MC Frontalot, born as Damien Hess, raps about such things as webcomics and e-mail spam. He might not seem like the most likely candidate for fame, but he’s the subject of a documentary about his first national tour, entitled Nerdcore Rising. As always, we begin by asking him to introduce himself.
Frontalot: I am MC Frontalot! I am the progenitor of this thing we call nerdcore hip-hop.
Kwanzoo: How did the Frontalot persona come to be?
Frontalot: I don’t know if it’s really a persona. I’m just me. I definitely ham it up a bit when I’m onstage, but there’s not really a character to it. I’m a rapper. A rapper who is dorky. I called it nerdcore way back when and the idea stuck, so now I lean on it.
Kwanzoo: I guess I more mean, how did you start rapping about things like encryption and interactive fiction? Did it start with Song Fight, or does it go back further than that?
Frontalot: I was rapping when I was younger, but usually in private. I started posting stuff in late 1999 just because I had a web server and MP3 had gotten pretty widely adopted. The subject matter was just the stuff I was interested in. As it remains.
The cool thing about having a web server back then was that nobody had to know who you were. I could be MC Frontalot with 0% personal embarrassment potential.
Kwanzoo: How were you introduced to hip-hop?
Frontalot: I remember hearing the Sugar Hill Gang records at my YMCA day camp sometime in the early 80s. But there was a clique of cool kids who had control of the record player and I was not allowed to venture too close. I listened from across the room. I remember being fascinated.
I started to have my own tapes and then CDs later, around 8th grade, when Yo! MTV Raps started. Which means: I got into rap pretty much at the same time as the rest of white America.
I know the first rap CD I bought was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. But NWA and PE were right after.
Kwanzoo: How did you first record your own stuff?
Frontalot: I was a home recording enthusiast starting in high school. I had a Tascam 4-track until ’99, when Cool Edit Pro and my new desktop converged to make tape recording obsolete. I got an M-Audio PCI card with breakout box, traded my old desktop for a nice mic, and away we go.
Kwanzoo: I’m gonna ask kind of a dumb question: Why rap back in ’99, as a nerdy white kid?
Frontalot: Because rap music is awesome, and I wanted to do it. And like I said, it was anonymous(ish).
Kwanzoo: I guess then it was on to Song Fight, not long after?
Frontalot: I think 2001. The night I first saw the site was the night that Yellow Lasers was due. I stayed up late and wrote it and laid it down.
Kwanzoo: That’s the one about getting freaky at a Star Wars convention?
Frontalot: Indeedy. The same one that got me noticed by the fine folks at Penny Arcade.
Kwanzoo: Which gave you a huge boost to popularity, as I understand it.
Frontalot: Well, a link on PA is certain to get you exposed. They have millions of readers. But when they call you their Official Rapper then those readers actually check you out. And the ones who think you’re good become fans, and then suddenly you’ve taken a huge shortcut towards being popular.
Kwanzoo: When did you first think “Hey, I could really do this. Put out some CDs, go on tour…”
Frontalot: I think I started meaning to make a whole album and get a live act together sometime around 2002 or 2003, but I didn’t make it happen. San Francisco is very laid back.
The second I moved to NY, June 2004, I got to work. And by PAX that year I had the first disc in hand.
The other kick in the pants was having performed at PAX in ’04, and done it with a pickup band of Song Fight buddies who were in Seattle, and done a sloppy show for a big crowd… that made me want to get my act together.
So I did. My old music friends were all in NY and I got them to gig with me over that summer (’05) and we were ready to play for real by Sept.
Kwanzoo: Was PAX your first live show?
Frontalot: Almost. I had done mini Frontalot sets at a couple of Song Fight Live shows, and an Emerald Rain Productions CD release, and I’d done some sitting in with other people’s bands.
But my live act had a lot of catching up to do. When you’re sitting in front of your own engineering station with limitless takes, you can simulate some pretty decent flow. But when you’re on the mic on a stage, you have to actually have your skills honed.
Kwanzoo: How much better have you gotten?
Frontalot: Good enough that I’m not scared to have dedicated rap fans watch me perform. I still don’t feel like I’m actually very good. I probably never will.
Kwanzoo: You actually got complimented by Spin for your skills, but do you ever get mistaken for being not a “real” musician because of your subject matter?
Frontalot: Well, sure. Most critical and public reaction upon hearing the term “nerdcore hip-hop” is that it’s going to be novelty music. And I’m sure there are nerdcore rappers out there who aspire to make novelty songs. I want to make music seriously even while my sense of humor prevades the lyrical content. It’s probably too fine a line for some folks. But a lot of people seem to get it.
Kwanzoo: Along those lines, what’s your take on the nerdcore lifestyle exemplified by things like PAX? Even as someone in that, I have trouble believing there could be this many people like me.
Frontalot: Yeah, it’s crazy, isn’t it? How old are you?
Frontalot: So you’re sort of on the cusp, but I think you’re more of my generation. I’m 35, and I didn’t get an email address until the first day of college. And definitely the internet didn’t become a place where casual users could find widespread community until after college, maybe right around when the boom was gaining speed.
I really wonder what it’s like to be the biggest dork in your high school these days. You go home and you’ve got 5,000 in your guild who’ve got your back. In my day, you huddled together for warmth in the computer lab, or hung out in the dark watching Holy Grail at lunch in the Python fan club.
(Which I was president of, btw).
At school you were outnumbered, at home you were alone or you had your dial-up BBS to keep you company. I don’t think it’s like that any more.
Kwanzoo: I was on the dialup BBS’s, but we had crude dial-up before I went to college. Broadband was just starting to come in for people who could afford it. So I guess that would be the cusp, yeah.
Frontalot: And there’s PAX. There’s a million nerd cons, but there’s PAX to really go and feel like you’re part of a movement.
I wonder if the nerd uprising will swell to such a mass that 2009 seems like just the tip of things.
Kwanzoo: Is there any way to describe that movement, besides just “nerdy stuff”?
Frontalot: Well. Hm. You have to kind of look at what a nerd is.
It’s the guy or gal who doesn’t fit in with the regular social structure, so that when that structure gets enforced, the nerd is actively marginalized. That could describe a lot of situations, like race and class, but nerdery is kind of different.
You could be rich and have the right skin color and etc etc etc, and if you don’t know how to appear comfortable in a social situation or swing at a tetherball without whiffing it, elementary & then high school will be hard for you.
Kwanzoo: So, all the outcasts kind of connecting up over the Internet and forming a new tribe?
Frontalot: And then the yearning for acceptance and attention from your sexual object choice… these things form the nerd’s core being, I think.
Made us all seek escapist entertainments, the most enthralling and consuming stuff. Fantasty, sci fi. So our tastes tend to align. And we all focus internally instead of externally — we like to imagine a world where it pays to be smart instead of beautiful, l33t instead of charming.
And I think when nerds make art, there’s always something about alienation hidden underneath. Or, I guess often, on the surface.
I’d say that’s the thing that ties the nerdcore hip-hop together, anyway. Alienation, loneliness, self deprecation. And the humor that we all developed when we were young to cover those things up.
Kwanzoo: And there’s some other examples of that, stuff like Riot Nrrd by the 2 Skinnee J’s, which you link to on your site.
Frontalot: I saw those guys when I was in college. They were definitely a bit ahead of their time.
Kwanzoo: Me too, actually.
Frontalot: I say that assuming they’ve retired — hope that’s not an oops.
Kwanzoo: They split up, yeah.
Frontalot: Reunion tour ’08! Nice.
Kwanzoo: So, back to you, how did this Nerdcore Rising documentary come about?
Frontalot: Negin Farsad, the director, was writing something for Fringe Festival with my keyboardist, and she heard about the band, and decided to become a documentarian because nerdcore so badly needed a film about it made.
She did a mighty fine job, too.
Kwanzoo: So, what’s the future of Frontalot and nerdcore?
Frontalot: Well, I’m looking forward to the NYC premiere of the movie; that’s on Feb 13th. We just got off of a 6-week tour, so the thought of more touring makes my brain and spine hurt, but I’ll definitely be back on the road sometime in 2009, and hopefully several times.
I’m trying to get the new album promoted, thinking about the next album, and wondering how long I can get away with being a professional rapper.
Hopefully, longer than I deserve to.
Like, for a couple more weeks at least.
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