With his iconic glasses and self-deprecating sense of humor, Erk Tha Jerk is sometimes mistaken for a nerd. It’s an image he embraces – he branded the term “hood nerd” in his first series of mixtapes – though it’s not entirely accurate. In reality, Erk has always stayed slightly ahead of the curve in hip-hop. He knows how to spot trends and put an individual spin on them, but he also evolves quickly, providing a new set of themes with each album.
A hood nerd persona helped launch Erk’s career in hip-hop. A steady flow of ideas and an elasticity of spirit gave him real staying power.
Born and raised in Richmond, Erk attended Hayward High School along with a slew of other aspiring rappers and an R&B singer named London, who gave the emcee his stage handle.
“Out of the sky blue he called me Erk Tha Jerk,” Erk said, acknowledging that he hated the name at first, mostly because it got clowned. “He called me that for two or three hours, and then everyone used it. They thought it was hilarious.”
The name was both an homage to – and parody of – another East Bay rapper, Keak da Sneak. It eventually grew on Erk, who by that time was already an accomplished battle rapper. He cultivated a personality to match, and managed to easily outwit or out-pun his high school competitors. Later Erk would parlay that skill to write one of his first radio hits, a light-hearted roast on the hyphy movement called “I’m So Dumb.”
Erk’s sense of humor distinguished him early on. In 2008 he released “I’m So Dumb” and a boastful ode to female fans, called “Don’t Need ‘Em.” The first featured a dry snare and kick beat produced by Erk and DJ Slowpoke; the second was more saturated, with a looped Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes sample and a quote cribbed from Snoop Dogg. By that time Erk had also mastered several production programs, including Reason. That allowed him to mint tracks on his own laptop and maintain creative control of his own work. It also allowed him to be economical at the beginning of his career, though Erk never produced a full album by himself.
The success of those early, catchy songs propelled Erk’s Hood Nerd mixtapes, which he released between 2007 and 2010, along with a Hood Nerd EP. Available as free downloads, these proto-albums included slow jams, freestyles, skits, cameos by fellow rapper Kafani and R&B singer Samm, hits made for strip clubs, and remixes of then-popular tracks like J. Valentine’s “She’s Worth the Trouble.” They also helped build an audience for addictive singles like “Plane in the Air,” a collaboration with famed Oakland rapper Too $hort.
Though Erk maintained a steady following throughout the Bay Area, and won plaudits from local journalists, as well as his peers in hip-hop, it wasn’t until 2010 that the emcee got his first major star turn. It came with an AutoTune-plumped slow jam called “Right Here,” which quickly topped playlists on local hip-hop radio station 106 KMEL. A confident and edgy ballad, it showed the erstwhile hood nerd could also be a lady’s man – indeed, the ladies seemed to love it. But so did the gents. “Right Here” landed on Billboard’s Top 100 and became a regional hit on MTV, giving Erk the boost he needed for Nerd’s Eye View, the album he dropped that November.
That year he and a few friends hung out downstairs at KMEL’s Summer Jam concert, passing out CDs. “My song was blowing up,” Erk recalled. “We vowed to never come back unless we were onstage.” In the interim he would mint several more radio singles, including the peppy “Hands Up,” which featured a hook by singer Netta B. KMEL booked him for Summer Jam in 2011.
Nerd’s Eye View showed Erk to be an introspective and versatile rapper, capable of alternating from crowd-pleasers to personal, confessional tracks about failed relationships or alienation. Released by the San Francisco indie hip-hop label SMC Recordings, it included production by Bedrock, Traxamillion, and The Invasion, whose crunchy percussion and melodic hooks gave each rap an extra layer of gloss. Yet beneath its surface pleasures, Nerd’s Eye View was very much an autobiography. It documented Erk’s desires and impulses, but it also chronicled the less glamorous aspects of his life as a struggling artist and father.
There’s little question that Erk has matured since making the early, snide hits that first gave him an audience. But his sense of humor is still in tact. In April of 2013 the emcee released a “Free Erk!” mixtape on iTunes, which he promoted with an elaborate stunt. Playing on the multiple meanings of “free,” he offered the eleven track project at no cost, but also took a hiatus from Twitter and Instagram to make fans think he was in jail – or on the lam.
He said it worked. Not only did “Free Erk!” take off in the blogosphere, it was also marked the emcee’s greatest success on iTunes. And when Erk reappeared on social media, he got a hero’s welcome.