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Nerdcore could rise up... - Rants & Raves by the Evil Bastard

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January 21st, 2009

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11:45 pm - Nerdcore could rise up...
It could get elevated.

First things first -- if you're alive out there, sound off. I want to know who's still reading, and more importantly, who's still writing. I don't have time to read every journal on my Friends page (regrettable as that may be), but if you actually want my attention, this is how to get it. I'll toss you up on my Preferred Read filter and everything. I make comments and shit. I'm good like that.

I also like to take the pulse of the readership every once in a while and figure out who's still with me on this wacky misadventure. There are some folks that I know will stick it out through my massive droughts and wicked posting flurries (aaybara, you know I mean you), but other folks come and go, which is fine. I just want to know who didn't come back after the hiatus.

Now that we've gotten that over with, let's talk about some shit, shall we?

I guess the first thing on my list of stuff to talk about is my band. Steve and I have been writing rhymes for Death Star for a couple of years now, but we're supremely lazy men. What started with us IMing each other random rhymes at work and scribbling down amusing passages on our lunch breaks eventually led to Steve researching beats online and him and me putting down rhymes to those beats, slavishly working within the time allotted and trying to come up with something we found amusing and entertaining. We never had any real intention of being taken seriously.

The project started for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I didn't like nerdcore. I think this news might surprise some of you, but really, it shouldn't. When I was a teenager, I hated hip-hop; I was a die-hard grunge rocker, and I did not have time for what I felt to be lazily mumbled words over droning backgrounds. I just didn't see the artistic merit in what Snoop and Dre were doing, and because I was a teenager I had to be polarized against it and cling fervently to the altar of alternative rock. You weren't allowed to play the middle ground game or be an ecumenist about your musical tastes.

It took my moving to Omaha to really rattle my perceptions. I'd heard tracks by Massive Attack in movie soundtracks and wanted to track them down because I liked their sound. As this was during the era of Napster, it was easier than ever to get your hands on music you liked, and so I downloaded a ton of trip-hop and started listening to Massive Attack and Tricky for the first time, and giving bands like Portishead and Earthling a re-listen with fresh ears. Listen to enough trip-hop and you'll start hearing hip-hop, because the former frequently makes use of MCs from the latter to rap over their lo-fi dub beats. It didn't take long before I began to appreciate hip-hop a bit more, and to look with a kinder eye upon the music I'd shunned in my youth.

Of course, I'm a total elitist, so I couldn't possibly lower myself to listening to the big pimpin' pop hip-hop of the day, blasting Ja Rule and Jay-Z like there was something more to their music than a bass beat. I had to dig deeper and find the lyrically gifted, socially-conscious, poetic shit. I started getting into Atmosphere, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Kool Keith, Jurassic 5, Lupe Fiasco, and other indy hip-hop artists of the day. My tastes broadened, my palate refined, and I started to gain a reputation as a guy who knew a thing or two about hip-hop. I was the one who started introducing people to new MCs and actively sought out new music and new albums. While I still consider myself to be barely scratching the surface of what hip-hop has to offer, my friends tend to look to me for recommendations in the genre.

Around early 2005 I was primarily listening to hip-hop, making myself mix CDs to listen to in my car and handing them out to other people to sort of spread the gospel of good rappers. I picked up an iPod when I found out I was in the running to be a contestant on the Biggest Loser because I couldn't bear to be separated from my music (or my porn, for that matter), and that just got me listening to more hip-hop. I was picking up CDs like mad from the library and downloading tracks (all legal, honest) to discover new artists like Soul Position, Brother Ali, Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Common Market, Blue Scholars, Abyssinian Creole, Cancer Rising, and Mac Lethal. The more I listened to what they were doing, the more it resonated with me.

That resonance led to an impromptu IM rap battle with two coworkers (Jason Thurston and Jason Carter), which I won without question. I saved a copy of it for myself for my own entertainment, but soon began writing down rhymes on my own to clear my head and get out frustrations at work. It became a bit of a poetry exercise -- I would hear a beat in a song or a preexisting rap track and I'd write my own lyrics for it, running them until I wore myself out of whatever bad mood had overtaken me. At one point I actually showed some of what I'd written to my friend & coworker Allen, and he was very complimentary of what I'd done and said he really liked the tone of my work. I hadn't intended to do anything with it, but had quietly entertained the idea of ghostwriting a song for someone else and seeing if I could find someone to rap it for me.

Steve had started working with me around this time, and I was getting him to listen to a lot of the hip-hop I was down with, to his great appreciation. We shared a similar taste in hip-hop, and my experience with the genre was much broader than his… except where it came to nerdcore.

I'd heard some nerdcore before -- I'd heard MC Chris do "Fett's Vette" on Sealab 2021 and been amused but unimpressed (his damn chipmunk voice bothers me, and the song isn't that fantastic to begin with), I'd always been a fan of Weird Al Yankovic's hip-hop parodies like "All About the Pentiums" and "Amish Paradise", and I was familiar with Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Kool Keith doing semi-nerdcore work as Deltron 3030 and Doctor Octagon -- but I hadn't actually plunged into the genre at all. Steve, however, was waist deep in the stuff, listening to MC Frontalot, MC Chris, MC Lars, Optimus Rhyme, and Beefy on fairly regular rotation. When Steve was walking with me and constantly singing the refrain from "Nerdcore Rising" ("Nerdcore could rise up/it could get elevated"), I posited that it could not; it was simply not a strong enough movement with talented-enough MCs. We discussed this for a while, with me taking a stubbornly anti-nerdcore stance (especially for someone who didn't listen to the stuff) and Steve taking a remarkably patient pro-nerdcore stance. After bringing up the hip-hop I listened to, I added that the lyrics I'd been writing were vastly superior to those of the average nerdcore MC (still true), and that if I could crank out superior lyrics as a de-stressing exercise, what could a nerdcore MC possibly hope to accomplish?

Steve considered that, chewing on it a second, and helped frame it into the origin of Death Star.

We decided we'd just write our own nerdcore rhymes -- after all, if MC Lars can crank out his own poorly-paced rap monstrosities, why shouldn't we do him one better? -- and see how that went. We began sending each other snippets of lyrics and amusing lines, taking breaks together to jot down witty one-liners and lyrics we wanted to incorporate into future tracks, and to plot out songs to eventually write. We bum rushed into it like two elementary school kids who think they have the greatest idea ever. At some point we decided to call ourselves Death Star (I am fairly certain it was my idea), and I picked the moniker MC-3PO (a name which I still don't entirely love, but which seems to amuse a lot of
people) and helped Steve decide on C0splay as his nom de plume.

After a number of half-baked tracks got half-written, we decided we'd have an actual band practice where all we did was write and refine our craft. The result of this is the still-unfinished ode to the Big Lebowski, "the Dude Abides", which is oft-lamented by Steve and I as our greatest folly to date. We started out just wanting to rap about the movie, but ultimately began to rap the movie including every major and minor plot point, bits of dialogue, and concepts from the film. As hilarious as it was, we knew it would end up being at least ten minutes of pure expository hip-hop, and we just didn't have that kind of endurance. Not only that, but we had no backing beat, didn't know any producers/DJs, and couldn't make our own worth a good goddamn. "The Dude Abides" remains our great unfinished work, and while we revisit it every now and again to check its freshness (it's still really well-written), we've never gone back in to tackle it. Now that we're working with a producer, that may change; having a backing beat will really make it easier to finish that track.

It was at this time that the personas of MC-3PO and C0splay began to emerge based on banter between Steve and I during our rehearsal in Corwin's room. It was decided that MC-3PO, or 3P, was the true genius of the group; he was the deftest rapper, the most talented lyricist, the most forward-thinking MC. C0splay, by contrast, was an oaf with no internal filter who could barely rap and never had good ideas. This led to the completion of our first song, Turkey Bacon, as written by C0splay:

Tur-key ba-con, tur-key-ba-con
We be makin' tur-key ba-con
A-tur-key ba-con, tur-key-ba-con
We be makin' tur-key ba-con
Cut it into striiiiips!

Needless to say our friends found this prime cut of pork to be less than impressive.

This practice session also yielded an amusing ditty by me, which Steve will some day rap over a skit ("Broken hearted, the Departed just started, I think I farted -- I'm retarded"), further compounding C0splay's image as a talentless dunderhead. This isn't rooted entirely in reality, of course; I couldn't work with Steve if he were completely useless. What it actually reflects is my more meticulous, steady hand in the writing process, grounded in traditional hip-hop and a solid core of rhymes as well as my huge vocabulary and base of references, as well as Steve's completely random and wacky references and talent for pulling hilarious and fantastic lines out of nothing. We actually work well as a team because I keep Steve on point and make sure the song flows and moves properly, whereas Steve keeps things from getting stale and sounding too homogenous by being more experimental in his cadence and flow. Together we are better than the sum of our parts.

Eventually we figured out that you can't just write with no backing tracks -- if nothing else, your flow suffers and you have lines you can't actually kludge into a steady beat. Steve began researching online and finding sites that offer beats for free and for sale, and we began to start writing to tracks rather than writing in the hopes of finding tracks. Solid tracks like "The Dude Abides", "Bounce", and "Romantic Hero" (our ballad to tentacle porn) were set aside in favor of matching song concepts to new beats and sketching out lyrics to match. I dug up instrumental tracks and beats from alternative sources, which we used to further songs and really up our game. Our personas became more solid, our skills became more apparent. We each discovered how truly fast we can rap, exactly how dexterous we were with rapid-fire syllables, and how well we handled fast hand-offs and transitions in our songs.

We started getting more experimental with our choruses and really started to find our voices and rhythms, but our lack of dedication to the project meant that a year went by with no truly appreciable progress -- we had sketches of songs, but no songs. We set goals, but didn't meet them. Despite this, we knew we had something special going on; we were raising the bar on our own progress, and it was becoming increasingly obvious that we were already one of the best names in nerdcore.

This sounds really arrogant, I know; how can it not? But allow me to explain.

Steve began giving me additional nerdcore material to digest, so I started listening more often to MC Frontalot, Optimus Rhyme, and Beefy and gaining an appreciation for their skills. While not luminaries of the hip-hop genre, each artist/group showed definite skill and talent, and it was easy to see how nerdcore could progress to something more profound than these humble roots. Frontalot has admirable skill, a distinctive cadence and flow, and a truly unique sense of timing and rhyme that makes him stand out amongst his peers. Wheelie Cyberman, frontman of Optimus Rhyme, is one of the fastest MCs I have ever heard. Beefy is a great storytelling rapper, and his "good times" hip-hop is very positive and uplifting. I was starting to get the point of the genre.

The Northwest Nerdcore group put on a show and invited Steve's band to play. Press Start to Rock is a video game cover band (so they cover songs from video games like the Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy II, Gauntlet, Mega Man III, and the like), and they opened for a bunch of nerdcore MCs. These guys were all really cool and laid back, but for the most part they were a sorry lot. Mr. Door, the show opener, was a super-nice guy who nevertheless seemed to have very little actual talent. He was followed by MC Gigahertz, who may be one of the nicest guys in the genre but is essentially a miserable wreck of an MC (whose songs nevertheless get stuck in your head). Invid seemed to have some actual talent, but very little stage presence. Ultraklystron is one of the better producers in nerdcore, but as an MC his voice is kind of whiny, and all he seems to talk about is anime. The Underachievers are a bunch of drunken frat boys, and Tanuki -- the first furry MC -- isn't all that impressive, either (except in mass -- that is an obese man). While few of these artists were horrible, none of them were really good.

So I began researching on MySpace and through other means, and the vast majority of nerdcore artists are friggin' horrendous. Even fairly big names in the genre like MC Router and MC Lars aren't particularly good rappers or lyricists, and tend to skate by on amusement and production. While you can find additional solid MCs in the bunch (YTCracker, Jesse Dangerously, and Nurse Hella come to mind), for the most part if someone tells you they're a nerdcore MC, you can assume they suck at it.

Steve and I do not. We are good, and we knew it even back then. We just didn't have anyone outside of our group of friends to confirm it.

So the drummer for PSR, Kevin, decided he was moving to New York in January of 2009, which put an expiration date on Steve's dream of playing a show with Death Star and PSR together. Steve set up a show for Friday, December 12, 2008 at the Mars Bar in Seattle, giving us about 2 months to practice and be ready. Now, bear in mind that at this time we were nowhere close to being ready -- we had about one song memorized, and several songs that we included on our setlist weren't even finished. What followed was a furious series of edits and fine-tuning sessions, in-depth discussions about our talents and what we could reasonably expect from one another, and the most dedicated rehearsals you could ever hope to have. We took our shit seriously and truly buckled down, and over those two months we went from a half-assed basement project to a duo legitimately ready to rock the mic in front of an audience. We were both seriously impressed with ourselves, but we were so busy getting it right on our own that we never stopped to examine how good we had gotten.

I've long held that one of the biggest weaknesses of hip-hop MCs is that they tend to think that everything they do is brilliant. Because of this, you see very little editing and revision in their work, even when it means seriously strongarming syllables into a verse, rhyming "door" with "car" or "killer" with "smaller", or flat out saying something stupid. Any fan of hip-hop knows there's a track by their favorite artist that they listen to and think -- every time -- "Man, I could have written a better line than that" or "If he'd just said 'had enough' instead of 'up above' there, it would have flowed better". If you ever listen to the Beastie Boys, Ja Rule, Lil' Wayne, or 50 Cent, I know you know what I mean.

Steve and I function as a check and balance system for one another, constantly looking over each other's work and refining it. When we have "finished" a song, we go through it word by word and judge whether or not it says what we want it to say, how we want it to be said, in a fashion consistent with the song. We are perfectionists and we can't even get away with rapping it incorrectly without the other one jumping all over our backs, saying "It's 'drop it like a Fox show, move on to the next one', not 'drop it like a Fox show and move right to another one'" and generally keeping it real. While people may not like what we do and how we do it, no one can say that what we wrote was done lazily or without consideration; if nothing else, we polished it all.

Cognizant of these facts but not taking the time to examine them, we set out to do our show. Steve was seriously nervous, but I was cool as a cucumber. I don't get stage fright and I don't get nervous if I have to perform in front of people -- thank you, strong high school theatre background! -- and I felt ready to go on. I told everyone, "I just want people to be entertained. I don't care if we're miserable or if we mess up, so long as people have a good time." A lot of our friends showed up. Most of my family showed up. While Grace couldn't make it (she had to work and didn't have a ride), almost everyone we invited was there to support us.

Man did we put on a show.

From the opening beat of "The Sound of Nerdcore" (which was straight up ganked from the Nine Inch Nails B-Side, "The Great Collapse"), we knew we had something going. We were tight and on point with our flow and our rhymes, working the crowd and hitting on every syllable and note. The crowd went nuts over references to Firefly, Phoenix Wright, Penny Arcade, and Silverhawks. We had everyone in the palm of our hand, and that was just the first track.

We moved on to "Who Wants to Be a Comic Book Villain?", a storytelling track about a villainous duo battling superheroes, and then to the ridiculous "Rollin' '20s" anthem done in a speakeasy-style with 1920s slang (during which our friend Hm Skl ate a sandwich on stage). Then to "Sunshine", using the Bill Withers track to back up our love song to Internet romance, and the short "Back in the Day" nostalgia track to '80s video game parties. We moved along to "Clerkz", a track about working in a game store, which produced much laughter when I screwed up one of the toughest parts of the song (as Steve and I worried we might). We did "Suburban Champion", a song about fighting games, and "Looking 4 Group", a love song entreating women to pay more attention to nerds. We sang "The Second Video Game Apocalypse", a warning against video game censorship and industry failure, and wrapped up with "Geek Enough for Me", a humorous ditty about breaking up with a girl who just isn't enough of a geek.

People were with us the whole way. My family went nuts, and got completely hammered in their enthusiasm. Dima, who had heard us practice numerous times and isn't a fan of hip-hop, told us that he had no idea we were going to be that good. All of our friends were impressed, and we flat out destroyed that night. After the show we were asked if we were interested in playing the Showbox and Nectar, two pretty big clubs in Seattle, and were invited to play on the Rock Band stage at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo (though it doesn't honestly look like we're going to get to play; that one's complicated). One show in and we were being courted and applauded, with people asking if we had any merchandise for them to buy or if we had music tracks to download.

It felt damn good.

So Steve and I are super-lazy, and we'd been killing ourselves with practice every night leading up to the show. We decided afterward to take a break, and man did we.

We knew we wanted to take a couple of weeks off to relax and not get too burned out, as we'd been practicing non-stop and murdering ourselves with rehearsal. As badly as we wanted to get back to writing tracks and finding new beats, we needed the rest. The problem was that when you start taking days off during the holidays, you just keep taking them off -- on and on and on went our reasons for not practicing, and we just kept not showing up. At first it was understandable, but I must admit to a great deal of frustration near the end, when Steve's plans kept fucking up our practice and all I wanted to do was put some words to some fucking beats and record.

One thing we did get right was talking to our friend Bruce (aka Das Broose) about producing for us. He has done beats and production for a number of small hip-hop acts (currently he's working with a guy called Watt$on), and we've been hanging out with him for some time, so it seemed like a good fit. We sat with him and played him the beats we want replaced, let him know a little bit of what we were up to, and told him we'd work on laying down rhymes over click tracks so he could do production around them.

Unfortunately, our follow-up to that was to do nothing again for a few weeks.

Now it's time to man up again, and Steve and I are both enthusiastic about getting back to work. People keep asking me when our next show is going to be, and telling me I have to let them know so they can make arrangements to come see us perform. We're going to start working on our stage presence and movement during songs, and we're looking at possibly recruiting a band to do live backing tracks for us. Bruce wants badly to be our bassist, and we'd need a drummer and either a keyboardist or a guitarist, too. I want someone to DJ and do live production, and Steve is pretty much okay with that. Our friend Jams also gave us the awesome idea to have backing dancers doing DDR in the background -- we'd just have to do some Dance Dance Revolution tracks to our beats and sync them up for the show, which I think would be wicked. We're going to be working on a web site, and we're piecing together a free 4-track EP called "The Soldiers of Fortran" to hand out for free at our shows in preparation for our eventual, fully-theoretical album.

Ultimately I'd like to play shows with guys like MC Frontalot, Beefy, YTCracker, and Futuristic Sex Robots, and actually have our band be known in the nerdcore subgenre. Ideally we'd like to be invited to play bigger shows in the circuit and possibly show up in articles about nerdcore. Steve really wants to play Pax. I really want to have a Wikipedia entry about us that we don't write ourselves.

One of our biggest issues is that our band is called Death Star (or Death*Star, depending on who you ask). If we attain any modicum of success (meaning "if people start to know who we are"; we have no delusions of fame and fortune), we're looking at possible issues of copyright infringement from Lucasfilm and the necessity of changing our band name. I happen to really like our band name, but I do see the issue here, and it's had me thinking that if we're going to change the name of the band, we should change it now. We have no external fan base to worry about, only one show to our name, no web site or publicity to factor in, and not a lot of time put in under the name. We've considered aliases before, and had debated the idea of changing personas from album to album. We'd thought about calling ourselves Jester and the Clown Prince under the group name "the Jokerz", Captain Bloody Jack Cutter and Lophead under the group name "Pirates of Dork Water", and even going by "Soldiers of Fortran" at one point. Time will tell what we decide.

Today's track is "Nerdcore Rising" by MC Frontalot.
Current Mood: weary
Current Music: MC Frontalot, "Nerdcore Rising"

(5 Monkeys Launched Into Space | I Want You to Hit Me as Hard as You Can)


[User Picture]
Date:January 22nd, 2009 05:15 pm (UTC)
I haven't gotten through the entire post, but I'm still here, reading! Don't post much myself, though the odd Pern-based RP that I get, working aorund keeping house, husband and two kids happy..

I'm actually headed out tomorrow, to visit with blargh, until Tuesday.

Keep things going, I like reading where people have turned out, after all these years!

*** And now bacxk to our not-so-regularly scheduled Turkey Cooking and Clothes Packing marathon. Thank you.
[User Picture]
Date:January 24th, 2009 05:12 am (UTC)
Well, thanks for speaking up and reading when you do. It's nice to know you're still keeping tabs on me. ;)
[User Picture]
Date:January 26th, 2009 02:45 am (UTC)
I am... around. It's the times when life is most intense that I typically withdraw from writing about it. Which is silly, because of course those are the times I have something to write about. ;)

Hard to go back into it, though, to write. Maybe soon. I do check in, and I always read your journal.
[User Picture]
Date:January 27th, 2009 06:01 am (UTC)
Well, you make two, though I think Grace has started silently browsing my journal, as well (not that I mind). I'm not really surprised that I've been losing fans with my long, unannounced absences, but hey, at least a couple of people keep tabs on me when I'm about.

I hear your complaint, too -- when I have stuff to talk about, I rarely have the time to talk about it or the desire to spend that time at my computer, posting. My posts these days are written from work, when I have nothing better to do by virtue of not giving a damn about my job.
[User Picture]
Date:May 20th, 2009 05:02 am (UTC)
o.o hi jess!

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