Friday, December 21, 2007

Serious Fun

Nerdcore hip-hop is sort of an uneven medium, with an imprecise history that is only now being recorded. I’ve remarked before that nerdcore can be viewed – much like ska – in waves.

From as far back as Paul Barman brought his smart, sarcastic rhymes to the underground and Commodore 64 waxed poetic about their collective social inadequacies and overall dorkiness, the concept of nerd-as-rapper has taken many forms. Artists like MC Frontalot, who coined the phrase, MC Hawking, and Optimus Rhyme inspired not only a (somewhat) cohesive genre, but also helped to spark the musical arm of the current geek cultural revolution with the first legitimate wave of nerdcore.

Inspired by acts like Front and Optimus, artists like Beefy and Ultraklystron came together under the banner of nerdcore in the early days of the Rhyme Torrents project. And these second generation artists helped to bring many of the current crop of post-Rhyme Torrents MCs into the fold.

But even this is only half the story.

Behind each wave of rappers there are producers, DJs, support musicians, helpful friends. Those who craft beats and cobble together musical accompaniment are just as important to the nerdcore community as those who rock rhymes, but they seldom get the same level of press or praise.

One such artist is Tanner Brown, known to most as T-byte. Sandwiched in the middle ground between established names like Baddd Spellah and up-and-comers like nYgel, Tanner is very much the middle child of nerdcore hip-hop. He works just as hard as his fellows. He has just as impressive a list of collaborators and is just as creatively inclined. And yet you seldom, if ever, hear his name outside of the immediate community, and that’s a damn shame.

Motivated by the old adage that change begins at home, I sought to rectify this problem to the best of my meager abilities by taking some time to get to know Tanner. In the interview that followed, we talked about his musical pedigree, the recent success of his mash-up album Bad Apollo, and overall musical nerdiness. But mostly we had fun.


You make music under many names: Tanner4105, T-Byte, yatexas, and filipe bacon, just to name a few. Are these names interchangeable or do each of these "characters" make music within certain style constraints?

T-byte and mc chris.Haha! Well I guess my last album was a little confusing; yatexas is actually my friend's screenname but edited. The (Bad Appolo) album's tracklist is a chat-log between me and him on AIM. Felipe Bacon is my AIM screen name, but I've never made music under that name really; I just use because I registered it a while back. I mainly make music under T-Byte or tanner4105. T-Byte is the name I mainly use for nerdcore-type stuff and tanner4105 is everything else, but I also use Tanner Brown, which is my real name.

Ah, that makes a bit more sense. :)

You're probably best known as one half of nerdcore hip-hop duo 1337 g33k b3at. How did you come to work with MC Router?

We started out as friends in high school and then she joined me and my friend's band Cowsponge. But back to Router, after she left Cowsponge we didn’t really talk a lot until a couple of years ago, then I got her interested in hip hop and it just kinda happened. She goes by MC Router now and not 1337 g33k b3at, but that was a decision we both made since she doesn't just use my beats anymore.

Uh… what, exactly, is a Cowsponge?

It's a band me and my friend Aaron started in high school. We started out just making some songs where we just came up with a bunch of random stuff off the top of our heads. Now it's more organized and we're trying to finish an album, even though we live about 90 miles away from each other. We just send each other stuff online and kinda build upon it, but it's become a very long process. Check out our MySpace if you wanna hear some stuff, and, if you wanna see more on our history, our old bassist made a documentary about the band. And this is also a good video to check out if you wanna see what me and Aaron are like in the "studio"

You work in a myriad of musical styles from rap to mash-ups to punk rock. Is there an underlying theme or concept, some unseen common thread, that ties these disparate projects together?

Not really, besides just having fun with it. I like making all types of music (obviously) but I just always try and have fun. If I'm ever working on something and I'm just sitting there racking my brain on how it could be better, that's when I know I'm trying too hard and it's time to stop until I can come back to it later and not be so intense about it. It's only happened a few times, but every time I realized that if I try and finish a project and I'm not having fun with it, the result is awful.

That’s a pretty profound statement, and one that I think most musicians would do well to remember. Do you think that’s what draws people to your music? Do you think that the fact that you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing shines through?

It's possible, because I think I can tell whether or not a band is in it for the money or if they're in it for fun when I hear an album. For example, a band like Simple Plan: the music and lyrics are just so awfully generic it's hard to listen to unless you're a 14-year-old girl who doesn't know anything about music. When I listen to a band like They Might Be Giants, I feel they are doing it because they just love making music. That’s a band that’s been doing it for over 20 years, and they keep on doing it even if they aren't selling out huge, 20,000 seat stadiums.

How long have you been making music, and where did you get your start?

Since 2002 or 2003, and that was with Cowsponge. Me and Aaron learned everything about music together and that's why we can jam so well together and just have a great time making songs.

Your most recent mash-up collection, the very eclectic Bad Apollo – I'm a Burning Fart IV – Volume Two No Butts for LMAO, was a runaway success. Were you expecting the album to get such a warm reception?

Bad ApolloNot at all. I sent it to some friends in an IRC channel (PPP, what up!) and as a joke they suggested I post it in GBS on the Something Awful forums. I was expecting people to hate it, but it was really the exact opposite.

I think the artwork for the “cover” helped too. I pitched an idea to my cousin Liza and she made my dream a reality.

Do you have plans for a follow-up?

Absolutely, but I just started working and have school too, so I haven't had a ton of time to work on it. I've got about 4 or 5 finished songs for it, but my goal is 15 at least. Over winter break I'm sure I'll finish it, so I'm excited about that. It's just getting hard to find different stuff to throw in since I used about 57 different songs on my last album and it's only 25 minutes long. Here's a sneak peak at the next album. I'm not sure if I'm gonna have a theme for the track listing this time or not.

In addition to 1GB, your solo work, and projects like Cowsponge, you also do a lot of production within the nerdcore community – specifically with Nerdy South artists YTCracker and Beefy. Who else have you worked with?

I helped a friend mix an album that we just finished a couple weeks ago; you can listen to his stuff at his MySpace. I added a second guitar, bass, and programmed drums for the song “The Fallout” on that page. I'm really excited about how that track turned out, and we're gonna work together in the future for sure. I'm also recording a guy from school right now, but I don't have a link for his stuff.

Are there any other artists or groups with which you'd like to collaborate?

I'm willing to work with anyone. I love collaborating with people and trying new styles of music. Hit me up, y’all!

Your music incorporates everything from pitch-altered samples to live instrumentation. How do you go about piecing your tracks together?

When I'm making mash-ups, I find a song I like. Then, most of the time, I think of what other songs sound similar to it, or try to throw in a beat over it to change it up a little. Sometimes it'll be trial and error when I can't think of anything and I'll just go through 5 or so songs until I hit gold. When I'm recording Cowsponge stuff, me and Aaron will usually just jam until we come up with something that sounds good, and then record a demo, and turn that into a full song. When I'm recording a live band, we'll lay down the drum tracks, then go with guitar or bass, and then vocals, and then add whatever else they want to. If I'm making a beat I start with the drums/percussion tracks as well, then jam on my piano until I find something I like.

Personally, I've always seen bastard pop like mash-ups and cut-ups as uniquely geeky music. What are your thoughts on mash-ups as an extension of nerd culture?

I think that most everyone likes mash-ups or remixes or whatever you wanna call it. I saw Girl Talk live a couple weeks ago and there were nerds and college frat guys and sorority girls in the audience. It was a beautiful time. I'd say it's an extension of nerd culture but really, all types of people are into it and it's just fun party music. I get a little nerdy with my stuff though. The first track after the intro (on Bad Appolo) has a Pokemon album sample.

I remember that. It was an interesting place to start.

Who are your musical influences?

That's hard to say. I feel like I'm influenced a little by every band I listen to. Spoon, They Might Be Giants, Nine Inch Nails, Eminem, Slipknot, Cake, CKY, Franz Ferdinand, and more! I feel influenced at least a little bit by everything.

Are you also influenced by music you don’t like? Is there ever a song or artist that you hear that demonstrates what not to do musically?

Not really. When I hear a song that is horrible I just have to stop listening and clear my mind with something good. Kinda like how the first time someone showed me 2girls1cup I just had to watch normal porn immediately afterwards. Haha!

I've already made numerous allusions to the fact that you, as an artist, have your hands in many different styles of music. Is there a particular genre that you feel most comfortable working with?

I'd have to say my home is just plain old rock. That's what I grew up with, and that's what Cowsponge started with. It's just in my blood.

Do you consider yourself more a DJ, a producer, a beatsmith, a musician, a songwriter, or some combination of several of these elements?

I won't consider myself a real producer until I learn a lot more about music theory; that term gets thrown around too much. If I were calling myself a DJ I should probably be spinning songs at a club. I think musician works well.

What kind of nerd is T-Byte?

I'd have to say music and computer. My dad brought home our first computer when I was two, and I went to my first concert when I was 5. (It was Steve Miller Band). I can't say videogame nerd because I only have one game installed on my computer right now and that's Counter Strike Source, and I only play that when the people from PPP (What up again!) are on, but I have played quite a few games in the past.Tanner in action.
You’re really starting to gather quite a following, what with the success of Bad Apollo and your work within nerdcore hip-hop circles. As being an independent musician is a daunting and very often frustrating task, what would be one piece of advice you’d give other artists?

Keep going, and don't give up if you really want to do it. If you just wanna make a quick buck, forget about it. If you wanna build a career from music, just keep at it. It takes a long time, but once you start getting really good at what you wanna do and you've been around for a few years, it'll start to show that you're serious.


When I first listened to Bad Apollo, I was immediately struck with one thought. The album, from start to finish, sounded almost effortless. That’s not to say that the remixes seemed half-finished or of poor quality, in fact the release is solidly my favorite bastard pop album of 2007. What I’m getting at is that each track seemed so expertly crafted as to sound natural, unforced.

My curiosity piqued, I laboriously scoured my (admittedly expansive) music collection for other projects involving T-byte. I found, of course, his early tracks with Router, his work with YTCracker, and a number of recent songs with Beefy. The commonality between each of these – between works as disparate as “Hutzumi” and “You Can Call Me Beef” – was obvious; it was that same sense of grace and movement.

Tanner may consider himself a musician, but in my mind he will always be a songwriter. Whether he’s belting out a punk rock Christmas track with Cowsponge or mashing up The Beatles and Randy Savage, his songs always sound pure, honest, and surprisingly organic. While so much of remixing and production is trying to find the right place to put the wrong sound, Tanner always manages to craft a cohesive whole rather than a simple collection of forced-together parts. Whether rock or electronica, there’s no doubt that what T-byte creates are distinct, attractive, interesting songs. While others see music as a science or an art, he approaches the craft as an exercise as natural as breathing.

Music’s where he lives and music’s how he communicates.

And the fun that he’s having really does shine through.


Rob said...

Great interview. It's nice to see talented dudes like Tanner get the recognition they deserve.

Z. said...

Thanks, mCRT. Yeah, Tanner - like many other cats in the scene - doesn't get near enough credit.

Glenn Case said...

I am feeling the Bad Apollo project in a major way. Anyone who mashes up Tenacious D, Spoon and Marvin Gaye at the same time is okay in my book.


Glenn Case

Z. said...

Yep. That one made a believer outta me too, Glenn.