Revenge of the ‘Hood Nerd

Erk tha Jerk makes Bay Area hip-hop a whole lot smarter.

Richmond emcee Erk tha Jerk is a slender guy with horn-rimmed glasses and a gallows humor. He speaks more slowly and less animatedly than most rappers, without having to constantly drop slang words or acquire a ghetto accent. He calls himself “the ‘hood nerd,” mostly because it’s an impression he gives off by wearing glasses. “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re smart,'” explained Erk, who has worn glasses for twelve years. “But if I take them off, am I not smart?”

Erk has long been amused by how people misread him, since he’s not a nerd in the classical sense — though he might be the nerdiest guy to have a hit song on KMEL, or a stage name in the form “something-the-something.” He was christened by a friend in high school, but says it took him a long time to cop to the name. “I thought it was stupid,” he said. He has tattoos and used to rock a donkey chain, but the glasses have an overpowering affect — which is the main reason that people think Erk is more of a jerk than he actually is.

However, Erk doesn’t mince words. He isn’t afraid to clown someone using insults that could potentially go over that person’s head. And his most famous song, “I’m So Dumb (the Hyphy Diss Song),” might have been the most petulant thing to air on KMEL this year.

“I’m So Dumb” begins with a growly hook, for which the rapper modulates his voice to sound, uncannily, like some of his more famous forebears — the ones with scratched-apart throats and real gravelly intonation. The song’s lyrics are so hysterical and cruel that on first listen, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or just be shocked: You already know, dumb ass giggin’ every time I’m on the floor (I’m so dumb)/Shakin’ my head, brain felt out and I’m damn near dead (I’m so dumb). And yet, the backing track — assembled by Erk and DJ Slow Poke — is unbelievably beautiful: Dry and thinly orchestrated, with a heavy kick and snare shuffle that comes in every sixteenth bar, and a computerized “dumb” to mark the downbeats. It sounds, ironically, like the best material to come out of the hyphy movment — which Erk effectively pronounced dead.

Naturally, the joint was an instant hit. When KMEL music director Big Von broke “I’m So Dumb” on a May afternoon, he played it three times in a row. It quickly landed on the “Seven Most Requested Songs of the Day” list. Erk —who’d long been the bitter, cerebral, unknown, and underappreciated emcee who hung around slinging his mixtapes while a million less-talented artists jumped right on the hyphy bandwagon — was suddenly, finally, a star.

But the emcee demurs. “I am, for lack of a better word, a regular guy,” said Erk, who grew up in Richmond, went to Hayward High School, and says he’s always had a brittle sense of humor, though he used it sparingly. But for a couple rap-star eccentricities — like not wanting to disclose his government name, and giving his age only “in rap years” (he claims to be 26) — the “regular guy” image suits him well. These days, he conducts most business in a small third-floor pre-production room, located in the same downtown Oakland office building that houses Too $hort’s UpAllNight Studio. It’s clean and sparsely furnished with a desk, computer, a poster of Times Square, and next to that, the album cover for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In other words: no blunts; no indie Shug Knights; no hos hanging out on the couch. Erk has been around long enough to know how ephemeral fame can be.

“I stay out the way,” he said. “Because a year ago I wasn’t the one, I was nowhere close. Everybody acted like they didn’t see me. Handin’ my beat CDs, handin’ my mixtapes, nobody wanted to listen to it, nobody cared.”

As befits the name, Erk is a bit of a curmudgeon. He hates Girbaud jeans; in the ’80s he hated bicycle shorts and Hammer pants. He enjoys making sarcastic YouTube videos like his three-episode “Making tha Beat” series, in which Erk and friends show viewers how to make a beat on Reason, and also hoo-ride on anyone with a wave cap that isn’t tied up. Episode three ends with a montage of flapping wave caps set to Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” The last inter-title enjoins viewers to “tie that thang up.” “I just personally have a problem with it,” Erk explained. “So I put it on the mixtape. It offended a lot of people, but it made a lot of change.”

Erk specializes in sardonic material. His other big hit, rapped over a sample from soul band Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, is about resisting the vices and temptations to which other rappers succumb — most notably, hos. The song, appropriately enough, is called “Don’t Need ‘Em,” and the lyrics are pretty mean-spirited (I treatem all like, like I don’t needem, like/Even when they right there, I still don’t seeem), but the context is obviously a parody. In the “Don’t Need ‘Em” the video Erk wakes up, brushes his teeth, pours himself a bowl of cornflakes, walks out the house with said bowl of cornflakes and a backpack slung over one shoulder, and suddenly enters a world of young, beautiful women who are all out to get him. The women loiter on his porch, follow him to the down the block, and make lurid, seductive poses. He gives one of them the cornflakes, but otherwise seems oblivious to their presence.

As Erk explained, “If I chose hos over money, I would be stupid.” He assured that he has no particular animus against hos. “If there was pile of money, and a pile of hos, you would have to pick the money. You know what I’m sayin’?”

But if Erk’s a hater, he’s a hater with a raison d’être that many people buy into — a little kid even approached him outside the studio one day and thanked him for making “I’m So Dumb.” He’s out to make the hyphiest anti-hyphy songs, and save the Bay Area from untalented, wack-ass rappers. For the record, he does not hate hos. He dismisses them because he’s serious about his grind — not because he’s a nerd who wouldn’t know what to do with a ho if one fell from the sky and landed on him. And because he’s so cool and aloof, it’s easy for Erk to attract however many hos he desires. Moreover, he can easily win the affections of hip-hop heads who are apparently nerdier than he is — nerdy enough to fall for a girl in an Erk tha Jerk video, and log the exact time she appears. As one person commented on the YouTube clip for “Don’t Need ‘Em”: “i like the girl at the time from 2:25 to 2:26.”

Which made Erk tha Jerk laugh. “Now that was a nerd.”

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