If you have followed me over the the past couple years, you probably have noticed there is this genre of music that I tend to make it out to amongst all the punk rock, ska, and alternative bands I watch. That genre being Nerdcore Hip Hop. It is a genre that I latched onto years ago. The topics touching on dozens of hobbies and habits growing up to this day. That includes video games to computer programming to knowing exactly what it is like to hang on a message board for hours of a day.
A big name that has stood out over the years in the genre, and coined the name to it, was MC Frontalot. With the fantastic Mt. Nerdcore tour coming through, I had this crazy idea why not see if he would be willing to do an interview. I emailed, and to my delight he was happy to do it. So with that said, let us get right into the interview with MC Frontalot!
Let’s start at the beginning for anyone new to MC Frontalot, where did you grow up and was music a big influence?
I grew up in Berkeley, CA. My mom had to work and go to school most of the time when I was little so her record collection, a lot of Beatles and Paul Simon, was pretty much my babysitter.
What were a couple of your favorite nerdy hobbies in those times?
I was big into D&D when I was in grade school. My friends and I would dress up (we didn’t have the term cosplay yet) and play what we called “Up And Around D&D.” It was where one of us was sort of free-form DM’ed and all of us played. We’d wander the hills of Berkeley, probably looked like a bunch of little psychopaths. Then I got a Commodore 64 and after that I was an indoor kid.
What piqued the curiosity to start writing hip hop songs?
From about sixth grade, I always wanted to be a writer of short stories, novels, plays, movies, and poems. I studied writing in college and hoped to make that my career somehow. I was interested in music too, but my friends were always the well-studied musicians. I was more of the words guy, but I loved dabbling in music production. From the technical side, first on four-tracks, starting in high school, then with computers starting in college.
The appeal of hip-hop was huge for me as a writer. The lyrics are so much more complicated and innovative than in other kinds of popular music. Plus rap was pretty new at the time and it was, as it remains, the most exciting genre. I think I saw it as an opportunity to write verse while doing music production experiments. I did not entertain the idea that anyone would want to hear me do it.
Your music spans nerd culture, however, also gets political in cases. Do you have a writing process to your songs and their topics?
I come at songs from a lot of angles. Sometimes there’s a topic I really want to address. The political songs will always start there. Sometimes there’s a concept I think people will enjoy considering. The sillier songs often start with that, some little twist or juxtaposition that I think I can communicate within a few verses. Other songs come from a melody that I play around with while I’m doing something with my hands, showering or driving. I’ll work up a hook and then build a concept outward from there. A lot of my songs have come about almost like puzzle solutions. I’ll take a title from Songfight or another source and try to write a song that makes the title make sense.
On a similar thread, many call you the Godfather of Nerdcore because you coined the term for the genre early on in its development. How did you come up with it? Most genres that have “core” in them have integrated a form of Hardcore usually.
It’s definitely a play on Hardcore. You slant the crossbeam on the “H,” or shorten the ascender with a lowercase h, to get the “N.” Then rotate the “a” upside down to make an “e,” and you’ve got Nerdcore. There were also plenty of other ‘core’ subgenres, Grindcore, Slowcore, etc., etc. I was a DJ in college and I always thought it was ridiculous how many fragmented subgenres the other DJs took seriously, particularly the techno, now called EDM, DJs. They sort of used the list of supposed different kinds of techno as a way to casually dominate each other in conversation. For example, “I can pretend to like twelve more different kinds of obscure techno than you can, therefore I am the superior bleep bloop aficionado.” I was making fun of that when I coined Nerdcore, but then of course it sounded like fun to people so it stuck.
Listening to your music over the years, it is clear there is an influence from multiple genres of music from soul and jazz to the alternative rock acts like Beck and Fatboy Slim. What are a few of your biggest influences outside of hip hop on your work?
Tom Waits, Bjork, Beck (who you mentioned), Stevie Wonder, Devo, and They Might Be Giants. I don’t do any song parodies but my aesthetic surely owes a great deal to Weird Al.
Since on the topic, what are a few of your hip hop influences? I pick up on a few songs with sounds and style similar to that of old school nineties’ hip hop.
I will probably always think of the early nineties as the true golden age, but that might be a function of the particular moment that I was young and most easily attached to new music. I loved De La Soul, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, NWA, Del, Tribe Called Quest, Digital Underground, 3rd Bass, The Pharcyde, and Freestyle Fellowship. The later nineties and early aughts also have plenty of brilliant stuff that will always inform my idea of what makes hip hop great with Nas, Busta, Eminem, Tupac, and Biggie.
I noticed the increase in skits between tracks on the albums as you have gone on. MC Chris has joked, in his own album skit, that it helps break up the tracks. Is that the reason you do them?
I have always idolized comedians and because of 3 Feet High And Rising I’ve always thought hip hop records should have skits on them. So doing my own album skits has been a great excuse to try to get my favorite comics onto the albums with me. I think for the most part, listeners are annoyed by album skits and would rather just hear songs! But then I don’t care, I’ll always do them anyway.
On those skits, you do pull great people in to work with you. What is a fun story about how you roped one of them in to do a skit?
John Hodgman was only able to maybe do it on his birthday, and I promised to bring him a cake. I did bring him a fancy chocolate cake, but he was on a diet and wouldn’t eat any of it.
Though those aren’t the only things you partner up with others for. You have had quite a few great musicians on your albums including I heard MegaRan before he went by that name on your Final Boss album. Most of your musical partners are friends in the genre, but also others like the talented Jonathan Coulton. What is the writing process on those? Do you approach them with an idea of a song or just ask them if they want to do a song and then brainstorm together?
It can go either way. I’ve sent music beds with verse drafts to folks and used the hook they came up with (Coulton, Glenn Phillips). I’ve sent folks topline-written hooks and let them develop interesting harmony or counterpoint layers (John Roderick, Perry Gripp). I even developed whole tracks hand in hand with singers (Bradsucks).
Who are a couple favorite people you have teamed up on those?
Everyone who’s ever graced me with a guest appearance has been amazing and I cannot choose.
Speaking of team ups, the other fantastic thing I see is that you work with Penny Arcade a bit. This includes doing a theme and playing multiple PAX conventions. Plus looks like Gabe, aka Mike Krahulik, did art work on your Secrets From the Future album. How did that all come about?
They linked to one of my earliest tracks, “Yellow Lasers,” and their traffic wrecked the Songfight servers where it was hosted. I think they felt a little guilty about that and called me the Rapper Laureate for their web comic. After that I wrote them a theme and then they invited me to their first PAX (and the 27 following PAXes). It’s been a long and fruitful pairing!
Of course, I have to ask, what are a few of your favorite video games lately? Are you doing the Nintendo Switch thing? I know it has been popular for the touring musicians I know.
There are a couple Switches in the van! I don’t have one myself, I’m a PC gamer at heart. Lately I’ve been working too much on the album to play anything very involved but I’ll leave Realm Grinder, a ridiculous non-game where you make a build then watch the progress meters go up running, because I can check in with it for three minutes once every hour or so. Recently I have also played West of Loathing, A Hat In Time, Exapunks, Minit, Inside, Cities: Skylines, Oxygen Not Included, and way more Factorio than I should’ve. Those were all great.
Do you have an overall favorite video game?
Off the top of my head, the best video games of all time include: Psychonauts, GTA4, Red Dead Redemption, Prince of Persia (both the original and the first 3D version), original Tomb Raider, the first Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, The Witness, Portal, the Civ series, the Hitchhiker’s Guide text adventure, and on C64, Bard’s Tale IV, Lode Runner, and Impossible Mission.
As I come to the end of this, what do you have in store for the future of MC Frontalot? I know you are on tour with the talented acts of MC Lars, MegaRan and Shaffer the Dark Lord. Any new projects that people should be sure to keep an eye out for?
The new album is called NET SPLIT or, the Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself. It comes out December 4th, but you can already hear most of it if you pre-order from Bandcamp or from the store on frontalot.com. I’m headed to the UK after we finish the Mt. Nerdcore tour to do a few dates with Wheatus. Then there are some festivals and more touring planned in 2019!
I want to thank MC Frontalot for doing the interview. In the next couple days, be sure to check out my full wrap up of the Phoenix stop of the Mt. Nerdcore Tour, featuring MC Frontalot, MC Lars, Mega Ran, and Schaffer the Darklord. Plus keep your eyes peeled, as there will be more interviews to come with other favorites of the Nerdcore genre in the coming weeks!