Erk Tha Jerk talks about melody a lot. He's an upcoming hip-hop artist releasing music on an underground level, but instead of spewing the usual plaudits about bringing back pure lyrical skills and being an antidote to an oversaturated commercial scene, the 28-year-old Richmond-raised rapper has his sights set on mainstream recognition. More than half of the songs on his hype-building EP, The Prelude, are hinged on pop-ready and often AutoTune-enabled hooks he sometimes sings himself. They're slick to the point that they wouldn't sound out of place on a 50 Cent or T.I. single. Hooks and melody are key to his ambition. "I had a turning point about three years ago," Erk explains in Manhattan on a recent trip to solidify industry connections. "I realized you can be a good rapper, but people have to like your songs. You add melody, and people sing along."
Until that realization, Erk was preoccupied with demonstrating his rhyming skills in lunchroom freestyle sessions at Hayward High School. It was an arena where the fiercest, most verbose lyrics won. "My style was pure battle rap," he says. "I was using lots of metaphors and just telling people I'm better at putting words together than the next person." It was there that he picked up his rap name too, after a friend called him Erk Tha Jerk "out of the sky blue." Despite considering the name "horrible," it stuck. "My government name doesn't even exist now," he jokes.
But as the newly-named Erk set his sights on moving from winning lunchroom bragging rights to recording songs, an economic reality hit him: "The more I was asked to pay somebody else to come up with a hook for a song, the more I tried to do it myself. It created my style."
It's a style nurtured through years spent absorbing the music of those who are masters at fusing rap with melody. Erk's upbringing was soundtracked not just by local Bay Area icons like Rappin' Ron and Too Short, but also by the melodic albums of Southern rappers 8 Ball & MJG, and Devin the Dude, the latter being the most proficient hip-hop MC who could also hold down a tune. During his high school years, Erk submerged himself in a playlist of Eminem, Lauryn Hill, and D'Angelo — all rap and R&B artists who rose from legitimate, underground backgrounds to mainstream ubiquity thanks to a skill in making their talents palatable to the masses. (These days, Erk says he admires Drake for his ability to "capture how to make his style fit with popular music.")
Good rap hooks transcend the genre and became part of popular culture — think 50 Cent's "In Da Club," Black Sheep's "The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)," or Onyx's "Slam," each now more prevalent at bat mitzvahs and sweet-16s than hip-hop clubs. A hook can also make a career: 50 Cent went from creating a street-level buzz through a slew of mixtapes to becoming a nationwide name thanks, in large part, to the half-sung phrase "Go, shorty, it's your birthday." It's a lesson Erk has studied well. On "Say Yeah," he takes the corny phrase of the title — "Probably the simplest thing you could ever say!" he admits — and successfully builds it into the song's recurring calling card. Rappers like Erk, who don't have major-label backing, don't usually attempt such openly populist moves. They often settle into making music to satisfy a smaller, more dedicated fan base. But hearing such a melodious hook sounds brazenly triumphant. The song resonates like a mainstream artist operating in an underground realm.
Erk admits that traveling the path from self-sufficient local rapper status to being part of the big-time pop culture party is harder than ever, due to the general malaise in the recording industry. But he promises that his debut album, Nerd's Eye View (out Nov. 9), will please anyone digging the tracks on his EP: "It's better quality, with better hooks, and it's intended as an album, not just a random collection of songs." Underpinning it all, of course, is his commitment to musicality. "I stick with what feels right," he says. "With me, that's usually something melodic."