MC Frontalot: Nerd Rising

Make no mistake: he’s the 567th greatest rapper on the planet. He wears a crappy 70s tie, plaid pants, a light on his head and on a good day, if he’s lucky, has a groupie. We’re talkin’ about MC Frontalot, a man who’s made being a nerd into a career.

Frontalot, otherwise known as Damian Hess, is a balding, soft-spoken guy in his late-mid-thirties who looks like the Wesleyan grad that he is. But once on stage, he’s a ball of geek fury, spitting out sharply-observed machine-gun lyrics on subjects other hip-hop giants don’t have the balls to touch – such as the dance moves of Margaret Thatcher, the Loch Ness Monster and medieval diseases. True, he twitches and writhes like a white boy, and he doesn’t seem to make eye contact with his audience much, but that goes with the (spaz) territory.

While other geekish artists have seen more mainstream success — MC Chris has worked on high-profile gigs like Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force — Hesse is credited with inventing the term nerdcore (which he defines as “the spinning of geek shame into bravado through rapping”). His role in birthing the movement was immortalized in 2007, when an indie move producer made the film Nerdcore Rising about his band’s first major tour. (Check it: the film is actually good — you don’t have to be Front’s mom to enjoy it.)

This week, the MC agreed to talk to us about his work–appropriately enough, via IM. Behold his geek wisdom:

(2:31:10 PM) annezieger: So, thanks for making time to talk with me today. Such a pleasure to commune with a fellow music nerd!

(2:31:23 PM) mcfrontalot: My pleasure.

(2:31:55 PM) annezieger: How long have you called yourself MC Frontalot and worked the nerdcore thing?

(2:33:12 PM) mcfrontalot: Actually, the ten-year anniversary of using the name and the term are both right around the corner. January. I’ll have to make a big to-do about it on internet somehow.

(2:33:46 PM) annezieger: Ten years — that’s dedication!

(2:34:52 PM) annezieger: Do you identify with earlier nerd rockers like, say, Devo? Or are you primarily a hip-hop guy?

(2:36:32 PM) mcfrontalot: I do love the rapping, but I think my influences run wide. Devo, certainly, is a mighty tent pole in the nerd music circus. They Might Be Giants is even more dear to my heart.

(2:37:22 PM) annezieger: Oh hell yeah, TMBG! Ana Ng is one of those tunes you simply can’t get out of your head.

(2:37:31 PM) annezieger: How about Weird Al?

(2:37:47 PM) annezieger: I thought he gave you a run for your money in “White and Nerdy”

(2:39:03 PM) mcfrontalot: I was deep into Weird Al in my youth, of course. I probably kept up a 1:1 ratio of watching the Eat It video every time the Beat It video came on. I had a VHS tape devoted to that purpose.

(2:39:19 PM) annezieger: didn’t we all?

(2:39:24 PM) annezieger: But seriously, folks…

(2:39:58 PM) annezieger: I suspect Weird Al would describe his work as camp, but I get the sense you, shall we say, take yourself more seriously. Is MC Frontalot a joke?

(2:42:40 PM) mcfrontalot: I’m in a kind of an odd spot, where I work a lot of humor into the material but I don’t identify as a comedy performer. Still, if the funniest songs are the appeal for part of the fanbase, that’s fine. I do work hard at having the whole thing be enjoyable.

(2:44:40 PM) annezieger: So, what attracts an almost-middle-aged white guy–who went to an artsy school like Wesleyan, for pete’s sake– so much to a “street” art form like hip-hop?

(2:49:00 PM) mcfrontalot: Hip-hop hit the national audience in the 80s when I was in grade school. RUN-DMC and the Beastie Boys were touring the world together when I was in junior high. And then there was Yo! MTV Raps. You didn’t need to be particularly street-savvy to grow up consuming a lot of hip hop in the 80s and 90s. And loving a lot of hip-hop.

(2:50:47 PM) annezieger: When did you start writing hip-hop material?

(2:54:23 PM) mcfrontalot: I started in high school. I wrote raps with Gm7, who’s my current keyboard player. We’ve been at it a long time. But it was kind of an embarrassing secret that I liked to rap. I never got onstage with it until college, and even then only very rarely. I never thought I might be able to develop a decent stage routine until there was already a Frontalot fanbase asking me to show up and do live shows for them.

(2:54:38 PM) mcfrontalot: And actually, I was a big GnR fan in 10th grade.

(2:54:50 PM) mcfrontalot: Metallica, too.

(2:54:55 PM) annezieger: What do you think of Axl’s current album?

(2:55:14 PM) mcfrontalot: What, Chinese Democracy?

(2:55:19 PM) annezieger: yup

(2:55:31 PM) mcfrontalot: I tried to listen to it.That’s about all I can say.

(2:56:09 PM) annezieger: So, did you ever gun for major-label representation or have you always made your own way?

(2:59:35 PM) mcfrontalot: I’ve never pursued any kind of label deal. I was building an audience at the same time that all the majors were panicking and dropping smaller acts and instituting even more severe no-risk-taking policies than they’d previously had. So I’m not too surprised that I have never been approached. Although if I were running Warner, I’d probably put some money into developing the label toward niche acts, because a big stable of musicians who each have focused appeal is the only way to make new money in the post-Tower-Records environment.

(3:00:05 PM) mcfrontalot: Otherwise they’re just wringing cash out of legacy superstars and praying that they luck into a new superstar with broad appeal who somehow cultivates a fanbase too stupid to use a computer to get free songs.

(3:01:26 PM) annezieger: That kind of corporate stupidity does have an upside though: it leaves lots of opportunity on the table for indie labels and individuals like you who have brains and marketing sense.

(3:01:56 PM) mcfrontalot: I suppose it does! I should thank them for fumbling so miserably these last ten years.

(3:02:28 PM) annezieger: So other than touring, what do you do to promote yourself, and more importantly, what’s working?

(3:04:37 PM) mcfrontalot: I try to keep the songs coming. That’s ALL I do lately, as I’m in a production cycle for an album. The rest of the year, I just do what I’d be doing anyway: post stuff on internet, say yes to interviews. I always think I should be promoting myself more heavily somehow, but I don’t know how to do it really, and it seems to be working out okay without a master plan.

(3:05:04 PM) mcfrontalot: Or maybe my publicist has a master plan for me and she is nice enough not to let me worry about it.

(3:05:23 PM) annezieger: How did you snag the deal for Nerdcore Rising?

(3:06:18 PM) mcfrontalot: The director, Negin Farsad, found out about the band and heard we were about to do our first tour, and asked if she could tag along. I wasn’t convinced that a movie would result until I saw the first cut.

(3:06:50 PM) annezieger: Has it given you the kind of boost you might have hoped?

(3:08:25 PM) mcfrontalot: There’s been a lot of incoming attention since it went on Netflix. We’ll see how that develops over the next year. Certainly it’s a good thing to have out there… people see that it exists even if they haven’t watched it. And if they watch it, it’s an extremely good intro to the band and the genre.

(3:08:53 PM) annezieger: I thought the film’s depiction of your back problems was, uh, humanizing 🙂

(3:09:35 PM) annezieger: So, if you were going for conventional rock stardom, your goals would probably be fairly defined…

(3:10:22 PM) annezieger: …What would be ultimate success for a nerdcore rapper? huge album sales? more movies? a TV show with hot nerd babes fawning on you?

(3:10:36 PM) annezieger: maybe reality TV?

(3:13:12 PM) mcfrontalot: Well, any musician will feel he or she has made it if the music lasts longer than the making of the music. If there’s anyone listening to these albums in 20 years, I’ll call that ultimate success. Of course, there’s also fame and dollars. I don’t really turn my nose up at those. If anyone has some extra of either, lying around, send it to my PO box.

FROM THE REMIXED ARCHIVES – 2010

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