Is ‘nerdcore’ hip-hop on the rise?

Image: MC Frontalot
MC Frontalot, one of nerdcore's leading artists, raps about stuff like "Star Wars" and math. Here, he's performing in front of an audience of true believers: Hardcore gamers at the 2006 Penny Arcade convention. Vaguely Qualified Productions

When you think hip-hop, which artists come to mind? Jay-Z? Missy Elliott? Kanye West? MC Frontalot?

What, you’ve never heard of MC Frontalot? Come on. He’s the godfather of the “nerdcore” hip-hop genre and he raps about stuff that nerds care about, like “Star Wars” and unattainable Goth girls. “Front” didn’t come up hard in the ‘hood — he studied English at Wesleyan — which may explain why he’d think to rhyme “braggadocio” with “Ralph Macchio.”

MC Frontalot is the subject of a new documentary, “Nerdcore Rising,” which is also the name of his 2005 debut album. The film chronicles Front (real name: Damian Hess) and his band of nerdy musicians during their 2006 inaugural tour of the United States. It’s a funny, endearing snapshot of a band trying to make it, the fans who feel as if someone (finally) gets them and the nerdcore movement’s struggle to be taken seriously.

“Hip-hop grew up to be the essence of cool,” mainstream hip-hop artist J-Live says in the movie. “Nerdcore prides itself on not being that.”

Perhaps nothing sums this up more than the euphoric declaration, from a guy in the movie, about what the music means to him. (I’ll paraphrase, since we’re a family Web site.)

“Nerdcore hip-hop is like playing ‘Halo’ while (obtaining sexual favors) from Hello Kitty.”

OK, well, “Nerdcore Rising” director Negin Farsad didn’t go quite that far when explaining why she decided to follow Front and his merry band of music-makers to places like Tallahassee, Fla., and Lawrence, Kan. She saw the band play in her hometown of New York and thought the lyrics were smart and funny, and that the band had a funky groove. But what really sealed the deal? Front’s fans.

“They would travel hours. They would have these hilarious debates about ‘Magic: The Gathering’ cards, and algorithms and a bunch of things that totally flew over my head,” she told me in an interview.  “They ran the gamut of all types of fans that identified themselves as nerds. And that’s what really made me want to follow them, was how wonderful they were. “

Spirits are high as Front and his band — keyboardist Gaby Alter, bassist Brandon Patton and drummer Sturgis — roll out of Brooklyn to start the tour. But behind the clowning there’s a touch of angst. (These are, after all, nerd dudes.)  As the four touch elbows in a super-sensitive pre-tour huddle, Front tells his band, “Chances are you’re all going to be filled with horrifying regrets.”

Patton (stage name: Blak Lotus) confides to the camera that he has “no awareness of fans, because Damian just makes these exaggerated claims and I have no idea if they’re true or not.” Front estimates the number at about 30,000, but that’s based on server traffic to the band’s Web page.

“Who knows? It’s the Internet,” says Patton.

The band warms up before a gig with wookiee calls. Clockwise, from lower left: Drummer Sturgis, bassist Brandon Patton, MC Frontalot and keyboard player Gaby Alter.

Nerd fans do show up to see MC Frontalot. These are the guys who eat lunch alone in the art room, who get beat up and called names. They dance awkwardly, chant the lyrics they know so well, and ask the rapper for hugs after the shows.

“Nerdcore hip-hop, they get so excited about the stuff that we do every day,” says Erica, who showed up at the show in Chapel Hill, N.C., to celebrate her five-year anniversary with boyfriend Martin. “And it’s not, like, drugs or violence or anything like that. It’s playing video games.”

And then there’s Jaylyn, the band’s only groupie, who drove 19 hours to hit three shows in the Southeast. “She’s part of the Grateful Dork entourage,” cracks Alter.

But not everyone gets it. Some shows are better attended than others. The film shows Front getting dissed by Georgia Tech radio (they were just too busy to have him on) and disparaged by jock types and other cool kids.

“I definitely did sometimes want to be like, ‘Dude, you’re like the whole reason why this music is necessary.’” filmmaker Farsad told me in an interview.

But she says she didn’t make the movie as a “nerds unite” rallying cry. She saw it as the classic underdog story — “Rocky,” with a pocket protector and some tight rhymes.

“I wanted to build a story about someone who’s trying to make it, who’s trying to make it in a genre that some people don’t take seriously,” she said. “I think that in this day and age, everyone’s a nerd.”

The grand finale, the culmination of this 17-stop tour, is at the 2006 Penny Arcade video game convention, where the band will play to the true believers. Will they wow the tabletop gamers, the “World of Warcraft” addicts, the live-action role-playing gamers?

(I’m not telling.)

Front told me that his fan base has grown a lot since 2006, with more and more people mail-ordering his stuff and buying it off iTunes. The band’s “Livin’ at the Corner of Dude & Catastrophe” is available as downloadable content for “Rock Band.” And in November, the band starts its fourth tour.

“It’s become a full-time job,” Front said. “Even, without irony, I can call it a career these days.”

So will nerdcore break through to a wider, mainstream audience, like “X-Men” or “Batman” or “The Lord of the Rings”?

“There’s a lot more of us than there are of the football players or the prom queens or whatnot,” one fan says in the film. “So, with that big of a potential fan base, there’s certainly no reason that it couldn’t hit the mainstream.”

The film is screening wherever Farsad can get a critical mass of interest; to bring it to your town, go to