MC Frontalot is, by his own admission, “the arch criminal for some reason not / sought by authorities, though [he’s] been running wild for days.” This (intentionally humorous) characterization, however, quickly fades upon meeting the man himself. Front – real name Damian Hess – is, in reality, pleasant, articulate, soft-spoken and almost pathologically polite.
Most importantly, MC Frontalot is a nerd. A geek of the highest caliber. Praised by luminaries Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade, esteemed contemporary of the great Jonathan Coulton and the dynamic force at the heart of the nerdcore hip-hop movement, MC Frontalot is an unlikely icon for our generally unassuming culture. And yet his story is nothing short of fascinating.
His Nerdcore Rising tour, chronicled in the documentary of the same name, took Front and his band of merry misfits on a cross-country adventure resplendent with equipment woes, medical maladies and groupie. (Note the singular.)
Thankfully, our bespectacled hero survived to tell his tale, and to answer some questions from yours truly about the film and the culture he’s helped to cultivate.
GeekDad: The Nerdcore Rising documentary, which centers predominantly on your 2006 tour of the same name, is a film about music, self-discovery, the triumph of the nerdy spirit and back pain. Are there any particular moments from that tour that didn’t make it into the film that you wish had been included?
MC Frontalot: It’s hard to remember now, since I’ve seen the movie so many times. It has plastered itself over the top of the real memories, and now I think that the depiction corresponds perfectly to how that tour went IRL. I’m sure there were actually moments of us being terrible to each other, cooped up in that van, acting bitchy. I guess I’m not sad that those all ended up on the cutting room floor. Negin was nice to us that way; she made us look like a big happy nerdcore family. Oh, there was that time we saved a whole rainforest with our bare hands. No idea why that got cut.
GD: I can’t help but notice that my cameo appearance as “skinny guy in crowd, stage right” at the Spartanburg, SC tour opener is uncredited. Who do I need to talk to have this grievous error rectified?
MCF: Your agent, obviously. If that doesn’t get you anywhere, try the union.
GD: While the tour, and the meat of the film’s charming narrative, begins here on the east coast, it concludes at Seattle’s Penny Arcade Expo. As a performer who’s been a part of that festival since its earliest days, does playing PAX feel like a homecoming?
MCF: It is a wonderful thing, for sure. I don’t know if homecoming is the right word. It’s more like an adventure vacation. Lots of equipment, very full schedule, lots of work, lots of problem solving. And I spend the majority of the time at a booth, meeting the nice folks who come by, which is great but not at all homey. I do a few things like that annually… Comic-Con is similar, KoL Con, Anime shows. But PAX is the big poppa, as far as my performing year goes. And as of March, there’s going to start being two of them. Very exciting.
GD: Over the course of the documentary, the filmmakers talk nerdcore with both your contemporaries (MC Lars, mc chris and Optimus Rhyme’s Wheelie Cyberman) and those situated well outside that musical community (Jello Biafra, Prince Paul and Brian Posehn). Were you at all surprised by any of the espoused views concerning nerdcore, its legitimacy or its place in the greater scheme of hip-hop?
MCF: Well, I was surprised that Prince Paul gave us the benefit of the doubt. I mean, that guy had a direct hand in making hip-hop into what it is, or what I think of it as being, anyway. I would never have had the guts to hand him an album and say, “hey, could you go on camera and tell us whether or not you think this music is legit?” If he thought it was garbage, that would just kill me. But he was so kind to us. I still sort of can’t get over it.
GD: B-Side Entertainment has taken a novel approach to spreading the word about Nerdcore Rising by encouraging fans to host their own screenings of the film. Have these DIY screenings been a successful way to help generate further interest in the film?
MCF: It’s so hard to tell! By definition, this is a thing that’s happening totally outside of the public eye, in people’s houses and coffee shops and after hours at the local art theater. But I get a little bit of a sense of it from the mail that comes in, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, etc. Definitely seems like B-Side’s grassrootsy approach has been a great fit with the existing fanbase and has managed to reach a lot of new folks. Woo hoo! I can imagine way worse scenarios that result from getting a distribution company involved with your thing.
GD: What are your feelings concerning the term “nerdcore” being adopted to describe music outside of the realm of hip-hop?
MCF: As long as everyone knows they’re obligated to run a small picture of me alongside any deployment of the word in any context, no problem. Oh, and I get twelve cents. Really, though, it’s an adjective, and I open-sourced it from the start in the hopes that people would use it to describe things they were enthusiastic about, and so however it gets used is fine by me. Until it starts to be a lot of “ugh, turn that off, it sounds kind of nerdcore.” And even if that becomes the primary use of the word, I’ll still get my TWELVE CENTS.
I met the amazing John Hodgman recently, and he had asked Obama, to his face, on live television, whether or not the President is “truly nerdcore.” And we talked about this, and Hodgman seemed genuinely concerned that I might have felt slighted by the fact that he used My Word without having known who I was exactly. Of course the reality is that I never expect anyone to know who I am, or to know what words I may or may not have wedged into the obscure sub-basement joists of the national discourse, and I was impossibly thrilled to see one of my favorite humorists point that question at my very favorite president. I ought to have put it that way to Hodgman. I was so surprised by his concern that I think I just said, “muh buh ummmm duhhhh fugedda boudit.”
GD: Also on the subject of nomenclature, do you tend to identify yourself as a nerd rather than a geek? Would your music be as potent if you were merely geekcore?
MCF: Geek sounds cooler, doesn’t it? That’s it, we’re changing it.
GD: There seems to be a shared sense across that greater geeky music scene that many artists are making music as much for the next generation of the awkward and bookish as for their own edification. What about MC Frontalot? Is he doin’ it for the kids?
MCF: I’m trying to get an album finished, and I actually had to think about this some. There is a little bit of cussing in the new songs – not much, compared to the cussing done by certain rappers who will remain nameless. But slightly more than I usually do. And I was thinking, are there parents who are going to confiscate the CD when the 12-year-old puts it in and the first lyric is “[F-bomb redacted] you, look at my cool hat?”
Should I release a “clean” version? Is this going to injure my chances of getting hired full-time by Sesame Street when I get too old to rap in nightclubs? As MC Lars likes to put the question: is that bad morals?
Hopefully the good morals of urging youngsters to seek comfort their own skin, even in the case of being a big dork, will even it all out. Not that I actively urge anyone in that direction. But people seem to find this message in the music, which is just fine by me.
GD: Do you feel the lingering mainstream fascination with “geek chic” will ultimately liberate or further hinder the next nerd generation?
MCF: Well, anything that becomes a noticeable media trend faces an impending moment when it is noticeably overturned and replaced by an opposing media trend. And the cool kids, as ever, are poised for a big comeback. Hopefully the story of cool kids beating the odds to triumph over the forces of aesthetically displeasing individuality will be so unbearably ironic that the entire culture topples over on itself. Then phrases like geek chic will seem like so much gibberish to all of us as we forage in the wreckage for food and Gameboy cartridges.
GD: Nerdcore Rising reveals the intimate bond that’s formed between you and your bandmates. If the tour van was on fire and you could only save a single band member, who would you pull from the smoking wreckage?
MCF: My dog, Pica. Sorry, guys.
GD: And lastly, Front, can nerdcore rise up? Can it truly get elevated?
MCF: Perhaps! Isn’t the excitement of waiting to find out infinitely superior to any possible proof?