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MC Chris
The Annex
Madison, WI
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MC Chris

AS the break-beats ricocheted off the corrugated steel walls of Emo's, an outdoor rock club, a bantamweight rapper named MC Chris strutted on stage in supersize black work shorts, spraying the crowd with volleys of rat-a-tat rhymes. With each burst, the audience of more than 400 bobbed in unison. Their T-shirts soggy on a sweltering night, some fans thrust fists in the air and hooted approvingly. Others reverently mouthed the rhymes under their breath, as if reciting a novena.

It could have been any other hip-hop show, but little details seemed off, like the songs that sampled the epically cheesy rock band REO Speedwagon, or that name-checked detritus from 1980s-era pop culture, like Boba Fett, "The Goonies" and Dungeons & Dragons. Or the fan in the back wearing a full-body foam armor suit modeled after the cybernetic commando from the video game Halo.

And when MC Chris invited the audience to join him in a campy singalong of the saccharine Sean Kingston hit "Beautiful Girls," the boisterous crowd suddenly grew uncertain, devolving into an awkward mumble that sounded like a few hundred high school wallflowers simultaneously being turned down for a slow dance.

"We nerds," MC Chris clucked in mock-disapproval. "We got no rhythm. We can't do nothing right." But maybe they can. There was a time that brainy, pimple-cheeked misfits could only work out their frustrations alone, in action-figure-filled bedrooms, blasting through level after level in "shooter" video games likes Wolfenstein 3D.

Then nerdcore came along.

A largely white subgenre of hip-hop that celebrates the solitary pleasures of science fiction, computers and bad teenage movies, nerdcore is emerging from the shadows of the Internet, where it spent the last half-decade as an in-joke. This do-it-yourself brand of rap, part self-expression and part self-satire, has inspired two documentary films, and its own festival, Nerdapalooza, in California. This month, MC Chris " otherwise known as Christopher Ward, 31, the son of a finance executive from the affluent Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill. " will attempt an unprecedented nerdcore crossover when he joins mosh-pit-friendly rock acts like New Found Glory and Sum 41 on the Warped Tour.

"I feel like the whole rap audience is me," said Mr. Ward, perched on a tattered sofa in the greenroom at Emo's before the show, wearing a Star Wars baseball cap. "White kids, playing video games, living in the suburbs. So what if one of them spoke their mind, what would happen then?"

WHEN he expresses himself on stage, in a breathy tenor that makes him sound like a 12-year-old waiting for his voice to change, Mr. Ward affects a tough-guy posture familiar to mainstream rap. As the lyrics to his song "Geek' go: "Stop pickin' on me/Because I'm a geek/I'm strange to you/You're strange to me/Well, one of these days/I'm gonna pack heat/Your brains on the wall/My face on TV."

In conversation, Mr. Ward was quick to point out that the term "nerdcore" coined by fellow rapper MC Frontalot in 2000 " may be too self-limiting, because 'nerds' are hardly the only children of the '80s who were raised on Transformers, Indiana Jones movies, and Public Enemy.

"It's so weird to talk about these as my specific influences, because they're not," said Mr. Ward, who earned an undergraduate degree in screenwriting at New York University and worked as a producer, animator and voice actor for late-night Adult Swim cartoons like "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" before turning to music full time in 2005. "This is everyone's story."

The growing number of nerdcore (or nerd rap, or geek rap) artists and fans seems to bear that out, said Dan Lamoureux, 30, a filmmaker in Chicago whose documentary "Nerdcore for Life!" is in postproduction. When he started the project in 2005, he could find only a couple of dozen rappers who seemed to fit the criteria of nerdcore. Now, he said, there are hundreds, if not thousands.

"I probably hear from a new rapper every day on my MySpace page," Mr. Lamoureux said. He added: "People had been making geeky rap all along. They just didn't realize anyone had put a name on it."

Many nerdcore anthems "You Got Asperger's" by MC Frontalot, "Fett's Vette" by MC Chris, "View Source," by Ytcracker ("Eagerly awaiting my macro advances/running with my beta cuz I'm taking chances"), " are as much efforts at comedy as they are attempts at sincere hip-hop.

From its early days, hip-hop has been an art form born from oppression and marginalization, where performers sought to turn limitations into strengths, and the harshest circumstances yielded the best material. While no one is going to compare life in the high-school computer lab to the streets of the South Bronx" or certainly, wedgies to racism" suburban dweebs have their beefs with society, too.

And hip-hop has always been malleable enough to be modified by performers from any niche. If the category can make room for "hick hop" of Kid Rock, the jazzbo musings of Us3, and the neo-psychedelia of De La Soul, it can presumably squeeze in a few nerds, too" as long as they keep to their side of the cafeteria.

Nerdcore, said Jonah Weiner, a senior editor at Blender magazine, "is not even in the big tent of hip-hop, it's not even in the sideshow freak tent."

"It's a bunch of kids setting up a tent down the road, from their mom's car," he said.

Certainly, fans who turned out to MC Chris's gig at Emo's were happy to let their geek flag fly.

Elizabeth McLean, 19, a student at the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin, arrived at the show in horn-rimmed glasses, a black MC Chris concert T-shirt and a half-size plastic guitar peripheral from the video game Guitar Hero strapped around her shoulders, which she begged the rapper to autograph, along with her inhaler (both fan and artist suffer from asthma).

Peter Kong, 23, a professional translator who wore long sideburns, a shag haircut and blocky black eyeglasses that made him look a bit like a Bond henchman from the mid-'60s, said the nerd ethic has become so mainstream nowadays that even nerds are ready to move on.

"It's become so obvious," he said, "we don't use the word anymore."

Being a nerd no longer merits a scarlet âNâ in an era when Napoleon Dynamite and Ugly Betty have become teenage heroes, the Apple founder Steve Jobs is virtually a rock star, and YouTube has helped make every geek a star in his own mind.

Almost all of nerdcore is self-published, and much of it is circulated for free among fans in chat rooms and in e-mail messages. The genre's Elvis-strolls-into-Sun-Studios moment happened alone, in a bedroom, behind a keyboard. In 2000, a 26-year-old Web designer from Berkeley, Calif., named Damian Hess was playfully rapping into his computer "for an audience of my monitor and a couple of Star Wars figurines" and strung together a song called "Nerdcore Hiphop." ("I suffer hypochondria/think my beats is sick.")

What started as a joke turned into a career, said the shaved-headed Mr. Hess, 33, whose signature accessory (as MC Frontalot) is a pair of giant, square, black-frame glasses like those made famous by the Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar. Mr. Hess is now scheduled to be one of the headliners at the Nerdapalooza festival, which features nearly 40 bands, in Eureka, Calif., on Sept. 22 and 23.

But mainstream acceptance, he said, was never the point.

"By definition, nerdcore has to be marginal," said Mr. Hess, who now lives in Brooklyn. But the margins these days can be wider than ever. "Because of the Internet," he said, "any cultural niche can find all 2 million people who are fascinated by it."

Which is not to say that nerdcore has crossed over to hip-hop's core black audience. Mr. Hess said he knew of only one African-American nerdcore artist, a self-described "half-black" Web designer named Ken Leavitt-Lawrence, who performs satirical gangsta rap in the voice of the physicist Stephen Hawking, under the name MC Hawking. (In "All My Shootin's Be Drive-Bys," he directs a bullet at a foe with the rap, "Time to give a Newtonian demonstration/of a bullet, its mass/and its acceleration.")

The point, said Mr. Leavitt-Lawrence, 37, who lives in Gloucester, Mass., is not to trivialize the greater rap traditions, but to deflate the tiresome pistol-waving machismo of the likes of 50 Cent. "This attitude that you've got to be tough all the time," he said, "I just found that annoying."

Over the last two years, the music industry has begun to pay attention to nerdcore. Mr. Ward's self-released fourth album, "Dungeon Master of Ceremonies," debuted at a respectable No. 13 on iTunes's hip-hop chart last year, he said, and Spin magazine nominated him for Underground Band of the Year.

Still, it seems unlikely that any of its stars will be able to afford the services of bling-master Jacob the Jeweler anytime soon. Mr. Hess has sold 6,000 CDs, and another 5,000 songs on iTunes. With his steady touring, it's a living, he said, "for now."

Mr. Ward, who has played 300 live shows in two years, keeps costs to a minimum by touring the country in a white minivan with only a single roadie and no band (a white MacBook on the stage behind him supplies the beats). He said he earned nearly $100,000 off touring, music and merchandise sales last year.

Mr. Ward said his rap career is just a step in personal brand-building. Ultimately, he plans to incorporate his music into an anime-style cartoon feature, which he will ideally sell to cable television, and spin off into video games, toys and T-shirts.

By then, nerdcore may have run its course. If so, Mr. Ward will not mourn its passing," or at least the passing of the term.

"I don't think it's about nerds," he said, after reflection. "It's about grown men who are in this new phase of their life, their mid-20s or late 20s, postcollege. They just want to think about the kid stuff. Because it's easier. It's a simpler time."



The Annex
1206 Regent Street
Madison, WI 53715
United States



Minimum Age: 18
Kid Friendly: No
Dog Friendly: No
Non-Smoking: No
Wheelchair Accessible: No


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