Let me preface this piece with an important truth: I have love for ANYONE trying to make a career for him or herself as a professional musician. The odds are stacked against you incredibly. No one buys CDs, so you're going to have to make your living off of touring and selling t-shirts out of a suitcase. GarageBand is in the hands of any and everyone, so unless you have more than a remedial understanding of home recording, the competition is ridiculous when it comes to the need for your product to be presented professionally. Plus, on top of all of that, nowadays everyone knows how to market themselves with Myspace and Facebook and Twitter and blah blah blah, so unless you get extremely lucky with the best song ever written played for the exactly right people at the exactly right time with the most dope YouTube video ever filmed, you're dead in the water.
That being said, it's time to get something off of my chest that I've been feeling for years. Unless you are MC Frontalot, it's time to stop trying to make "nerdcore hip-hop". Damian Hess, a.k.a. Frontalot a.k.a. the inventor of the genre made a name for himself when the Penny Arcade guys saw what a hilarious job he was doing on Song Fight! years and years ago. He is legitimately talented and I respect and love what he does. I've been friends with the man since 2006, toured with him twice, and done quite a few one offs with him at places like the San Diego Comic-Con and SXSW, and will see him again this coming weekend in Orlando. When comedian Negin Farsad made a documentary about Front's first tour, it got some exposure, and when coupled with the "Nerdcore for Life" movie by Dan Lamoureux, the genre's name gained some more press briefly in 2007. It was made increasingly popular for a moment when one of the rappers in the Lameroux film used his YouTube connections to get a preview of the documentary featured on the site. The rest was history. I was lumped into the genre even though my management, my publicist and I had always seen what I do as entirely different. I never self-identified as a "nerdcore rapper" and always cringed when people said I was. Because I knew the end was in sight.
At this time everyone thought, for a second, that nerdcore was going to blow up. "We finally had a voice," a cadre of mediocre rappers exclaimed. But people forgot to notice one thing: the genre was ultimately limited. It traded on the notion that home-produced beats and an awkward flow were something people would want to pay to hear, instead of just laugh at for a minute while you were looking to put on some "real hip-hop," like Jay-Z or Kanye West. And now we are seeing the brunt of this fallacy in thinking.
As with any genre, if you want to last, you have to write songs that affect people in an emotional way and have an interesting live show and be very savvy with your business. What came up were hundreds of Myspace sites with kids rapping over Nintendo samples about Star Wars and how they couldn't get laid. Nerdcore has been declining in popularity and notoriety because, to be quiet honest, its appeal as a genre outside of a select few people is ultimately finite. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols had an aesthetic that changed music forever, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash perfected the art of the breakbeat and changed the party vibe by creating a context for funky beats to be played for hours with no gaps. It wasn't until punk evolved into the post-punk of bands like Joy Division and Public Image Limited that it became interesting again and it wasn't until the production of the breakbeat was reinvented by guys like Dre that hip-hop began to evolve musically. Not to oversimplify things, but music evolves when people realize that it's time for something new, and that time for nerdcore hip-hop is now.
I get demos all the time by kids who self-identify as "nerdcore hip-hop artists". And I tell them all that before you try to artificially incorporate yourself into a subgenre, that you need to UNDERSTAND its genesis and BE PREPARED TO PUSH IT FORWARD. Sounding exactly like the dopest people currently in the scene is not enough - you need to be original.
Let me illustrate by describing some people who have pushed things forward within this Internet-based hip-hop community who have the potential of having a career in the years to come by respecting but transcending Frontalot's movement:
YTCracker is my boy. We've been working together for over a year, he's helped me with my hustle and I've hooked him up with shows, and our "Digital Gangster LP" recouped all of its costs within a few days of its release. That is unheard of, as 90% of records that come out never make back the money invested in them. Yes, he has "Nerd Life" tatted on his torso, and yes he put out an EP with Nintendo beats, but this dude is also a DJ and musician who truly understands music and runs one of the biggest forums for hackers on the Internet. He uses the "nerd" concept as a branding device, but he's really a hip-hop gangster with a lot of talent who, when he pushes himself and expands his subject matter, I tell everyone still has the ability and flow to reach a mainstream audience. He also hosts my website and the Horris Records site.
Schaffer the Darklord is one hilarious and very talented MC. He's a great writer and performer and he's one of the nicest people I know. He gets his rhythmic skills from his earlier career as a metal drummer - which is why his flow is so precise and his stage movements are so engaging and energetic. I've found that many great rappers are also great drummers.... case in point: Josh Eppard, Coheed's old drummer, whose Weerd Science project is pretty untouchable. Schaffer will go far because his YouTube presence is so huge and he will keep building on the underground notoriety he's made for himself. It's not "nerdcore hip-hop", it's very entertaining and clever rap that tells stories in the tradition of Slick Rick or Snoop, with a flow that resembles "Weird Al" at his best. Say what you will about his "hip-hop cred", Schaffer is an artist who I will always be excited to hear live or on my iPod any day of the week.
Jesse Dangerously is someone I've admired from afar and finally got to work with last year and meet at SXSW. We became buddies because he, like me, has never wanted to be part of the nerdcore genre and intentionally approaches the mic with a knowledge and flow of some of the best old-school rappers. When we were rehearsing in the alley behind the venue in Austin for SXSW, some kids walked by and heard Jesse's flow and were blown away and all started freestyling with us. He's a true talent that I know will go far. We once spoke about working on EP together, and it looks like that probably won't happen anymore due to our conflicting schedules, but I know Jesse will be in the game for years to come and I will proudly say that I knew him back in the day.
Beefy is an amazing talent and has taken the "nerdcore" identify and had fun with it and made some great records and pushed the aesthetic criteria. He's a great storyteller and performer, and has a great ear for dope beats. In five years, he could be on the forefront of his own movement. Go see his live show - and you'll agree that homeboy's a powerhouse performer. I've had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him a few times and he always rips it up.
Dual Core is an international crew with an American emcee who calls himself int80 who works with a British producer called c64. David (int80) came out of the Scribble Jam Midwest hip-hop scene, birthplace of people like Eminem, Slug from Atmosphere, and Sage Francis, and is a rapper who HAPPENS to be a computer programmer by day, which makes him more than a "nerdcore rapper". He's an amazing freestyler and one of the nicest people I know (next to Schaffer), and I'll never forget the fun afternoon we spent in Chicago one day before our show there with Front and YT. He's an amazing rapper and friend.
Look at these artists and then look at some of the lesser known peeps in the scene and you'll see why some transcend and some are doomed to obscurity. My point is this: if you want to make music, make amazing music and don't try to be in a scene. Don't limit yourself. Don't just be a rapper. Master all of the programs for beat making. Study hip-hop, but not just hip-hop, study all music and learn to sing and play guitar or piano. Push yourself and THEN send me your demos. In Negin Farsad's documentary about Front, Jello Biafra warns us, "be careful of your own stereotype, it could become a prison." That's what's happened in the past year with nerdcore but no longer needs to be the case. We're on the verge of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Kids who are doing dope things with hip-hop sonically (3OH!3, Hyper Crush etc.) are the ones reaching fans and changing things. Kids who are ONLY listening to MC Frontalot and mc chris sound like lo-fi versions of the Lonely Island guys.... and if that's what you're going for, more power to you... but true music fans would rather listen to artists who make great albums and move us emotionally than listen to a novelty act looking for their fifteen minutes in a genre that has come and gone.
Let's push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and flip the script by surprising each other with what we can do.
It's time for something new and I'm typing this as a call for action to all of the kids out there who want to make careers in music. If you want to make a mark, keep impressing those of us who have been in the game for a decade plus and don't simply try to emulate what we've done. Say something original, say it well, and make my car shake when I listen to your demo mp3 or keep my attention rapt with the dope YouTube video you make to go with the song. You are all mad talented and I know you can create amazing stuff.
RIP Nerdcore.... what's next?? It's honestly a really an exciting time to be on the mic or producing beats.
P.S. A lot of people ask me what my favorite hip-hop records are when I point to originators that can inspire us to move forward. These are some good ones by true artists that I think everyone should study and keep handy in their iTunes:
- Run-DMC: Raising Hell
- Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
- Nas: Illmatic
- The Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die
- E-40: My Ghetto Report Card
- Boogie Down Productions: Ghetto Music (The Blueprint of Hip-Hop)
- Dr. Dre: the Chronic
- Snoop Doggy Dogg: Doggystyle
- Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
- Mystikal: Unpredictable
- Outkast: Aquemini
- Jay-Z: the Black Album
- Dizzee Rascal: Boyindacorner
- MC Frontalot: Nerdcore Rising
- K'Naan: Troubador