Even before MC Frontalot coined the term “nerdcore” almost a decade ago to describe his own distinct flavor of hip hop, geeky rappers have busted out rhymes about videogames, AD&D, hacking, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, computer culture and an array of other unabashedly nerdy subjects. As this singular hip hop scene continues to develop and gain momentum, it’s not surprising to find an increasing number of references to videogames and gamer culture woven throughout the lyrics and beats of many rappers who rally under the nerdcore banner.
In the chorus of his World of Warcraft-inspired track “Level Up,” wordsmith ZeaLouS1 spits rhymes touting his WoW devotion over a foundation of heavy beats and the looped intro from Wizards and Warriors (“I level up my druid when I’m playin’ World of Warcraft / Stompin’ anybody steppin’ close to my warpath / It got serious, I’m passin’ up booty / So I can finish the quest ’cause that is my duty”). Covering similar subject matter from a slightly different angle, Nursehella‘s song “Lv 99” lets her croon seductively about how MMOGs and Super Famicom-emulated RPGs turn her on (“Roleplaying games are how you tease me / You keep my RPG-spot primed / Tantalizing tantric action / I’m pushing Level 99”).
On his latest album Rolling Doubles, Beefy rhymes (among other things) about his tabletop and videogame obsessions. His track “Play With Me” deals with social awkwardness (“I was playing Super Smash Bros. when it was prom night / The last girl I saw was Chinese, she beat me in a street fight) and geeky love (“Met you at a LAN party in my buddy’s garage / I was feeling quiet, large, the opposite of in-charge / Social butterfly until a pretty stranger walks by / Asking me if ‘you need a CD-KEY for Far Cry?'”).
These rappers are certainly not alone in their affection for gaming. Numerous other nerdcore artists mine musical inspiration from their gaming heritage, writing songs about videogames and incorporating game audio into their beats. In turn, they’re finding a welcome audience among fellow geeks and gamers alike.
When he’s not working as a seventh-grade teacher, Raheem Jarboe makes hip hop under the name Random. During his youth, hip hop and videogames served as crucial means of escape from the terrible realities of inner-city life, he says. “I think my mom got me an NES to keep me inside the house and away from the elements that were in my neighborhood. All the kids from the block would come over and we would play games until the wee hours of the night. This was back in the ’80s, and now 20 years later we still do the same thing.”
Almost by accident, Jarboe caught the attention of the nerdcore scene in 2007 when he recorded and released Mega Ran, a concept album inspired by Mega Man which extensively features samples from the original NES games. The album was praised by nerdcore fans and quickly embraced by an unexpected source.
Instead of taking legal action, Capcom executives provided a new outlet for Jarboe’s enthusiasm for gaming by sponsoring him and supporting an eventual follow-up album titled Mega Ran 9. It was a move that brought surprise and relief to the rapper. “Capcom was extremely awesome to get behind the project and not just shut me down,” he says, adding that it was an honor to be recognized by the company that made so many of his favorite childhood videogames.
For MC Frontalot, aka Damian Hess, videogames have a multifaceted influence on his creative output: There’s the musical aesthetics of gaming, and then there’s his love for the games themselves. “If you hear an old Nintendo or Sega synth line, it is immediately recognizable as a videogame-related piece of music. A lot of nerdcore rappers have used that to their advantage,” he says. “Then there’s being a gamer, which finds its way into my lyrics, becoming the subject of entire songs and filling nooks and crannies in songs on unrelated subjects. It’s like talking about my glasses. They’re always on my face. Can’t avoid thinking about them.”
A popular Frontalot track, “It Is Pitch Dark,” weaves a humorous story of gaming-induced paranoia revolving around classic Infocom text adventure games. The catchy chorus nods at Zork in particular (“You are likely to be eaten by a Grue / If this predicament seems particularly cruel / Consider who’s fault it could be / Not a torch or a match in your inventory”).
From the start, many of Frontalot’s fans and listeners have been gamers, he says. Since his music hasn’t been on MTV or commercial radio, almost everyone who’s heard it found it on the internet – including the folks over at the popular gaming webcomic Penny Arcade, who dubbed MC Frontalot their official “rapper laureate” in 2002 after he completed the “Penny Arcade Theme” song. Shortly after, an in-person meeting over rounds of Mario Golf at writer/co-creator Jerry Holkins’ house led to an invitation for Hess to perform at the very first PAX convention, where he’s been a mainstay every year since. Another Penny Arcade-inspired song, “Final Boss,” appeared during the end credits of the first episode of On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and the rapper continues to collaborate with the webcomic’s creators. He dreams of one day getting drawn into the strip but isn’t holding his breath.
“The internet is a bigger part of daily life these days than when I first started putting tracks up,” notes Hess. “In 2000, if you spent all day on a computer, you were either a web developer or a PC gamer. Or both. Penny Arcade, obviously, is gaming focused, so the huge number of folks who came into contact with my music via PA are all gamers.” Though Hess admits the Penny Arcade connection might skew his perspective slightly, he says it seems like 80 percent of his listeners play videogames.
With the growing popularity of gaming, you’d be hard-pressed these days to find a household that doesn’t own some kind of game system, notes nerdcore rapper and self-described digital gangster YTCracker, aka Bryce Case Jr. First-rate hacking skills won Case some notoriety, but that’s far from his only brag-worthy feat: He’s also finished Contra without dying once. His prowess at the mic is matched only by his infatuation for old-school games (“It kinda sucks now because my NES blinks red / I blow and blow but all my games are dead / Thank God for ROMs and Nesticle / played at every geek rap festival”). In fact, Case put together his first solo album NerdRap Entertainment System using a mixture of beats and sound files from classic NES games like Mega Man and The Legend of Zelda.
“I think the diehard gaming fans like having a genre out there championing the lifestyle of wireless keyboards, cool ranch chips and late nights on Ventrilo,” Case says. Both musically and lyrically, he feels hip hop and gaming culture are a good match. “Videogames are a decent microcosm of the real world, featuring failing economies, lackluster cooperation, gratuitous violence and the cutthroat spirit of competition, so they translate well into lyrics that people understand.”
Case’s later work is less Nintendo-centric, covering a broad range of topics beyond games. Still, he frequently takes every opportunity to work snippets of lyrics about his gaming habits into other tunes, like in his track “Birth of a Phish” on the Digital Gangster LP he recorded in collaboration with hip hop pal MC Lars. A Starcraft fan, Case coolly slips a quick nod to the popular RTS game in mid-verse (“Speaking of Starcraft, I’m like Raynor / But I’ve never been a vulture, just a savior / Locke like Lost, teched-up like Protoss and I’m carrying the game / nerd Randy Moss”).
Beating Guitar Hero Doesn’t Make You Slash
Though MC Lars, born Andrew Robert Nielsen, closely associates and frequently collaborates with his nerdcore friends, his “post-punk laptop rap” blends hip hop with catchy rock guitar licks and lyrical matter that pleasantly dabbles in geekiness (like technology, Shakespeare and Poe) as frequently as it delivers biting social commentary. He, too, incorporates gaming references into some of his work, with two tracks dedicated to the subject on his new album This Gigantic Robot Kills. But Nielsen has a different perspective than his peers.
“I think a lot of gaming culture is all about consumption,” he says. “Yes, [games are] good for your mind, but it’s ultimately finite. I love Super Mario Bros. I played that for hours, and Ninja Turtles, but I was a kid and couldn’t leave the house.”
While he enjoyed rocking the NES and Game Boy in his youth and even owns a PSP, both tracks on the new CD, “O.G. Original Gamer” (feat. MC Frontalot and Jonathan Coulton) and “Guitar Hero Hero” are humorous anti-gaming songs. Nielsen says Activision was actually interested in using the latter for its Guitar Hero franchise until the satirical nature of the lyrics became clear.
Much like the dueling lyrical roles Hess and Nielsen lightheartedly take on in “O.G. Original Gamer,” arguing in favor of and against gaming respectively, the two rappers have playfully sparred on the subject in real life while on tour. Not all nerdy lyricists agree on the merits of embracing virtual worlds over the real one, whether Rock Band is superior to Guitar Hero or if rhyming over the internet beats hitting the road to perform in front of a crowd. Regardless, a sizable portion of their music is rooted in technology, pixels and digital culture.
Whether rappers invoke videogames out of a sense of appreciation and old-school nostalgia or to make a critical statement, they’re a key aspect of nerdcore hip hop. Since the early days of hip hop, rappers have rhymed about their lives and what they know. For MCs who grew up memorizing the Konami code, striving for the best high scores and pulling caffeine-fueled all-nighters in front of their console of choice, it’s only natural to trade lyrical boasts about drive-bys and bling for rhymes about epic boss battles, Halo teabagging and Chun-Li’s killer legs.
Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer who wields a +2 Vorpal Keyboard (+5 vs. Mac). He’s currently working on a book about the music of geek and gamer culture. You can read more of his work at http://nathanmeunier.wordpress.com.