Friday, July 30, 2010

Shaking the Cave

Nerd music is my business, and business is good. Too good, truth be told.

There was a time when a nerdcore artist couldn't drop a demo without me knowing about, but that was long ago and in a world that was noticeably smaller. Nowadays I catch stuff as I can. Sometimes I am what you might call an early adopter (such as with Seattle's native sons Southside and the fell prince himself Schaffer the Darklord), other times I am almost unforgivably late to the party.

Such is the case with Bazuuka Joe. He's a cat I recognize more by name than by output. Still, when I got a chance to snag an early review copy of his new full-length, the first from burgeoning nerdcore label Roll A Twenty Records, I knew enough to jump on that shit.

The Red Pill kicks off with the inspired words of Larry Fishburne (in the form of "The Choice…") before easily transitioning to the album's first song "24-A-Pop Revisited." It's a throwback to Joe's original "24-A-Pop" with some added lyrical firepower from The Ranger and Fatty Goodness. The production also sounds significantly brighter, and it really starts the album off with a bang. This trails into a solid follow-up, the disc's title track. "The Red Pill" hits hard with a sharp beat and it really allows Bazuuka Joe to display his unique verbal skills.

"Come Equipped" brings us into the real meat of the album with the help of Scrub Club's King Pheenix. Joe's flow isn't quite up to par with the previous offering, but KPX (seemingly channeling Bubba Sparxxx mid-verse) adds a nice secondary vocal texture that helps pull it together. "Revenge" is an early high point that eschews the album's recurring theme of technological apocalypse in favor of a true nerdcore anthem. Rather than drop Thundercats references or rewrite Star Wars as hip-hop allegory, it instead sharpens social awkwardness and unbridled nerd rage into a perfect point.

Things quickly head back to the Matrix with "Zion, Hear Me!" I'm always a little weary of songs so firmly centered on that property – I've never really been a fan – but Joe manages to make the narrative relatable even to us outsiders by layering movie samples, an old school beat and an atmospheric lead. It actually contrasts nicely with the hopelessness of "Revenge," and paves the way for "The Last Human City." It's a joint that kicks off like a frenetic anime theme song, but struggles a bit in its verse transition. Still, once Bazuuka Joe starts spitting, things get back up to speed. Despite his lack of a snappy stage name, contributor Chris Williams tosses in some fantastic rhymes with an understated swagger aided by perfectly layered vocal multi-tracking.

While the ending of "The Last Human City" feels a tad forced, "Keep Flyyin’" brings in the high end that, coupled with an addictive vocal hook and a delicious guest verse from Jod1, make it another instant classic that packs hip-hop spirit to spare. "Built 4 This" pulls in delicate keys and a heartfelt spoken-word affirmation to kick shit off, but it's Joe's own story, delivered in well-paced verse, that drives this powerful track home.

"DarkSideClassic" once again switches gears with an oddly placed voicemail rant about critical cinematic failure Legion before getting all aggressive with "Wreckless." This one doesn't quite hit the high water mark lyrically-speaking and the guest vocals (this time provided by A-Dub), while soaked in character and on-mic dramatics, aren't exactly my favorite of the album. Still, Black Contingency Productions pulls things together so beautifully on the instrumental end that it comes through as a smoothed-out banger that can't be denied.

The Red Pill starts its final decent with "To the Fullest," a pledge of allegiance to the nerdcore nation. Though not as dynamic as some of the album's other offerings, it's a sentimental favorite that boasts a tight guest spot from Deafinition, a silky-smooth beat and Joe's promise to never "pull a Lars or a chris." It's an earnest love song to both nerdcore as a style and hip-hop as a lifestyle that should easily hit the mark with geeky heads.

The final track, "The Gong Show," pulls in equal parts high-end funk and laid-back flow to end an album like it ought to be ended: with props to all those who offered support along the way. Alternating between loving shout-outs and some of the project's sharpest couplets, Joe ends The Red Pill as it began, with a variation on a theme. Just as "The Choice…" isn't your typical album intro and "DarkSideClassic" is far from the expected mid-album skit, "The Gong Show" succeeds as an album-closing shout-out joint by fucking with the formula. It's a concept that Joe carries throughout the disc, and it helps to make for a truly satisfying listening experience.

Though the heavy reliance on guest rappers both from within the Roll A Twenty roster (Fatty Goodness) and without (most notably Scrub Clubbers like The Ranger, Deafinition and KPX) seemed an odd choice for the breakthrough full-length of both a fresh new face in nerdcore and a brand new netlabel, it's hard to argue with the results. Plus, when you've got an artist like Bazuuka Joe, a guy who can hold his own next to practically any collaborator, it doesn't hurt to diversify. Further to his credit, Joe not only raps well, but writes with genuine insight and conviction. Whether he's channeling his inner fanboy or pondering his culture, Bazuuka Joe does it with both power and finesse. And in the end, it truly helps to set him apart as an artist and to establish a lofty benchmark for Roll A Twenty.

As for me, I find myself in the fortunate position of being a brand new Bazuuka Joe convert just waiting for more. Take The Red Pill when it drops tomorrow to see what I mean.

"Do you know how it feels to have to put on a mask and / hide your true self 'cause you might get your ass kicked?"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Radio Free Hipster Ep. 92: A Change of Pace

I am making a concerted effort to stop talking about Nerdapalooza. At least for a while.

I mean, I've said a lot, but I could say more. Still, I think it's time we move on to other issues.

Wait – what else has been going on?

Seriously, though, this episode of Radio Free Hipster serves as my transition from full-on festival mode back to… whatever the hell it is that I do under regular circumstances.

So kick back, relax and enjoy the tuneage.

Download Radio Free Hipster Ep. 92: A Change of Pace [hosting provided by Antisoc] Size: 44.7 MB Running Time: 48:49

Show Notes:

Intro: Baddd Spellah – "Radio Free Hipster Theme (feat. Beefy)"
The show theme is my one perfect constant in a ever-changing world. 

Track 1: 8bit bEtty – "crimson dreams (8bit bEtty vs Doctor Popular vs crashfaster)"
You've played KnifeTank, right? It's only, like, the best game ever. 

Z's 1st interlude: "A double dose of his Beefyness."
Much like money and RAM, you can never have too much Beefy.

Track 2: The Bossfights – "Frontalots"
Probably the single greatest moment of Nerdapalooza 2010 was The Bossfights' live reveal of this track. 

Track 3: G3RST – "Love Exploder (Jefferson Airplane vs. Tenacious D)"
It's been a long time since The D has graced this podcast. Too long, I'd say. 

Track 4: Molly Lewis – "Poker Face"
There are a ton of nerd (and non-nerd) covers of "Poker Face," but none are like Molly's. 

Track 5: Half Baked dialog / mc chris – "i heart drugs"
mc chris isn't exactly renowned for his filk-style parody tracks, but this one is surely a keeper! 

Track 6: Sci-Fried – "Don't Phase Me Bro"
There's the slightest hint of Suicidal Tendencies "Institutionalized" in this one. 

Track 7: Injury – "Above the Clouds"
I decided to say fuck convention and use lengthy instrumentals, which I usually reserve for mid-set pieces, as closing tracks. I think it really gives this ep. a different feel. 

Z's 2nd interlude: "The lovely and talented Injury."
Starla was one of the many amazing artists I met at this year's Nerdapalooza. 

Track 8: Girl Talk – "Once Again"
As I mentioned in-show, this one's for my pal Data Vortex. 

Track 9: Phoenix Wright dialog / My Parents' Favorite Music – "For Beatrice"
It's so good to have Steffo back!!! 

Track 10: HDninja – "The Romero-Hyrule Disconnection"
Damn. I really should've saved this one for Halloween… 

Track 11: The Blues Brothers dialog / The Megas – "Sunglasses at Night"
I've gotta give it up for The Megas' new Sparked a War EP. It really makes me look forward to their new album. 

Track 12: funky49 – "Fireflies Remix"
My only concern with funky49 joining Emergency Pizza Party was that it might preclude him from doing his own solo work and crafting his amazing remixes. This track puts my mind at ease. 

Z's final interlude: "And musical convalescence."
In truth, I am only now recovering from Nerdapalooza weekend. 

Track 13: Matt Ryd – "Romeo and Juliet"
I would be totally content with ending every episode with a Matt Ryd cover. And yet I resist. All in the name of variety.

I think I'm going to me doing un-themed shows throughout August. September will no doubt feature some drunken podcasting, I'll bust out the Halloween crap-tacular in October and we'll wind the year down in December with the regularly scheduled tomfoolery.

Somewhere in there I may do a Star Trek themed show, but I make no promises.

Also, if my calculations are correct, I should hit episode #100 in November. I still have no idea how to commemorate this milestone, so feel free to float me some suggestions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Noisy

"Hi, Hex!" image by @datavortex
I've already shared much of my experience from this year's Nerdapalooza festival, but now it's time to get down to the all-important brass tacks. Nerdapalooza 2010 managed to succeed on many levels, but it was not without its shortcomings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these stand out as the very elements that will likely define the event in years to come.

So, y'know, I'm going to talk about 'em.

But since I'm a southern gentleman, we'll kick this off on an encouraging note. I know I've already gushed well past the point of propriety, but to hell with it. Here's more:

While the event has always been strongly linked to the nerdcore hip-hop movement, Nerdapalooza 2010 was all about the rock. From the stripped down guitar pop of returning act Marc with a C and the rock star swagger of local legends Sci-Fried to the more exotic flare of Seattle's Kirby Krackle and the undeniable genius of The Protomen, the guitarist-to-MC ratio was much more favorable than at 'Paloozas past. And to say that everyone rocked the fuck out at this year's show would be… well, fairly accurate. Even ZeaLouS1 got in on the action with his new rap/rock fusion group The Bossfights, a sonically staggering blend of hip-hop and thrash that only sounded sweeter with the added vocal prowess of Dr. Awkward.

This latest iteration boasted a more diverse lineup than ever before, and not just with regard to geek rockers. Chip music, dementia music (compliments of the always-inspired FuMP) and even Wizard Rock were well represented alongside the stellar grock and nerdcore of Nerdapalooza 2010. This variety, a hallmark of Hex's original vision, finally found fair footing, and with it came an undeniable sense of textural satisfaction, a genuine feeling that nerd music was represented across the full breadth of its beautiful spectrum. And woven into a quilt of sonic awesome.

But the bands themselves are only as impressive as their performances. Luckily, the most remarkable element of the entire weekend was the sets themselves. From fledgling nerdcore rapper MC Cool Whip at the pre-party and early-risers HDninja at the show proper, all the way to closing sets from the likes of the venerable MC Frontalot, the music was truly at the center of the Nerdapalooza experience. And many of the acts never sounded better, in spite of a number of notable obstacles.

The first logistical hurdle with which nearly every Nerdapalooza artist was forced to contend was the event's unfortunate scheduling delays. When I tell you that day one was, at one time, over 3 hours behind schedule, do not mistake that statement for my trademark embellishment. Still, in what could have been a really bad scene, the Nerdapalooza crew, the legions of fans and the artists themselves pressed on in a showing of genuine nerdy brotherhood.

Unfortunately, things were further hampered by sound issues of the highest order. Faulty mics, tinny backing tracks and flaky monitors were just a few of the problems that sought to sour otherwise phenomenal performances. The sound man is truly the punching bag of rock 'n' roll, and longtime musical allies like The HT and Marc with a C were forced to bear the weight of knowing stares as they attempting to coax the master mixing board back from the brink on numerous occasions.

Possibly the only thing more disturbing than the sound problems themselves were the mixed reactions they elicited from attendees. First-timers were shocked and a little perturbed, but returning fans often seemed to pass both this and the scheduling delays off as unfortunate but expected elements of the overall Nerdapalooza experience. That is a genuinely unfortunate association for such an esteemed event.

Still, my take is slightly different; I see these issues as (admittedly lingering) growing pains. As the event continually matures in size and scope, there are certainly apt to be unfortunate side effects. Nerdapalooza as we know it has undergone such growth that much of the spontaneous, informal nature evident in the early years has dissipated, but well before opportunities for flawless, patently professional execution have become readily available. It is as if you and your Tuesday night poker buddies suddenly found yourselves managing a Vegas casino. You have the heart and potentially the know-how, but the resources and true tricks of the trade only await at the end of a long chain of hard-fought battles of trial and error.

Please don't misinterpret the above statement as allegations of the dread sellout syndrome. The sense of community is still alive and well at 'Palooza, but a measure of that intimacy has been necessarily bartered for a somewhat broader appeal. And while Nerdapalooza 2010 may have presented more new faces than old friends, it still managed to be the geeky lovefest it has always promised.

And to return from my recent sojourn into ham-fisted metaphor and imaginary compound words, let me simply restate that Nerdapalooza has grown. And it should continue to do so. But it is impossible to grow without changing.* This was evident even in the most pedestrian elements of Nerdapalooza 2010: the venue layout itself.

The Orlando Airport Marriott convention center was perfectly sized for this year's crowd, but its setup was telling of the transformation inherent in the event. Easy access to restrooms, smoking areas and chill space were welcome additions, but they smacked of the old-style convention.

You see, bands play at a convention, but it is not their scene. It is noisy and oppressive with its poor sound and droves of passersby, and this year's Nerdapalooza had a distinctly con-style layout. With 2 stages situated on opposite sides of a large room bisected by a healthy merch area, it was a fan's dream come true. You could easily wander around unfettered by concerns of when, who or where and simply drink in the experience. Unfortunately, it was significantly harder on the performers. The one-room setup and back-to-back performances left little opportunity for sound checks and, worst of all, it encouraged listeners to abandon a set early so as to snag prime floor space for the following act. This unwittingly played against the unifying element of Nerdapalooza by putting bands in an odd and indirect form of competition with each other.

Now, I certainly don't have all the answers to these woes, and if I sound critical in this final analysis it is only because I am a critic. I cannot stress this enough.

I'm certainly not knocking the job that the Nerdapalooza crew – from coordinators like Hex and Masu all the way to the volunteers that are the life's blood of the event – did at this summer's festival. Anyone with even the vaguest comprehension of the kind of work that it took to literally make a weekend of unbridled nerd culture appear out of thin air has got to appreciate the institution that Nerdapalooza has become on nothing more than the sheer will and slick sweat of these fine men and women. But it is here that we arrive at the underlying question of this missive.

What is the shape of the Nerdapalooza of tomorrow?

As it currently exists Nerdapalooza is part concert, part convention and part family reunion. It is a happy hodgepodge of disparate elements that is as messy as it is memorable. But how long can it exist unfettered by more conventional confines? Trapped in some odd limbo between the overwhelming vigor of PAX and the understated community of MAGfest, Nerdapalooza is in a class by itself. And whether the scales shift one way or the other (or continue to defy definition by splitting the difference) is anybody's guess.

All that I can say is that I look forward to Nerdapalooza 2011 and beyond. Not because it affords me my one weekend a year free from domestic obligation or even because it continually showcases the bands I want to see in an environment free from pretension or ego, but because I know there will always be a place for me. As a journalist. As a minister of the nerdy gospel. As your average geek on the street.

Nerdapalooza is a circus funhouse of energy and noise and excitement. It is scarcely controlled chaos tempered with the occasional bought of tedium. But, most importantly, it is home.

*Check out Wil Wheaton's recent Techland missive concerning Comic-Con for keen observations concerning the difference between the evolution of the nerd spectacle and the perceived devolution of nerd culture.