INTRODUCING: Erk Tha Jerk, A Hood Nerd With A Classic Sound

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The first time I heard Erk Tha Jerk’s Junk Food And Vegetables last year, I was blown away. Never had I been so fully consumed by a project after just one listen. It was immersive in a way no other rap project of 2014 had felt; I couldn’t just play one song. I had to spin the whole 30-minute project front to back every time.

Erk is a diamond in the rough. When you hear his music, you can’t believe more people aren’t gushing over him. He doesn’t care much for social media and he doesn’t really seem to want a record deal. All he’s focused on is distinguishing his own sound from that of any other artist and remaining consistent. His Layover EP barely got any coverage, despite being one of the strongest tapes of the year so far.

Today Erk drops Airplane Mode, his new album that pulls talent like Chicago’s incredible Tree and the Bay Area’s own Too Short into Erk’s smoked out world. I called Erk to talk about his history within hyphy music, the meaning behind Junk Food and Vegetables, and what went into the new album.

WatchLOUD: I was looking at your blog from 2009/2010. Was that when you started making music?

Erk Tha Jerk: That’s when I started kinda taking it serious. I was out pushing CDs in the streets and in the Bay area. I was in a couple little groups here and there but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The radio station out here started playing my music heavy around the time, so a couple of my songs were #1 on KMEL out here and I didn’t really have a choice but to take it serious. Once you get booked for some shows, you gotta be there.

What were some of the songs the radio was playing?

It was a song called “Right Here” that was probably the biggest song I had, and there’s another song called “Hands Up” from 2010, 2011 that was also pretty big on that station.

Before that I had a song called “I’m So Dumb,” and you know hyphy was a big thing for the Bay, but I was one of the dudes who dissed it and they played it out here on the radio a lot. It started the whole “Hyphy Is Dead” movement to kinda get people to stop thinking the Bay Area was just that kind of music when it was just a handful of people making that kind of music.

Why did you decide to make that song?

There were prominent artists from the Bay that were making hyphy music – Mistah F.A.B, Keak Da Sneak, and a couple other artists who have always done it, been doing it since the mid-‘90s. So 10 years later, 2005, 2006, it started to finally take off, but other artists who weren’t making hyphy from the Bay started to latch onto it to ride the bandwagon. So I started seeing prominent artists switch over and start doing “hyphy music” using all the same lingo, the same slang, that they weren’t using a few years ago. So I kinda felt like no one was being true to themselves. Me personally, I don’t like to take sex drugs, ecstasy, with a bunch of guys and take my shirt off and dance. That just wasn’t my thing, I just didn’t think it was cool. So I stepped out and did like a battle rap-y, diss record on it as a joke, but then the radio started picking it up, so it became one of those regional songs like, “Okay, he’s going crazy. Who is this dude?” So it turned into that.

What has it been like to see the sound from the Bay diversify so much in the past two decades?

I kind of enjoy the diversity because I’ve always known the Bay has been diverse. There’s not just one sound here. There are too many people, too many ethnicities – like Ezale and all that, but we’re all kind of from the same cloth, even though we do different music. So if I see Ezale out, or if I see [The Hieroglyphics], we all show love, even though the music is different. Especially if it’s authentic, if it’s really them, like The Pack, we kick it with each other, we see all these people out and it’s all love, but there are always a couple people who sneak in. Outsiders who haven’t really put in years of work. The Pack, even though they might be like 28 years old, they’ve been doing it for 10, 15 years. So they put in the work already to have that notoriety and respect.

You reconnect with Too Short on your new album Airplane Mode, but you guys made a song together back in 2009 called “Plane In The Air.” How’d that come about?

I thought I was doing some big shit, so I rented an office in downtown Oakland and there was like a 20 x 20 cubicle just to make beats out of and get outta my house to be creative. He happened to have a studio downstairs in that building, which was like the whole floor, decked out with pool tables and shit. So I ended up going down there and meeting him, talking to him. I played him some beats and he liked them, so we started working like that. So he ended up being a friend, a big homie. If I needed a verse, he’d throw me a verse. If he needed a beat, I’d throw him a beat, and we just started working like that, so we’ve been cool ever since. All for free, just showing love.

Have you ever signed a deal?

No, I’ve been 100% independent. I had a couple deals offered to me at the time I had a couple singles on the radio, but they weren’t as lucrative for me as they were for other people involved and I knew it wasn’t the right deal for me to take. As a result, a lot of bridges were burned and it became one of those “artists vs. radio” situations, or artists versus these people, he said she said. So I just stayed independent and kept pushing my line.

Were you blackballed?

In certain situations, yeah. Only because of relationships and differences in opinion, and I didn’t really understand why at that age because that was my first time in it. So I was like, “That doesn’t make any sense. I thought everyone just talk it out, work it out, and move on like men.” But a lot of times, that’s not the case. So those were learning experiences, but at the same time you can’t ever determine what the next man is gonna do. So I just kept grinding, releasing music and videos and keeping my name alive.

You see these labels employ terrible strategies all the time. They sign an artist off their own buzz, overload them with the label’s established artists, and then disconnect the new artist from their fanbase.

Yeah, it doesn’t look natural, doesn’t feel natural. It’s really a sick business. The artists I know, they like making music, so it’s difficult making an artist cross over to become a mogul or a businessman when he really just wants to make music. It takes a skilled person to do both without being sucked into the monster of pleasing the label, pleasing the fans, pleasing yourself. It takes a lot of luck, a lot of skill, and a lot of patience. It’s not as easy as just making a hot song. People tend to think that.

[At this point in the interview, a crackhead on the street starts harassing Erk while he’s on the phone. He relocates to continue the interview.]

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