who deliver their lyrics in a manner that borders on blase. Yet the song has become the best bet to bring national attention to jerk music and the dance style associated with this L.A.-born sound.
As a dance, jerkin’ is bouncy and loose-limbed. Moves like dips and pin drops revolve around nimble lower-body work. The reject, the staple jerkin’ move, can be best compared to doing the running man, a late-1980s dance-floor classic, in reverse. Of course each dancer has his individualized way of jerkin’ -- some more acrobatic, aggressive or suggestive than others.
Male-dominated dance crews such as Action Figure$, U.C.L.A. Jerk Kings, LOL Kid$z and the Ranger$ make names for themselves by battling other crews and by uploading self-produced videos to YouTube. These clips are largely improvised showcases, since after claims of stealing moves, the most common attack leveled against another crew is that its videos are choreographed.
“You can practice if you want to, but people will think you’re weak,” said Ranger$ founder Julian Goins, 16. “It looks like you’re a robot.”
Jerk culture has been spreading around Los Angeles’ high schools and all-ages clubs for more than two years, but it’s because of “You’re a Jerk” that the music industry started paying attention. “You’re a Jerk” isn’t the first jerk song, but it was the first to get play on L.A.'s urban radio stations, the first to break through in non-local markets from Phoenix to Birmingham, Ala., and the first to signal to other jerk music artists that fame really can extend beyond MySpace and house parties.
“When ‘You’re a Jerk’ got played on Power 106 [in March], that’s when this coalesced as a culture,” said Shariff Hasan, the 30-year-old filmmaker behind “Jerkin,” an upcoming feature film set in this world.
A new direction
This current generation of teenagers is the first to come of age when neither Los Angeles nor New York is the dominant city in rap music. This reality not only makes the youths more open to the influences of hip-hop’s regional variants like snap music from Atlanta or hyphy from Northern California’s Bay Area, it also helps break down the conventions of what L.A. rap is supposed to sound and look like.
The majority of jerk music is produced in home studios on personal computers, using relatively accessible software such as Reason and FL Studio. Breaking from the gangster rap that L.A. popularized, it’s unabashed party music with lyrics that are flirtatious and salacious. It can be incredibly explicit, with all-female groups like Vixenz Ent! and Pink Dollaz coming off just as raunchy as their male counterparts.
For these teens, wearing the skinny jeans associated with the jerkin’ scene is nearly a political statement.
“When I was in high school . . . the artistic kids wore dark clothing, had a certain haircut and when you walked into the cafeteria they kept to themselves at their own tables,” said Todd Moscowitz, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Records and president of hip-hop subsidiary label Asylum Records. “What’s interesting to me is that now the artistic kids, instead of being shunned, they’re the cool kids.”
Asylum has invested heavily in jerk music: The company made it a priority this summer to break New Boyz nationally, signed groups Rej3ctz and Cold Flamez and is looking at the other jerk music acts that have been multiplying over the past few months.
While established stars such as Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco have provided a path for flouting hip-hop dogma about sonics and appearances, they are individuals, not a growing youth trend. “I hope jerk becomes an experimental place for urban music,” Moscowitz said. “Anyone willing to walk into a Los Angeles public high school with skinny jeans and bright purple hair is clearly willing to take chances.”
Crazy about New Boyz
Two days after their video shoot, Ben J and Legacy of New Boyz sat in a classroom at Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park, surrounded by posters about the dangers of smoking and steroid use. They recounted how they met at Hesperia High School in San Bernardino County, where they were part of a nearly 20-member group that made Southern California gangster rap and dressed the part.
About 11 months ago, the two split off and decided to make music that they thought girls would like. “They buy music and men just listen,” said Ben J, who wore a red leather jacket reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s in the video for “Thriller.”
Picking up on the growing popularity of jerkin’, they made a song called “I Jerk.” When it didn’t take off, they came back with “You’re a Jerk,” which caught the attention of DJ Carisma, who brought it to Power 106.
“I play at a lot of high schools and I’m around kids a lot. Everybody kept asking for this song and it was strictly because of their MySpace,” she said. “I went to [DJs] E-Man and Felli Fel and said, ‘How could we not be playing this? This is the hottest song in L.A.’ ”
“You’re a Jerk” is now one of the station’s most requested songs and is getting about 60 spins a week.
In February, the duo began appearing at Power 106’s basketball fundraisers for local high schools. At halftime they performed “You’re a Jerk” while roaming the court with cordless mikes, then they’d play in the game’s second half (changing into shorts from zebra-striped pants) and finish with an autograph session.
As the school year went on and New Boyz’s popularity grew, the crowds’ response became more fanatical. During the Sierra Vista game, school officials decided that there wasn’t enough security, so the postgame autograph session was canceled. As New Boyz left the court at the end of the game, students swarmed the pair, thrusting pens in their faces and flashing digital cameras. Ben J and Legacy ended up throwing their T-shirts into the mob, partially as a distraction to get away.
After they were mobbed a second time trying to leave the school, a girl in checkered red and white shorts crowed to anyone who’d listen, “I touched their butts, I touched their bodies, they’re so sexy.” Farther down the yard, another girl who hadn’t been so lucky miserably said to her friends, “I wish we were there. I wish everything could be rewinded back.”
Rej3ctz from the start
On Memorial Day weekend, the three members of Rej3ctz were in Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area in Ladera Heights for a “function” -- jerk’s catchall term for any party, anywhere. DJ Goofy, whose events are considered the jumping-off point for jerk culture, had organized a picnic, but the portable generator had run out of gas, so the turntables were silent.
Though in their early 20s, Rej3ctz members Mowie, Pee Wee and BOUNCE are considered elders in the scene. As they tell it, they played an essential part in its beginnings.
Despite the growing interest in the jerkin’ movement, many of the details about its origins remain murky. What is certain is that the dance style known as jerkin’ predated actual jerk music, and that before L.A. artists began making music specifically to jerk to, the usual soundtrack was hyphy.
The most common explanation about where jerkin’ came from is that it’s a mutation of gang dances like the Crip walk. While Rej3ctz do say that growing up amid that culture in South Los Angeles affected them, they offer a different story.
They all started off clowning and krumping -- krumping being the last major dance style to emerge from Los Angeles, though its success was limited because it wasn’t tied to any specific style of music. They briefly appeared in David LaChapelle’s “Rize,” the 2005 documentary about those forms of dance, and during the making of the film, choreographers Tone and Rich Talauega showed a dance style out of Chicago called footwork. Rej3ctz explain that their take on footwork became the reject, or the reject stomp.
Group member Mowie then spent three years touring as a dancer for Madonna, and while he was away, the other Rej3ctz spread the style around South L.A. at DJ Goofy’s parties. Rej3ctz eventually started making music as well, and while in Israel with Madonna for Rosh Hashana, Mowie met music producer 7 Aurelius, who had crafted major hits for Ja Rule and Ashanti. Since then, Aurelius has been mentoring and recording the group.
Rej3ctz take credit for many of the fashions associated with jerk culture. Mowie stated that the broader cultural exposure he got while touring led him to adopt a more European look.
“Back in ’06, ’07, people weren’t wearing skinny jeans in our hood, and on 120th and Avalon I’m walking down the street in pointy boots,” he said.
It even took the other crew members a while to follow him. “His jeans got skinny, and my jeans took a month to get skinny, but they eventually got there,” Pee Wee said. “Then he was on lucrative skinny, and it took me another month to get there.”
Though the members of the Ranger$ (formerly, and still popularly, known as Go-Go Power Ranger$) say they have been jerkin’ for less than half a year, they’ve quickly become the city’s most popular dance crew. They recently won the first organized battle at Jerk Fest ’09, which took place at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park, but that victory has only caused more crews to challenge them.
“As a group, we’re taking care of business right now,” said Jacorey “Corey” Williams. “We not trying to be out here battling for respect, because we already got that respect, and we already got that fame.”
“We’re trying to mainstream jerkin’,” Goins added.
In front of Hamilton High, which most of the Ranger$'s core members attend, a photographer tried to keep the attention of the eight teenage boys. Tammy Maxwell -- Goins’ mother and manager of the Ranger$ -- referenced all the projects they had in the works: the producer she’s secured to handle their musical careers, the live web chat they have set up and the reality show she wants to develop.
After the photo shoot, the Ranger$ walked over to a nearby Taco Bell and filmed themselves jerkin’ in the middle of the street. Just 24 hours later, Goins had edited the footage in Windows Movie Maker and uploaded it to YouTube. And 24 hours after that, it had 289 comments and 12,516 views.
To say that those in the jerk music community are shrewd makes the culture sound calculated, but these young, predominantly African American performers are ambitious and think about marketing themselves.
“The whole movement is about all-around entrepreneurship. That leads to individualistic expression,” Hasan said. “And jerkin’ is individualistic expression.”
JHawk is the top producer in jerk music right now. He decides whether to respond to the approximately 15 requests for backing beats he receives each day based on a group’s MySpace stats. He’ll only get back to artists who have at least 2,000 friends, more than 50,000 profile views and more than 100,000 total plays of their posted songs. “I’ll look at your comments too,” he said.
Though he might be a respected career booster, JHawk is also a skinny 17-year-old who is currently finishing his senior year at the music academy of Hamilton High School and preparing to attend Cal State Northridge in the fall. He makes his music on a Dell computer he’s had for about six years. When his grades slip, his parents forbid him from spending time in his studio that’s really a converted garage space in the back of their house.
With the success of “You’re a Jerk,” jerk music artists recognize that their next goal is to get a new song on the radio, and for many of these teenage groups that won’t happen until they make their songs less adult. JHawk works closely with the all-female quintet Pink Dollaz and he’s been encouraging them to clean up their language.
“The [previous] lyrics kind of backfired,” he said. “We did a new song called ‘Trendsetter.’ Before I posted it up, I made sure to type in all capital letters, C-L-E-A-N.”