Tuesday, July 07, 2009

MC Lars, Nerdcore, Hip-Hop & You

I am, for lack of a better term, domesticated. Unlike the bulk of my fellow bloggers, freaks and fanboys, I am married with a couple of kids, and that in itself often defines what I do and when I do it. Because of this, the bulk of my writing and researching is done in the later evening hours, while the other members of the House of Z. slumber.

It's a quiet time during which I attempt to catch up on my Twitter and follow up on all those great links that came through my feed during the preceding day. So imagine my surprise when last night, around 10 o'clock EST, the entire world was engulfed in a column of flame!

Okay, perhaps I overstate.

So imagine my surprise when last night, around 10 o'clock EST, the nerdospehere exploded in a fiery rage!

Much better.

The source of this wailing and gnashing of teeth was, to say the least, a little unexpected. MC Lars had, in a blog post entitled "RIP NERDCORE (1998-2009)," seemingly decried not only the bulk of his fellow artists but nerdcore in general.


Now before I carry this missive further, I must pause to say that I know Lars. We aren't exactly on each other's Christmas card list or anything, but we've talked extensively both online and in person to a point that I feel like I am fairly familiar with him. Familiar enough, at least, to know that he isn't exactly the kind of cat to pick fights.

Armed with this knowledge, I took his musings – from the very incendiary point at which he states "Unless you are MC Frontalot, it's time to stop trying to make 'nerdcore hip-hop'" – to be something less than most. I refused to see it as attack, which is how it was apparently perceived by many of those who passed the link my way, but rather as Lars expressing dissatisfaction with his perception of what nerdcore is versus what hip-hop should be.

Lars illustrates this point by referencing a number of outstanding examples of from the greater nerdcore schema, including personal favorites like int eighty and Jesse Dangerously, unfortunately he also muddies the waters with arguments that, at times, come through as something far less than sound.

From early on, Lars equates Frontalot's success and the media attention attracted by the scene's twin documentaries with a moment at which "a cadre of mediocre rappers" actively sought to exploit these breakthroughs as their own personal marketing megaphone. I take issue with this statement on a couple of levels.

First, it's painful to admit, but Lars himself has been faced with similar accusations. I admire Lars as a businessman, a lyricist and a performer, but his style of "Post-Punk Laptop Rap" has likewise been decried by more traditional heads as being insincere and incongruent. We know that Lars is a genuine fan of hip-hop that has been doing his thing for far longer than the term "nerdcore" was a Google trend, but many of those outside our admittedly limited window do not. Whether or not Lars considered that before pinning that particular barb is something that only the man himself can answer, but it's a fact that makes the admonition seem a little catty.

Secondly, it seems to actively discount those outside of the nerdcore artist corral that felt as though the "movement," for lack of a better word, provided a soundtrack to their lives. It's easy to see nerdcore as a whole as a group of cannibalistic, ego-stroking artists simply making music for the sake of garnering the attention of their fellows, but there are actual fans. I know. I am one of them. And to those like me, the media micro-explosion that was nerdcore's moment in the sun was simply another minor victory for supporters of nerdom as a culture unto itself. It was a music that celebrated us, and while it certainly wasn't all as compelling as YTCracker, its brief ascension was a point of pride.

Alternately, Lars also parallels the stripped-down punk rock aesthetic of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols with the more refined and ultimately evolved brand of post-punk created by acts like Joy Division. It's a sound enough challenge to motivate artists to push themselves creatively, at least on the surface. In fact, normally this is the kind of sentiment I could get behind, but knowing that Lars and I both come from a similar punk background, I would be remiss if I didn't ask: What of The Clash? What of Blondie and Elvis Costello and Television? What of The New York Dolls and The Stooges and Velvet Underground? What of The Jam?

Each of these artists, rather rightly or wholly inaccurately, was at one time or another lumped under the punk rock label. Despite the various hues or flavors of their individual brands of musical revolution, they were pinned with that same tack. And yet they were all undeniably different. Moreover, each was party to a continually shifting paradigm. Each was an agent of slow and steady change: an evolutionary step.

This brings me to my two main points of criticism.

Labels, particularly genre labels, are inherently erroneous. Fort those truly involved in the scenes themselves they are at best limiting (as Lars points out) and a worst insulting. And yet they persist. As someone who actively uses these relatively inflexible pigeonholes in an attempt to broaden the nerdy music user base, I am the first to admit that there really is no proper cataloging method. When I play a Selfhelp or an I Fight Dragons track on Radio Free Hipster, I can do so with little pretense. Yet when I play the same on my Wired.com podcast, I am beholden to state their proximity to arbitrary labels like nerdcore or geek rock or chiptunes. I don't do it as a disservice to the artists or because these "genre tags" magically make their music more relevant, but because man is a simple creature who needs an easy place to hang his hat. That doesn't make it right, but that does illustrate the concept's functionality.

Also, just as he omits acts that I know he knows in his punk rock allusion, Lars similarly glosses over a significant chunk of applicable MCs that I fear he perhaps doesn't in his treatise on nerdcore. Whore Moans, The Ranger, Grandmaster Pink, MadHatter, Navi and Super Dragon X are not new to hip-hop. These are cats who were making beats and recording rhymes (with varying levels of nerdy slant) without the insulation of a nerdcore "scene," but who used the loose affiliation that sprang up in the wake of Rhyme Torrents and Nerdcore For Life to find similar, like-minded artists. At times many of them have expressed their own dissatisfaction with the direction of the scene, but their collective antidote has been to make their own shit that much more dope.

Lars calls for something new, and I applaud that challenge. But I do so with the caveat that there is continually new hotness springing up, even from the nerdcore faithful. The drum that I so often beat (which I'll now remove from its protective sleeve and tighten properly) is that we need to stop thinking of nerdcore as a genre, or even a subgenre. That truly is Front's gig, and he plays it perfectly. It's his term that the rest of us are using by his good grace, so let's tread lightly.

For everyone else, nerdcore should be seen as a community or, better yet, a style.

As principle nerdcore artists, folks like my pal Beefy, further hone their skills we see the term nerdcore morph from a shield to a banner. For those who continue to ply their craft, nerdcore – which once protected them in their handsome little niche – can instead turn into a word of their own precise defining. There is always wiggle room. As more and more of those in the meta-community find their voices, nerdcore becomes less crutch than buzzword. Does that mean it will ever afford a totally accurate description of everyone from mCRT to KABUTO? No, but such is the price we pay for being habit-hardened creatures of limited language.

Even now, I find myself surprised to hear guys like Random, a true underground artist with hip-hop chops to spare, talk about his nerdcore project Mega Ran. Further, I was positively taken aback when Dr. Awkward (rightfully) proclaimed himself the next generation of nerdcore in his recent release. This just goes to show that, when used correctly, the term has legs. Even in the face of its apparent stylistic limitations.

In the end, I can't help but think that I agree with Lars's sentiment but not his verbiage. I know the rationale for this post wasn't to shock or offend, and I am not at all surprised that Lars has softened his stance. He's a great guy and a genuine talent who simply wants to encourage artistic experimentation and creative fulfillment. And there's really no loftier goal.

I do, however, think that he hastily glosses over one of his best points; if you want to be a rapper, listen to rap. I regularly hear "Yeah, nerdcore is the only rap I like" from artists and fans alike, and my response is always that this is a damn shame. Hip-hop is a rich and colorful culture that is not wholly defined by whatever may make its way into the mainstream.

In fact, my principle beef with the prevailing nerdcore mindset is that by rapping about the day-to-day of nerd life we are somehow the saving grace of hip-hop. That's just ridiculous! There's nothing wrong with the aforementioned concept – holler at P.Nis for more info – but the truth is rap doesn't need to be saved, and it surely couldn't be saved by a bunch of outsiders. Hip-hop, like any other culture (including our own), has been strip-mined for marketability, its adherence reduced to a handsome subset of demographic info on some spreadsheet. But hip-hop is more than bad radio edits and McDonald's commercials. It's a living, breathing, beautiful thing.

While we seek to cultivate the culture of nerd, we shouldn't be looking – as the mainstream does – for elements to hijack or assimilate, but for models upon which to base our own design. And if we are going to use hip-hop as a part of our musical shorthand, we should certainly delve further into its own history and development. Not only are we apt to find more music to our liking, but we'll also discover stabilizing elements like its traditional fundamentals and genuine sense of cultural stewardship. Hip-hop is, like all the finer things, a subject that requires study; why not turn some of our trademark studiousness to that end?

So I suppose the only item left to tackle is Lars's own principle point: the blight of bad music. Is there ever an excuse to make shitty music?

To tackle this we must first admit that our own unique opinions are not an indelible stamp of quality. I fight a daily struggle with this concept, as I am regularly reminded that just because I like something doesn't immediately make it good. But if we look at things objectively, we must realize that art exists, on some level, to be experienced, and it is the job of the artist to make that experience as compelling and creative as possible. There are many paths to quality, but what matters is that the end product amuses or, better yet, enlightens the listener.

So I'll simply hope (for my sake as much as anyone's) that shitty music or writing or podcasting or what-have-you is justifiable in the continued pursuit of artistic evolution. Because that is what it's all about. To quote the man himself, "Let's push ourselves outside of our comfort zones and flip the script by surprising each other with what we can do."

In the end, I suppose it comes down to a matter of audience. If we are producing art for the celebration of a limited community, we can always take the easy way out. We can toss together any old goddamn thing we like without regard for quality or relevant content and tell detractors that they simply don't understand where we're coming from. Or we can continue to work to better ourselves for the sake of our craft, and attempt to make the most compelling rap song/vector art/Bundt cake/web log that we possibly can. Sure, the first option is easier (not to mention relatively bullet-proof), but, whether your audience is 10 or 10,000, it's important to remember that excellence is often relative while mediocrity is nigh undisputed.


Church said...

I've been throwing this back and forth in my own head, and I'm still not sure what to make of it.

He seems to be saying that nerdcore has no relevance because it's bad rapping over chiptunes. OK, if that's how you define it, that's what it is.

But then he cites the standouts of the scene (well, most of them) as examples of pushing the envelope.

Um, OK. So the people who are actually doing the genre-broadening that you're advocating are somehow not nerdcore? (And yeah, I realize that STD, e.g., doesn't self-identify, but neither does Lars so WTF?)

Lars, why no mention of Optimus Rhyme or mc chris? Sure one identifies as nerdcore, and the other doesn't this week, but they're both doing some seriously interesting shit.

As far as I can tell, Lars is upset that the crappy NC artists are crappy. He should read more Sturgeon.

bsdpunk said...

Thanks, Z. I owe you a penny.

Navid said...

always a good read, z.

Z. said...

Wait, Church, does that mean 90% of of my blogging is crud?

No problem, BSD. I'll put it on your tab. ;)

'Preciate it, Navid!

DV said...

Can you be my speechwriter?

You gave words to a muddle of my thoughts on the matter and clearly state a thesis that I was fumbling around for.

I think you distill Lars' key points down to the rather noncontroversial essentials and your analogies to the evolution of other genres and the messiness inherent in classification seem to restate the thrust of Lars' argument in a way more intuitively comprehensible and agreeable to me.

I hope Lars comments about whether or not your take on his post is in sync with what he was trying to convey to the community.

As a fan and not an artist, the whole ordeal is curious to me. Bbut the reactions thus far have been, for the most part, understated in my estimation.

mc_lars said...

Z hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what I'm advocating. And I approached my initial blog with the understanding that I thought most people had that I am external to nerdcore and that I am not the greatest rapper in the world on the mic, but I do push things musically.

Z does see my main point - that an external group of people can't "save hip-hop". No one can. Hip-hop is its own thing and does not need saving because it's been doing pretty well as a universal genre.

I didn't mention Optimus because they broke up (right?) and I didn't mention chris because he sees himself as external to the genre, but they are both great artists.

My initial intentional was to spark dialogue and this has clearly happened.


- MC Lars

ytcracker said...

hey all i can say is im glad you gave p.nis a little shoutout

rarely does he get recognized for his efforts in infogiving

ComplexedOne said...

Man, this blew up quick!

Glad to see that I wasn't the only one who didn't see MC Lars as attacking all of nerdcore. Great insights Z. And Lars, I totally agree that genres are dangerous. It's tough, because at first you are all cutting edge, and then before you know it you are in an echo-chamber, with everyone saying the same thing. The craft stagnates, the quality goes WAAAAY down, and all outsiders are afraid to enter the scene for fear of not know the etiquette, or because they may a slightly different opinion about it. Sounds like my local comic shop.

Again thanks for the interesting read.


D-Form said...

Great post (the Lars post was great too). I think everyone pulled something different from what he's saying. For me it said to be yourself and do your own thing.

If you are trying to be nerdcore then you will fail just like if you try to be hip hop you'll fail. Being yourself is the only way to win at life.

Pink said...

Oh Z, what would we do without you?

eye-shuh said...

Wow, fantastic article!

I am a classic rock kid from birth, and actively HATED rap music. Then one day my little brother, a very smart kid, played me some old school hip hop. I was astounded at what a huge and wonderful music era I had misjudged based off a few crappy videos on MTV.

Labels just don't do anyone any good. Good music is good music regardless of genre.

I'm glad to have people like my brother and like you Z to set me straight!

Church said...

Optimus Rhyme is not broken up... *sniff*

killsaly said...

That was a great read Z, as it always is.

Anonymous said...

Those were the best words ever put together. The fact that my name was two of them sent shivers down my spine.

Super Dragon X said...

I have to echo the earlier comments praising this post. Z, you know how to turn a phrase, beautifully at times.

I followed the link to the original post, and I don't necessarily disagree with what Lars is saying. Rhyming over Nintendo samples never really was interesting, and it generally doesn't sound good. We've probably all had enough of tongue-in-cheek Star Wars raps, and over the past three years or so there's been an influx of kids who admit their music is not good but flood the genre-specific sites with their stuff anyway.

Part of that, I think, is indicative of the way people are nowadays -- everyone has a band, everyone is a rapper, everyone is "kind of a big deal." It's an attention-whore mindset where people don't care how they get attention, as long as they get it.

But I'm not really inclined toward navel-gazing on the meaning of nerdcore, its origins as a genre or whether I'm pushing things forward. Like a lot of other people, I'm not entirely comfortable with the tag and I don't put that particular label on my music. I have wondered, where do I fit in? And ultimately I realized I don't care. I want to make epic hip hop about Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Brasidas and Agesilaus. I want to make noir sci fi hip hop about the Pattern Jugglers, Bladerunner, space opera and time dilation. And sometimes I want to find a soul beat that makes me fiend for a mic and just go with it.

At the same time -- speaking as a guy who imitated my own favorite (non-nerdcore) emcees while I was finding my own style and voice -- I think anyone new to hip hop as a performer needs that time to develop and find their style. We will know who's serious about it because they'll still be here in a couple years, improving incrementally and putting real effort into the music they make. The attention whores? Not so much. They'll be gone as soon as they get bored or realize there's greater attention-whoring potential in other hobbies. Point is, it'll sort itself out without us having to worry about it.

Z. said...

Thanks, Vortex. Like I said, I didn't really disagree with what Lars was saying; I just kind of rephrased my take on his core points and elaborated a bit.

I thought we were kind of on the same page, Lars, as I know you're a reasonable man with a true passion for music. I agree that you really do continue to push yourself musically, and I think that your words will ultimately be good for other rappers.

Philip is sadly slept on with regard to his dissemination of info. I was just trying to shine a light on him, YT. ;)

I was sure I wasn't the only one who saw Lars's statement as something less than an attack. Thanks for proving me right, ComplexedOne!

Well said, D-Form. I believe you're an excellent example of an artist who does his own thing, so that adds an additional level of steel.

I'm not sure, Pinky, but I reckon you'd probably read a lot less. ;)

Thanks, Eye-shuh, both for the kind words and for giving hip-hop a chance.

Just keep saying it until it becomes true, Church.

Thanks, killsaly.

You're too kind, Ranger. Too, too kind.

I think you've really broken it down aptly, SDX: "We will know who's serious about it because they'll still be here in a couple years, improving incrementally and putting real effort into the music they make." Well said!

antisoc said...

About two or three times per year there is a terrible controversy within the nerdcore movement. Last year was Jesse Dangerously's rant about how there were no good nerdcore rappers. People flocked in droves to prove him wrong. I remember the ytcracker vs mc chris controversy. The mc chris vs nerdcore controversy. The mc chris re-embracing nerdcore controversy. The mc chris vs nerdcore controversy. The beefy vs rhymetorrents controversy. The nursehella / router fiasco. I'm sure there are more, but I really don't care.

Honestly, it's starting to become a little old at this point. People suck at making music. Deal with it.

BTW - this is not directed at Lars, but the trend he just accidentally perpetuated. I'm still a huge fan of Lars.

Brandon Patton aka BL4k Lotus said...

When I got home from a not-as-satisfying-as-usual game of magic the gathering with a bunch of guys 10 years younger than me tonight and found Dan (the Categorical Imperative) reading up on this debate, my first reaction was meh, more kvetching. But reading Z's page and the frontalot forum - it's actually a fascinating issue and it seems to come up for pretty much all music genres and the issues are connected to so many things about music, culture, media, art, money... rather titilating so I thought I'd pipe in.

The explosion of interest in nerdcore has helped me realize one of my dreams - which is to perform original music in rooms that are not virtually empty. What luck that my ol' college buddy turned into MC Frontalot, right?

I started self releasing my own recordings way back in 1997, and it was surprising to me how hard it was to cultivate an audience. When Frontalot's music started to actually get listened to I really took notice.

I have to admit that there was a moment on tour when we were really having fun, and I was really enjoying my role as BL4k Lotus, that I started to think to myself - "Dude, I should put out a BL4k Lotus record." I dabbled a bit and quickly realized that my motivation was insincere - I just wanted an audience! But what really comes out of me when I make music (as Brandon Patton) is the same shit that always comes out of me - this earnest moody indie pop about emotions that sounds nothing like nerdcore hiphop. This was an epiphany for me about nerdcore. The, in my estimation, "good" shit in nerdcore is not a pose. It's self-aware, sure, but there's this genuine enthusiasm about nerdy things that is inherent in it. And your approach or stance or motivation does make a difference in the music, regardless of how honed your talent is.

There's something amazing about people expressing themselves and having what comes out be a little weird. This is a different phenomenon than attention getting comedy, or jumping on a bandwagon. Perhaps Lars gets inundated by stuff that sounds like people rapping about video games because they happen to like video games (about as rare a taste as pizza and movies) and unlike before, they now feel they have permission to rap about it, but still end up making something that sounds like a formula. It's a different world now - when uncool rappers were busting rhymes about topics that were not considered valid topics, that required some kind of, i don't know, cluelessness, or bravery, or genius, or whatnot, it wasn't just joining into the fray. Maybe he misses that feeling of rarity.

One of my pet peeves in college was when a capella music groups would do a song with a certain pose that involved white people performing "black" music, and poking fun at themselves for how badly they were at it. I don't have any problem with white people singing black music, but I don't find it interesting, as an audience member, to have someone explain to me "I'm no Beyonce, that's for sure." Yeah, neither am I.

Brandon Patton aka BL4k Lotus said...

I think the moment when people started rapping about things they cared about without constantly measuring themselves against "real" hiphop is when nerdcore became interesting. It was uncool, but in a kind of cool way all of a sudden, because it's kind of cool to not care that you're uncool. Right?

And it turned out that there was a surprisingly large number of people who liked rap and were pretty nerdy in general and that mixing those two worlds actually brought them out of the woodwork - and it seems to me that many people who make music feel kind of isolated in their taste and if they are lucky they get to connect to other people through the music they made, music that helps explain something those people have in common.

How cool, I say, that there is this little phenomenon. And how typical of humans, I think, that as soon as there is a sense of community there is immediately exclusivity and arguments about definition.

And then there's this whole notion of art and innovation, which is enmeshed with individualism, which is all mixed up with "relevance" which in our society usually flirts with the dream of commercial viability too. All of those things are usually a part of how we judge whether things are good or not. Music is a product, and everyone gets to play consumer reports. But there's a higher level, articulated by the old saw "seek not to imitate the masters, seek what they sought." Lars, is that what you're trying to say?

Contrast that advice with the whole idea of serving a community. Nerdcore is not a tribe, we aren't singing the tribal repertoire, it's not like that where we live. But now that the term has been coined, and the boundaries of inclusion are getting drawn, the game has changed. Some want in, some want out. Just like with Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, whatev. Questions about purity and tradition might come from one side (Bob Dylan pissed off the folk revivalists by plugging in an electric guitar) while questions about bar-raising and exceptionalism come from the other (who's the best? who's the realest? who changed the paradigm?) I feel sorry for people who have to undergo such identity crises. Those of us lucky enough not to have to defend our status can just entertain each other.

I think it's fine that Lars mouthed off a bit. He wants to be (is) a professional musician, and so he has to worry about staying relevant in order to not starve (or get a different job). Like an athlete working towards a goal, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be whatever he considers awesome. And that drive and passion is going to seep out of him from time to time. He might lose some fans who don't relate to it, and he might gain others, but that's who he is, and I'm kind of amused because if he was just being totally politically savvy he would never write what he wrote and risk losing 1 fan over it, but he got into a tizzy and it has given us all a chance to mouth back.

The great thing about "nerdcore," or, the larger genre of "internet-obsessed," is that the interest of the mainstream doesn't really put it into existence, and thus doesn't really have the power to declare it dead. Lars might be finding nerdcore less and less relevant to his life (that's okay too) but if nerdcore were to be declared dead by outsiders it certainly wouldn't matter much.

So, does the term serve the people who rally around it?
That's all that really matters.

Church said...

Wow, Brandon. Well said.

Z, you should pull that together and make it a guest post.

DV said...

If you do make that into a guest post, I'd encourage you to include Brandon's equally insightful contribution at front's forum.

Jesse Dangerously said...

This is a great post and Lars' was a great post and there are lots of great, thoughtful and sensible responses in this comments thread.

That said, it all makes me SO glad that I'm not hanging around any message boards these days, so I don't feel compelled to talk about any of it.

(antisoc - did I really say no-one was good?)

antisoc said...


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the exact wording was:

"You are all terrible rappers who don't deserve to share the same air that I am breathing. And also, your mothers are prostitutes."

Ok probably not quite that extreme... :-D

Your claim was something akin to superiority over pretty much everyone on the board, which didn't go over so well as I recall.

Jesse Dangerously said...

anti> Couldn't have been me, I would never drag sex workers through the mud like that!

But okay yeah, I definitely said I was better at rap than everyone else on RhymeTorrents. It's not like that's a contentious matter! I'm not even saying that to be unkind, I'm just a really, really talented and accomplished MC and there aren't very many other rappers who have ever been associated with the concept of nerdcore who are better than "sort of okay, sometimes."

But it's not a big deal!

Z. said...

Stressing over the details is something we as nerds tend to do more often then not, Soc. That's no excuse, mind you, but it is a trait of our kind.

Well put, Brandon. I think you really put a much better point on it than I. Nerdcore is relevant for as long as it serves the community, whomever that may entail.

Oh, come on, Jesse. We all know it ain't exactly pulling teeth to get you to talk about your views on music, community or hip-hop. ;)

antisoc said...

"Stressing over the details is something we as nerds tend to do more often then not, Soc."

It's ridiculous how much it bugs me when people use your when they should be using you're. Kinda off topic, but it illustrates the point.

Anyhow, good thoughts from everyone. I usually take the Devil's advocate position just for the heck of it. Just re-read my comments and I may have came across as a little pissed off, but that is really not the case. Much love to the greater nerdcore movement. Peace out.

Z. said...

No worries, Soc. :)