The Oral History Of "Swag Surfin"
Ten years after its release, Fast Life Yungstaz’s debut single has taken on a life of its own.
“My biggest fear in life as a producer was to make my first hit be a dance song," says Kevin Erondu, better known as K.E. On The Track, over a phone call in late February.
If that sounds like a counterintuitive hang-up in 2019, when coming up with a dance challenge for a pop song has become a practical marketing decision, the Los Angeles-based producer has an explanation: most dance songs don’t last, and if they do, no one takes them seriously.
Ten years ago, when a 19-year-old K.E. embarked on his career as a producer, hits like Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” and GS Boyz’s “Stanky Legg” were as popular online as they were in clubs and on radio stations across the country, flourishing as early markers of the potential of viral culture. Still, this kind of success wasn’t what K.E. was looking for. “[Dance songs] were things that people would laugh at. They would look at the artist like they were a joke,” he says. But in the spring of 2009, a budding hip-hop group from Stone Mountain, Georgia called Fast Life Yungstaz released a highly danceable single over a K.E. On The Track beat that would stand the test of time, surpassing its popularity as a party song of the era and evolving into a bona fide classic. From being played in the White House to its inclusion in Beyonce’s iconic 2018 Coachella performance, to a gospel rendition performed at New York Fashion Week and most significantly, its rich legacy of unifying black college students nationwide, F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin’” is alive, well, and arguably thriving in cultural impact.
Before it hit the Billboard Hot 100, “Swag Surfin’” was the humble debut project of Georgia rappers Mook, Myko McFly (now known as iMcFli), Vee of F.L.Y., and Easton (formerly known as Jit-Lee of Band Geakz). The group had no intentions of releasing a dance song, but admit that the dance—an effortless wave-like sway and dip from side to side that appears in the song’s music video—played a crucial role in its success.
“When you listen to the song, it’s not really a dance song,” Mook acknowledges. “We don’t give instructions on how to do the dance. The dance we got from some guys on the southside of Atlanta, and just happens to go with the song (a story of a night at the club, from the smoking references to the drinking references to the clothing references). But it wasn’t like how it was today.” Just weeks after they’d released the song, F.L.Y. urged K.E. to drive the three hours to Atlanta to see evidence of its success for himself. “The club was damn near an arena,” he remembers. “It was huge. It held over a thousand people. So when the song came on [and] everybody was doing that dance, I was a believer from there. It just happened at lightning speed.” When Lil Wayne released a version of the song on his highly acclaimed No Ceilings mixtape, “Swag Surfin’” reached a fever pitch.
The fact that they are Swag. Surfing. in the White House my heart is so full. Unapologetically black ASF pic.twitter.com/S3pFDEEp6J
— oh (@dshandiix3) November 16, 2016
F.L.Y. initially found the “Swag Surfin’” beat on MySpace, where K.E., who was working at a McDonald’s at the time, says he would upload up to 20 beats a month. The group bought the beat for $500, and the sounds that initially drew them to it reflect a shared history. “If you go back to the first album we did with Def Jam, it’s called Jamboree,” F.L.Y.’s Mook says. “What Jamboree is here in the South is where all the best bands get together [on the football field], like a drumline type thing.” According to Mook, all the members of F.L.Y. played sports in high school. “I’m a horns person, so that’s what drove me towards the beat—the horns and the bass line,” says McFly.
K.E., who grew up playing the drums, keyboard, and organ for gospel choirs at church, transitioned to the marching band in high school and drew from that experience when making the beat. “I wanted to keep the drums trap, because people are familiar with trap drums, but when it came to the sounds I [wanted] to try and experiment,” he says. “I learned that there’s not a lot of brass, orchestra or band-type [sounds] mixed in the urban genre, so I was like, ‘What if I took trap and fused it with a marching band?’ Certain black campuses and colleges are known for their band. In the South they have drumline competitions. [Drumline] wasn’t a made-up movie. That’s a real culture.” It’s this blending of sounds that’s made the song such a natural fit for HBCU culture, where the song continues to soundtrack homecomings, sporting events and greek life to this day.
— Howard University (@HowardU) March 20, 2019
As for what makes “Swag Surfin’” so infectious? K.E. describes a very simple, yet critical production decision. “The song has an intro that you’ll never hear again,” he explains, noting the horn buildup that leads to the beat dropping. It’s a technique K.E. learned long ago from studying techno and pop crowds. “When you watch DJs like Skrillex, they do parts [of the show] where it’s no drums and they just build up,” he says. “You can feel the energy building up to the climax, and then it drops. This was what I did with the [‘Swag Surfin’’] beat.”
Dionne Ledbetter, a.k.a. DJ Magic, is a junior at Howard University, where she’s a music major, legacy student, and the most recent winner of Howard’s Hottest DJ competition—an annual artist, producer and DJ showcase sponsored by the historically black university’s radio station. “[‘Swag Surfin’’] came out when I was in middle school. My older sister was a cheerleader in high school, so when we would go to the basketball games they would play it,” Ledbetter says, sharing a memory of the first time she heard the song. Today, she says whenever she’s at a school event or any place where the campus congregates, she hears the song. And when she’s DJing, it’s definitely getting played. “Whatever’s hot now, it’s that and then it’s ‘Swag Surfin’’—that’s what you have to play,” she insists. “I feel like it’s a communal thing. Like, you know it’s coming and that’s when you know the party started. It’s go time. That’s the anthem, the call, that signal.”
Kazeem Famuyide, a founding partner of Jay-Z-backed party series DusséPalooza, says that when “Swag Surfin’” comes on at one of his events, “it looks like pandemonium and peace at the same time,” hinting at its ability to completely shift the energy of a room. “The "Swag Surfin’" significance isn't even about the song or the dance,” he adds. “It's about the action of joining your fellow man or woman for at least a few minutes. It doesn't matter what you're going through, how you are feeling, what happened the day before or after—for a few moments you just get to wild out with the people closest to you, and to some people, that's all that really matters at that moment.”
It’s this undeniable force that makes “Swag Surfin’” feel like it’s transcended its existence as a party song and taken on a life of its own. On a recent episode of Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning, writer Lawrence Burney aptly argued the song is like a “negro spiritual” in its ability to unite and uplift a generation. “[People are] playing it in sporting arenas, baby showers, and weddings. The overall message behind it to this day is just do you,” McFly says. “This is a big thing about this song: you can always remember where you was at, the party you was at, who you was with, the first time you did it,” Easton says.
Today, celebration of the song endures. K.E. is being contacted by movie studios who want to license “Swag Surfin’” and work with him on film scores. Fast Life Yungstaz are coming out with an Afrobeats version of “Swag Surfin’” while they work on their new project Family Matters. Beyonce continued to perform her rendition of the song during her second On The Run Tour with Jay-Z, and at the top of the year, rapper 2 Chainz released a new freestyle over the “Swag Surfin’” beat.
It’s rare that a hit song becomes a classic, and something of an anomaly to witness its constant revival and growing impact, ten years later. “Swag Surfin’” represents more than Southern hip-hop’s commercial success, viral internet culture, or HBCU parties—it’s an embodiment of black fellowship and faith, and that’s what makes it so timeless. For K..E. the song is a reminder that “even though you can try to plan your life, life may have a different plan for you. What happened with “Swag Surfin’” is a life lesson: “Sometimes your blessings will come where and when you least expect it.”