On a Friday afternoon in May 2008, an aspiring rapper named Easton hopped in a black Crown Victoria with his three buddies — Mook, Myko McFly, and Vee — for a 35-minute drive down the I-285 S to Riverdale to Mook’s uncle’s house. To the outsider, the trip might look like they were celebrating Easton graduating Stone Mountain High School the day before. But this had been the crew’s usual ritual over the past few months. They made use of the home’s makeshift studio: a closet wide enough for Easton’s outstretched arms to touch the walls, but longer than his under 6-foot body frame.
The four recorded a couple of songs that day, as per usual. The difference this time around was that they were inspired by a brass-centered beat they found on MySpace (and bought for $500) and a nameless wading dance created by local street rap crew Southside Mafia. The result sounded like it was recorded in a closet. The ad-libs mix into the hook’s sung harmonies in a way that interrupts rather than compliments, and the bass bounces wildly from plasticky to distorted. At the very least, the song did popularize that dance by giving it a name: The Surf.
Out of that closet came “Swag Surfin’,” the jubilant classic that introduced Easton and his three friends, Fast Life Yungstaz, to the nation. Over the next 10 years, they’d watch the creation be embraced by college marching bands, sports locker rooms, and protests for black liberation. F.L.Y.’s reach was within driving distance at first, though. The pals really just wanted to make a song for the clubs they loved to frequent.
In the area, DJ Pretty Boy Tank was known for DJing high school parties and for being part of locally known rap group Die-Hard, alongside Vee and Myko. He was in the midst of parlaying his success to adult clubs but hardly anybody came to Decatur’s A-Town East for his first attempts to do so in 2007. The club’s owner believed in his popularity enough to give him another shot, which became the following summer’s Wasted Wednesdays, a weekly bouillabaisse of sweat, twerk, and colorful polos that lasted all season long.
The $3 per drink/$15 per pitcher deal was an easy draw, and Pretty Boy remembers the procession of pitchers serving the thirsty crowd. “Wasted Wednesdays was one of those parties where it was like walking into somebody’s basement,” he says. “There were barely seats, one big ol’ stage, and the DJ booth. It was just a vibe. If you didn’t leave sweaty, you didn’t have a good time.” As for what was in those pitchers: “No Hpnotiq, but we had punch that looked like Hpnotiq.”
Mook, Myko, Vee, and Easton were pretty much the only ones leaning left-to-right in unison when Pretty Boy Tank dropped their record for the first time at a July 2008 edition of the party. The next week, half the club followed along. Most of the venue joined in by week three. The anthem then circulated around several of the Dekalb County clubs it eventually outlasted, hitting Figure 8 when it wasn’t just the site of a humble discount mall, and Studio 72 before it shuttered its doors. It’d eventually become a mainstay on Atlanta radio. “[Radio DJs] were like, ‘The shit sounds horrible,’” says F.L.Y.’s then-manager Major Profit about that original mix. “But they had to play it because it’s in high demand. By this time, the city knew it. It was one of those things where they had to play it.”
Pretty Boy says “Swag Surfin’” grew to accumulate millions of MySpace plays, which would make it a clear target for major labels eager to duplicate the success of Soulja Boy, hip-hop’s first viral star. Def Jam signed F.L.Y. at the top of 2009 and officially released the re-recorded version that March. The opening horns became clarion and the bass grew muscle. “With the Def Jam version, when them drums hit, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what song that is,’” Pretty Boy says. “Even to this day, you hear them drums or them horns, you’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what song that is.’ You could hear it from outside the club, a couple cars down if you’re in traffic, or wherever.”
Thus, “Swag Surfin’” became yet another Southern hit in an era that delivered Gucci Mane and Plies’ “Wasted,” Young Money’s “Every Girl,” and Roscoe Dash’s “All the Way Turnt Up.” Ten years later, those singles’ charm largely rests on nostalgia. But “Swag Surfin” has remained present and restorative enough for many to earnestly believe in its spiritual properties.
In 2008, K.E., short for Kevin Erondu, worked at McDonald’s to pay rent and ran a shoe store to fund his equipment and his trips to Atlanta. On those trips, he’d leave CD copies containing his music and contact info in front of the rooms and counters of the city’s studios. Young L.A. — who struck gold with fellow Atlantans T.I. and Young Dro on the frothing hit “Ain’t I” — was one of the first major label artists to bite. K.E. provided the beat for L.A.’s lesser-known local hit “36 O’s.” He notes that the instrumental is essentially the Terminator theme with drums; Mook liked it because it reminded him of Sonic the Hedgehog and Zelda. Nonetheless, hearing K.E.’s producer tag led F.L.Y. to his MySpace page.
“I was probably more excited than everybody,” K.E. says. “When you’re constantly considered a failure in the eyes of [people] who traditionally think you should work a nine-to-five and you’re working at McDonald’s or you haven’t officially graduated with a high school diploma, anybody in that position who gets a win that big, they’re jumping up and down.”
“Swag Surfin” is a perfect storm of its hometown’s most cherished musical exports. Atlanta’s 21st century reign has hit the nation in waves: Fight-ready crunk music (Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”; Lil Jon) had its moment from ‘03 to ‘05, then the minimalist, dance-oriented snap (D4L’s “Laffy Taffy”; Soulja Boy’s “Crank That”) took hold until 2008. Trap, which was doing numbers since crunk broke the mainstream, continued fiercely parallel with the snap/dance era and has since nestled itself within pop music’s DNA. Sandwiched third chronologically, the futuristic era — Travis Porter, Young L.A., and F.L.Y.’s time — marked a switch from baggy clothing to colorful fitted apparel and sci-fi imagery. It’s chronicled in DJ Pretty Boy Tank and DJ Spinz’ Space Invaders mixtape series, which prominently featured K.E.’s production. “If these guys are like, ‘I’m an astronaut, I’m a Martian, I’m a space invader,’ K.E. reasoned, “they were like, ‘We might as well capitalize on this mixtape called Space Invaders.’”
“Swag Surfin’” has features from all four subgenres. A central irony is how its signature dance originated from a local crunk group known for actually fighting in clubs. There’s also trap’s 808s and a dance routine attached. Besides location and signatures, one recurring theme that binds the subgenres is how they were regarded as symptoms of a decline instead of progression. A lot of snap music was admittedly disposable, but the idea that it’d kill hip-hop after 30 years of life was a hysterical one. Nas denied he was taking aim at the South, but titling Hip-Hop Is Dead as the South dominated definitely crossed some of his peers from the region. Young Jeezy, for example, openly questioned his credibility (they’d eventually make peace and create the Barack Obama-era anthem, “My President Is Black”). A decade out, dismissing a song that carries the lineage in its sonic makeup, and that’s become a generation-wide touchstone, is clear wrongheadedness.
There’s no intended science to “Swag Surfin’.” Even the song’s creators and the DJs who saw it rise from Decatur to the world talk about it like some irreplicable magic they stumbled upon. K.E. on the Track’s now-famous instrumental that he sold to the group on Myspace wasn’t a singular act of technical expertise — just the combination of FL Studio and Acid Pro, a palm-sized monitor speaker, and a Radioshack Casio keyboard that incorrectly rigged into his laptop. He’d soon be brushing off producers who asked for some of the production genius he didn’t really have, giving evasive answers like, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
Part of what defines magic is how it can’t be explained away by common metrics. “Swag Surfin’” peaked at No. 62 on the June 27, 2009 edition of the Hot 100, yet a majority of the songs charting above it aren’t held with the same endearment as F.L.Y.’s lone hit — not Kid Cudi’s “Make Her Say,” T.I.’s Justin Timberlake-featuring “Dead and Gone,” or Sean Kingston’s “Fire Burning.” Giddiness bubbles within K.E.’s voice as if he’s reliving getting his first hit with “Swag Surfin’” ten years ago mid-conversation, but even the massive number of YouTube clicks that piled up feels like a blip in his excitement. F.L.Y. told him they had a hit; then again, lots of artists he worked with before told him the same. A video clip of their performance didn’t make him a believer either. “I saw them doing it on stage, but I didn’t get to see the crowd,” K.E. says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re just doing that shit.’” The group had to invite him from small town Valdosta, Georgia to an Atlanta club to see the impact for himself.
And that’s the root of everyone’s appreciation for “Swag Surfin’,” isn’t it? Not as a song, but as a communal experience. That’s why Hypnotiq went from being a drink to an invocation at A-Town East. Within seconds, it enlivens the most polo-less bodies. It’s potent enough to have partygoers in New York — where hospitality is marked by inhospitality — grab a stranger’s neck by the crook of their arms to sway in joy.
“Swag Surfin’” also enjoys a specific kind of ubiquity. Your typical music fan recognizes the title and those horns. But it’s the rare 21st century pop song that’s consistently at the center of ceremonies with high degrees of blackness. Beyoncé found it worthy enough to be interpolated into her iconic 2018 Coachella set, which was itself an ode to black college and marching band culture. The song also made it into the White House during the afterparty for BET’s Barack Obama tribute. On that night, DJ D-Nice took his hands off his set and gazed at the joyous mix of blazers and sparkling dresses, black bodies and white teeth, while someone else recorded the sight. This describes a regular night out, but placing that within the White House’s East Room walls required a suspension of disbelief. “I saw all those black faces, and Bradley [Cooper], and I saw how happy everybody was — these people who had been historically disenfranchised,” Dave Chappelle said about the night in his Saturday Night Live monologue, which aired the weekend after Donald Trump got inaugurated. “And it made me feel hopeful.”
F.L.Y.’s version is the one at the center of those moments: Not the Lil Wayne version that dropped when he was still bending beats to his will, or the aggressively New York remix (Juelz Santana, Maino, Red Cafe, and Fabolous) that helped bring “Swag Surfin’” to the boroughs. Even the “left-to-right” intro used to declare the surf’s direction before the bass drop — a tradition first introduced by Atlanta radio fixture E.T. Cali at a party in 2008 — has been mimicked by MCs and DJs around the country, right down to its cadence.
“Swag Surfin’” is unifying enough for folks to call it a negro spiritual with some earnestness. They’ll point to HBCU students swaying en masse in one of those viral videos. One of the most significant examples was captured in 2015 at Howard University’s springtime North vs. South basketball game, where students hailing from Northern cities went up against the South in a match that was more of a party than a competition. Music blasted all game long rather than during dead balls and timeouts as in NCAA-regulated games, so the festiveness stayed at a high plateau. In the game’s closing minutes, student DJ Detroyt stepped away from the turntables and told his boy “It’s time, let’s get them moving.” He played “Swag Surfin’” and the players on court and the surrounding crowd in the stands followed suit. Amongst fellow Howard DJs and classmates, this became lore.
“I hate to say it like this,” says DJ Jordan Jetson, a witness to the Howard game, “but I can see it going along with ‘Wade in the Water’ or something like that.’”
DJ Detroyt was originally rejected from Howard after applying late, but he was offered a scholarship when a faculty member heard his percussion skills. He considers that moment in the gym as proof he was meant to be at the institution. As with religious tradition, the artists and DJs attached to “Swag Surfin’” speak of it with remembrances adjacent to testimonies, that moment during church service in which the attendee proudly recounts an experience that reaffirms their faith. DJ Pretty Boy Tank’s Wasted Wednesdays eventually grew to count 2 Chainz (when he was Tity Boi) and Rich Kidz (which featured versatile rapper Skooly) as some of its guests as it moved from A-Town East to Club Libra, according to E.T.; breaking “Swag Surfin’” is one of the party’s legacies. F.L.Y. themselves encountered plenty testimonies as well.
“There was this girl,” Mook says. “We performed in this club in Atlanta two years ago and she didn’t even know we were gonna be there. She walked up to me after we were done performing and said, ‘I love y’all. I love y’all song. Y’all song was my best friend’s favorite.’ And her best friend had just passed away two years ago. So her and her friends ever since she passed away, get together and swag surf.”
Negro spirituals, as “Swag Surfin’” has been playfully classified, call upon a sacred force, normally Christian, for the strength to overcome hardship. The song does not explicitly do that. But when people tie the spiritual and hip-hop together, they’re referring to practical purposes instead of what’s being uttered. One of them is the establishing of a communal bond. That Howard video resonates not only because of the sheer number of students involved, it also displays a healthy representation of the black diaspora connecting over this one thing within seconds.
A recent song that people have collectively decided warrants a term as loaded as negro spiritual is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”: It has Christian overtones, overt acknowledgement of a struggle, and became a rallying anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement as it gained prominence. But songs of resolve are adaptable. F.L.Y.’s anthem has marked protests, too. In November 2015, University of Missouri graduate student Jonathan L. Butler swore he wouldn’t eat until the school’s president Tim Wolfe resigned following a series of racist incidents that culminated in a swastika being drawn with feces on a bathroom dorm wall. The college’s football team supported the strike by announcing they wouldn’t participate in football-related activities. Wolfe would step down a day later, and Missouri students swag surfed in front of ESPN cameras to mark their victory.
Still, the men attached to “Swag Surfin’” are split on if it can be tied to a centuries-old form. The hit’s creators shy away from that distinction, perhaps to keep its mainstream accessibility. DJ Detroyt doesn’t think it is, but he gives Future’s “March Madness” a “definitely.” Still, he holds “Swag Surfin’” with a special regard, citing that game in Howard.
“In that moment, you feel like you’re one with the room,” Detroyt says. “The person on your left, the person on your right is feeling the exact same way you’re feeling. I don’t think there’s a lot of songs that give you that.”