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Nerdcore mixes geek culture with hip-hop

What is nerdcore? We explore the hows and whys of one of music's newest (and geekiest) subgenres.

Henry Bowers, a rapper born in Sweden, cuts an intimidating figure. Dreadlocks stream from beneath his black beanie, merging into the gargantuan beard he wears. He looks like a modern-day viking, teeth bared as he snarls an answering rhyme to his opponent.

This is a rap battle.

There are no chairs--the spectators stand up close and personal, encircling the combatants. It's a gladiatorial match, executed with words and prose rather than swords and nets. An approving chorus swells from the crowd. Bowers takes a step back; it's his opponent's turn to retaliate.

They trade insults that need to be both harsh and clever. They fire boasts and taunts, goading and pushing at each other. It's like a scene out of a hip-hop music video, a vignette cut from a dance movie, a duel far removed from garden-variety geekdom. But then Bowers snaps:

"You're just a disgusting orc. You stand no chance against Gandalf!"

This is nerdcore.

According to Wikipedia, nerdcore is "a sub-genre of hip hop music characterized by themes and subject matter considered to be of general interest to nerds."

It exists at the intersection between heavy gold chains and Super Nintendo consoles. Instead of waxing lyrical about fast cars and dangerous lifestyles, nerdcore musicians expound on things like Super Mario Bros., programming languages, and science advocacy. It's Tupac with typewriters; Lil' Wayne with Lego and light sabers. Depending on who you ask, nerdcore is either an exciting new medium or a gimmicky addition to the world's amalgamation of music genres.

But in its own way, nerdcore is a statement--a defiant anthem against societal norms.

The birth of a genre

With a little under 300,000 subscribers and almost 80 million channel views, nerdcore artist Hiimrawn is something of a YouTube celebrity. He is arguably best known for his "Gets Played" series, a collection of gaming-related rap videos that incorporate everything from a grizzled mobster reimagining of Super Mario Bros. to a hip-hop-flavored ode to Minecraft.

"I grew up playing the accordion, so--in a way--nerdcore was inevitable," Hiimrawn quips over Skype. "I think a combination of my fantasies [of] being a rapper like Gucci Mane or Biggie Smalls and the harsh reality that I was just a gap-toothed white boy drew my focus to things that I could relate to."

For all his relative fame, however, Hiimrawn expressed relief when asked if he would be okay with having the interview conducted over instant message.

"I'd prefer that, too, since I'm shy," says the man who once dressed up as Sonic the Hedgehog for a music shoot.

Though artists such as the Beastie Boys and Biggie Smalls have long since referenced subjects like science fiction and technology in their music, not until 2000--the year MC Frontalot debuted his song "Nerdcore Hiphop"--did the subgenre get a name. For some people, nerdcore represents an homage to shattered stereotypes, but for others it's simply idle self-expression.

"Nerdcore to me is just about showing people other ways people have fun," Hiimrawn shrugs, before adding glibly, "I love getting into costume and playing pretend. I'm a big kid."

Though they allude to Silent Hill or '80s cartoons in their lyrics, some artists haven't entirely embraced the nerdcore label. Henry Bowers certainly hasn't. "I would definitely say that there are elements of what you call 'nerdcore' in my music," Bowers says. "I love to spice up my lyrics and my battle verses with references to pop-culture; and among these references you'll find a lot of geeky stuff like characters from video games and cartoons and such. But since it's only one of many ingredients I use, I wouldn't go so far as to say that I do full-on nerdcore."

Bowers, a slam poet widely recognized as one of Sweden's best hip-hop acts, was quick to note, however, that he does occasionally revel in writing songs overloaded with nerdy references; Bowers points to a track in a previous album as an example of this: "On the album I'm working on at the moment, I have a track where I only rhyme on names that in some way are related to horror fiction. Starting off with a reference to the video game Silent Hill--spooky s**t, like 'Alessa Gilespie when/all messed up on mescaline, molestin' pedestrians.'"

Next page: Push-back against nerdcore

Not everyone's a fan

Like any other music genre, nerdcore has drawn criticism from outsiders. Detractors have decried it as everything from repulsive to simplistic to "too damn white." In a Penny Arcade thread from 2008, one forum user undertook to dismantle MC Frontalot's "Rhyme of the Nibelung" in an attempt to illustrate the differences between nerdcore and (arguably) "genuine" hip-hop.

Too simple. Too stiff. Too literal. "There are no double meanings, there are no creative metaphors, no slang, just straight forward rhyming words," the forum user grouses.

The disdain and resentment that nerdcore elicits in some quarters has not gone unnoticed by the subgenre's practitioners. In "Nerdcore Hiphop," MC Frontalot raps about how other artists shy away from an association with him, frightened at how it might reflect on them.

Nonetheless, nerdiness is far from scarce within the the larger field of hip-hop. As Bowers observes in an email interview:

"Most rappers I know and like are extremely nerdy, though some might disguise it more than others. Especially battle rappers seem to have a tendency to be really nerdy if you look at the content of what they spit. They might look (and even be) hard and rough on the outside, but their impressive range of knowledge of nerdy stuff like sci-fi and cartoons is often showing in their punchlines and word plays."

Nathaniel Chambers, a musician who most recently worked on the soundtrack for Wadjet Eye Games' postapocalyptic robot adventure title Primordia, believes that most hostility toward nerdcore originates from an inaccurate perception that it may be a cultural cash-in.

"I think some people view it as an attempt at jumping onto the ever-growing and ever-broadening 'nerd' genre, but I think it's very, very valid," Chambers says, "I think [nerdcore] is a response to people who have grown up with video games, computers, and other aspects of nerd culture."

Roger Hicks, a self-described Renaissance Man who makes everything from Web-based music sequences to indie video games, echoes Bowers and Chambers. He says that there are no hard-and-fast rules about what makes a song nerdcore or hip-hop.

"The beat can be anything," Hicks explains. "And in hip-hop, you can use any beat--rock, chiptune, electronica, gangsta, whatever. It's a mashup of every other genre. If nerdcore is a subgenre of hip-hop, the same holds true for nerdcore: It's all about rhyming to a beat."

Though Hicks acknowledges that many nerdcore artists are Caucasian, he also sees ethnicity as a nonissue. "I'm also a programmer and I've met very few other black programmers/hackers. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot but the majority seems to be white--that doesn't make programming racist, does it?"

If Mega Ran--a nerdcore artist who has been involved in the scene for little more than half a decade--is right, nerdcore may soon cease to be a frowned-upon novelty item and instead become a fixture within the hip-hop community.

"It's become a lot 'cooler,' for lack of a better word," Mega Ran told TechHive. "I love the fact that it's easier to explain today than it was in the mid-2000s, and I feel that it's a lot more polished and respectable on the whole, as more and more talented artists have been less afraid of the label."

"The novelty stigma is there, and I battle with it all the time," Mega Ran continues. "As long as people know that what I do isn't a parody act, that's what's important to me. I let the skills do the talking, and most people shut up."

Hicks agrees: "Look at Kendrik Lamar. He's one of the most popular new artists these days, and he has songs about watching cartoons and eating cereal. Nowadays, it's beginning to feel like being 'nerdy' is cool. Nerdcore doesn't feel very much different from conventional hip-hop anymore."

[Top photo: dwphotos/Shutterstock]

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