On Wednesday’s episode of Jeopardy, notorious killjoy Alex Trebek called fans of nerdcore hip-hop “losers”, to the chagrin of thousands. Armed with their sick beats and snively, dripping sinuses, nerdcore hip-hop fans immediately jumped down Trebek’s throat, shouting classic track names from rappers like MF Doom, MC Frontalot, and the Beastie Boys.
Trebek’s actually right about one thing: Nerdcore rap grew out of a subculture in hip hop focused around typical loser-friendly activities. You know, smoking weed, sucking in your gut, avoiding girls, reading comics, and playing video games. If you’re into any of those things, but you haven’t discovered nerdcore yet then strap in, loser. It’s about to get lit. We’ve compiled ten introductory tracks to the genre. If you fuck with these songs, well, you might be a nerd.
“I’ll Form The Head” by MC Frontalot feat. Zealous1 and Dr. Awkward
Best lyrics: You got the nimrod with the yellow laser beam / and the other guy’s otaku (and he wants to talk to me) / Between scenes, sometimes I feel out of place / Oh yeah, I’m the biggest damn star in outer space
Why it’s great: It’s probably MC Frontalot’s most beloved song, because it’s not just a love letter to Voltron, but a comical commentary on the weird power dynamics in punch-up teams. Who gets to be the head in a Power Rangers or Voltron mega robot? Who has to be the foot?
“Keyblade In the Mind” by Skyblew
Best lyrics: Where my anime fans at? / Where my game freaks, who spend weeks trying to unlock all achievements? / Beat the game twice, right? / I’m trying to do the same with real life
Why it’s great: Skyblew is an exciting addition to the nerdcore scene because he’s young, and because he’s more interested in anime aesthetics and the sparkling sound effects heard in game franchises like Kingdom Hearts than the ‘80s-era arcade games that inspire nerdcore old heads.
“Star-Lord” by Adam Warrock
Best lyrics: Every alien race, every villainous foe / knows that if it’s Pete Quill, they gotta go
Why it’s great: Adam Warrock is a rare nerdcore Marvel fanatic, unapologetically writing verses about the superhero blockbusters inspiring a younger generation of nerds. He also lays pop songs under his rhymes, so the resulting sound is a lot more dance-y than a MC like Frontalot. Sometimes losers want to dance.
“Fett’s Vette” by MC Chris
Best lyrics: My name is Boba Fett, I know my shit is tight / Start not acting right, you’re frozen in carbonite / Got telescopic sight, flame throwers on my wrist / You still don’t get the jist? Spiked boots are made to kick, / Targets are made to hit — You think I give a shit? / Your mama is a bitch / I’ll see you in the Sarlaac pit
Why it’s great: Adult Swim darling MC Chris has a voice only a mother could love, but once you get past his high-pitched whine (that’s his natural voice, by the way, it’s not a stage demeanor), it’s obvious that Chris is one of the most talented nerdcore rappers in the game. His lyrics are so whimsical and witty that you almost have to pause the track just to catch up with him, and he’s fantastic live, too.
“Freaks and Geeks” by Childish Gambino
Best lyrics: I got some pussy that was insane / So insane, it’s an enemy of Batman
Why it’s great: Years ago, a pre-Atlanta Donald Glover quit Community and threw himself full force into his rap career. Before dropping his first album as Childish Gambino (a name he got from an online Wu-Tang Clan name generator), he released Freaks and Geeks as a single. The accompanying video was so celebratory and intimate that it gave nerdcore rap a new, shinier, less-DIY sheen, albeit temporarily. Gambino’s no longer a mainstay of nerdcore rap, but for a brief moment, it seemed he was about to elevate the whole scene out of your buddy’s basement and into the limelight.
“Paul Revere” by Beastie Boys
Best lyrics: One lonely Beastie I be / All by myself without nobody
Why it’s great: The Beastie Boys are, arguably, too successful to truly be considered a part of the nerdcore rap scene, but it’s inarguable that they paved the way for “outsider” rappers to earn their due. It’s a testament to how nebulous and creative rap was in the ‘80s, that a trio of skinny Jewish boys rose to stardom so quickly, all while writing lyrics about old Westerns and bad dancing. In order to understand what makes nerdcore hip-hop tick, you could do worse than starting with License to Ill.
“Anxiety” by Optimus Rhyme
Best lyrics: In a room full of people that I’ve never met / You know I’d rather be home stuck in the apartment / Cause my shirt’s now soaked through, soppin’ wet / And oh God, here we go, not again
Why it’s great: While Optimus Rhyme, a nerdcore collective, wasn’t the first (or the best!) to write rap lyrics about feeling anxious, their tracks are typically considered elemental to fans of a particular scene. Anxiety is less clean than Kendrick’s Untitled 06, but it purports the same theory: awkward is beautiful, and that people who feel out of place can still flock to hip hop in order to feel understood.
“Professional Rapper” by Lil Dicky feat. Snoop Dogg
Snoop: Shut the fuck up, man, rap’s like life / If you wanna do this, then you won’t get far acting like a little bitch
Dicky: Nah, that’s my niche! / Don’t get offended by this, but that’s the market y’all missed / That’s the target I’ll hit and that’s the heart of my pitch / I wanna do this whole thing different
Why it’s great: Technically, Lil Dicky is more of a comedian rapper (or worse, a “frat rap artist”) than he is an integral part of nerdcore. However, some of his tracks sound suspiciously like a nerdcore rapper fighting to find his place in mainstream hip-hop. His logic on “Professional Rapper” applies to a lot of the nerdcore movement; Dicky’s albums are for music fans who thought they were anti-rap, because they want to avoid hyper-masculinity. But he’s also a little more talented than the average “comedian rapper,” so he perplexingly finds himself working with artists like Snoop Dogg and Fetty Wap on the reg. He’s also on this list because I personally have a gigantic crush on him.
“Power Ups” by Sammus
Best lyrics: I’m a one woman army / got a gun up on my arm like a tommy / I’m gonna kamehameha with a long beam / pop off like the bottle top of Dom P
Why it’s great: It’s not difficult to find women who rap about nerdy subjects, but it’s difficult to find any more talented than Sammus. She’s found a way to combine masculine and feminine-typical traits from hip hop into a cohesive sound, and she finds power in representing video games and anime.
“Chun Li” by Ryu Black feat. Mega Ran and Masia One
Best lyrics: After the match I asked her name / she said “Chun Li, and I’m the best in the game”
Why it’s great: There are a couple questionable turns of phrase in “Chun Li,” but Ryu Black’s bouncy track mostly avoids becoming what it might have been, had it landed in less talented hands: a racist and/or sexist song about a hot Asian girl. It also stands out among many, many rap songs about Street Fighter, because it puts a narrative into the simple game, like a piece of lovingly-written hip-hop fan fiction. It’s nerdcore because it’s earnest, and that, at the core, is what the scene’s about.