Saturday, July 01, 2006

Like a turtleneck sweater

Some people love feet. Some folks collect thimbles or tiny spoons from around the world. Others live to roast, grind, and brew their own coffee; fresh and strong. Everyone has their weird little eccentricities, their secret perversions, their relentless fascinations. Mine is Canada. I am obsessed with Canada.

Our kindly neighbor to the north asks so little, but gives so much. The electric light bulb, the snowmobile, the Jolly Jumper, Rush, Neil Young, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, Bill Shatner, Dan Aykroyd, Wayne fucking Gretzky: all Canadian in origin, and those shining examples are far from all that this great nation has to offer. (As an added bonus, Canada, through absolutely no explicit effort, really pisses off Ann Coulter. For me that only adds to its inscrutable mystique.)

Moreover, Canada has a storied history of nerd music. From the geeked-out rhymes of Jesse Dangerously on the east coast to the Lovecraftian horror of The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets on the west, Canada is well represented in all things tuneful, catchy, and bookish.

Like The Thickets, Baddd Spellah, certainly nerdcore’s most prolific producer, reps British Columbia. Through his sparkling production, his chic beats, and his reserved demeanor, Spellah exemplifies his province’s motto: Splendour without diminishment.

Spellah was nice enough to answer a few questions for Hipster, please!, affording his legion of fans a rare glimpse at the man behind nerdcore’s most infectious tracks. Behold as we discuss the current state of pop music, Anglophonic nomenclature, and nerd life… and poo. We also discuss poo.


The biggest question on everyone’s mind is obvious: Exactly how bad is your spelling?

The name, Baddd Spellah, was actually intended for an unrealized boy band spoof concept I had in college. I repurposed it when I started developing my musical persona. I'm bemused by its tautological humour and amused when people spell it wrong.

My spelling is actually pretty darn good; I pride myself on it. Being Canadian, I find honour in colouring my words with certain ye olde Commonwealth spellings that my neighbours to the south don't employ. I am an avid dictionary/thesaurus user.

Not to pry too much into your private life, but what is your day job?

I work in the video games industry. It keeps me well-steeped in nerdiness on a daily basis. The current hot-topic is how lame the source of Superman's powers are if you really think about it: gravity and sun colour? Come on!

True. That is pretty lame. And what about that costume? A little modesty never hurt anyone… But I digress.

As an artist, Baddd Spellah wears many hats. Do you consider yourself primarily a producer, a DJ, a remix artist, or a beatsmith?

In a pinch I'd call myself a beatsmith because I like to make beats. Producer would come in a close second, especially of late as I have been cultivating recording projects with/for other artists and vocalists. Call me old-fashioned, but I think one should only dub themselves "DJ" (disc jockey) if they actually manipulate records.

How did you find yourself involved in nerdcore? Are there any non-nerdcore Baddd Spellah tracks floating around in the Internet ether?

I love rap music for the beats. I've been making beats since the mid-90s but I've never been "down" enough to be acquainted with talented local rappers so all my beat productions were strictly for my own edification. Around 1999 a friend of mine turned me onto MC Frontalot's songs and I was tickled pink. I emailed him asking if he'd allow me to produce a remix of his seminal "Nerdcore Hip Hop" track because I had the notion of sampling the rap song from "Revenge of the Nerds". From there Front and I corresponded across the continent, via the internet, firing off a number of collaborations over the years that were well-received; I've long said that it’s due to his sizable coattails that have allowed me to be as recognized as I am.

I think by definition any songs I make and release on my own accord would have to be considered "non-Nerdcore". For me Nerdcore-ness comes from lyrical content, I don't believe you can justifiably call instrumental songs "Nerdcore"; at that rate its plain-old "beats" or "electronic music". I used to post music on the net before I was drawn into Nerdcore's nerd core so I believe there are such tracks floating around out there. They are not plentiful and they mostly suck so it’s probably best if they were left floating.

The mc chris/DJ John track “Bad(dd) Runner” was your prize for winning an mc chris remix contest. Do you ever receive actual monetary compensation for all your hard work?

I wish I could say that I was typing this on my diamond-encrusted Sidekick 3 aboard a 60 foot yacht in the middle of the Aegean Sea... I'm only just starting to take my musical projects seriously enough to contemplate making money with it. I don't have a record deal (yet) but I have had the honour of making some pocket money through my contributions on a handful of music projects.

Half of the tracks on Front’s Nerdcore Rising CD credit you in some capacity. With you living in BC and Frontalot in New York, am I to deduce that this mammoth collaboration was also predominantly executed online?

“I think the breeziness comes from my appreciation for pop music.”110% online. Front and I have arrived at a process that works well for us: I'd email him a roughly arranged rhythm bed and he'd record a demo with scratch vocals over it. I'd take that and flesh out the arrangement more, oftentimes incorporating musical elements recorded by his talented keyboardist, Gm7. I'd send him the latest version of the instrumental and he'd record his final vocals. We'd go back and forth until the track and the mix was tight, sometimes this would accelerate to the point of us chatting over IM while I tweak the mix and upload it for him to review and feedback all instantaneous-like.

Nursehella, on the other hand, lives in Vancouver. Does your work with Canada’s foremost nerdlinger take place face-to-face? Which method of collaboration do you prefer?

I send Nursehella a rough beat and she writes to it on her own accord. When she's good and ready, she comes to my secret laboratory and we record there. Then she goes away and I spent countless hours on my own editing, writing, arranging and mixing until the track is hot and tight... like a turtleneck sweater.

I dig both processes in different ways. Online with Frontalot, he has clear ideas as to how he wants his performance to sound and is a perfectionist as such so each delivery of audio from him is chock-a-block full of polished, useful material. Face-to-face in my secret laboratory, I get to be all producer-like and make suggestions on phrasing and cadence when it comes to the performance of the vocalist. At the end of the day, it all comes down to me spending late nights, basking in the glow of my monitor, sliding bits of audio and MIDI notes around.

Baddd Spellah tracks have a very layered, breezy feel that differentiates them from those of other artists. To what do you attribute the Baddd Spellah sound?

I think the layered nature of my "sound" is probably due to my limited understanding of sophisticated music theory. I played trumpet in high school so I'm aware of — and attempt to use — techniques like chord changes and modulation and whatnot but I pretty much just muscle through those aspects of composition; I'm a strictly "play by ear" kind of song writer. With my limited musical toolkit, I end up layering to maintain listener interest throughout a song!

I think the breeziness comes from my appreciation for pop music from
Burt Bacharach to Beyonce. I'm all for indie cred but I love trying to crack the code that makes a song so virulently catchy that even my mom could dig it.

I’m glad you mentioned your appreciation of pop music. I hesitated to use the phrase “pop sensibility” in the previous question because, much like the word “nerd,” some folks see it as a badge of shame. What is your take on pop backlash in the indie music scene? The Beatles were a pop band. The Kinks, The Police, Blur: All pop band and all well-respected. Has pop music changed, or is it just our perception of what “pop” is that has undergone a metamorphosis?

I tend to make a hazy distinction between Capital 'P' Pop Music and Top-40 pop music. At its best the former epitomizes an emotional milieu while the latter is more often just music as commodity. I'd have to cynically say that the distinction is that Capital 'P' Pop Music regularly get's licensed for Gap and Nike and BMW commercials while Top-40 pop is the domain of teenage girls and fitness club sound systems. But its not necessarily nostalgia or how well-heeled a song is either, Top-40 can be Capital 'P' Pop and vice versa; Missy Elliot has released some classics in my opinion while The Archies grate on my ears. But I love the whole continuum of pop music for different reasons: Capital 'P' Pop inspires me musically (i.e. "What are the ingredients for an infectious hook?") while Top-40 fascinates me for its sociological components (i.e. "If rap is about authenticity and a rapper's life is all about bling does that not justify his lyrical content?", "Do 12-year-old girls bear their mid-riffs because of Britney Spears? Does she have a responsibility to her audience as a role model?"). By that token, I see no shame in an open appreciation of pop. For me, pop as music is just the tip of the iceberg, I want to know why it exists and what it says about the world around me.

I think the indie backlash towards pop is the result of our culture's paradoxical cult of individuality; the aligning of yourself with other "individuals" as mavericks separate from the thronging masses, defining yourself by what you are not, what you don't like; "You hate that too!? I like you for hating that!"

Your tracks also feature very polished production. What is your recording setup?

My recording booth (read: livingroom with the curtains closed) is fitted with my AKG C1000 condenser mic. That's lined into an Aardvark DirectPro audio interface that's installed in my reliable but aging PC in my studio (read: the adjacent room where I pay my bills and put my filing cabinets). I pretty much only use a set of comfy Sennheiser headphones for all my monitoring so I blame any deficiencies in my mixing on that busted-ass habit; then again I pretty much only listen to music on headphones so I think I understand how to mix adequately on headphones, I think. For tracking audio I use Abletone Live and split the composition chores between that and Propellerhead Reason. I am proud to say I am a registered owner of both programs; I am too legit to quit. The company that made my soundcard, Aardvark, went tits up sometime not too long ago so I don't know how much longer my set up will remain as such but its served me well so far.

Your remixes tend to careen wildly from the aural texture of the original tracks. From what/where do you draw inspiration?

Someone wise once told me that an artist should immediately discard their initial idea for any work of art they set out to make, the theory being that most people will likely have arrived at that same idea. This rings true for me, I'm not enough of an iconoclast to reflexively think "outside the box" so I try to stick to that ethic as much as possible. If I remix a song the one that I ultimately release is oftentimes the 3rd or 4th version because by then it’s (hopefully) not as obviously derivative of my immediate influences.

The driving force behind my remix decisions is the attempt to evoke another facet of the song that may not be readily apparent in its original form but that once revealed seems imminent. Like the connection between Boba Fett (as bounty hunter) and country/western/cowboy music in the "
Fett's Vette" remix or the "aural homonyms" in the "Nerdcore Hip Hop 2006" remix; swapping the whistling from the original with flutes, "blown jug" sounds and slide whistles. That sounds like a lot of pretentious hooey and I'm not as successful as often as I'd like to be but it is what I think do about when I'm making remixes; I need there to be a firm conceptual grounding.

As I’m not above asking a man to pick a favorite of his children: Is there a specific song or project that you are most proud of or that stands out in your mind as a particularly significant achievement?

All things considered, I think my remix of mc chris' "Fett's Vette" is tied with working on Frontalot's "Nerdcore Rising" as my most significant achievements.

Fett's Vette Remix: Its such an iconic song in the first place and so well-loved by fans of all things rappy and nerdy I'd like to think I gazed into its soul and saw its potential as a country-rap song and teased it out for the world to hear. Of course it was very divisive too, folks loved it or hated it but on the site where I hosted it, it received 12,049 listens before the site was re-structured and re-launched!

Nerdcore Rising: Prior to this album, Buy Spellah’s merch!I've never been involved with a "serious" recording project. It was through collaborating with Front for it that we really honed our process and I learned a lot about what does and doesn't work for me as a beatsmith. It was working on this project that something clicked in my brain that said "yes, you've got what it takes". Previously, I was just making music for laughs, something to pass the time, now I like to imagine actually getting paid to do this on a regular basis! Who knows...

You definitely have what it takes! Hell, I’d love to pay you for this interview, but as you can see (clearly illustrated by the fact that this is a thinly-veiled free Blogger account), I’m not exactly making mad cash off nerd culture blogging, myself!

Next question: What is the present condition of your Gawd Particlez? Are they properly aligned?

Sadly no. My Gawd Particlez are in total disarray. My poo particles are in better order.

Well, at least you’re regular.

There seems to be a dearth of information about Baddd Spellah on the WWW (your entry in the Rhyme Torrents wiki, for example, simply reads “Beat maker for MC Frontalot. I think he is of the Asian persuasion.”). In a genre that is primarily perpetuated via self-promotion this seems odd. Is there a specific effort on your part to remain out of the limelight so as to be identified more by your music, or is this merely an unfortunate oversight?

The lack of info about me had its origins with the whole "electronic musician as anonymous artist" mystique that I bought into at first and it morphed into "I'm just not big on hyping myself up". Polishing my rather prosaic life into a scintillating diamond via third-person narrative seems disingenuous. I guess it’s my nature to be a private person but I'm learning how to better deal with the whole public vs. private persona thing; answering these questions is part of that process I guess.

And I appreciate you taking the time to answer them.

What kind of nerd is Baddd Spellah?

I'm definitely not as much of a hardcore modern nerd as some of the other kids doing this music; I don't code, my knowledge of anime ends with Hayao Miyazaki and I don't have a Gamertag. Technically, I think I am a lapsed old school nerd generalist who uses computers lots: I'm old enough to have had an Atari 2600 and later a Commodore 64, I saw Star Wars: A New Hope in the theatres, I collected Teenage Mutant Ninja comics when they were still printed in black and white and 100% indie and I played AD&D with 1st edition rules well into my early 20s. These days I think my nerd card is renewed solely on the fact that I spend at least 80% of my waking life in front of a computer and still visit the comic store on a semi-regular basis.

Old school nerd cred is a highly-valued commodity around these parts. Which brings me to the obligatory closing question: What, in your opinion, is the nature of nerd?

I think the nature of nerd is obsession with things that most people don't care enough about to explore beyond the surface, be it baseball stats, collecting glass unicorns or cultivating rare orchids. I think its finding that one right "angle" in the myriad possibilities of human existence and throwing yourself headlong into it and not caring what anybody else thinks.


If we lived in a just world, Baddd Spellah would be making Timbaland bank. He would, in fact, be replying to his email via blinged-out Sidekick from his luxury cruiser (which I, for the purpose of this fantasy, have dubbed The Pacific Princess). Even as I type this, Sony Music would be plying him with high-grade coke and high-class hookers, clinging to the desperate hope that he would finally concede to join them in their tireless quest to make Jessica Simpson sound both talented and refined.

Of course, if we lived in a just world, our governments wouldn’t be overrun by opportunistic power mongers, and automobiles would run purely off that feeling of satisfaction you get when you successfully merge onto a busy freeway.

And, upon further reflection, a just world would most likely be incapable of producing a Jessica Simpson, but you get my drift.

Idealized worldviews aside, one thing you can be sure of is that Baddd Spellah is the real McCoy. He is an artist of genuine talent and integrity who wholly embraces his inner nerd. Spellah’s efforts have propelled nerdcore as a whole forward, and his tracks standout as highpoints in the catalogues of all the performers with which he’s worked. Music geeks (and geek musicians) owe a true debt to the man who took Fett to the country and Nerdcore Hip Hop to school.

Keep your good eye ceaselessly to the north, my geekish companions, as Baddd Spellah is most certainly cooking up another delicious track for your auditory amusement. After all, that’s what Baddd Spellah is all aboot.


Doc Pop said...

Baddd Spellah arranges sound waves in a pleasing and infectious manner!

Really dug this interview Z.!

Z. said...

Interviewing Spellah was a breeze: A cool, relaxing breeze, at that. Glad you dug it, Doc, and thanks for your continued patronage.

Anonymous said...

Spellah is the finest human I know.

Doc Pop said...

Oh, on the canadian front....

Damn good hip hop in those parts... mcenroe, Birdapre, Josh Martinez, Buck 65, Noah [N] (where N repressents the current number), Kid Koala, BluRum 13... Uh, more that I can't rememer..

And don't get me started in the killer comics that come out of Montreal!!!

Anonymous said...

Good interview. Not only do we get a great insight into Baddd Spellah, but some classy lines from Z.

funky49 said...

stay classy, canada! a nice interview.

Z. said...

Thanks to everyone for all the glorious feedback. Concerning the relative awesome-ness of this particular piece, let me give credit to the man: Baddd Spellah is so incredibly kick-ass that it’s nigh impossible not to have a great interview with the guy. It was all him, folks, with me merely acting the part of conduit.

Anonymous said...

Baddd is a dope guy, he deserves all the praise he gets.

It's hard to recognize his true genius until you work on a project with him and see your song magically transform into hotness.

Anonymous said...

I'm rooting for a Jesse Dangerously interview!

Of course, I'm also sleeping with Jesse Dangerously.


Z. said...

Then you are in an ideal position to hook a brotha up. :) I would LOVE to interview Jesse!