OK, it's a fair point that conscious hip-hop has become a little bit pious and practically oppressive. And if Talib Kweli wants to call his record A Prisoner of Consciousness, fine; he's earned it. But even alternatives have alternatives. So here's one: Instead of conscious hip-hop, where the flow is ever-so-smooth and the vibe is soulful and socially aware, how about self-conscious hip-hop, where the flow is spastic, the vibe computer-savvy and socially awkward?
We are talking here about making rap safe for web-addicted white-boy shut-ins from college towns everywhere. Oh, they are players, all right. Players of Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft. We are talking here about nerdcore.
And we are watching in wonder and listening to the genre's so-called godfather, the Bay Area-spawned MC Frontalot (née Damian Hess), as he spits the hook in "Braggadocio," a signature track: "Now it's time for a little braggadocio/while I swing my arms like Ralph Macchio."
It works on several levels.
The occasion for this drolly enlightening experience is comedian/filmmaker Negin Farsad's documentary Nerdcore Rising, which plays for two days this week at the Red Vic. See it if for no other reason than written description is unable to do it justice.
No, Frontalot and his fellow geekstas haven't exactly reinvented or revolutionized hip-hop -- no more than Farsad has transfigured the band-bio documentary. But in each case, they've made it theirs. A couple of years ago, Farsad tagged along with the Frontalot crew's first tentative national tour, in which were addressed such quandaries as why music made mostly on computers in relative isolation should be performed live; how to tie a proper necktie; what to do when the opening act gets fake blood all over your gear; whether nerdcore is viable as anything other than a novelty act or a self-contained sub-subculture; what it means when not everyone's a fan; and what it means when someone actually is.
Like, seriously. There's that sweet girl from Florida who says she's not a groupie but willingly drives 19 hours to catch a Frontalot show. And there's a wonderfully tender moment when the musicians sort out their collective feelings about her -- first having a little fun at her expense, then catching themselves and feeling ashamed and humbled and appreciative, then realizing she makes them nervous because, well, all girls make them nervous.
Remember, this is a band whose song titles include "I Hate Your Blog" and "Yellow Lasers," and whose completely dorktastic pre-show rituals include a group Wookie call. Oh yes they did. As keyboardist Gaby wisely observes, "There's no real for us to keep. I think that's important."
Farsad understands that the tribulations of adolescent male life plus the creative democratization of web publishing and desktop music studios equals something rather precious. She also gathers lots of pithy commentary to put the phenomenon in perspective. Weird Al Yankovic weighs in with a validation. De La Soul producer Prince Paul risks serious cred shrinkage with a cautious allowance that nerdcore's fundamental sincerity is in fact the old-school way. "For those guys to do what they do really takes a lot of guts," he says. But besides being brave, they're honest, and "to me that's true hip-hop." And former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra cautions, "Be careful with your own stereotype; it could become a prison."
True dat, as they say. If Frontalot isn't careful, he could become a prisoner of self-consciousness.
Nerdcore Rising plays Tuesday and Wednesday, November 18 and 19, 2008, at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco, with MC Frontalot and director Negin Farsad in attendance. For tickets and information visit redvicmoviehouse.com.