"They've been laughed at, picked on and put down. But now it's time for the odd to get even!"
- movie poster tagline for "Revenge of the Nerds"
Whereas most rappers favor topics that paint vivid pictures of neighborhood violence or brag about newfound riches, Damian Hess is more comfortable talking about lightsabers or hard drive crashes.
From all appearances, Hess is a nerd. But his innate nerdiness (or nerditude?) is paying dividends when he raps under the pseudonym MC Frontalot.
Hess/Frontalot is widely credited with inventing the subgenre known as nerdcore, which is hip-hop music noted for its geek-centric themes. National artists such as MC Chris (of Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim"), MC Plus+ and MC Paul Barman are among those linked to the style.
"Nerdcore is about taking this epithet that had been thrown at us throughout our youth and switching it into something one might be proud about - or at least defiant about," Hess says.
His debut CD, "Nerdcore Rising," is finding a legion of fans, especially in cyberspace. And now audiences are starting to flock to his live shows.
"On tour, I meet a lot of people who do computer science stuff," says the self-proclaimed "world's 579th greatest rapper." "I met a couple of bio engineers last night who had driven from Pensacola (Fla.) to Baton Rouge (La.). There are a lot of students, math people, software engineers.
"It's the kind of people who think that a song about being bad at Magic: The Gathering is interesting and easy to identify with."
Until recently, the Boston-based Hess was a mild-mannered Web designer. But his popularity has steadily grown to the point where he decided to close shop and dive full-time into the music business.
"I just got rid of my last real client in order to go on the road. He needed a big redesign done right when I was leaving," he says.
Hess introduced the term "nerdcore hip-hop" in the title of a song in early 2000. ("Sought skinny little beats / But returned with the fat of the land / Now I got a swollen hip-hop gland.") But he confesses nerdcore had some non-musical uses that predated his.
"I went and looked up the word on the Internet after I'd thought of it," he recalls. "There was somebody's blog called nerdcore.org. There was also somebody writing about nerdcore hedge diving, which was his special pastime of walking down the street and throwing himself into people's bushes."
Hess says this rival fella's activity is not something he has ever attempted on purpose.
"Usually, if my shoelace is untied I might land in somebody's hedge," he says. "But otherwise I try to avoid it because I get hay fever."
Like many artists who break into the business by recording demos on a home computer, it took awhile for Hess to realize what kind of reaction his music was eliciting. He was simply posting mp3s of songs online every time he finished one.
He says, "Five days after I put 'Special Delivery' up and saw that 10,000 people had downloaded it, I felt like I was going to have some tiny effect on the political consciousness of the country."
In this part of the country, the amount of nerd-themed musicians also is on the rise.
"I use a lot of computer programs to make my music. I guess that could be considered nerdy," says Paul Eaton, aka Paul Protocol.
The 22-year-old Lawrence resident describes his material as a cross between hip-hop drum beats and Nintendo sounds. Originally, he says his lyrics revolved around "how our music was good and people shouldn't make fun of us." Lately, he and his onstage guitarist prefer to do all-instrumental performances.
"The electronic scene is starting to get more popularity," Eaton says. "I would like to see shows that are more electronic-based than the traditional guitars and drums. I see that happening soon."
Adam Jeffers, who heads a project called Superargo, understands why he was the logical local choice to open for MC Frontalot on Saturday.
"I don't know if nerdcore automatically means that it has to be hip-hop-related or not. If not, you can throw all kinds of pop-punk bands into that genre, like Nerf Herder. As far as Superargo goes, I don't know how to categorize it. It's something along the lines of performance entertainment," he explains.
Live, Superargo's set is musically powered by a laptop computer, accompanied by video projections and interaction with a masked performer known as The Skullface.
The 26-year-old artist claims it's no surprise nerdcore types are thriving because they have learned how to connect with listeners ... or at least get their attention.
He says, "It's important for any musician, no matter what type of music they're making, to not be so coolly detached from the audience - which in and of itself is a nerdy thing to say."
Lawrence nerdcore fans may soon find themselves participating in a movie.
Cameras are following Hess and his geeksta entourage (he is backed by a live funk band) throughout his current tour in order to create a documentary on the nerdcore scene.
"It's some folks from New York called Vaguely Qualified Productions who thought that we were either charming or a bunch of weirdos, and they'd exploit us," he says. "It might be a mixture of the two."
The filmmakers expect to have the movie screening in festivals within the next 18 months.
And maybe some day, MC Frontalot could attract the attention of Hollywood much in the way Eminem did with his pseudo-biographical "8 Mile."
What would be the plot of that flick?
"It would be kind of like the end of '2001: A Space Odyssey,' Hess speculates. "It would start with an insemination scene and skip directly to an old man freaking out in his schizophrenic final throws."
Defining a 'nerd'
The word "nerd" first appeared in 1950 in Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran the Zoo." "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" (The nerd is a small humanoid creature looking comically angry.)
Nerd next appears in a 1957 issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail in a regular column titled "ABC for SQUARES": "Nerd - a square, any explanation needed?"
Authorities disagree on whether the two nerds - Dr. Seuss's small creature and the teenage slang term in the Sunday Mail - are the same word. Some maintain that Dr. Seuss is the true originator of nerd and that the word was picked up by the five- and six-year-olds of 1950 and passed on to their older siblings, who by 1957, as teenagers, had restricted and specified the meaning to a comically obnoxious creature of their own class.
Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language