Wednesday, April 08, 2009

10 Definitive Nerdcore Tracks

Things move in cycles.

I know that’s not a particularly profound statement, but stay with me here.

When Hipster, please! first morphed into its current form I was often asked by interested passers-by one pressing question; what is nerdcore? My answer was fairly canned back then. Simply put, it's rap. By nerds. A cultural manifestation of geek pride. It's funny but not always a joke.

Over time, this question became less frequent from these now regular spectators. The news had spread, and people were starting to get it. And then a new crop of outsiders began to take note.

A different group of people – now other bloggers, print reporters and even the occasional scholarly researcher – asked the same thing; what is nerdcore?

For them the answer was slightly different, as was the question. They were looking more for an underlying cause than some loose definition of a musical movement. Essentially, what they were truly asking was why is nerdcore.

That’s really a question for far more learned individuals than myself, but I did try to point out to the best of my limited abilities that nerdcore hip-hop is, like other related scenes and musical communities, symptomatic of the evolution or, perhaps, the genuine emergence of nerd culture.

Now, more recently, I am being asked by our fellows – those involved more directly in the related strata of the Wizard Rock, chiptune or VGM scenes – what is nerdcore?

But what they’re asking is more tangible. They understand the concept of geeky music for geeky people. They know that it exists to affirm and to enlighten and to celebrate. So what they are asking seems to be more along the lines of what is the sound of nerdcore.

It is this iteration that I find truly fascinating.

Because nerdcore is not a genre but a movement, a style, its earmarks are indistinct. To take a leaf from the book of our venerable MC Hawking, it is, as he mentioned in the Nerdcore For Life documentary, akin to Potter Stewart's definition of pornography; I can’t tell you what is it, but I’ll know it when I hear it.

To that end, I set out to catalog 10 musical examples of what nerdcore hip-hop is: 10 individual songs that, to me, define nerdcore in a manner most functional.

This time, I asked myself what is nerdcore. And I limited my answer to the first 10 songs that came immediately to mind.
  • Dual Core – "Hostage Down"
    "Nickname 'dead-eye,' loaded and cocked / my Deagle sends a round through the scope on your AWP."
    Some of the earliest MCs to find themselves classified as nerdcore actually self-identified as "CS rappers." Many of these computer science devotees, however, were not exactly the most adept with regard to lyrical delivery. But Dual Core's int eighty is a perfect example of a contemporary, tech-minded rapper who can still flow. Though "Hostage Down" (from their 2007 debut Zero One) is about gamer culture, as opposed to, say, programming, eighty brings the fire with a nod to the more technical aspects of Counter-Strike atop one of c64's fiercest beats to date.
  • MC Lars – "iGeneration"
    "We sat at our laptops and typed away / and found that we each had something to say."
    Like "Hostage Down," Lars's 2004 Laptop EP single "iGeneration" can be rightly characterized as anthemic. While the term itself doesn't explicitly belong to Lars, never before have the lives of the Internet generation been so succinctly outlined as in this musical meditation. Like all MC Lars's best work, it is topical, literate and thought-provoking. And while it transcends the boundaries of nerdcore – and even those of his own designation as "post-punk laptop rap" – it also exemplifies what the movement should be.
  • YTCracker – "Dugdig"
    "Warwick Davis was Willow and an ewok / Leonard Nimoy was Galvatron and Spock."
    YTCracker has been rapping – more often than not about his past in the hacker underworld – for longer than most would realize, but it was his 2005 solo debut Nerdrap Entertainment System that put him on the map. For many, this 9-song masterpiece was their first true taste of what would come to be called nerdcore, and this piece of our musical history can still be downloaded freely from YT's site. In 2008, the hook from "Dugdig," complete with its epic 8-bit beat, was licensed for use in the videogame review show X-Play, adding to the work's continued legacy.
  • Maja – "Transformer"
    "Why you runnin' on gas? My core pumps Energon / With that crystal blue, Hypnotiq hue."
    Though not officially released as a part of his 2007 album The Amalgam Project due to an abundance of uncleared samples, "Transformer" is no less a defining example of Maja's sound. Blending sci-fi storytelling, a fascination with Japanese culture and a genuine affinity for hip-hop, Maja is the hardcore lyrical otaku. He's also the only tri-lingual rapper on this list, which is pretty goddamn nerdy in its own right.
  • Optimus Rhyme – "Super Shiny Metal"
    "It's Mr. Cyberman at your service / I got the tightest band backin' me up to make these rappers nervous."
    Optimus Rhyme is often characterized as a Transformers-themed rap outfit, and this is rather shortsighted on both ends. Musically, Optimus is a blistering funk-rock hybrid fronted by an exceedingly talented hip-hop lyricist, and thematically they are more directly concerned with the interplay of the organic and the technological. Nowhere is this more apparent than on this standout track from their School the Indie Rockers LP. It's a cyber-punk love story with a sing-along chorus.
  • Random – "Metalman (The Megas Remix)"
    "Hey yo, you'd do best to recognize who I am / It's Mega Ran; you better devise a better plan."
    Similarly, Random's collaboration with game rockers The Megas elevates nerdcore by pushing the boundaries of the style into exciting new realms. This track is both an urgent rock 'n' roll boss battle and an elegant verbal sparring match rolled into one. Random, who had previously proven his mettle in the hip-hop underground, bravely waded into the waters of nerdcore in 2007 with his Mega Ran concept album, but instead of being ostracized or branded an insincere outsider he charmed nerdcore enthusiasts and helped to push the community as a whole toward a more refined musical aesthetic.
  • MC Frontalot – "Nerdcore Rising (feat. Jesse Dangerously and MC Hawking)"
    "The nerdcore could rise up, it could get elevated. / Oh, and wouldn’t all of those tough rappers hate it."
    What would become the rallying cry for the second wave of nerdcore hip-hop artists actually began as a joke. MC Frontalot, joined by a pair of esteemed colleagues, ironically rhymed in this title track to his 2005 debut about the joys of a world where rapping nerds can find genuine acceptance. Four years later, in a musical landscape in which Random raps for Capcom, YTCracker has appeared on MTV and Front himself can be seen on a commercial for G4, that proposition no longer seems quite so laughable. As definitive nerdcore songs go, this one is a shoo-in. Plus it gives me pause to reflect on not only the greatness of Frontalot, but that of the wholly fictitious Hawkman and the only-vaguely-nerdcore-but-still-undeniably-awesome Jesse D.
  • Wordburglar – "The WB"
    "I break it down like osteoporosis / like Claudio and Moses, it's costly to oppose this."
    Like the aforementioned Mr. Dangerously, SJ the Wordburglar is both a Halifax-based MC and an artist who only roughly fits under nerdcore's capricious umbrella. Still, with Burg's simile-heavy style and the song's constant references to comic books and dorky pop culture, "The WB" can be seen as both an introduction to an artist and to the undeniable charms of the nerdcore style. It's also an ideal gateway drug to the wonderful world of Canadian hip-hop featured on 2006's Burglaritis.
  • The Grammar Club – "Balloon Flight"
    "Well let me see ya crouch, crouch forward, walk a little, then punch / Serving all these kids hadoukens for lunch."
    In a post-Limp Bizkit world, it has become hard to defend the once noble concept of rap-rock. Thankfully, the nerdcore meets geek rock combination of The Grammar Club stands on its own. A veritable supergroup composed of Shael Riley, Adam!, Beefy, DJ Snyder and Glenn Case, their debut EP Bremelanotide was easily one of the finest independent efforts to be released in 2007. Since then the group has seen some personnel changes, but recent contributions to the Child's Play CD 2008 charity compilation and the soundtrack to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix prove that The Grammar Club is still breaking new ground with its intoxicating hybrid nerd rap.
  • mc chris – "Fett’s Vette"
    "I'm a devious degenerate defender of the devil / Shut down all the trash compactors on the detention level."
    mc chris is not nerdcore. In fact, his relationship with the style and its adherent community can be characterized as tumultuous at best. Still, many a geeky MC will tell you that his first exposure to the underlying concept of nerdcore was this selection from mc's 2001 debut Life's a Bitch and I'm Her Pimp. It has been featured in Sealab 2021 and Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and has been the subject of countless fan remixes and videos. Though mc chris has managed to incorporate countless other musical styles, lyrical motifs and song concepts into his repertoire in the subsequent eight years, he will forever be intrinsically linked with the iconic bounty hunter.
I'll ask you all to notice the lack of the definite article in the title of this post. This isn't "THE 10 Definitive Nerdcore Tracks." It's just "10 Definitive Nerdcore Tracks." As I see them.

This list is, of course, merely my interpretation of the sound, the feel and the spirit of nerdcore. Your miles will (and should) vary. For some ZeaLouS1’s "Headshot" is the epitome of nerdcore swagger. For some it’s the late 1337 Geek Beat’s "Emulation Station." For others it’s Beefy’s "Internet Celebrity." And for others, still, Schaffer the Darklord's "Nerd Lust."

There are no wrong answers, only personal ones, and these are the songs that I truly feel embody nerdcore hip-hop at its most recognizable.

If you'd care to share yours, I'd love to hear them. What songs define nerdcore is a question that can only be answered subjectively. And the Internet is nothing if not a true bastion of subjectivity.


Matt said...

Is it time to stir the shit pot already? Wow. How time flies.

Two quick comments.

1) If we're going to include a Z1 track, I'd go with Welcome To Our Block over Headshot.

2) The STD track is Nerd Lust, not Nerd Girls. sheesh.

Z. said...

We'll have to agree to disagree re: Z1, Matt, but nice catch on the Schaffer. Ironically, I had just corrected someone else on that same song title. :/

Jimi said...

What I find interesting is that it seems you haven't just picked the best songs by the best nerdcore artists (unless that is what you tried to do, in which case nevermind :P) but ten songs that you feel explain what nerdcore 'is'. I can't really argue with the list - maybe I'd have mentioned MC RSI's 'remember the geek'. And Jesse D is awesome :D

Z. said...

Thanks, Jimi. For me it wasn't a matter of "best," but merely a matter of which songs come to mind when I think of the term nerdcore. Essentially, I had a few people asking me what tracks they should hear to get a feel for nerdcore as a movement, and these were the 10 that I felt properly exemplified the various faces of the scene.

snipe said...

Excellent choices, Z!

Anthony said...

This makes me want to do a similar thing for VGrock.

But I would just cock it all up =P

Church said...

Can't really argue with these.

You should expand the list and do a 'cast on the subject.

Mike DeMarco said...

idk. They say you always remember your first, and I always look to Beefy when people ask what is nerdcore.

Z. said...

Glad you like 'em, Snipe!

I'll remind you, Ant, that it is your responsibility as a blogger to cock shit up. ;)

Not a bad idea, Church. Not a bad idea at all.

Agreed, Mike. But, personally, I think that some of Beefy's best work was as a part of The Grammar Club. Just my opinion, though.

DV said...

For me, I just have to include Monzy. I'm all about throwing down with hardcore computer science and mofo don't care if you gots to have a graduate degree to grok these mad beats.

mp3, lyrics.

Z. said...

Monzy is the hardcore CS MC, Don. Let there be no mistakin'!

freya said...

Oh, awesome! This will definitely be linked from my article.
And I'm also inspired to do something similar for the 'pedia. =D

antisoc said...

I would have included in my 10 list of quintessential nerdcore tracks:

Ultraklystron - 5 to 9 - This was one of the first nerdcore track other than MC Chris or MC Frontalot that actually managed to have a studio level production.

Spamtec - Where I'm From - Based on the Anthony Hamilton hook, it's chock full of spammer lingo. Also, it's got a really funny (crappy flash) music video.

Beefy - The Sound (ft. Drown Radio / Doc Pop) - This is actually my favorite Doc Pop song, and also it has Beefy in it.

Church said...

5 to 9 is one of my favorite songs ever, but it's too cryptic unless you're talking to convention-going anime fans.

I'll throw up Obey the Moderator, since it's (a) Ossim and (b) pretty accessible to anyone who's been online.

Z. said...

All excellent picks, Soc. "5 to 9" is a personal fave, but, like Church said, it's a little esoteric.

Draconius said...

Shael Riley's "Down with Bane" was my first taste of nerdcore, and like an above commenter said, you always remember your first. As a long time roleplayer, the novelty of a song about roleplaying games shocked me into looking into the whole nerdcore scene more closely, so I always look back to that as sort of my fundamental definition of nerdcore: songs about nerdy stuff.

Z. said...

Y'know, Draconius, I always find it odd talking about Shael as a nerdcore artist, as he is so much more easily associated with geek rock and VGM. That being said, "Down With Bane" is an amazing track. And if you like that, I have it on good authority that he'll have another RPG-based song out in the near future. ;)

Anarchangel said...

I don't suppose anyone knows what's happened to The Grammar Club's website?

J said...

How dare you. Yes, you disclaimered yourself, but it's just sad to me that no one who is sopposidly into nerdcore seems to understand that without 2 skinnee j's, nerdcore very well may not exist. And come on, riot nrrrd, to me, it defines nerdcore. Rapping about being "picked last for gym class" (among other fine lines) it's rap for nerds, by nerds, my personal definition of nerdcore. If any of you poser nerdcore fans out there havn't heard of 2SJ's, I suggest you check em out.