In the mid-'90s, punk rock had found new life at 924 Gilman St. in Berkeley, Calif. Green Day and Rancid, among others, were taking the torch passed by the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag and giving another generation of disgruntled youth a voice in American culture.
Damian Hess, who was then a student at the University of California-Berkeley, didn't give a shit.
"The kids would come back from Gilman on Monday and be like, 'Oh, I spent all weekend at Gilman, it was so amazing. Green Day was up and they threw up on everything ... it was transcendental.'" Hess says. "And I'd be like, 'Fuck off,' and found it all totally obnoxious. Maybe that was my reaction to not being cool enough to hang at Gilman Street."
Too much of a geek and gamer to reap Berkeley's social benefits, Hess withdrew into his alter ego, MC Frontalot. The pocket-protected, bespectacled rhyme-spitter melded Public Enemy's politics ("I Heart Fags") and a love for games such as Zork ("It Is Pitch Dark") into a growing genre for hip-hop outcasts: nerdcore.
Three years after the release of his first album, Nerdcore Rising, Brooklyn-based Frontalot is hitting the road. Joined by Bay Area pop-culture miner MC Lars and Colorado Springs rapper/hacker YTCracker, Frontalot ends a year in which he and his tourmates have been featured on 60 Minutes, the subject of two documentaries and pitchmen for tech channel G4 (along with alternative rapper Del the Funky Homosapien).
In spite of these successes, nerdcore's shelf life remains ambiguous. Scene mainstays including MC Chris, the voice of Sir Loin and MC Pee Pants on Aqua Teen Hunger Force, have discussed entering mainstream hip-hop. Andrew Nielsen, better known as MC Lars, worries that nerdcore may whitewash rap's history.
"The issue I see with it is that people think that hip-hop culture started with these guys," Lars says. "The people listening to it don't know that it started in the Bronx, or that KRS-One was homeless, or that the Sugarhill Gang and Afrika Bambaataa were rapping as a way to sublimate gang violence."
It is more likely that societal forces that drove many nerdcore artists to the genre cultural exclusion, introversion, affinity with other nerds would be its undoing.
"To be blunt, to be in a rock band, you need to have friends," says Dan Lamoreaux, director of the documentary Nerdcore for Life. "When you're a geeky person, you may spend a dozen or so hours a day at the computer, so it makes sense that when they want to do something creative, they stay on the computer."
For some artists, nerdcore's future lies somewhere between file streaming and the mainstream. Bryce Case Jr., aka YTCracker, earned nerd cred by hacking a NASA site in 1999, but has also performed with Xzibit, Ice Cube and Digital Underground and helped Too Short write "Pimpandho.com" for his 2003 album Married to the Game.
His forum site, digitalgangster.com, pays most of the bills by leaking Miley Cyrus photos and Paris Hilton's address book, but YTCracker's focus has shifted toward his music, his Nerdy South Records label and his idea that Nintendo games aren't underground concepts.
"The good artists in the nerdcore genre, like MC Chris, Lars and Frontalot, are good artists, period," he says. "That's the thing about nerdcore it's kind of a bait-and-switch and kind of a head-fake."
The nerdcore label itself proves problematic, as it is more often elected than applied. Kanye West spoke to a computer and Lupe Fiasco rapped about robots during this year's Glow in the Dark tour, but neither are considered nerdcore. Alternative artists including MF Doom, Kool Keith and Danger Mouse skew toward geek-flavored content, yet also dodge the nerdcore brand.
Negin Farsad, director of the documentary Nerdcore Rising, which is shadowing Frontalot's tour, says nerdcore's insular nature makes it easy for sheepish adherents to embrace hip-hop.
"I'm often reminded of the opening montage in the movie Office Space, where the dude is nodding his head to the Geto Boys in Los Angeles traffic, and then he sees a black man who seems scary and he locks the door," Farsad says. "At the time, it seemed hilarious, because you couldn't be a white, nerdy guy like Michael Bolton and listen to hip-hop. Nowadays it's like, 'You know what, everybody? I'm really pasty, I really like Linux and I totally love hip-hop,' and nerdcore legitimizes that interest.'"
For MC Lars, however, nerdcore is not without its faults. A former English studies major at Stanford and Oxford, Lars also studied hip-hop history and worked with rappers Yung Joc and Ill Bill. Though Lars also rhymes about downloadable content over Iggy Pop samples and gives a shout-out to Edgar Allan Poe, he is uncomfortable with nerdcore and believes it separates hip-hop from its roots.
"You get into the ethics of the appropriation of black culture and authorship, and that's why nerdcore, for me, has a short life," he says. "You're dealing with those questions, and it pushes them away under the guise of 'computer culture is universal.'"
Farsad's documentary also addresses the cultural disparities in nerdcore, which consists of predominantly white artists who often start out on sturdier educational and economic footing than their mainstream counterparts. Despite the divide, Farsad sympathizes with the nerd experience; she cried after interviewing high school students who felt nerdcore provided an outlet for outcasts.
"People meet each other through this and, after only knowing each other as Web handles, are meeting each other and developing an actual, live friendship," Farsad says. "I'm going to be really dorky right now, but it's this straight-up beautiful phenomenon."
The face-to-face encounters are still daunting for Frontalot. He admits to getting embarrassed when young fans ask him about elaborate server configurations, and shrugs off Lars' and YTCracker's advances toward women at shows, preferring to sit in the background.
If nerdcore artists reach the mainstream, it seems Frontalot would be the first to applaud them. However, that applause may come from the shelter of his own scene.
"I think the best we could do is have every nerd in the world hear the music once," Frontalot says. "That's the most gigantic possible audience I could have, and even if that happened, I would be They Might Be Giants. By Britney Spears standards, that's not a big enough audience to be a musical success, but that's plenty to have your own career."