Beats and geeks: White rappers merge the worlds of hip-hop and computers in an underground scene called ‘nerdcore’

WACO, Texas (MCT) – A cramped upstairs bedroom in an apartment complex with all the whimsical charm of a Soviet prison block doesn’t seem like the kind of place where a new branch of hip-hop would take root. But here, within hollering distance of Baylor University, are Fort Worth’s Kristin Ritchie and Tannar Brown – a.k.a. MC Router and producer T-Byte – staying inside on a sun-washed Saturday afternoon to lay down a rap that combines their love of high-tech and hard beats.

And while this particular song, booming with an old-school, retro-electro Kraftwerk/Afrika Bambaataa-style groove, has a title that includes a rhymes-with-rich word that’s no stranger to the hip-hop lexicon, others in the MC Router catalog are more Silicon Valley than South Bronx.

“One of my very first raps was a ‘Halo’ rap,” says Router, 20, referencing the popular video game. “And then ‘Bill Gates’ was the first professional one.”

She’s talking about “Bill Gates Revolution,” a track on her coming album that’s an anti-Microsoft rap where “the operating system is so old, it was a horror story my grandmother told.”

Welcome to the world of nerdcore – some call it “geeksta” – where math majors, computer-code cowboys and other young scientific Americans celebrate their love of algorithms and hip-hop rhythms. Among those whose burgeoning underground success is exacting sweet revenge on those who excluded them from high school’s cool-kid cliques:

n MC Plus+, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, took his name from a programming language and named one of his albums “Computer Science for Life.”

n Computer programmer Monzy has a master’s degree from MIT and is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford. His debut disc: “Drama in the PhD.”

n Boston’s MC Frontalot, whom some consider to be the nerdcore George Washington because he whipped up the geek anthem “Nerdcore Hip-Hop” back in 2000, is a Web designer who only recently cut back on his client list to concentrate on his music career.

n New York’s MC Chris is known for his high-pitched raps and Cartoon Network connection (he’s the voice of MC Pee Pants in “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”) but his background includes stops at the Art Institute of Chicago and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

To quote another nerdcore performer, MC Hawking, who raps in an electronically distorted voice that makes him sound like famed physicist Stephen Hawking, they’re “young, gifted and tenured.”

Others, from Lords of the Rhymes (who claim to be “straight out of Hobbiton”) to Optimus Rhyme (whose name is a salute to “Transformers” robot-hero Optimus Prime), are more geared to pop-culture geek smarts.

At first a minor curiosity spread by word-of-mouth and MySpace pages, nerdcore is starting to attract broader attention. While major labels have yet to take the plunge, two documentaries, “Nerdcore for Life” and “Nerdcore Rising,” are in the works. And nerdcore performances were featured during last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where all the tech gurus gather to sample the latest gadgetry.

For MC Router and T-Byte, 19, both former Arlington Heights High School students who are representing “the nerdy South,” it’s less about the degrees they hold – she briefly joined the Army after high school and now works at a Fort Worth Starbucks, while he’s studying audio technology at Waco’s McLennan Community College – than just talking about stuff they like: computers, video games and hip-hop.

“It wasn’t until I started getting into it and taking it more seriously, and coming out with actual good songs, like “Bill Gates Revolution” and “Emulation Station,” that I started meeting and hearing about other nerdcore artists,” says MC Router, who used to be more of a Blink-182 fan before discovering hip-hop.

Now, she has “geek life” tattooed on her knuckles, is Texas’ best-known nerdcore geek, and is one of the relatively few female performers in the genre. “I said, ‘OK, I’m a nerdcore artist,'” she says. “And this is what I do.”

Of course, in a world that has delivered the crass opportunism of Vanilla Ice, the cheesy tabloid adventures of Kevin Federline, and the reality-show hysterics of VH1’s “The White Rapper Show,” it would be easy to conclude that nerdcore – dominated by white guys – is, at best, a “Weird Al” Yankovic hip-hop parody or, at worst, an insult to a form that was born out of urban black street culture. Dru Ryan, a black professor of computer science and multimedia studies at Virginia’s George Mason University and the editor of The Journal of Hip-Hop, was concerned when he first heard about it.

“Being from the Bronx and having a sentimental attachment to hip-hop, to watch something come up and take the term ‘hip-hop’ without tying into its roots put me on the fence,” he says. “But as the subgenre developed, I saw that they were not trying to cross over, not claiming to be hard, or being competitive with more traditional rap music. I’ve been impressed by this small community that has been able to maintain itself over the years.”

British-based writer Robert Andrews says, “I certainly didn’t get a sense that anyone thought it racist or mocking. Hip-hop is a huge force in the world of music, and it has grown from its origins with two turntables and a microphone to so many subgenres.”

Andrews, who has written about nerdcore for, points out that desktop technology has made putting together a hip-hop song feasible. “That nerdcore could have used any genre but used hip-hop came about because rap is a vocal medium so computer students could speak their feelings easily, and you can assemble a hip-hop track easily.”

“I was worried before I started gigging regularly that I would run into people who think I’m making fun of hip-hop, and no one has had that response,” says MC Frontalot, whose real name is Damian Hess. “I don’t find hip-hop absurd in any way.”

Nurse Hella, a Vancouver graphic artist turned nerdcore rapper, says everyone in the scene makes a distinction between what they’re doing and traditional hip-hop. “You can’t bang hard from your easy chair playing “Grand Theft Auto 3″,” she says. “None of us grew up in the streets, and we need to have respect for that.”

While they may show respect to other forms of hip-hop, that hasn’t stopped nerdcore performers from going after each other. As in mainstream rap, “beefs”- verbal spats between warring factions – have become common. Monzy and MC Plus+ reportedly just declared a truce at the CES show, and MC Router, whose “Nurse Hella” track boils with her disdain for the rapper, says she, too, wants peace.

“I’m sick of the drama. I don’t want to be a part of it,” says MC Router, who’s playing some dates with Nurse Hella on the West Coast in March. “The scene is too new to have that.”

For her part, Nurse Hella also is over the fighting. “If I were going to be Dr. Dre, I’d do a ‘diss’ track, but I don’t even know her,” she says of MC Router.

Antipathy seems to remain for one of the most popular nerdcore artists, MC Chris, a.k.a. Chris Ward. “A lot of people pick beefs and talk trash. It’s part rap game and part nerds on the Internet,” he says. “Nerds can be cruel. That’s something you have to expect. They say, ‘How come you don’t collaborate much?’ They see me as telling them to SHOVE off. … No disrespect to them, I’m just trying to do my own thing.”

Chicago-based film director Dan Lamoureux had never heard of nerdcore until a couple of years back when he went to see a club show from MC Chris, whom he knew only from “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” He was surprised to stumble into a whole geek world.

“He raps about being a geek, and he has this huge following,” he remembers. “They were calling it nerdcore. How can this be a genre of music? As soon as I got home, I Googled it. As soon as I started looking into it, I figured if I’m curious, other people would be curious.”

So he started to film “Nerdcore for Life” for which he hopes to line up distribution shortly. He says he found his subjects refreshingly honest. “They may be pretending to be bigger nerds than they are sometimes, but they like hip-hop and want to make it their own,” he says. “They’re not rapping about things they don’t know about.”

Even though, as Andrews says of their rap skills, “there’s not a Jay-Z among them,” there’s a musical split between those with a more genuine hip-hop style (MC Frontalot, MC Plus+, and the best of the bunch, a hacker-turned-rapper called ytcracker (pronounced “whitey cracker”), who has a Paul Wall-like swagger) and those who have a more comedic approach (MC Lars, MC Chris, MC Harding).

But, in either case, all agree that everyone – no matter the class, color or musical preference – can relate to nerdiness on some level.

In fact, MC Router is dismayed that nerdcore, still far from a household term, is as popular as it is. “Now people are just jumping on the bandwagon like it’s the new emo. It’s the new Hot Topic,” she says dismissively.

“I met a girl at an MC Frontalot show in Fort Worth at the Aardvark last year. She wasn’t even a rapper. Five or six months later, all of a sudden she’s a rapper … You’ve got all these female rappers and they put on a Sailor Moon outfit and a NASA shirt and they think ‘I’m a nerdcore rapper because I’m wearing a NASA shirt.'”

“I’ve done over 200 shows, toured the entire country,” says MC Chris. “There are black people at every show, and a lot of times they’re nerdier than the white guys. It’s old people, jocks, kids, girls, every race. Anybody can be a loser.

“You don’t have to walk around with a pocket protector. The guy who memorizes baseball stats is a nerd. Nerds are everywhere and it’s about accepting it, coming to terms with it, and having a little pride.”