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Interview: Nerdcore Artist MC Frontalot

We recently had the opportunity to collaborate with DaRealWordSound on an interview the one and only nerdcore artist MC Frontalot. Check it out below:

Bio (From his website for those that don’t know who he is):

MC Frontalot (née Damian Hess) is the original mastermind of Nerdcore Hip-Hop and still its Final Boss.

Front was born in San Francisco and grew up in Berkeley. He was tall and scrawny, had trouble breathing, and could not see well. A special teacher was called in to help him attain basic competence on the monkey bars, another to give him standardized tests meant for older children. Thusly, he was the most popular kid in his elementary school. Just kidding! He got pushed down a lot and called “nerd.” Did he maybe even deserve it? I mean, really – who strikes out at kickball?

Credit: Ben Trivett

He spent the next twenty years or so trying to get over it. And kind of succeeded! Flash forward to 1999: the dotcom bubble is maximally inflated; nerds everywhere imagine themselves to be popular and/or hip. Damian is getting overpaid to code web pages, which leaves him free in the evenings to play with audio software. A longtime idolizer of rappers, he has been committing his own esoteric hip-hop compositions to four-track tape since high school, revealing them to nobody. But, suddenly! Multi-track desktop studios, cheap pro-grade recording hardware, skyrocketing bandwidth, semi-anonymous web publishing: these factors converge on Damian’s rap hobby like a flock of winged monkeys. He posts an MC Frontalot web page, dubbing his output “Nerdcore Hip-Hop” because his audience is composed of several Star Wars figurines who live on his desk (and also random internet people who click on his MP3s by mistake).

Now it is 2016. Nerdcore has metastasized into an internet phenomenon and underground touring powerhouse, with dozens of well established live acts and more than a hundred home-studio rhymers self-identifying within the subgenre. MC Frontalot, called alternately the movement’s godfather or grandfather (thanks, kids), leads the charge, performing for thousands around the country and at prominent geek gatherings such as Comic-Con, the Penny Arcade Expo and BlizzCon. He’s been featured in Newsweek, CNN, The New York Times, Spin, Wired, Blender, XXL, XLR8R, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, The London Daily Telegraph, NPR, G4TV, Esquire, Playboy, CMJ, The Guardian (UK), The Wall Street Journal, and scores of city papers nationally and internationally. He has released six studio albums, Nerdcore Rising (Sept 2005), Secrets From The Future (Apr 2007), Final Boss (Nov 2008), Zero Day(Apr 2010), Solved (Aug 2011), and Question Bedtime (Aug 2014). The documentary feature, Nerdcore Rising: The Movie, which focuses on Front’s live band and exposes the the Nerdcore phenomenon in general, debuted at the South By Southwest Film Festival in 2008.

Front lives in Brooklyn and still spends most of his time rapping into a computer.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:  What was the first rap album you ever purchased?

MC Frontalot: It was also my first CD. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.

 

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:  Who are your biggest music inspirations?

MC Frontalot: Tom Waits, Public Enemy, Bjork

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:  Describe your studio to us.

MC Frontalot: I have an Ikea desk that’s been out of print for 10 years so I get fussy when anyone leans on it. Creaky, cheap old thing. It’s the only one where you can bolt the rotating side shelves at any height. Perfect for the near-field monitors and re-aiming them for any version of the stereo field. I mix there in my bedroom which isn’t treated, but I’ve been in there so long that I can work around most of the room effects. I have a coat closet fully treated, very dead and dry, for vocals. I keep some buttons in there to engineer myself, but everything’s still happening on the studio computer. My pre-amp and mics and monitors are satisfactory. I could use a better ADC/DAC.

I will record occasional hand percussion, etc, in that closet booth, but very little fits in there. For other acoustic capture, I’ll rent time at a real studio (any time I’m tracking my drummers) or I’ll go field-record strings at someone’s apartment.

A solid two thirds of the non-vocal sound on the albums is electronic, and I can get keyboard performances or work on drum machine material in the project studio without worrying about the ambient noises of Brooklyn.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Describe your ideal home studio if money wasn’t a problem.

MC Frontalot: A proper treatment of the mixing room would be great. I guess I’d have twenty of these Avalon pre-amps and a little drum room, as well as a booth big enough for upright bass or cello. There is almost unlimited fanciness available in the hardware market… I guess I’d have to make a hobby out of shopping. I’d still use Reaper as my DAW, though — the least expensive version of that kind of software, and also the best. I could probably spend sixty grand on plugins.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: What is your creative process for writing and or producing a song?

MC Frontalot: Baddd Spellah, my Canadian beatsmithing partner, has been kind enough to work on grooves with me for the last fifteen years. Usually I will start with something he’s been kicking around, or he’ll take a pass at some live drum that I’ve been chopping up, and we’ll add keyboard material from Gm7 (Gaby Alter), my longtime music co-writer. When there is a verse-appropriate groove that is in pretty good shape, I’ll leave it on loop and write. Once in a while, I’ll write a hook over a groove that feels like a chorus, and start from there. After I’ve got most of a lyric, I’ll put down a scratch vocal so that Spellah and I can build a full song arrangement. Then I’ll record too many takes of the final vocal, and spend too many months dicking around with the comp, the mix, and all the instrumental details. Finally I’ll listen to it on as many different devices as I can, fine-tune the mix, and stay up for a week and a half making increasingly bad decisions about everything on the album, leading up to the mastering appointment I foolishly committed to several months prior.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: What is your happiest On-Stage Moment?

MC Frontalot: I think a PAX crowd demanded a second encore once. That makes you feel like a superstar.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:  What was your favorite song to write or record?

MC Frontalot: Maybe Stoop Sale? But that might be because the video came out so well. For the most part, my happiness with the process relies entirely on the result: it makes me happy to listen to a track if I don’t just hear a barrage of fuckups that it’s too late to go back and fix. But there aren’t very many of those. Of all my lyrics, I’m probably proudest of Two Dreamers from the Question Bedtime album. I feel like I worked out every bit of the story and then obscured it just enough that the listener’s careful attention is rewarded.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:  What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

MC Frontalot: Practice a lot, develop your talent. Get the skills you need to properly communicate with whoever your creative partners are. Take the craft seriously but give yourself a break for not having mastered it — that is a lifelong process with no actual end goal.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: What project do you feel best describes you as an artist?

MC Frontalot: The Nerdcore Rising documentary probably says more about me and the band than I’d ever be able to, and in kinder words. Of my own projects, I like the Zero Day and Solved albums as a window into whatever it is I’m trying to say about nerdcore.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: How do you feel about the disconnect between “Nerdcore” and “HipHop”?

MC Frontalot: Well, hip-hop is a cultural movement with very specific origins and elements. Rap is a formal music style that emerged from hip-hop. Any ‘variation’ or ‘new perspective’ that someone brings to rap is fine — if meaningless. It might matter that you came up with a new thing to say, but the fact that you chose an unusual form for your expression should be the least interesting thing about it. You can write a march for your peace movement, even if marches come from military music, because the march itself is just a formal style of composition. You’d be smart to note the ironic relationship there, or you’d be dumb to suggest that there isn’t one, or that your choice to use a march as an expression of pacifism somehow reaches backward and affects the origin of the form. Anyone who thinks they’re ‘expanding’ or ‘liberating’ hip-hop from its roots by rapping about things that haven’t been rapped about traditionally is probably an idiot.

My idea about hip-hop was only to observe that it was cool. Like, it was the coolest thing happening in American culture when I was a kid, and it probably still is. Breakdancers were the coolest kids on the playground. Graffiti kids were the coolest outlaws in fourth grade. And rappers were the coolest possible composers of verse.

To want to compose and perform verse in that formal style without having any direct connection to hip-hop, and without being cool, is the sort of desire nerd kids might express by themselves, away from arbiters of hipness, and share only with other uncool kids. The idea of nerdcore went no deeper than that, originally. I’m glad that a lot of other DIY rappers have found that resonant enough to expand upon.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Do you feel more “Nerdcore” rappers should know about its roots in “HipHop”?

MC Frontalot: Definitely. I remember trying to write a Villanelle in a college poetry class. First, we had to read and dissect a sheaf of them. The professor was of the opinion that we would all flounder in the assignment, because there had been only a handful of good Villanelles ever written. I’m sure none of us wrote one of lasting value. The point was to learn how formal composition connects works, and to appreciate the complications. You can always just do it anyway. But knowing where it comes from and how it’s been attempted before teaches you how to try to do it well. I think anyone who wants to compose lyrics within the rap genre should know all they can about how raps have been composed so far.

That doesn’t even begin to address the cultural issue. Some artists misidentify nerdcore as comedy music, and worse yet, think the joke is “it’s rap, but white kids are doing it.” I think that outlook leads to the weakest possible songs, and is generally disrespectful of hip-hop in a way that concerns me and offends anyone who cares about American culture. Of course, not all of the nerdcore rappers are white, but all of the schticky ones are. I wonder if a delve into hip-hop’s history would cure them of that impulse, or at least afford them the humility to hush it up.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Are you involved in any philanthropy in your local communities or abroad?

MC Frontalot: I try to do something in support of Child’s Play every year. I’m going to contribute to the upcoming Worldbuilders album project.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Can you freestyle? Meaning rap off the top of the head? If so, can we see you drop a few bars next time live?

MC Frontalot: I never do this! I think I’ve conditioned myself into a certain kind of vanity. Almost everything on the albums is rapped in complete sentences, with rhymes that I’ve never used previously. Freestyling doesn’t work that way. I’m too ashamed to let anyone see me freestyling about the frog, on a log, in a bog, who got sog-gy.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Do you consider yourself a “GEEK”?

MC Frontalot: Of course.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: In your own words, describe what the word “GEEK” means to you?

MC Frontalot: I decided at some point a long time ago that geeks are all direct descendants of the side-show geek, whose job was biting heads off of chickens. They weren’t special in any way, except that they were willing and able to do that thing, and it was a fairly extreme thing to do. But because nobody else at the carnival was willing to go to that extreme, the geekery came to seem like a highly specialized skill.

That’s why you can be a geek about anything. You just need a topic where your knowledge or expertise is so specialized that it seems distastefully extreme to non-geeks. You can geek out about fantasy novels or about robot AIs. But you can also geek out about car engines or cooking. You don’t have to be a nerd to geek out.

Nerds are almost always geeks, and their subjects of geekery are often recognizably nerdy. But a nerd is something else, a person who was already too weird or too smart, and felt alienated, and embraced geekery as an alternative to whatever broader pursuits the cool kids enjoyed.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: What is your earliest geek memory?

MC Frontalot: I was a Star Wars geek starting at age three and a half when the first one came out. It was the only thing I wanted to do. I made adults take me to see it 11 times before Empire came out (I kept careful count). I collected the Kenner figures obsessively until they stopped making new ones a year or two after Jedi.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: What is your “Geek” hobby? Do you collect comic books? Anime? Video games?

MC Frontalot: I do still love comics, but I own too many. Video games take up less space. I spend more time gaming than I do working on music, occasionally 70 or 80 hours in a week. It’s as much an emotional self-medication as it is a hobby.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Who are your Top 5 emcees dead or alive?

MC Frontalot: In no order: Busdriver, MF Doom, Del, Q-Tip, Chuck

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound:    When is your next show or tour?

MC Frontalot: When I get the dang old album done! Maybe spring 2017 for tour. PAX South is the soonest lone show.

G33K-HQ/DaRealWordSound: Do you have a new album coming out?

MC Frontalot: It’s called INTERNET SUCKS, and it is going to have a heavy ‘get off my lawn’ vibe. Everyone will be mad at me, yet secretly agree with every word on the record. Watch for it to take your feeds by storm.

Be sure to head over to his official “Merch Store” to pick up an album, shirt or more.

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About Jeremiah Fat-Bastard Slack

Just another G33k out in the verse having fun and helping spread g33k news and culture everywhere!!

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