NERDCORE, NERD LIFE
MC Frontalot, photo by Sean McPharlin
by Trevor McNeil
"Nerdcore." Strange word ain't it? The term was coined in the late-1990s by MC Frontalot (nee Damian Hess), who is also widely recognized as the first artist in the genre. According to him the term was "meant to be a bit silly." As he explains now, when he was in college in the ‘90's, "plenty of the made-up niche genres had ‘core' in their names: slowcore, mellowcore, thrashcore, etc. All variations on hardcore... you only need to change two letters to get from hardcore to nerdcore. In fact, you can just shave down the lower case h an turn the a upside down. Very effective." He also realized that "‘nerdcore' was probably the kind of word people would be willing to repeat on the internet." And repeat they did, raising MC Frontalot from somewhat humble beginnings in the late-1990's to one of the best known and most successful internet-based musicians, rivaling Jonathan Coulton and giving Lindsey Stirling a run for their money (both of whom, incidentally, have strongly nerdy elements to their work).
Other than the combination of Hip-Hop and Nerd culture, the music of MC Frontalot can be quite unpredictable. Some tracks are straight-forward celebrations of Nerd Culture such as "Critical Hit" and "Nerd Life," others are revisions of fairy tales such as "Start Over." Framed as a story-time to a group of kids, the lyrics feature heavy embellished versions of classic fairy tales, the title being his response ("well I won't start over if ya don't stop yappin'") to the kids chorusing "that ain't how it happened." Also in this theme is "It's Pitch Dark," which is a sort of tribute to author Jack Vance, referring to a monster called a Grue that lives in dark places. The first verse and general theme being: "you are likely to be eaten by a grue/if this predicament seem particularly cruel/Consider whose fault it could be/Not a torch or a match in your inventory."
He also veers into the semi-autobiographical with songs like "Stoop Sale," which about going for a walk one day and finding a magic hat buckle at a stoop sale, which is basically the Brooklyn version of a garage sale. Despite the magical elements the lyrics are very day-in-the life and delivered in first-person which gives the track an urban fantasy feeling.
A bit more candid and surprising is "Goth Girls," which is about how he has been enamored with Goth girls since he was a teenager despite not being able to talk to them, even though they now come to his shows ("Goth girls, goth girls, they're the girls that go/To see the nerdcore rapper with the geeked-out flow/At the show, you can see the black lace on parade). The track is broadly comic with instant-classic verses like: "she says her hair got attacked ‘cause it's black and it's blue/She got the Johnny the Homicidal Maniac tattoo/legs deep in the boots, boots all up on the heels/yes, the kind to make a certain type of fetishist squeal" and "I avail myself of the local cafe, lite a clove up thumb through Camus (in French which I can't read but so what?"). Though there are moments that seem like honest candor: "yeah, he he he, laugh it up, you don't live like I do/At the mercy of any sister with wrist scars and black eye goo/I've tried to get into cheerleaders and failed/banana repugnant and tanned, so bland and so stale."
Following closely in MC Frontalot's footsteps is Optimus Rhyme, forming in Seattle in 2000. A four-piece band with an MC for the vocals, their style is closest to that of late-'90's Collapsed Lung when they had Chap-Hop originator Jim "Mister B" Burke on vocals. Only instead of football (‘soccer' to you colonials) and skateboarding, Optimus Rhyme write songs about topics closer to nerdy hearts like "Anxiety" ("Most folks just love hittin' parties/Bust through the door, run in and hug everybody/Not me; I kinda creep in slowly/Scan the room form people that know me/And if it's none they holy crap/Somebody gotta hold me back").
On the grittier end of the spectrum (no, not that one), is YTCracker (nee Bryce Case, Jr.). With a stage-name derived from black urban slang (it is pronounced as "Whitey Cracker"), Case most closely follows the classic rap style, particularly the "Gangsta" variety and in the most literal sense. A prodigious hacker convicted of the defacing of several government and industrial websites when he was 17, Case is the only ember of the close-knit nerdcore community known to have a criminal record. Case himself says "I think there is nothing more dangerous than a determined nerd with a computer." This is clearest in the hacker anthem "I Am A Pirate" ("I am a pirate, smoke and I drink/Smoke, drink, hack you're computer/Drink, smoke, first-person shooter") and "Bitcoin Baron" about virtual cash counterfeiting by copying the algorithm ("I'm a bitcoin baron, I'm scaring the status quo/Got that crypto dough in that dat file to blow/And the algorithm gon' get ‘em until prism/Send us all to prison and that's a nerdy livin'").
On the funny side is MC Lars (nee Andrew Robert MacFarelane Nielsen). One of his favorite things to do seems to be to take the piss out of other music genres and cultural scenes, while making fairly obscure cultural references. Key examples of this are "Hipster Girl" and "Singing Emo." "White Kids Aren't Hyphy" has a chorus lifted directly from the minor mid-90s hit "I Wish" by Skee-Lo in an act of self-parody nearing Weird Al levels. Also, he's not afraid to let his Geek Flag fly being one of the originators of "lit-hop." Some of his best examples are his takes on Edgar Allan Poe such as "Mr. Raven" and "Annabelle Lee RIP." Then there is "Flow Like Poe." With a backbeat based on the Pachel Canon, the lyrics are about the mechanics of poetry and how to tell the difference between different classical forms. It is not just the dark poet either, Lars apparently having regard for the Bard, penning a rap-metal track, "Hey There Ophelia," riffing most dancably on the themes of Hamlet. Funny in a different way is Schaffer The Darklord (nee Mark Schaffer). With a look that's closer to a fashionable Bill Gates, Schaffer combines themes from dark metal with hip-hop, playing up the contradiction for its natural humor, much as how Alestorm embraced the inherent humor of pirate metal. The best example of this is likely the track "Bad Man," in which he goes on, and on and on about how very, really honestly wick evil he is. Then there is the sex-drugs-and-bling track "The Bender" complete with "uncensored" video that is simply laughable. Notions of this are contradicted by the track "The Rappist" in which he notes that the initials of his stage name spell ‘STD' and says "I'm not Dr. Dre, I'm more like Dr. Seuss." Interestingly, it is the ‘hardcore' Schaffer the Darklord who has addressed issues of not only race but gender, females being equally scarce as blacks in the predominately white Nerdcore community since MC Router pulled a Cat Stevens and converted to Islam. He can clearly be heard on "The Rappist" saying "I'm not gonna rap like I'm black" and "I don't rap about the ladies/All are individuals." There is also the track "Boys" with kristybee in which they call out the elements of sexism that have been invading the Nerd and Geek communities in recent years.
Despite its somewhat unusual, even counter-intuitive, nature Nerdcore is something truly unique in the modern sonic landscape in which anyone can do and distribute anything but rarely have anything worthwhile to say. It is difficult to say what the future holds, as while still small it is gaining in popularity and every artist in the genre is currently self-released, mostly over the internet. It's also possible that it will "cross-over" into more traditional media or, more likely, be one of the forerunners in a new media order in which the majority of material is released online through iTunes and the like. Just remember where you heard about it.
See MC Frontalot's website and YT Cracker's website
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