‘I’m swaggin’, I’m surfin’: the staying power of the sports anthem loved by Obama, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift

It was no day at the beach when the Kansas City Chiefs played host to Miami Dolphins last month, the temperature at Arrowhead Stadium plunging to a frostbite-inducing -4F. The only thaw came late in the playoff game when the Fast Life Yungstaz (FLY) track Swag Surfin’ filled Arrowhead.

The rap song, a jock jam du jour that is likely to receive plenty of airplay on Super Bowl Sunday, starts off slow and brassy – but once the beat dropped, a rave kicked off that had the 71,492 in attendance swaying and lunging in unison. “I’m swaggin’, I’m surfin’,” goes the sports jingle, “I’m clean like dish detergent.”

Partying right along with the crowd (albeit from a luxury suite) was Taylor Swift, who was caught by TV cameras and quickly converted into internet fodder. “I was on social media, and the video started popping up in real time on my timeline,” says the rapper Ea$ton, who is featured on Swag Surfin’. “It’s hard not to move when the song comes on, even if you don’t know what it is.”

Fast Life Yungstaz and Ea$ton perform onstage during the BET Awards in June. Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET

Swag Surfin’ is hip-hop’s plucky locomotive, a single that just picks up steam each year. It’s the pride and joy of FLY, the rap trio made up of the lifelong friends Myko McFly, Vee and Mook. Swag Surfin’ debuted on their album Jamboree in 2009 and cracked the Billboard Hot 100 on the way to achieving gold certification. It fits squarely alongside line dances like the Electric Slide and the Cupid Shuffle in the tradition of joyous Black expression.

But it’s staying power, not sales, that distinguishes Swag Surfin’. The track has mushroomed from southern club banger to wedding staple; it was performed by Beyoncé at Coachella and blasted at Barack Obama’s White House and New York fashion week. “There are a lot of artists who never have a hit at all,” says Mook. “For us to have a hit that has only gotten bigger with time, I can’t say nothing else other than we blessed.”

It is a success story of an earlier technological age, one that launched on the periphery of Atlanta’s hip-hop music scene in Stone Mountain, Georgia – the suburb best known for its Mount Rushmore-rivaling Confederate monument. The trio, who still make music today, formed their group as high schoolers, frequently collaborating with a troupe Ea$ton (formerly Jit-Lee) had put together called the Band Geakz. FLY began working on Jamboree in 2008, a time when there was still pressure for rap songs to come with a corresponding jig that might appeal to the YouTube algorithm. (Think Soulja Boy’s Crank That or GS Boyz’ Stanky Legg.) “But we were actually trying to avoid that,” Mook says.

Swag Surfin’ belongs to a subgenre of hip-hop called futuristic swag, an alloy of trap and snap music that also includes elements of rock – but it took some doing before the sound became singular to FLY. Myko found the beat for Swag Surfin’ on MySpace and negotiated with a 19-year-old KE on the Track (who’d go on to produce Rick Ross, Future and Tamar Braxton) to lease the instrumental for $75. “My buddy ran me to Walmart or Publix and I sent KE a Western Union,” recalls Myko. “That’s what he wanted at the time.”

Taylor Swift celebrates with fans during the Dolphins-Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City last month. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

They recorded Swag Surfin’ in a two-bedroom apartment belonging to Mook’s uncle, huddling on the floor to write their good time rhymes, taking turns inside a makeshift recording booth in a closet. Vee’s uncle was the one who suggested they package the song with a groovy left-to-right dip sway, a dance that was already popular in Atlanta. FLY knew they had a hit on their hands from the moment they started performing the song in local clubs in summer 2009. “A few weeks in, we started seeing people dress like us,” says Vee, who refers to himself on the song as a “Ralph Lauren mascot”. “It kind of happened at a good time, right before everybody went back to college to spread the word.”

Once the song made it on to physical mixtapes, Swag Surfin’ made its way from Atlanta into the south-east’s network of historically Black colleges – where school marching bands took up the song to perform at sporting events, before predominantly white schools like Auburn made the song a fixture of their in-game entertainment. But even as the song swelled in popularity, FLY worried they could fall off at any moment. They can still remember green-rooming in a club before one early out-of-town performance when Swag Surfin’ came on over the speakers, except with someone else rapping on the track. That’s when they realized they had to own the beat outright if they were going to keep riding the wave.

“The thing with leases is, like, a hundred people can lease a beat,” Vee says. “So we had a situation where we had to buy the beat from [another lessee] and buy the beat from [KE] once we were ready to hit radio and get a mix and master version done.” And while the group didn’t say how much that cost, they do concede it’s the best money they’ve ever spent.

Vee, Ea$ton, Myko McFly and Mook at the BET Awards last year. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The music video, meanwhile, shows the dance, which soon spread to pro sporting arenas. Mook shouts out Kansas City’s linebacker Willie Gay for hounding the Chiefs events staff to play Swag Surfin’ in their regular-season finale to fuel their championship campaign. Back then, Swift was barely caught inside an Arrowhead luxury suite vibing to the song with a drink in hand. “I wanna say since I’ve been here it’s been a huge fourth-quarter, big-time moment, big-time drive in the game for our defense,” Travis Kelce explained on his New Heights podcast. “They play a highlight video that has Swag Surfin’ on it, and it just gets everybody hyped.”

But in the Dolphins game, Swift went all out in the biggest viral moment yet for FLY. In the conference championship game two weeks later, players on the Baltimore Ravens broke into the dance to troll Swift and the Chiefs after scoring an early touchdown. Since the exchange, USA Today and other outlets have scrambled to elucidate the dance for those who might have wondered why she wasn’t making letters with her arms to the Village People. “She was turned up, just really having fun,” says Ea$ton, the group taking note of how smoothly she rode the wave.

“When she hit the move right here,” says Mook, imitating Swift sweeping a hand over her head on beat, “it just reminds us of the trendsetters we’ve been for the last 15 years.”

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