I have a theory. I theorise that one of the defining characteristics of hip-hop as a genre is that, at its best, it expresses the collective experience of a particular demographic group. Gangster rap and much of mainstream hip-hop traditionally describes the lifestyle and attitude of young, urban, lower class African-American men whose youth was marked by encounters with suspicious cops and violent drug dealers. But the theory applies to other demographic groups as well, such as brainy, suburban, middle class white kids. So let us examine one of rap’s most distinct sub-genres: nerdcore hip-hop.
Nerdcore — also known as ‘geeksta rap,’ a name that makes me smile, though most right-thinking people find it existentially repulsive — discusses subjects of interest to nerds: computers, video games, comic books, science fiction and fantasy movies and books, electronic gadgets, science, Internet memes, and esoteric trivia about all of those things, as well as being picked on in school and not having luck with girls. In many ways the genre started out as one big parody, the joke of white kids turning the gangster aesthetic on its head to rap about Dungeons & Dragons. But I believe that very quickly serious nerdcore artists realised that their fans didn’t just listen to this music ironically, but rather they truly identified with nerdcore’s themes and messages. Geeks didn’t have to deal with the crushing social problems of poverty, gang violence, and the crack epidemic, but still they felt disaffected, teased and marginalised by the mainstream. And for an entire generation of Star Trek fans and Final Fantasy players, nerdcore’s appropriation of hip-hop’s confidence and braggadocio attitude was empowering in a very real way.
One of the most successful and well known nerd rappers is MC Chris — or rather, mc chris, as he insists on spelling it without capital letters — and he has a new album out this week, mc chris Goes to Hell. To be fair, mc chris occasionally gets testy when people talk about him as purely a nerdcore artist, claiming, though only half-seriously, that his music “transcends boundaries.” Still, he has a special place in my heart as the first nerdcore artist I discovered (and in fact, one of the first rappers I grew to like, period). Nostalgia aside, however, he really is talented, and funny too. As a genre born of Internet parody, humor is a critical part of well-executed nerdcore style. mc chris does voice acting, mostly for Cartoon Networks’s Adult Swim shows, and he puts those skills to use on all his albums with amusing and increasingly off-the-wall skits that, as he says, “break up the monotony of the music.” Not that he needs the help that much. His rhymes are dense and clever (and often crude), and his flow is fast and frenetic.
That said, mc chris’s high pitched voice, though funny at first, can eventually get pretty annoying. To his credit, however, this is a fact of life he doesn’t shy away from discussing. Still, this combined with his jittery beats — stylistically situated between old school hip-hop like Run DMC and modern techno — means his music isn’t exactly ‘easy listening.’ You have to be in the right mood to really enjoy it.
Furthermore, much of the humor in those skits and in his songs relies on references, either to bits of nerd esoterica or to his past songs and skits (which, I suppose, are themselves nerd esoterica). The title of the album and the skits within continue a story arc of mc chris’s afterlife after being assassinated several albums back by his somewhat deranged record label handler — skits that themselves began as parodies of a skit on Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. This is another quality of his double-edged appeal that mc chris occasionally addresses, usually in a particularly self-deprecating manner. One of the most notable features of mc chris Goes to Hell are a series of several songs about, I kid you not, Star Wars bounty hunters in vehicles. mc chris’s first, and probably only, real hit was an exceedingly clever and catchy song early in his career called “Fett’s Vett,” about Bobba Fett’s thug lifestyle. Now, finally, mc chris brings us variations on this theme with “Zuckuss’ Prius,” “Dengar’s Dumptruck,” “IG-88’s ‘57 Chevy” and “Bossk on a Segue.” These songs are fun and clever, but they deal with far more obscure characters than Bobba Fett (all appearing for only a few seconds in The Empire Strikes Back) and reference pretty obscure parts of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Much of nerd humor works that way: in-jokes that are accessible only to the initiated. In fact, so does a lot of classic hip-hop; Wu Tang Clan filled their lyrics with numerology and coded allusions to religious texts. This doesn’t mean that the jokes aren’t funny. It just means that it takes a lot of work to really appreciate them.
For me, listening to mc chris and other nerdcore artists now is fun and nostalgic, but it doesn’t really stick the way it used to, in part because I got over my remaining anxieties about my nerd identity a few years ago. Times have also changed. In the years since nerdcore first developed, both geek culture and gangster rap have moved more into the mainstream of pop culture, and that has left nerdcore a little stranded. Nerds don’t need as much empowering — geek is chic! — and rap is not so ripe for parody. Still, nerdcore stands as an important case study on the ability of hip-hop to express the hopes, dreams, fears and struggles of a generation — any generation. That’s a power that, if used correctly, can do great good. And so I ponder my theory and look out at the technicolor landscape of our planet’s stormy and increasingly globalised youth culture, and I wonder: who will rap come to next?
Check out mc chris’s new album, mc chris Goes to Hell, and listen to music from his past works at http://www.mcchris.com.