What a difference a dance makes. Eighteen months ago, the Cali Swag District consisted of four largely anonymous Inglewood teenagers making R&B/hip-hop hybrids and everything in between. They got nowhere. Then it filmed the video for "Teach Me How to Dougie," the biggest domestic dance phenomenon since Soulja Boy taught a nation of online video novices how to "Crank Dat" in 2007.
Go on YouTube. You have your choice of the O.G. version, the sleek "Dougie 2.0" made with Capitol Records money, and a star-studded remix with Bow Wow and B.o.B. — the three of them combined have racked up 50 million views. Interspersed are thousands of fan-made videos, plus renditions performed by the Golden State Warriors, Kim Kardashian, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Chris Brown and Washington Wizards star John Wall engaging in a "Zoolander"-like Dougie-off.
"Teach Me How to Dougie" reached No. 6 on the Billboard rap singles charts and sold roughly 2 million legal downloads. It spawned parody videos, including "Teach Me How to Turkey," "Teach Me, I'm a Dummy," and "Teach Me How to Panda." Released this month, the latter received 100,000 views in just five days. Justin Bieber taught not only Regis and Kelly Ripa, he edified Ellen Degeneres too. A few weeks ago on "American Idol," Ryan Seacrest and Jennifer Lopez did the Dougie.
In fact, the only thing Dougie couldn't do was prompt Capitol Records into releasing the Cali Swag District's full-length debut, "Kickback." Label turbulence and a slow-starting second single ensured that fall became February, which became March, which became the nebulous "coming soon." But that's not surprising with major-label hip-hop full lengths these days, where the download-ravaged industry is gambling with nearly every release.
Ironically, while the Internet overflows with free rap mixtapes and tracks and an avalanche of talent vying for eyes on YouTube, after an act gets the attention and attempts to take it mainstream, labels have to decide whether the investment they were banking on a few months earlier is still worth it. Cali Swag District is still working to prove that it is and that West Coast hip-hop, which hasn't controlled America's rap conversation since N.W.A., Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rose in the late '80s, can still make a national impact.
Delays notwithstanding, the Dougie's star has steadily risen even as its life as an Internet meme has waned. That combination offers a glimpse into the travels of a dance craze and its accompanying hit — a success partly attributable to the strategies that the Cali Swag District, which consists of C-Smoove, Jayare, Yung and dancer M-Bone, have implemented since it first juxtaposed a Dallas-based dance with a sound endemic to Southern California.
"The D-Town boogie was huge in Texas," explained Cali Swag rapper Yung of the dance's genesis. "Lil Will had his song 'My Dougie,' and one day a friend of ours came back to Inglewood from college at Texas Southern and told us that we ought to make a song about the Dougie. We figured, why not do a version for L.A.?"
There was a crucial difference between the Dougies. Despite receiving the backing of major label Asylum Records, Lil Will's hit never went national. Like Hank Ballard, whose initial version of "The Twist" was eclipsed by Chubby Checker's hit, the Cali Swag District capitalized on an existing demand. Plus "Teach Me How to Dougie" was vertically structured — simultaneously a dance song and a how-to manual.
And it's an easy dance to do: Just bend your knees and sway side to side, leaning and twisting your elbows and shoulders and stroking and slicking the back of your hair a la '80s rap icon Doug E. Fresh. Picture a cross between an end-zone dance and the Macarena — with a surfeit of California swagger.
When the group recorded "Teach Me How to Dougie" in late summer 2009, the jerkin' movement, a national dance trend birthed in South L.A., was at its zenith. The New Boyz's "You're a Jerk" dominated local radio, and the trend's vanguards, the Cold Flamez, Audio Push, Pink Dollaz and Y.G., seemed positioned to push the craze onto the national stage. Cali Swag even cut a few jerkin' songs, but those were almost immediately drowned in that season's deluge of homemade tunes that flooded YouTube.
"We never wore skinny jeans, but we were into the jerkin' movement. We made those songs for fun, but they were never something we put our weight behind," said the now-20-year-old C-Smoove, who like the rest of the group sports a style that splits the difference between the skinny-jeaned generation and the gangsta rap of yore: multiple tattoos, facial piercings, Gold Chex-sized earrings, backward baseball cap slanted obtusely and black jeans worn loose but not too baggy.
"When the little kids took over jerkin' toward the end of 2009, basically everyone our age stopped doing it," Yung said about the contagion, one that fell victim to the cardinal rule of youth culture: You and your little brother can't do the same dance for very long. "People will always jerk — like they still clown or krump — but once we dropped 'Dougie,' even the jerk kids started adding the Dougie to their moves."
That was still months away. Initially, all the band had going for them was the guiding hand of its "visionary," Big Wy, a former Death Row Records-signed rapper and force in local hip-hop since the mid-1990s. Best known for co-starring on the Bloods and Crips compilation "Banging on Wax," Wy signed the group and groomed it for stardom.
"They weren't talking about how many people they were going to kill or how much dope they sold," Wy said. "The new generation was partying and having fun. The influences that drove us to make West Coast gangsta rap were in the past. I realized that I could either fade out like the rest of my peers or lay out a platform for the rebirth of West Coast hip-hop. Instead of listening to the square A&Rs who think they can pick hits, we took it to the people and let them decide."
The architect of the song's sound was producer Runway Star, nee Ebony West, the child of former Motown musician Richard West. Influenced by the lunar spaces and hiccupping heavy bass of jerkin' music, Star had already been working with Wy for years when C-Smoove told her his idea for a Dougie song.
"I'd been messing around trying to match ethnic tribal drums to a spacey atmospheric vibe," Star said. "The Dougie was sort of a transitional bridge from the jerkin' era."
Devising a grassroots street team for the digital age, CSD enlisted friends to mass tweet L.A. rap radio tastemaker Power 106. "Even if they didn't know what the song was, we figured we'd make them know," C-Smoove said.
With the video's popularity metastasizing, Cali Swag started playing everywhere from Hollywood teen club nights to Inglewood car shows. Power 106 began giving them spins, the YouTube metrics multiplied exponentially, and Capitol Records signed the band to a deal.
But even then, the group had to overcome that for much of the last decade, young street-oriented West Coast rappers have largely failed to register nationally. Despite scoring massive recent hits with "Buzzin'" and "Toot It and Boot It," West L.A.'s Mann and Compton's Y.G. both failed to cause a dent outside of the West. Moreover, the band struggled to get concrete release dates.
The secret of Cali Swag's success stemmed from more than just its hit's sheer infectiousness. Aided by a new management team and Capitol muscle, the song was aggressively pushed to markets outside of LA.
"We targeted radio stations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York, with [co-manager] Louis Burrell going out on the road and meeting with people face to face," said fellow co-manager Savalas Holloway, who had formerly worked as a vice president of promotion at Interscope. "Once those dominos fell, our job was to figure out how to make it a phenomenon through television, professional sports, Justin Bieber, etc. We had to make sure that everyone embraced the record and the dance."
But the challenges have extended to more than just ensuring populist embrace. Over the last several months, CSD watched as layoffs at Capitol's parent company, EMI Music (which has recently become the property of Citibank), ushered out the executives who signed them, normally a death knell for any act.
The band asked to be released, said Burrell, and Capitol agreed. "A lot of things are going on internally at Capitol, and I've been doing this for 25 years and this group is special. I didn't want to get caught up in politics, so they graciously let us leave to do our own deal." Burrell said that the group will likely release "Kickback" in May, going the independent route via Sphinx Music Entertainment and 319 Music Group — "but with a major distributor, likely Sony or Universal. We didn't want to lose momentum while Citigroup decided its plans for us and the label.
"Besides," added Burrell, "we have access to the same 250 million people that a label has."
According to the group, "Kickback" is bereft of any more how-to dance songs, thus disappointing anyone looking for a sequel.
"'Teach Me How to Dougie' was like a key to open the door for us, and now it's important to keep that buzz going," C-Smoove said. "Dougie was universal; everyone could grasp it, from kids to adults. Now the goal is just to keep flooding the streets with more good music. We don't want to be framed as a dance group. If we ever do another song like that, we'd want it to happen organically."