The best trends tend to outlast their shelf lives. In 2009, the limber-legged teenage dance craze known as jerkin took Los Angeles by storm, fueled by appropriately energetic bedroom raps and electro beats. The scene bubbled up nationally, produced a few hits and was then quickly presumed dead by casual listeners and the media. But a Saturday afternoon assemblage at a San Francisco YMCA paints a different picture, as a few hundred kids pour their hearts out through their feet at a jerkin battle pitting LA versus the Bay. Beneath the thump of the bass and the stomp of Chuck Taylors, Young Sam, the self-proclaimed King Of Jerk, holds a quiet court. “Jerk music’s positive. I don’t see why people would want it to fade away,” he says. “I’d rather have kids jerkin than gang-banging or stealing or whatever.”
At just 22, Sam’s the oldest young man in the building. The LA rapper has made the six-hour drive north for the event to show his support and shoot some footage for a forthcoming music video. With an orange letterman draped over his lanky, tattooed form he mostly hovers around the perimeter of the crowd. He says he doesn’t dance anymore—“I’m old now”—and when he speaks of partygoers, most of which look to be in their mid-to-late teens—he repeatedly refers to them as “the kids.”
Back in ’09, Sam was still considered one of them. His entrance to the jerkin world came via a YouTube clip of Sam and some friends dancing on a freeway overpass. The video managed to rack up over a million views and inspired Sam to fold his preexisting rap aspirations into the burgeoning movement. A few years and several Hulkshare links later, he stands as the genre’s most visible solo artist. In part, this is a testament to his talents. Sam rhymes with a cool charisma and an elastic flow that lands somewhere between Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, while his producer Icez’ tracks hiccup vocal samples and pulsate with even greater urgency than the first wave of jerkin productions.
But Sam also sort of defaulted into the role as one of the few rappers still standing proudly on the circuit. In the era of Drake introspection and Rick Ross menace, the traditional fun of jerkin—limbless body movements, mostly non-confrontational rhymes—conflicts with the tenets of so-called serious music. Where many of his peers have caved to these pressures and opted to grow out of the genre, Sam has stayed the course. He’s adopted the phrase “Jerkin Cant Die” as both a mission statement and a mixtape series title. The continued appeal of these tapes proves his thesis.
While he remains dedicated to the movement, Sam’s also quick to point out that his skills run deeper. “I’m an artist. I don’t just do jerk music.” His YouTube account is brimming with variety, from straight up ballads to a song called “Black Knowledge” that invokes Tupac and Martin Luther King Jr., but he’s well aware of his audience’s preferences. “I’ll put out a love song and in a week it’ll get like 20,000 views, but if I put out a jerk song it’ll get 100,000.” Where others might try to shake such pigeonholing, Sam’s embraced it for the greater good. “I just want to make everybody happy,” he says. “At my age I probably wouldn’t even be talking about jerkin, but I built a connection with everybody so I’m gonna continue.” And he does. Back at the jerkin battle, old man Sam makes a brief appearance dancing in the heart of the cipher.
Stream: Young Sam, King of Jerk