MC Frontalot, aka Damian Hess, makes a living rapping about data encryption, rare diseases, video games and the nerd life. He describes Nerdcore, his name for the genre, as "the inversion of the shame of geekery... into pride." Frontalot joins Ira Flatow and Flora Lichtman to chat about the intersection of nerdiness and hip-hop and shares some of his songs.
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IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: And I'm Flora Lichtman.
FLATOW: And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be mixing it up with rap songs about nerdy topics. But first, a reminder about our photo contest. The entries are all in for our winter nature photo contest. More than 400, 400 of you submitted your best shot. Now, we need you. You're going to help pick the finalists. So go to sciencefriday.com/photocontest and vote for your favorite. Go there. Click on the photo of the big red bird, the cardinal, right there on our website for more information.
LICHTMAN: So here we are. The rest of the hour: something different from what has come before. We're talking about nerd rap. What do you think, Ira?
FLATOW: Nerd - this is the right place for that.
LICHTMAN: Absolutely. I thought you might like it. So the genre of music has been called Nerdcore. And the hip-hop songs cover everything from computer programming to data encryption to science and math. And here's a little taste of how it sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POWER USER")
DAMIAN HESS: (Rapping) I got your whole U.I. memorized on the first interact. Wrote a script to keep the yip-yap to a minimum and settled back, set a track on repeat and wrote rhymes. You'd think the computer was helping me do it so perfect sometimes. And I'm somebody who got classed as a power user. When my aptitude gets trimmed into a fuse for the boom-bop-pow of productivity, I'm just using the tools.
LICHTMAN: So that is a song about...
LICHTMAN: ...a man's complicated relationship with his computer. It was written and performed by our next guest. Damian Hess, aka MC Frontalot, is a professional rapper living in Brooklyn, and he's here with us today in our studio in New York. Welcome to the show.
HESS: Good afternoon.
FLATOW: If you'd like to talk about it, our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I.
LICHTMAN: What is Nerdcore?
HESS: Well, it's a kind of hip-hop. It's like a lot of the rest of rap music, except that the pressure on the rapper to be a cool person is considerably reduced.
LICHTMAN: Where did it come from?
HESS: Well, where have nerds come from?
HESS: We know where hip-hop came from. Hip-hop came from the Bronx in the late '70s and early '80s. Nerds just sort of oozed out of our culture in general. I think the word is attributed to Dr. Seuss.
LICHTMAN: But you came up with the nerd - the word Nerdcore.
HESS: Nerdcore, yeah, taking the word hardcore and changing the first several letters, that was all me.
LICHTMAN: Tell me a little bit about the history. When did that happen? When was Nerdcore born?
HESS: Coined early 2000, I guess. I was sitting, making raps at my computer, noticing that my large monitor was my audience and a couple of action figures that were attached to the monitor, and I thought, wow, this is so dorky. This is so nerdy that it is Nerdcore. What if I were to pretend that that were worthy of bravado?
LICHTMAN: And here we are.
LICHTMAN: You know, we're so nerd. I'm not sure it's even Nerdcore. We're so nerdy that this has been around for so long, and we haven't heard about it, Ira.
FLATOW: Because this is like Nerdcore - nerd up to 11, you know?
FLATOW: This is so nerdy.
LICHTMAN: I feel out-nerded...
FLATOW: We are out...
LICHTMAN: ...by this music.
FLATOW: But I think it shows - and would you agree that that nerds can be rappers also, right? Not just other people in other walks of life but nerds like you and I and maybe Flora, you know...
FLATOW: ...we can all - we can be rappers.
LICHTMAN: Well, I couldn't but...
HESS: Gosh, we're capable of anything these days.
LICHTMAN: That's not true.
FLATOW: Where do you come up with your ideas for what you're going to write about?
HESS: You know, once in a while, fans will come up and insist - actually often fans will come up and insist that I cover their pet topic and...
FLATOW: It could be what like...
HESS: Well, that's usually something that's way too specific for me to think it's interesting to cover for four minutes, you know, why don't you cover how Blizzard nerfed the, you know, my class that I play in "World of Warcraft"? I can't - I can no longer use the same character build that I was using. And my hit points flee like so many freed doves. Won't you cover this in a song? No, of course not. But occasionally, they will hit on something, like a Web cartoonist I know said: You really need to do a song about cryptozoology. I said: You know what? That is a fertile topic.
HESS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. "Scare Goat" is the song. It's about how - while it's inarguable that Big Foots and Loch Ness monsters are real, the existence of a Tennessee fainting goat is too pathetic to be real. It defies logic.
LICHTMAN: We have a song for you on tap. It's called "Secrets from the Future." What's the song about? And then we'll play it.
HESS: Data encryption, specifically the idea that we're making so much data about ourselves, that our secrecy is not important to the people of the future. They don't - they're not going to care about us enough to crack it, unless we encode it so carefully that it becomes challenging simply from the puzzle angle, and then maybe people will read our diaries a hundred years from now.
LICHTMAN: All right. Well, let's hear a little bit of that, "Secrets from the Future" by MC Frontalot.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SECRETS FROM THE FUTURE")
HESS: (Rapping) Get your most closely kept personal thought. Put it in the Word .doc with a password lock. Stock it deep in the .rar with extraction precluded by the ludicrous length and the strength of a reputedly dictionary-attack-proof string of characters. This imperative to thwart all the disparagers of privacy: the NSA and Homeland S. You better PGP the .rar because so far they ain't impressed.
(Rapping) You better take the .pgp and print the hex of it out, scan that into a TIFF. Then, if you seek redoubt for your data, scramble up the order of the pixels with a one-time pad that describes the fun time had by the thick-soled-boot-wearing stomper who danced to produce random claptrap, all the intervals in between which, set in tandem with the stomps themselves, begat a seed of math un-guessable. Ain't no complaint about this cipher...
LICHTMAN: So what happens in the chorus of that song, which we can't play because it's an FCC...
HESS: Oh, it...
LICHTMAN: ...minor violation.
HESS: It points out that you can't hide secrets from the future with math. You can try, but I bet that in the future they laugh at the partially bottomed schemes and algorithms amassed to enforce cryptographs in the past.
LICHTMAN: Who's your prime audience for Nerdcore?
HESS: Well, I hope music fans.
HESS: But it tends to be a subset of music fans who are interested in overly complicated lyrics and weird things that they recognize from their own personal obsessions.
LICHTMAN: Have you broken through, I mean, have - do you think - have you - any of your songs hit, sort of, the main non-nerd-identified audience?
HESS: Nope. No. No. I...
HESS: I really wish I had a more...
FLATOW: But you're able to do this full-time, you know...
HESS: Oh, yeah.
FLATOW: ...you could make a living out this. It's not your day job, or your night job.
HESS: No, not my night job. It is my - well, it's my day and night job. It's considerably more...
HESS: ...time-intensive than any job I ever had, back when I had jobs. But it is also considerably more rewarding to always be working on your music than on your, you know, clients.
FLATOW: And where do you play? Where could we all hear you or see you?
HESS: Well, we tour nationally, and I've gotten to tour the UK a little bit. I'm touring Australia a little bit this year. We'll be out on the road again in the fall. I'm working on my sixth record at the moment. So I'm kind of hiding out in Brooklyn. But we're - we still have conventions and stuff that we're going to, Penny Arcade East in Boston in March, South by Southwest in March.
LICHTMAN: So you coined this term, Nerdcore, and now many other artists identify as Nerdcore rappers. We talked to Dr. Awkward for our Video Pick of the Week.
HESS: He's fantastic. He's so good.
LICHTMAN: He is really good. He was fun to speak with, as well. And you could hear him on our website, at sciencefriday.com. Is it gratifying to have come up with your whole - a whole genre of hip-hop?
HESS: That's the - I mean, that's, you know, the part that makes me get up in the morning. It's like, ooh, this is not merely my commentary on how dumb music subgenres' names are. This is, in fact, a thing that resonated with some folks, and that folks looked past the seeming comedy aspect of to find some value in and participated in. A lot of people participated, and continue to. There's a whole generation of Nerdcore rappers that appeared after I was already too old for television.
LICHTMAN: I wanted to ask you about that comedy aspect. I mean, do people sort of just - do you have a problem with people just dismissing this as a joke, or does that happen?
HESS: It definitely happens. I mean, the name Nerdcore invites that. I think it just sounds like something that's going to be a joke. And it's always better to be underestimated, and then pleasantly surprise people than it is to step up insisting that you've created the most serious and genuine work of art in human history and half of them don't...
HESS: ...10, 20 percent of that what you said before I heard it panned out.
FLATOW: But how many nerd rappers are there, do you think?
HESS: Oh, a hundred. Yeah. But the majority of those are hobbyists, making the songs at home. There are maybe five or six viable national-touring acts. Two or three up in the, sort of, top level, who are consistently selling rooms out.
LICHTMAN: I think we should hear another song, and you actually brought the instrumental for it. And we're asking you...
HESS: I did. I brought...
LICHTMAN: ...to perform it.
HESS: I brought a backing track for "Spoiler Alert," which is not a complicated or deep song. It simply seeks to ruin the endings of works of literature and film...
HESS: ...and events in history, and some of the wonders of childhood.
LICHTMAN: So you're about to hear MC Frontalot perform "Spoiler Alert" live.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPOILER ALERT")
HESS: (Rapping) You're annoyed when I talk during the film. It's just another classic that you haven't seen still. Just another ill-in-the-head in the plot. You're like, Norman Bates, is that all you got? Might have guessed by the name of the thing. Don't complain that you never heard the ending of "The Crying Game." Well, it's a penis. At this point, a shaggy dog. Nothing to see here, move along.
(Rapping) The Apes ruled the Earth. Vader's poppa to Luke. Brad Pitt and Ed Norton are obviously two people, but they've got to share one character. Bruce ain't alive, kid, no matter how he stares at you. Snape kills Dumbledore, but with a noble motive. Everybody's guilty on the Oriental locomotive. Veidt's villainy ends world squabbling, and Deckard is a replicant, probably.
MOLLY HAGER: (Singing) Say I ruin everything for you...
LICHTMAN: That was awesome. Thank you.
LICHTMAN: Our Twitter followers are asking who your influences are, have been.
HESS: You know, I grew up on Public Enemy in De La Soul, which, if you use the Internet and math, will help you figure out how old I am.
HESS: And Del the Funky Homosapien, I think, out of - along with De La Soul, have that sort of like I don't care what you think of my image and I'm going to, kind of, dork it out and be smart and weird and funny at the back of the bus, and you're not going to have anything to say about it. Well, I think I quite pulled that attitude out of those guys.
There's been a lot of fascinating and sort of geeky rap over the years these days. I love Busdriver, MF Doom.
LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR. I'm Flora Lichtman, here with Ira Flatow, of course, and MC Frontalot.
FLATOW: I have tweet. Let me just...
FLATOW: ...share this with you. Lynda O'Clare(ph) says: My daughter's seventh grade science teachers use raps in class like this one. Is it Nerdcore?
HESS: Guaranteed, yes. That's...
HESS: That's going to qualify.
FLATOW: Seventh grade is making - maybe they're making up their own Nerdcore raps.
HESS: I hope so. I think that rap is a good educational tool.
LICHTMAN: Did you start doing this as a kid?
HESS: Yes. Well, not that young. It was early high school. And shamefully, at first, hidden away from the world, so one would see that I thought I was someone who should be doing raps. It was embarrassing to me that people would think that I thought I was good at it.
FLATOW: Was that because you're such a nerd?
HESS: I mean, that's part of it. You know, I don't...
HESS: That's for the cool kids. I mean, performance, in general, but rap in particular, is for the cool kids to do. You know, a rapper should walk into the room and command all the attention, have all the charisma, and everyone should point him or her and say, gosh. I wanna be more like that. And that's not what being a nerd was when I was young.
FLATOW: You can have it all, though.
HESS: These days.
LICHTMAN: You know, one thing that I love about Nerdcore, the reason why when I found out about this from the documentary "Nerdcore Rising" - tip of the hat to that documentary - I just loved that if you are authentic and you do something, you can express yourself well about what you love, you can get an audience, if you're skilled at it.
HESS: That's the equation. It doesn't always work out, but I have been pretty lucky with it.
FLATOW: Let's get a - we have a couple of phone calls in - Ryan in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania. Hi, Ryan.
RYAN: Hi. How are you doing? Thanks for taking my call.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
RYAN: I just want to say, first, I'm a huge fan of MC Frontalot, seen him in concert a few times, and I love the whole Nerdcore area.
I work at the PAX East as an enforcer, and have had the opportunity to just to mingle with tons and tons of people from this offset. And it's really given them quite a way to express themselves when society, before, has really put us down as being nerdy or, as dorkish or a geek. And you're talking about a convention with 60,000 people there, and it's just, I mean, it's just massive, and it's a great thing economically. You're seeing all these wonderful artists, games and things come out of this culture that has been before just really looked down upon. I mean, we haven't seen this, really, since, like, "Revenge of the Nerds," maybe, where this culture has really been expressed in such a positive way.
FLATOW: Thanks for that call - positive reinforcement.
HESS: Yeah. Thanks. The enforcers are great, and I'm looking forward to PAX - to three PAXes this year.
FLATOW: And you're going to continue to be rapping.
HESS: That is my plan.
FLATOW: When can they see you next? Because people want to see you next. Where are you going to be?
HESS: The very next opportunity would be in Boston and Cambridge at the end of March. Oh, wait, no, in Austin a little later- a little earlier in March.
HESS: A week and a half from now.
FLATOW: Have any ideas for another song, or you're working on?
HESS: I'm working on a whole record about fairy tales and...
FLATOW: Fairy tales.
HESS: Fairy tales, and that should be pretty fun, if I can get it done - struggling.
FLATOW: A nerdy version, nerdy fairly tale?
HESS: Well, everything I do is automatically like the nerdy version. I can't help it.
FLATOW: So it's going to be something that's unexpected. Well, we'll watch for it. Thank you very much for taking to be with us.
HESS: Thank you so much for having me on.
FLATOW: Thank you, Flora.
LICHTMAN: Thank you.
FLATOW: And that was Damian Hess, aka MC Frontalot, professional rapper from Brooklyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.