M-Bone, left, Smoove, Yung, JayAre of Cali Swag District. (Raquel Olivo )
What a difference a dance makes. Eighteen months ago, the Cali Swag District consisted of four largely anonymous Inglewood teenagers making R&B/hip-hop hybrids and everything in between. They got nowhere. Then it filmed the video for "Teach Me How to Dougie," the biggest domestic dance phenomenon since Soulja Boy taught a nation of online video novices how to "Crank Dat" in 2007.
Go on YouTube. You have your choice of the O.G. version, the sleek "Dougie 2.0" made with Capitol Records money, and a star-studded remix with Bow Wow and B.o.B. — the three of them combined have racked up 50 million views. Interspersed are thousands of fan-made videos, plus renditions performed by the Golden State Warriors, Kim Kardashian, Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Chris Brown and Washington Wizards star John Wall engaging in a "Zoolander"-like Dougie-off.
"Teach Me How to Dougie" reached No. 6 on the Billboard rap singles charts and sold roughly 2 million legal downloads. It spawned parody videos, including "Teach Me How to Turkey," "Teach Me, I'm a Dummy," and "Teach Me How to Panda." Released this month, the latter received 100,000 views in just five days. Justin Bieber taught not only Regis and Kelly Ripa, he edified Ellen Degeneres too. A few weeks ago on "American Idol," Ryan Seacrest and Jennifer Lopez did the Dougie.
In fact, the only thing Dougie couldn't do was prompt Capitol Records into releasing the Cali Swag District's full-length debut, "Kickback." Label turbulence and a slow-starting second single ensured that fall became February, which became March, which became the nebulous "coming soon." But that's not surprising with major-label hip-hop full lengths these days, where the download-ravaged industry is gambling with nearly every release.
Ironically, while the Internet overflows with free rap mixtapes and tracks and an avalanche of talent vying for eyes on YouTube, after an act gets the attention and attempts to take it mainstream, labels have to decide whether the investment they were banking on a few months earlier is still worth it. Cali Swag District is still working to prove that it is and that West Coast hip-hop, which hasn't controlled America's rap conversation since N.W.A., Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rose in the late '80s, can still make a national impact.
Delays notwithstanding, the Dougie's star has steadily risen even as its life as an Internet meme has waned. That combination offers a glimpse into the travels of a dance craze and its accompanying hit — a success partly attributable to the strategies that the Cali Swag District, which consists of C-Smoove, Jayare, Yung and dancer M-Bone, have implemented since it first juxtaposed a Dallas-based dance with a sound endemic to Southern California.
"The D-Town boogie was huge in Texas," explained Cali Swag rapper Yung of the dance's genesis. "Lil Will had his song 'My Dougie,' and one day a friend of ours came back to Inglewood from college at Texas Southern and told us that we ought to make a song about the Dougie. We figured, why not do a version for L.A.?"
There was a crucial difference between the Dougies. Despite receiving the backing of major label Asylum Records, Lil Will's hit never went national. Like Hank Ballard, whose initial version of "The Twist" was eclipsed by Chubby Checker's hit, the Cali Swag District capitalized on an existing demand. Plus "Teach Me How to Dougie" was vertically structured — simultaneously a dance song and a how-to manual.
And it's an easy dance to do: Just bend your knees and sway side to side, leaning and twisting your elbows and shoulders and stroking and slicking the back of your hair a la '80s rap icon Doug E. Fresh. Picture a cross between an end-zone dance and the Macarena — with a surfeit of California swagger.
When the group recorded "Teach Me How to Dougie" in late summer 2009, the jerkin' movement, a national dance trend birthed in South L.A., was at its zenith. The New Boyz's "You're a Jerk" dominated local radio, and the trend's vanguards, the Cold Flamez, Audio Push, Pink Dollaz and Y.G., seemed positioned to push the craze onto the national stage. Cali Swag even cut a few jerkin' songs, but those were almost immediately drowned in that season's deluge of homemade tunes that flooded YouTube.
"We never wore skinny jeans, but we were into the jerkin' movement. We made those songs for fun, but they were never something we put our weight behind," said the now-20-year-old C-Smoove, who like the rest of the group sports a style that splits the difference between the skinny-jeaned generation and the gangsta rap of yore: multiple tattoos, facial piercings, Gold Chex-sized earrings, backward baseball cap slanted obtusely and black jeans worn loose but not too baggy.