What Is It? Nerdcore

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Not so long ago, hackers listened to Skinny Puppy and could barely get a date through the S&M BBS. But these days, a dude like YT Cracker is just as likely to be famous for his lyrical prowess as he is for digitally invading NASA’s data systems.

Hacker-turned-rapper YT (born Bryce Case) is not bummed about being called a nerd–actually, he revels in it, like nearly all his contemporaries in the niche genre known as nerdcore. A subset of hip-hop created almost entirely by white, middle-class rappers, nerdcore’s chief attribute is that it celebrates geek culture, exploring topics once reserved for solely for listservs, ComicCon, and dorm rooms. And the seemingly endless minutiae of geekdom–from obscure Star Wars characters to anime, computer coding slang to the Dungeons & Dragons rulebook–makes for good rhymes in Instant Messenger rap battles.

Combining pocket-protector culture with hip-hop may be a first, but being overtly nerdy in music isn’t a new concept–“Weird Al” Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, and white alterna-rap personalities like Brown alum MC Paul Barman and the stealing-obsessed Thirstin Howell III (sort of) did it first. But unlike other left-of-center rappers, nerdcore MCs don’t seem to have any trouble getting press. The genre has been written about in Wired and the New York Times, broadcast on CNET and CNN; it has as two documentaries devoted to it (Nerdcore For Life and Nerdcore Rising), not to mention various podcasts, record labels, an online magazine (Nerdy Mag), a social networking site (Nerdcore Por Vida), and even a clothing line.

It would be easy to write this all off as a joke, but while the rhymes aren’t serious, the MCs themselves are, at least about developing their own style and persona. MC Frontalot, who defined the subculture with 2000’s “Nerdcore Hip-Hop,” crams tons of words into raps about goth girls and text-adventure games; his look is strictly ’70s math teacher while his quirky cadences are reminiscent of Kool Keith or late-’90s Anticon MCs. Seattle’s Optimus Rhyme combines the Transformers-referencing rhymes of MCs Wheelie Cyberman and Broken English with a jam-band-esque backdrop, while renegade frat-boy MC Lars takes philosophy and pop culture to task like an overeager freshman. Self-proclaimed “first lady of nerdcore” MC Router, her voice like a 12-year-old boy, raps about Halo 2 over clever 8-bit beats from producer T-Byte. And one must not forget the cough-syrup-celebrating, potty-mouthed MC Chris, known for rhyming in the same high-pitched tone he uses to voice characters on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

Though it will never have the selling power of 50 Cent (most of the tracks are downloaded for free via artists’ websites and P2P networks), nerdcore is at least allowing a handful of programmers to legitimately live out their music fantasies–sex, drugs, and rock & roll probably not included.

Nerd Herd
Inside the nerdcore rap phenomenon with Negin Farsad, director of theNerdcore Risingdocumentary.

What led you to make a nerdcore documentary?

Negin Farsad: Actually, it was one of those funny coincidences. I had written a musical called The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Romantic Comedy. The show’s music and some lyrics were written by Gaby Alter–MC Frontalot’s keyboardist and collaborator. (Indeed, Gaby’s study and love of musical theatre proves that nerdcore’s dorkisms are wide and diverse…) We were in the middle of rehearsals one day when Gaby asked if we could take a break and listen to Front, who was being interviewed on an NPR show. I was intrigued and after listening to the interview I said, “Someone should make a documentary about this guy.” I didn’t really mean myself, at the time I wasn’t really into film/TV. But the nerdcore discovery was too good to pass up. I was shocked that this guy had fans–even fans in other countries! When I finally saw one of his shows, I knew I had a film on my hands because Frontalot was good–like real good–and his fans were a bunch of endearing and proud nerds. The combination felt “cinematic.”

Are you a fan of nerdcore? If so, what is its appeal for you?

From the outset the appeal was more about the sociological phenomenon behind nerdcore rather than the music. I thought it was fascinating and nuts that nerdcore artists unabashedly embraced the same things that made them suffer through high school and I couldn’t believe that scores, nay thousands, of folks all over the country heeded the lyrics and heralded the nerdcore message. That was enough to get me interested. But, going on tour with MC Frontalot is what made me a true Front fan. The fact of the matter is that he puts on a great live show. (MC Chris, MC Lars, and a bunch of others also put on really great live shows.) A lot of nerdcore songs–not all of them–are just catchy and enjoyable. At the end of the day, the appeal is in the music: if the songs aren’t any good, there really wouldn’t be much of a point to the whole thing. Right?

What was the funniest moment you had making the film?

Funniest moment? Where to begin?!! A lock-picking seminar at a hacker convention? The unironic use of Segues as a mode of transportation? A deadly serious argument about whether They Might Be Giants should be considered nerdcore? An inspired but wildly boring explanation of the code Front runs on his website? There are too many options! I think you’ll just have to see the movie to get the highlights!

Did making the documentary clear up any misconceptions you had or did you discover anything different about the genre?
Interesting question… One thing we realized talking to enthusiastic nerds around the country is that there was a huge whole in their hearts that needed to be filled with phat beats and clever lyrics that have nothing to do with gangsta rap. I used to be pretty satisfied with my bullet-laden hip hop but once I got on the nerdcore bandwagon it seemed ridiculous to limit myself to the mainstream offerings. Making the documentary really proved that the nerdcore genre is literally fulfilling a need among these fans for music they can relate to and (nerdily) dance to. If you’re tired of listening to mainstream hip-hop, or if you’re looking for some hip hop variation, then nerdcore is a legitimate outlet.

Was MC Front-a-lot pretty much always in character when you were filming him? I guess I'm wondering how close his on-stage persona is to who he is offstage…

MC Frontalot is pretty much MC Frontalot all the time. He doesn’t normally wear a dress shirt, tie and head lamp when he’s offstage but still, he’s pretty nerdy. He loves comic books – like LURVES comic books. And, he plays an inordinate amount of video games. Basically, he’s well-versed in the world of dorky interests. However, I’ll let you in on a little tour secret: unlike the stereotypical nerd, ladies around the country really like Frontalot. As in, they want to make-out with him. I dare say he had not a few worshipping girl fans on tour but like a true nerd, he was ever the respectful and bashful gentleman. Because, let’s be honest, girls make him nervous.