M.C. Frontalot Talks Nerdcore Hip-Hop, Geekery
M.C. Frontalot, the founder of “nerdcore” hip-hop, has gathered a respectable online following injecting video games, Internet culture and all things geeky into a genre too often reserved for chest-thumping swagger.
On his new album, “Zero Day,” released this week, Frontalot – nee Damian Hess – name-drops Dungeons & Dragons, humor-laced multi-user game Kingdom of Loathing and friend/geek icon Wil Wheaton – with guest appearances from “I’m a PC” guy John Hodgman and former Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty.
Geek Out! caught up with him during his current tour supporting the album.
Q: On “Zero Day,” it seems like as you go through, almost every song celebrates something genre-specific – whether it’s the Kingdom of Loathing song or the Dungeons & Dragons song or the memes like “First World Problem.” Did you set out to do that intentionally?
A: These things just all kind of shake out the way that they’re going to. I wish that I had the time and the control at my disposal to sit down and make an album that winds the themes together in a purposeful way. When I’m writing, it’s really just everything that’s on my mind or pulling at me. That’s the shape the album takes; it ends up being pretty organic.
Q: So, there’s probably no concept album or rock opera coming in the near future?
A: Well, two things I do want to do are a concept album and a children’s album. Maybe I’ll combine the two of those and do ‘The Epic Tale of Mr. Wiggly Piggly’ or something. But, one of these days I will get it together to approach writing a batch of songs as one album’s worth of material instead of a ton of 3 to 5-minutes of moments in musical time.
Q: Is there anything in particular you’re geeking out over right now – a game or book or music or anything along those lines?
A: I haven’t had a lot of time to read or absorb media lately because we’ve been working so hard on the record and we’ve been running all over and doing shows from the minute I got it in the can. Now, we’re launching this tour for a couple of months … . I’ve been geeking out over ideas of what nerd superstars I could more involve and collaborate with instead of just asking them to show up for a couple of seconds on my album … something we could really flesh out together and have both of us equally involved.
That led me to think the other night while I was at Jonathan Coulton’s concert at PAX that maybe I would hit him up to do a split EP with me where we would do some kind of a project … like I would come up with all the ideas for the songs he would write and he would come up with all the ideas for the songs I would write for it. Give each other homework – call it “The Homework EP” or something like that.
Q: You’re just off of [gaming convention] PAX and right before that was South by Southwest. What were those experiences like? Certainly you would think those are crowds that would lean toward nerdcore.
A: Both of them were great … . There are two parts of South-By – there’s interactive week and music week. It’s a massive shift that happens where you see all the nerds walking around with their faces in their iPhones or whatever give way to all these sauntering hipsters who wear sunglasses inside. It’s my people during Interactive and that’s when we did most of my music. Music week, I’m just running around anonymously, trying to absorb some bands.
Then I go to PAX [Penny Arcade Expo, a gaming convention], which is the extreme version of what interactive week would be like. It’s an absolute fantasy zone for me where fans know who I am and I can’t even walk around the convention center without having to stop and take pictures with people every couple of seconds. It’s as if I was in a much more famous band.
I would get recognized on the street … which is just not something that happens to me in day-to-day life very often. These kinds of environments where that happens … I don’t know whether they’re salve for the soul or just inflation for my head. Maybe a little from Column A and a little from Column B.
Q: Do you think that nerdcore says something about the universal appeal of hip-hop – that you have people rapping for whom it would be ridiculous to try to pretend to be a bad-ass from the streets?
A: There is that attitude that seems to have become eventually mandatory in hip-hop that you have to insist and stake everything on your claim that you are the valid representation of what hip-hop is supposed to be like. But a lot of my favorite rappers have found a way to abandon that notion without having to call themselves a geek or without having to be uncool.
Mos Def doesn’t have to spend a lot of time trying to convince people that he’s not fronting. MF Doom, Busdriver, Kool Keith – there are lots of folks I love who aren’t like that. And there’s always been a side of hip-hop that isn’t like that.
I don’t want to position myself like I’ve found this flaw in hip-hop and I’ve satirized it. That’s definitely not my angle. But I was trying to invert something – like, “Here’s this M.C. who fronts a lot. He has to kind of trick you into thinking that you’re looking at a rapper.”
Q: “Nerd” and “geek” – for you, what’s the difference between those two terms?
A: My idea of it is that “nerd” is more broadly anyone who’s natural abilities to fit in socially are very much compromised and, thus, any nerd is pretty easy to identify when you interact with him or her … .
A geek, on the other hand, is someone who has a lot of specific knowledge on any topic … I think you can have a geek who’s not really a nerd in any way. Even people like greasers who work in garages and know everything there is to know about the internal combustion engine – that’s a form of geekery.
There are a lot of ways to geek out over almost any topic without really engaging in what I think of as nerdery. They might think they’re even cooler because they’re [for example] a music geek, but when they start talking about their topic of geekish interest, the regular folks’ eyes glaze over. That’s how you can tell.