Jerkin’ is workin’ for ’em

On a still Thursday night, Ben J is talking about how cool his mom is. This is not what you would expect from the 18-year-old MTV star of New Boyz fame. Ben J, or Earl Benjamin as his mother calls him, is one of the main faces of jerkin’, the hip-hop-influenced dance, music and style that started spreading around Los Angeles more than three years ago but blew up last spring when the New Boyz’ “You’re a Jerk” became the first tune of the genre to get radio playtime. It has since inspired kids from Indonesia to France to make YouTube videos of their own loose-limbed dancing.

Thanks to Benjamin and his cohorts, students at middle and high schools across the country are ditching baggy pants and XXL T- shirts for skinny jeans and neon colors and — jerkin’ proponents claim — maybe along the way throwing out worship of gangster culture in favor of entrepreneurship and business smarts.

If you haven’t caught videos of jerkin’ on MTV or YouTube in the last year, picture gangly teenagers “geeked up” in acid colors and skinny jeans. Fro-hawks, bleached flat tops, streaks in the hair the color of Kool-Aid, baseball cap brims flipped up to create “popped lids,” shiny chains or dangling rosary beads and thick-soled skateboard shoes characterize the kids doing the freshest dance on the block.

The music is laptop-crafted, featuring simple beats and sophomoric lyrics. Basics to the dance aren’t complicated: It’s essentially the 1980s running man dance done backward and named the reject. There’s also “the jerk,” where legs are bent and flapped low to the ground like a wayward butterfly.

Jerkin’ has incorporated a grab-bag of retro fashions, says Kevin Jones, the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising’s museum curator and costume historian. Jones has studied fashion history for 30 years and says that early rap style has become retro. He says he’s also surprised that although jerkin’ boys are wearing skinny jeans meant to contour the hips, many still wear the seat of their pants below their behinds.

“What’s interesting is not only to see the skinny jeans being worn low under the butt but wearing button-up shirts [so] that the long flap covers the butt. So, it’s not the kind of sexualized exposure that has been seen in a lot of the rap fashions. It’s kind of more cute and innocent and naïve,” Jones says.

And that might be on purpose. Many in the jerkin’ crews say they are purposely trying to break out of the gangsta mode.

Back in his family’s quiet Victorville home, Benjamin sits relaxed in his denim skinnies and beanie next to his sister Ariel, 13, who looks like a typical jerk girl with a pink streak in her hair and matching plaid button-up. The hit-maker, who got big after his smash YouTube video “You’re a Jerk” last year, says that back when he was swimming in his baggy clothes in Long Beach — before he moved and before he was discovered on the Internet — he used to be more of a trouble-maker.

“Honestly, when I was younger, I used to be bad. Like not superbad. But I was a follower. … I wanted to be part of gang culture,” Benjamin says. “In L.A., people used to go to parties just to shoot it up, just to watch people get hurt or somethin’. It used to be fun to them. Nowadays, people go to parties just to jerk, straight jerk … it’s so fun and everybody’s just grooving,” he adds.

Since joining the jerkin’ movement, Benjamin sees a positive change in himself. He says he’s less defiant with his mother, aims to be a role model for his siblings and has hopes of starting his own production company. Already, he’s had success in branding the New Boyz. His T-shirts, dog tags and bracelets outfitted with his group’s moniker are among the hottest items at mall mainstay Hot Topic.

The jerkin’ movement has changed the focus of a generation, says Benjamin’s “momager” Kiyoko Essley. “You know the thug life and being a thug, it’s not as big as being a businessman and an entrepreneur, and being smart is what’s popular now.”

Perhaps that is the reason why there is a geek chic look to the jerkin’ fashion. The New Boyz hit video “Tie Me Down” even features a backpack strapped to Benjamin.

Equally motivated by the swift rise of businessmen among his peers is Marquis “Nifty” Scott, a fashion-forward member of the L.A. jerkin’ crew JINC. “If we can get big off making these random songs jerkin’ in the street, anything is possible,” Scott says.

Scott, 19, is vice president of the L.A.-based Phlesh Klothing, the “PK” logo-centric tees, crewnecks, tanks, shades and soon-to-be-launched jeans. The 2-year-old clothing company has decked out JINC members, hip-hop beauty Indigo Unchained and made appearances in all the New Boyz videos.

Part of the reason the jerkin’ movement has been such a positive shift for the youth, suggests Shariff Hasan, a filmmaker who’s documenting what he has dubbed “the skinny jeanz movement,” is that many urban kids became interested in technology as a way to isolate themselves from the gang culture in their communities.

“This generation has grown up seeing the value in themselves; they have Facebook, they have MySpace, they have all these tools that perpetuate their individuality,” Hasan says.

Their parents are known to pitch in. Moms regularly hang out at the high-energy functions called jerkin’ parties.

“Everybody knows the jerk moms. Everybody knows the JINC mom, everybody knows the Ranger$ mom, everybody knows my mom,” Benjamin says.

Increasingly, jerkin’ is catching the attention of easy-jiving whippersnappers worldwide. And the general consensus among jerkin’ crews is that the little guys are the ones most attracted to the moves.

In the up-and-coming L.A. crew the Kream Kidz, the youngest — and most nimble — member, Rodney “Freshman” Nelms, is only 11, and Benjamin’s 5-year-old brother, Marc Essley, regularly appears onstage at the New Boyz’s local shows, twisting and grooving before audiences. It’s these pint-sized hip-hoppers who will most likely help the movement to morph rather than disappear altogether, as fads do.

“I think the jerkin’ movement is going to go real far, just by the kids keeping it alive. Not everything is going to stay the way we wanted it to be. But at least we did our job,” Benjamin says.

And did it with a fresh new style.