Before Miley Cyrus, There Was Shawn Hatfield, The Original Twerk

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 8 years old.

Shawn Hatfield, aka Twerk
Shawn Hatfield, a.k.a. Twerk

When I first heard about "twerking," I had no idea that, through my husband, I had a direct and unique personal connection to the brazen dance craze.

Meet Shawn Hatfield, also known as Twerk.

Back in 1989, he was a skinny, 16-year-old skateboarder living in Santa Cruz, California. Like many other white kids in the late '80s, he and his group of friends were just getting into hip-hop music. They were fascinated with the rising "b-boy" movement at the time and were inspired by artists like Eric B. and Rakim and EPMD.

Graffiti was a big part of being a 'b-boy' and the culture encompassed music, dancing and art. Hatfield and his crew, a.k.a. the "Lords," emulated their idols and started spinning hip-hop music and 'doing burners' or 'piecing graffiti:' creating works of original art on buildings, under bridges and on the walls of tunnels throughout Santa Cruz.

His friend Jason, a.k.a. Kolage, came up with the graffiti name "Twerk" for Hatfield in 1990. Jason had already experimented with varying combinations of letters and had generated a list of names that started with "Tw." Twine, Twerp, Twirk, Twurq were some early iterations. But when Hatfield saw "Twerk," he thought it was the best candidate for his art and it became his graffiti nom de plume through the mid-'90s.


"Visually, I liked the way it looked, the way the letters interacted with each other," says Hatfield.

Early graffiti work by Shawn Hatfield (Twerk) in San Francisco from 1994
Early graffiti work by Shawn Hatfield (Twerk) in San Francisco from 1994.

As Hatfield became more deeply involved in music, he began using Twerk as his DJ name when he'd spin techno records at local raves and clubs in the Bay Area, as well as the name he used for his original works.

The hip-hop group Yin Yang Twins released the song, "Whistle While You Twurk" in 2000. It was the first time Hatfield had heard this term (with an alternate spelling) being used in a different context.

"I remember when I first heard the song and realized that the spelling was different and didn't think much of it. I had basically dismissed it at that point."

But that changed over time as more songs began to emerge that used the same spelling as his artist name. Hatfield became annoyed when he saw that "Twerk" was getting pushed down in search results online and being taken over by booty-shaking. "I was frustrated that my music was being buried on the internet. It was getting increasingly more difficult to find. And then I was getting frustrated by telling people about my work and having it being confused with this new definition, as if I was naming myself after it, and eventually became so popular it seemed to completely annihilate any meaning that was connected to my art. "

Shawn Hatfield, aka Twerk, performing at the Transmediale Festival on February 16, 2002
Shawn Hatfield, a.k.a. Twerk, performing at the Transmediale Festival on February 16, 2002

He created his own Urban Dictionary listing in 2003 in response to the cultural persistence of "rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities."

According to Wikipedia, ‘twerking’, as relating to dance moves, evolved as thus:

Comparisons have been made with traditional African dances, for instance the Mapouka from West Africa which was banned from the television of Ivory Coast due to its suggestive nature.

In the United States, twerking was introduced into hip-hop culture by way of the New Orleans bounce music scene. In 1993, DJ Jubilee recorded the dance tune "Do The Jubilee All" in which he chanted, "Twerk baby, twerk baby, twerk, twerk, twerk." The video for the song increased the popularity of twerking. In 1995, New Orleans-based rapper Cheeky Blakk recorded the song "Twerk Something!" a call-and-response dance song dedicated to twerking. In 1997, DJ Jubilee recorded "Get Ready, Ready" in which he encouraged listeners to "Twerk it!".

A t-shirt sent to Hatfield as a funny joke from a friend.
A t-shirt sent to Hatfield as a funny joke from a friend.

Last year, twerking hit an all-time high. As Wikipedia notes, "In 2013, "twerk" was added to the Oxford Dictionary Online. The dictionary said the word had been around for 20 years, but the evidence for it to be included in the dictionary had tipped the scale when U.S. pop star Miley Cyrus gave a controversial and headline-producing twerking dance at the MTV Video Music Awards on August 25, 2013."

Meanwhile, Hatfield's career had shifted again in the early aughts from performing to being behind-the-scenes as a mastering engineer. Fans, friends and colleagues have ironically noted how the twerking trend has put a small spotlight back on his old music career:

"I think it's interesting that words can simultaneously evolve from different locations with different meanings," says Hatfield. "I'm older now and I take myself a lot less seriously. It doesn't bother me anymore and in some ways, I find it humorous. I still get teased all the time by my friends."

So Hatfield says: