Hyperwhite Rap

As a timely follow-up to the NYT article about Mary Bucholtz’s linguistic research on geeks as a subgroup, yesterday they had another article about the phenomenon of geek rap, better known as nerdcore hip-hop. While Language Log has already covered more of the strictly linguistic aspects of this, I had to write about it as well.

I was glad to see an article about this so soon after the first article. When I was discussing the first article with some friends, I thought that Bucholtz (and the writer profiling her) had missed something with the emphasis on the way nerds eschew “cool”/”black” slang in their language. “Hasn’t she ever heard of nerdcore?” I asked. Given that her study group was just in high school, and studied nearly 10 years ago, I suspect the answer is no, but even so, Weird Al was around back then. (Witness his song, “White and Nerdy.”)

The NYT nerdcore article strikes me as a little weird, because it focuses so much on MC Chris (aka Mr. Ward), who appears determined to bring nerdcore into the mainstream.

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 also opens with a scene of MC Chris tut-tutting at his fans for being unable to join him in a singalong of a mainstream pop song.

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.”

This seemed really weird to me, because it seems to be quite counter to the feeling I get from both my own geek community and the nerdcore I listen to. The bit of the article focusing on MC Frontalot, (who I admit I am partial to, hence his presence in the sidebar,) seemed more representative of the less apologetically geeky community:

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…

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.”

Indeed, one of his songs is called “Indier Than Thou,” which pokes fun at the idea of striving for mainstream acceptance, not to mention so-called “indy (hipster) cred.”

The thing that seems to draw it all together for me is that, while I agree that many geeks do not use a lot of casual, AAVE*-inspired slang in their normal speech (unless it is so far outdated it is no longer really percieved as slang), they do appropriate these “cool” forms for their own use. The most marked difference, though, is that these forms are rarely used without irony.

Bucholtz noted that her study subjects could use slang in their speech, but seemed to pause or stumble over it, due to lack of familiarity. But in my own geek group, I see that we use it all the time, it’s just often followed by laughter, or pronounced with distinct “reading pronunciation” in classic geek-speech. So she wasn’t wrong; we are distancing ourselves from the “cool” kids, and therefore also the African American kids, because while we are using the words, we are appropriating them in very distinct and nonstandard ways.

In thinking more about why the article’s presentation of nerdcore seems so split, I have come up with a theory. Maybe nerdcore has gained enough of a following now that the movement will start (or has already started) to find itself splitting into different groups. MC Chris seems to be representing the geeky kids, now adults, who wanted to be cool, or at least accepted, but have some anger left over from being ostracized in their youth. (Note that he seems more comfortable using less-than-superstandard English in his speech, when he says in the article, “We nerds. We got no rhythm. We can’t do nothing right.”) They’re still striving to move into the mainstream, but now with the confidence to say, “My geekiness is cool! Admit it; you liked Transformers, too.”

MC Frontalot represents the happier geeks who are more interested in parody, irony, and sarcasm. (And wordplay! He loves puns. Note the double meaning of the line, “I think my beats is sick,” quoted in the article bit above. Also note that his interview quotations are all down with the polysyllabic words.) They find humor in living the geek life, and like to be able to share the joke with their friends. They’re not worried about how mainstream they become. They like their own community.

I know which group I’d be in.

(On the “hyperwhite” note, the article also points out that MC Hawking is the only known African American nerdcore artist.)

-posted by Dana

*AAVE: African-American Vernacular English

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4 Responses to Hyperwhite Rap

  1. […] I like the nerdcore and all, but when it comes down to it I prefer the nerd rock. I was never really exposed to too much […]

  2. Will says:

    I’m not sure that MC Chris represents the beginning of a split in nerdcore, since he’s not totally part of that scene. He’s primarily a comedian who happens to sing (and voice characters on Adult Swim). By definition, he’s more mainstream.

  3. Dana says:

    I wouldn’t have focused on MC Chris at all, given that I don’t listen to him by choice, but he is often listed at the same bigger shows with MC Frontalot, and he was being used in the article as a primary example of nerdcore. Hence my argument that I don’t think he’s a very good example. But if you look at the Language Log post I linked to, you can see a video by another artist they mentioned, ytcracker, which seems to be in a similar “geek with anger issues” vein as MC Chris.

  4. Mark says:

    From my own very anecdotal experience, it feels like the split Dana describes has already begun. I really enjoy MC Frontalot, and have little use for MC Chris. I find that many people who are fans of one are not fans of the other, in either direction. There was a time when the genre was small and new enough that most people who enjoyed it were willing to embrace any artist who identified themselves as a member. Now, though, it seems like the genre has developed to the point that there is enough variety for people to begin gravitating to the individual elements or sub-genres that were the part of it that caught their attention in the first place.

    The Nerds have inherited the Earth, and now that they are on top, and realize how numerous they are, they’ve begun to fight amongst themselves. Such is the way of empires. Or silly music full of really obscure references to unpopular media segments, as the case may be.

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