Mainstream rap looks a lot like network TV all reality programming and crime dramas. Perhaps that's why rap sales were off 20 percent last year. But as the commercial landscape has grown so barren that even Nas is kicking its corpse, the underground is still eclectic and thriving.
Indeed, in one low-lit corner, hip-hop's original DIY promise has been snatched up by a cross section of geeky suburban white boys whose obsessions tend more toward science fiction, information technology and late-night cable hilarity than the platinum-plated lifestyle fronting favored by so many mainstream emcees.
Nerdcore, their proudly self-proclaimed subgenre, draws on the goofy tradition of the Beastie Boys or even Weird Al. The emcees poke fun at their own awkwardness as much as they do trends in mainstream hip hop. But they're fans of rap first, and often total heads.
"People who write rap music that probably shouldn't be are being proud of that now," says West Coast nerdcore emcee MC Lars (aka Andrew Nielsen).
Lars' own statement of purpose comes from "Straight Outta Stockholm," a track off his 2004 EP Laptop. Over an icy synth line, Lars sings, "Comin' straight outta prep school, on the mic at assembly, class clown, straight A's, running KSPB ... Euphonic epiphany like Keat's lyre trope, I am it, iambic rap's last hope."
Whether or not that's true, what Lars does represent is a culling of the old "two turntables and a microphone" aesthetic down to one PowerBook loaded with Reason, the virtual studio software. Lars has used a computer to create home recordings since he was 12, downloading cracked versions of sophisticated software suites and mixing in his own guitar with the drum loops and samples.
After playing in his high school jazz band and in pickup punk bands around his Oakland, Calif., hometown, Lars graduated to Stanford and was quickly hooked on Public Enemy's Yo Bum Rush the Show.
"Hip hop was like the same energy as punk," he says, "but in a different way, and maybe easier to understand."
Lars started writing humorous raps clogged with pop culture references, often sampling punk bands such as Brand New or Piebald or building tracks around purposely dorky beats and blips of synthesizer. Lars jams include the Jay-Z riff "21 Concepts (But a Hit Ain't One)" and the skewering "Generic Crunk Rap." ("Rhyme about my dough, and then some made up lyrics/Get off the gas you swinga, check the deuce, yo sabiirit!") Lars also paid tribute to nerdcore pioneer Atom & His Package with the 2004 track "Atom You're Awesome."
But MC Lars isn't just about clowning. A track off his latest album, The Graduate, called "Download This Song," clearheadedly pleads to record labels to embrace the digital revolution, and "stop running your label like it's 1992." The backing track is Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," which he (ironically) ran into trouble for using.
"Iggy's management didn't want to clear it. But when Iggy heard what the song was about, he cleared it himself," Lars says.
The song suggests that labels are quickly becoming obsolete, and Lars himself is a case in point. He has a distribution deal with Sony through his management company, but releases everything on his own label, or straight to the Internet.
"I think if you're topical and talking about pop culture because it takes a year to put out a record, that's a real risk," Lars says. "But because I'm doing my own label and distribution through the Internet, it's different. I'm doing this thing where I put out a single a month and this allows me to be topical. It comes right to iTunes.
Lars took advantage of said technology last month by releasing "White Kids Aren't Hyphy," which checks the Bay Area-specific hip-hop style and name drops everyone from E-40 to Keak Da Sneak. "I wish I were a little bit hyphy," Lars raps. "I wish these rappers liked me/I wish they weren't on MySpace typing 'bite me,' nightly." (The song's available for download exclusively from Bay Area radio station Live 105.)
Ever the techno-geek, Lars has rigged a visual presentation for his current tour synched to the music, so that the lyrical jokes correspond to the onscreen video. It's another way he can keep things interesting.
"The funny thing is when you're doing a laptop set it's hard to see what I'm doing," Lars says. "It could be I'm just checking my e-mail, you know?"
March 2 at Magic Stick, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700. With Suburban Legends, Patent Pending and 40 Lashes. For more Lars go to www.mclars.com.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org