But the fact is that I, like so many unassuming white kids out there, am a huge fan of hip-hop. From Ice Cube to Nas to Mos Def to Aesop Rock, hip-hop has provided me with a soundtrack and an identity. Imagining my life without hip-hop is like imagining my life if my parents had never met.
And yet, my relationship with hip-hop has always been complicated. As a white consumer of black culture, I've wondered what impact my fandom was having on the music; I still think about it every time I go to a show and find myself surrounded by similarly-pigmented fans. I've also wondered what hip-hop's success says about this country, particularly the way we view race in this new millennium.
So I wrote a book, Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America , that aims to show “how hip-hop is lived far from the inner cities that birthed and sustain it.” I write about my own experiences as a sheltered kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, pumping Public Enemy and trying to come to terms with my own uneasy feelings about race.
I interviewed hip-hop luminaries, from Chuck D to MC Serch. I hit the books and found what I hope are interesting resonances in the work of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Jean Baudrillard. And I traveled across the country, visiting a breakdance class at the upper-crusty New Canaan Dance Academy; a pop-rap station in melanin-challenged Green Bay; and a guided tour of the South Bronx, hip-hop's birthplace.
I also attended a “nerdcore” concert, a rap phenomenon I was unaware of when I started my research. The excerpt below describes the scene. Enjoy!
Let me count the reasons why MC Frontalot should not, if history is any guide, be a successful rapper. First off, he is white. And I don't mean that he ‘happens to be' white, that his skin color is in some way incongruent with the rest of his personality, in the way that MC Serch or Paul Wall happen to be white. MC Frontalot is white. His high-pitched voice has that telltale nasal hum, and he tends to over-enunciate his words, hitting the ng's and r's hard, rather than smoothly gliding over them like most of the other artists in his genre. He may be the only MC ever to express a deep and abiding love for musical theater.
MC Frontalot's big break came in 2001, when Penny Arcade – a Web site devoted to video game reviews and comics – linked to one of his songs, “Yellow Lazers,” about a sexual escapade at a Star Wars convention. The resulting crush of traffic provided MC Frontalot with the bulk of his fan base, which is composed almost entirely of self-described nerds. Other MC Frontalot songs address spam e-mail, Internet porn, and “the beginning of the syntax for loading a directory off of a disk on a Commodore 64.”
Frontalot is credited with coining the phrase “nerdcore hip-hop,” a term that today describes a new and burgeoning genre of rap in which unabashedly geeky MCs forego tales of crime and aggression to rhyme about such topics as computer programming, civil engineering, and Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics. Frontalot came up with the “nerdcore” name in 2001, two years after he started experimenting with recording hip-hop tracks on his home computer. “It was just sort of a goof,” he says. “I was sitting there, rapping by myself in front of the computer, and I was like: This is nerdcore.”
It turns out, though, that it was not just he. The world of nerdcore rap is expanding almost as profoundly as the universe in Hubble's Law. In addition to Frontalot, there is MC Stephen Hawking, who delivers his rhymes via a talking computer, like the famous physicist. Ytkrcracker refers to himself as a “digital gangster” and who waxes nostalgic about his early coding days: “Every time I wrote a GOTO, bitch, I had that baby looping.” MC Plus+ boasts on his Web site that he is “to [computer science] gangsta rap what a blue screen is to Windows” and dedicates his art to “all the grad students in the struggle.”
At the heart of nerdcore's appeal is not just music, but a reclaiming of a world that seemed off-limits to so many geeky, white listeners. “This lets me enjoy a kind of music that I never had any claim to in the past,” says one MC Frontalot fan. “Now I actually have a style of music that is hip-hop and cool and urban, or whatever you want to call it. And I can say, ‘This is my brand of hip-hop.'”
© 2007 by Jason Tanz. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.