Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Nerdcore version 2.0

For better or worse, I came of age during the grunge era. It was a period of great cultural upheaval, a time when popular music in America was undergoing a transformation of sorts, and an era generally devoid of both fashion sense and self-awareness.

When I was 16, I watched Dave Markey’s seminal 1991: The Year Punk Broke at a house party. It was cool, getting to see all that tour footage of Sonic Youth and Nirvana, but the title bothered me. Even with the inclusion of old school punkers The Ramones, the film was hardly about punk rock, a movement that was birthed in earnest at approximately the same time as me.

It wasn’t until years later that something finally clicked, that the title finally made sense. The film wasn’t about punk rock as an art form or even as a movement, it was about punk rock as a paradigm. Moreover, it was about (and put on your buzzword panties here, kids) a shift in said paradigm. The punk rock model – that anti-establishment crotch punch built on the backs of The Stooges, The MC5, The New York Dolls, and their ilk – didn’t so much evaporate as evolve. And that evolution was firmly rooted within a flaw in the system.

Punk rock was hard to market in the 1970s. Sure, McLaren and Westwood made a fair penny off of it, but it lacked universal appeal because of its nigh instantaneous media vilification. There was plenty of fame to go around, mind you, and certainly even a bit of fortune, but (until the genre itself found a new name) it mostly afforded notoriety.

But in the 1990s? By the ‘90s you had an entire generational buffer – kids who had grown up with the concept of a Sex Pistols or, more importantly, a Clash. To them us it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t menacing, it wasn’t threatening; it was merely a grand part of Rock ‘n’ Roll history. We would buy these long-defunct bands’ t-shirts and scrounge for their records in thrift stores. We would play out of time and out of tune covers of their classics in our shitty garage bands. We would, in short, drink the Kool-Aid. We were the missing component of the punk rock marketing blitz come 20 years too late. And as angsty and unwashed as a Kurt Cobain or a *shudder* Eddie Vedder was, they spoke to us because they bought those albums too.

So, when Markey told us that punk “broke” in 1991, he probably meant that it broke through, that the old school model of “play what you know and know what you play” had finally become valid. But, on another level entirely, you could also say that it merely broke. It went under. The wheels of musical rebellion fell off and Universal Music Group was there to slap a new, timelier set of radials on that fucker and ride it out. All the way to the bank.

So when I say that 2006 was the year nerdcore broke, I want you to understand the context in which I speak, for it is resplendent with context.

It would be an understatement to say that 2006 has been a big year for nerdcore. It was an enormous year for nerdcore, for a lot of reasons and with thanks due to a lot of hard working men and women. Much of this work was concrete, palpable. Optimus Rhyme’s excellent Endino-produced sophomore album School the Indie Rockers is a prime example, as is MC Frontalot (the de facto founder of nerdcore) launching his first ever a national tour to promote his masterwork Nerdcore Rising. Still, other work was a bit more subtle.

While High-C’s Rhyme Torrent compilation albums were panned by some who questioned his inclusion criteria, it is important to note that it was this work that truly began to break down the barriers between nerdcore artists. No longer were they operating within a vacuum: tiny islands existing outside of the collective nerd music consciousness. Rhyme Torrents alerted these artists to the existence of other likeminded spirits and set the stage for exchange, collaboration, feuds, and even beef. But it is impossible to overestimate the importance that this assembly (and the man who orchestrated it) had on the nerdcore landscape.

More than anything, 2006 can be seen as the year when nerdcore as a genre (sub-genre?) finally began to coalesce. Despite the eventual barrage of diss tracks and in-fighting, there were far more artists who eagerly accepted the nerdcore moniker (YTCracker and the SpamTec Crew, My Parents Favorite Music, Former Fat Boys, and Futuristic Sex Robotz to name a few) than refused to be associated with the term (à la mc chris or Paul Barman). In the face of nerdcore “camps” and overall cliquishness, I think that this important (if mostly symbolic) victory is too often overlooked.

Despite misfires and false starts, nerdcore got press from the likes of G4, Wired magazine, EGM, Boing-Boing, Slashdot, and a myriad of foreign Web sites and publications. It is also of note that 2006 saw the birth of two separate nerdcore hip hop documentary projects: the MC Frontalot tour doc Nerdcore Rising and the Crapbots production Nerdcore For Life.

And, of course, nerdcore was still alive and well in all its old haunts: most specifically the Penny Arcade Expo. However, this year, in addition to the annual on-site Frontalot performance, PAX was followed up with a supplementary all-nerdcore gig at the nearby Shark Club. This served both as a showcase for nerdcore’s current talent pool and an opportunity for some brilliant live footage to be recorded for the Nerdcore For Life film.

In essence, 2006 was the year that didn’t so much change nerdcore as redefine how nerdcore music, artists, and fans operate. The music itself is still essentially the same, and, though there are those who disagree with what this sameness entails, nerdcore is musically, socially, and (dare I say) commercially stronger than it has ever been.

And while it would be foolhardy to say that 2006 was the year that nerdcore hip hop completely broke through, I think we can all agree that this was the year when nerdcore, at the very least, poked its hooked and goony beak out of its shell of isolation and made a great geeky squawk. And, while not everyone heard it, a great number of people did take note.

Of course, with that admission every haughty, self-righteous bone in my tiny body cries out for satisfaction. Every single cheesy, faux-journalistic fiber of my being demands that I overstep my bounds as a casual chronicler of nerd culture and crown some winner, some Nerd of the Year™ to commemorate this auspicious occasion.

And why not? There’s certainly no dearth of worthy candidates.

The aforementioned MC Frontalot, Optimus Rhyme, and YTCracker continued to strengthen and refine the musical style that they birthed, while successors like Beefy and Ultraklystron pushed their own flavors of nerdcore in new and exciting directions. Amazing producers and DJ’s like Baddd Spellah, funky49, and DJ Snyder plied their craft in unique, imaginative ways that helped to tie this renegade style to the proud roots of hip hop’s past. New artists like MCeeP and Grandmaster Pink burst into the scene with fresh ideas, electric personalities, and more than enough fire and skill to prove their mettle in the face of criticism. And, just as importantly, the diligent work and unbridled creativity of nerdcore’s nonmusical element (as exemplified by Dan Lamoureux and Gabe and Syn of Nerdcore News) helped to remind us all that nerdcore as a community is not limited solely to the realms of beats, bass, and rhymes.

It is the boundless dedication of these souls and, indeed, all that count themselves among nerdcore’s numbers that made 2006 a perfect storm of geek rap revolution. The recent success of nerdcore is undoubtedly due to all who poured their hearts and souls into writing, rapping, and repping from this tiny corner of the hip hop spectrum, and, as such, each of us should wear the crown.

If there’s a king (or queen) of the scene, a “winner” here that must be crowned: then why not all of us?

The ground gained by nerd music, specifically that ever-growing list of nerdcore’s achievements, is due in part to each and every one of us. We all made a difference, and thus we are all the ultimate winner.

When I look back on 2006, I don’t simply remember a specific artist or song or album that defined the year; rather, I recall the entirity of the year itself as a golden moment when hipsterism and nerd culture collided. When black was white and right was left. When nerdcore broke and we all helped to fix it.

You’re it, my friend; you are the Nerd of the Year™. You and me and everyone who played. We did this together, and we can do more.

So, as we look forward to 2007, we should celebrate our victories and learn from our blunders. Things got to this point via our blood, sweat, and tears, and where it goes from here depends solely upon the same. Well, there’s also luck, but luck is a thankless whore and we’d do better not to rely too heavily upon her.

Surely we stand at the cusp of something great, but let’s not spend so much time looking to the future that we ignore the present. This is the golden age, and whether we rise or fall, we have this moment. Today we are all stars.

And if these stars fizzle out?

Fuck it. We had our time, and, so long as we made the most of it, it was not wasted.

Whatever lies ahead, we have each other and we have today, and I am immeasurably thankful for both.

If, after the countdown to ‘07, all the nerds who were, in a very real sense, kings and queens for a day fade into the Internet ether from which we emerged – if our blogs no longer get the hits and our albums no longer get the press and our friend requests all but dry up – does that make us any less important? Does that make our contributions less worthy? Does that make us less than what we are?


Being a nerd, more than anything else, is about being who you are despite the consequences and in spite of the hardships. Certainly, 2006 was a good time, but, whether things go up or down from here, we’ll continue doing geeky things because that’s what we do. Hopefully, some will continue to have their exemplary work praised by persons outside of our circle. But whether that happens or not, as long as we keep doling out the nerd love to our own we’ll get by.

Pariahs or Messiahs, as long as we are strong in what we are we will always have or culture, whether it’s at the local coffee shop or on the 10 o’clock news.

So in summation: feel free to call 2006 the year nerdcore broke. Furthermore, feel free to quantify that statement in any way you’d like. Just be sure that, at the end of the day, you realize that you are more a part than a passive observer, and wherever we go from here depends just as much on us as it does those outsiders who are only now beginning to understand what we’re all about.

And, while I adoringly celebrate the breaking down of the walls between nerd culture and the mainstream, I’m much more jubilant about the narrowing gulfs between us as nerds.

Welcome to nerdcore 2.0.


Steffo said...

Couldn't have said it better myself. I have a bunch of wonderful new friends that I've never even met before, and I couldn't be happier. 2007 will be a good year for Nerdcore. There's no way around it.

churchHatesTucker said...

It's an honor just to be nominated...

2007 will be just fine. The two docos have already helped bring attention to the scene, and they've yet to be released. I think the most interesting thing may be what happens outside our little corner.

Two things have struck me recently. First is the popularity of "White and Nerdy." Now, Weird Al isn't a nerdcore artist, but the song is as nerdcore as it gets--and it was huge. Or rather, it IS huge. As I write this it's number two on iTunes' list of music videos. (And that list is composed of the number of people who have paid two bucks for a video that's freely available on the net.)

The second thing happened a few weeks ago, when the DJ at one of my local haunts wasn't really into it and I offered to throw up some stuff for a while. I alternated her CDs (usual fare) with my nerdcore. At first, nobody noticed--"Kill Dash Nine" sounds as gangsta as it gets, and I remember one guy yelling along with the song without any idea what it actually meant (incidently I'm just as guilty of that; one of my favorite songs ever is "Five to Nine" and I understand about a third of it.) A couple people asked who did "Nursehellamentary," thinking it was just a new act they hadn't heard (which is true as far as it goes.) MC Hawking finally clued some people in that something was up, but even there one of my more music-savy friends came up and said, "I usually hate novelty songs, but that was actually good."

My point here is that I think there's some hunger out there for more hip-hop that doesn't sound like a musical recap of The Wire (hence the popularity of "White and Nerdy.") The best of Nerdcore is at least an equal to anything out in commercial rotation (at least judging from some random bar patrons.) There's a real possibility that there can be some cross-fertilization of the mainstream.

benjamin bear said...

which is why hip-hop is the perfect medium for nerds - it fools people into listening to us.

even if they don't understand the words, we can still give them something to dance to.

wow, this is like the third award i've won this year (after time magazine's person of the year and spin magazine's band of the year). i rule. ^_^

Z. said...

Glad to hear it, Steffo. Be advised that I am expecting LOTS of good things from MPFM in ’07!

I can’t believe people *paid* for the W&N video. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great vid – but I’ve been positively tripping over copies of it for free for months! And I’d like to thank you for your recent work as a nerdcore ambassador, Church. You’re a good man.

You do rule, Ben. See how things turned around for you as soon as you moved to FL? ;)

churchHatesTucker said...

"hip-hop is the perfect medium for nerds - it fools people into listening to us" LMAO. That should be on a T-shirt or something.

"nerdcore ambassador" Love it. I should get business cards printed up with that on it.

Antisocial said...

Nobody understands the gangster lingo of mainstream hip-hop, why should people care if they understand computer lingo?

Z. said...

Good point, Soc. Much like Church, I have no idea what the hell Ultraklystron is talking about half the time, but I still enjoy his music. By the same token, I reckon that subject matter and vocabulary shouldn’t necessarily preclude non-nerds from listening to nerdcore.

steve said...

I like seeing my name on websites... except for law enforcement ones.

Z. said...

funky49: Tampa's Most Wanted ;)