You ever have a friend who you know, but don’t know their name -- only their nickname? Like, you only know their initials? Or maybe you call them an adjective and a color, "Big Red" or something like that?
I don’t remember when I found out his real name. I don’t even remember where I first met him. But I can tell you this: probably the most underwhelming thing I ever learned was that Erk Tha Jerk’s real name is Kevin Allen.
As Erk tha Jerk, he saw the kind of success many hip-hop artists see: a hit song or two, national recognition, foreign cars, and headaches related to the ups and downs of the music industry over the course of 10 projects —
albums, EPs and mixtapes. Most notably, he had a hit song, “Right Here,” which in 2009 spent three weeks on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop 100 Billboard charts.
He also produced the music for "TURF FEINZ RIP RichD Dancing in the Rain Oakland Street," a YouTube video of three young men dancing in the rain-covered streets of East Oakland, paying tribute to the life of fallen friend; it's been played over 7 million times.
And then the perfect storm rolled in and rained on his early success: a conflict of egos with a gatekeeper at the Bay Area’s biggest hip-hop radio station, a number of management mistakes, and a concealed weapon citation that he caught on the way to a meeting about a record deal in Los Angeles. Plus his name wasn’t being taken seriously. All of it combined made him consider giving up.
And then he hit the reset button. Late last year he dropped “The Kevin Allen Project,” and subsequently released a flyer with an image of him, grey hairs poking out his beard, and info for a show he was scheduled to headline in January of 2018.
The morning of the show, just hours prior to his debut under his real name, Kevin Allen's tattooed hand held a grande caramel mocha as he sat in the Starbucks in Emeryville rehashing the story of his first tat. “I got it from some gang member in a backyard in Hayward,” he said with a laugh. “He tattooed me while I was standing up.”
He’s since gotten the tattoo covered, but at the time it was high on his bicep, and read “Kevin.” It was a gift from his mom — well, not a gift exactly, but something she allowed him to do on his 15th birthday. When he was a kid, Allen’s mom was the disciplinarian. His late father was the laid-back one. Naturally, he gravitated toward his father.
In a lot of ways, his story is the story of so many in the Bay Area: he was a part of a generation that emerged as hyphy music became popular, and now the process of maturation has taken hold. As a father of three and stepfather to one, and expecting another child in March, Kevin has learned to appreciate the balance that his parents brought to him. And he constantly seeks similar stability in all aspects of life.
He’s currently a part-time high school educator, illustrator, photographer, DJ, chess player, and family man. That's a lot of equilibrium to maintain. He’s from North Richmond, California, but has roots in Philadelphia. He has bad memories of traveling to Canada, where he was denied entry because of his criminal record. And has fond memories of attending a Mosque in the East African country of Djibouti with the late East Bay hip-hop artist The Jacka.
He recognizes how some of his lyrics can be perceived as misogynistic, and says he’s learning to be more compassionate for what women have gone through; all the while maintaining that he’s far from a "feminist." He likes reading self-help books, but doesn’t like the term “self-help.”
When asked about the name change, he mentions Muhammad Ali and 2 Chainz as examples of triumphant title transformations. He says a successful name change is about “the content and the intent behind it.” There’s a long list of artists who’ve changed their names at some point in their careers. Both Biggie and Diddy made slight alterations; remixes, if you will. Tupac was once NY MC, and eventually grew to be Makaveli. Snoop went from Dogg to Lion and back again. Hell, OutKast’s name was once The Misfits, and Q-Tip was once MC Lovechild.
There’s a belief that hip-hop is a young person’s sport. But there’s something defiantly unique about an artist who continues to develop, not just age. Who recognizes the power in their words, as well as their name. Who seeks balance, not just fame.
It makes sense if you look at Kevin’s tattoos. The one on the right side of his face reads “HD,” his father’s nickname. And the one on his calf is an image of Nino Brown, Wesley Snipes’ character in New Jack City. He has a tattoo of a Rolex on his right wrist, and on the clock it reads “late.” The tat on the top of his left hand is the image of a human heart; half shaded, half illuminated.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
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