Everyone started jerkin’ last year. When the kids returned from summer vacation, it was like they’d contracted some rare virus. A tsetse-fly bite in reverse, but rather than sleeping sickness, teenagers from Long Beach to Lancaster started getting geeked up ... a dancing dominoes of flailing limbs, skinny jeans and fluorescent accessorizing. Jerkin’ at talent shows and on top of lunchroom tabletops. Jerkin’ in parking lots and bus stops, underground teen clubs, every single function (party), and, of course, on YouTube. Much of Los Angeles’ 18-and-under population was jerkin’ — presumably because they were the only ones young enough not to snicker at the term’s historically self-flagellating connotation.
Every generation has its own rites and rituals, but they all share the desire to delineate themselves from their predecessors and create something unique. L.A. natives were never going to ghost-ride the whip, that’s a Bay Area thing. The “Crank That” dance and “Stanky Leg” were cool, but that was the Dirty South’s thing. And no one wanted to rock khakis and oversized white tees anymore. I mean, you’re really going to gangbang? That’s so ’90s. Besides, Ice Cube said it best: Gangstas don’t dance, they boogie.
The MySpace masses needed something new ... and jerkin’ was new. Yeah, yeah, there was that old Monkey ripoff where everyone’s grandparents “did the jerk.” Sure, there was that movie The Jerk, with that guy from The Pink Panther, but that was a million years ago. So what if jerkin’s go-to move, the Reject, is essentially a lateral grasshopper glide that amounts to the Running Man, or that its roots can be partially traced to gang dances like the Hoover Stomp and the Crip Walk? It doesn’t matter when the girls love it. All spring, every time you entered Fox Hills Mall or the Beverly Center, or the Ladera Starbucks, some crew was hollering. There’s this function that only we know about. All of them, rocking the uniform: tilted lids with stickers on the brims, skinny jeans, Mohawks, piercings, glasses, tattoos, skateboards, Vans and a crisp tee the color of an equatorial fruit.
Clownin’ and Krumpin’ were the last local crazes, and while Dave LaChapelle’s documentary Rize may have become the hip “2005-I-Know-What-the-Kids-are-Doing” name-drop among the Camembert-and-Cabernet crowd, neither trend blew up. It’s not hard to see why. Have you ever tried to Krump? Unless your arms and legs are looser than Slinkys, you’ll look lamer than a satin vest on a fat man. But provided you have a modicum of rhythm, anyone can jerk. All you really need to do is feel the beat and put a little swag, or style, into it.
When school started last September, Swaggin’, the Reject’s predecessor, still held sway, but by Thanksgiving, it might as well have been the Macarena. People first started uploading YouTube clips jerkin’ to cuts from Bay Area rappers E-40, the Pack, Keak Da Sneak and Atlanta trap-rapper Gorilla Zoe’s “Hood Nigga.” But soon, everyone just started to make their own. In Long Beach and Compton, YG, Tay 3rd, the Cold Flamez and girl group the Vixenz emerged with scabrous sex raps that would freak out most of their parents, had said parents not been weaned on Eazy-E’s “Gimme That Nutt.”
A fertile scene cropped up at Hamilton High too, that perennial talent locus thanks to its renowned Academy of Music. There, a bespectacled, softspoken kid named Jeremy Hawkins (a.k.a. J-Hawk) alchemized the perfect jerkin’ beat, and when he did, a chain reaction started like he was Enrico Fermi, not a bookish, baby-faced 17-year-old messing around with Reason music software in the garage. Cooking up massive but somehow minimalist beats with a slow tempo, the low end cranked up as high as possible. Soon everyone either wanted to rap over a J-Hawk beat or jerk to one. Besides offering beats to YG and Tay 3rd, J-Hawk supplied classmates Pink Dollaz and YT — the latter of whom also danced in jerkin’s biggest crew, the Go-Go Power Ranger$.
One more group occasionally rapped over J-Hawk beats: Ben J (Earl Benjamin) and Legacy (Dominic Thomas), two 17-year-olds who had grown up around Los Angeles before their families moved out to Victorville, only found out about jerkin’ from watching it on YouTube. Calling themselves the New Boyz, they failed in their first attempt to make a jerkin’ anthem (“I Jerk”), but the duo got it right when Legacy produced “You’re a Jerk,” the song that is to jerkin’ what Chubby Checker was to the Twist.
Sometime early in the new year, “You’re a Jerk” began appearing on seemingly every MySpace page, Twitter account, YouTube and AIM, and in every all-ages dance club. Word spread virally and organically — no managers, no radio, nothing. Just a bunch of ’90s babies using every technological tool at their disposal to share music they loved. Then in February, Power 106 recruited the New Boyz to perform at local high schools. The next month, “You’re a Jerk” cracked the station’s playlist, and, well, that’s when things started to get really crazy.