In 2000, a rapper named MC Frontalot coined a term that would define a movement of hip hop influenced by all things nerdy. His song “Nerdcore Hiphop” gave a name to what had been brewing for some time with artists like MF Doom, Deltron 3030, and even the Beastie Boys, who had experimented with themes outside of traditional hip hop. If an artist rapped about movies, comic books, sci-fi, video games, or anything associated with nerd culture, it deserved its own subgenre. Thus “nerdcore” was born.

Nerdcore is about as niche as a genre can be, which makes DIY ethics vital to the scene. Artists often play smaller shows they book themselves, produce their own music, and release much of it for free. If punk music is for the outcasts, the kids that don’t have a place, the kids who only fit in with kids that don’t fit in, then nerdcore is more punk than punk. And while most artists within the genre are not full-time musicians, there are some who’ve have found varying levels of success. MC Lars, one of the founding fathers of nerdcore, has played Vans Warped Tour, performed with Snoop Dogg, supported Bowling For Soup on tour, and more. Mega Ran, known for releasing albums inspired by video games such as Final Fantasy and Mega Man, has performed at SXSW every year since 2008 and has had songs featured in both Portlandia and Tosh.0. These artists, along with others like Optimus Rhyme, Schaffer The Darklord, and Commodore 64, have given nerds a place in hip hop for the first time. I had a chance to catch a nerdcore show in the basement of a comic book store last year, and it ended up being a much bigger experience than just bonding over nerd culture.

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Nerdcore icon Mega Ran

The show was a part of Adam Warrock (real name Eugene Ahn, artist name derived from the Marvel comics character Adam Warlock) and Mikal Khill’s Grumpy Old Men Tour. My friends and I got there a little early to browse the shop and talk nerdery. Where other music scenes have fans slamming drinks in the parking lot before the show to get pumped, nerdcore shows have fans looking through comics and debating classic “who-would-win-in-a-fight” scenarios. Once it was announced the show was about to begin and we were invited into the basement, it was about as communal a setup as I’ve ever seen: a little mat for the “stage” in front of maybe 30 or 40 chairs. I don’t expect many hip-hop shows have everyone seated.

Mikal Khill opened up, performing hip-hop mixed with acoustic guitars about nerd-culture topics including a quick song set to the theme of Bojack Horseman. Not all of it was light-hearted, though. Opening up to the intimate crowd about his struggles with mental illness and how it runs in his family, the night was starting to feel like we were all hanging out with friends we’d known forever, artists included. It was raw and honest (not to mention brave), more so than just about any other show I’ve attended.

Adam Warrock took the stage right after Khill finished. Warrock played a fun set with songs like “Star Lord,” about the Guardians of the Galaxy character, and “Gifted Student,” an anthem for academic geeks. There was plenty of banter, sometimes even mid-song: annoying drunk people at concerts, how hip-hop songs are always so bossy (“throw your hands in the air!”), and how he’s growing out his hair so he can be Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender for Halloween. Praising the close-knit feeling of shows like this, Warrock mentioned many fans have told him they don’t normally feel comfortable attending most shows but feel safe and welcomed at nerdcore shows. I know exactly how that feels, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish more punk/rock/etc. shows felt more like this one.

But the real highlight of the night was when Warrock shared his story of how he got into music. He’d always been a hip-hop fan, dabbling in making his own music here and there. Eventually, life did to him what it does to so many: forces us to grow up, drains our passion, and convinces us there is only one correct way to live. In Warrock’s case, this meant going to grad school at Emory University of Law. After graduating, he became a lawyer in Washington D.C. and put music on the backburner. Despite landing a successful career, Warrock was miserable. As we sat crowded in that grungy basement, he recalled the discontent of his comfortable office job. “I was working a job I couldn’t stand because I thought I was supposed to.”

Sound familiar?

It did for me. I had recently graduated with a degree in a field I quickly realized I did not care for while slogging through everyday life trying not to let it sap me of whatever dreams of music I still had. Working as a substitute teacher usually gets the when are you gonna get a real teaching job question, which only gets worse when I have to admit I’m not happy working in that field and actually love music. The questions that follow are even less pleasant. I can’t think of any real encouragement I had gotten from anyone regarding my dreams, but was never short in finding the opposite. It was starting to affect my outlook on music. My own band had been struggling to find any real momentum, often joking about how bad and close to breaking up we were. In hindsight I think it was a defense mechanism in case we did call it quits. If we did get too discouraged and quit, we could just laugh it off and act like it was expected, softening the blow. It was easier not to dream and accept defeat than to face constant discouragement. In the back of my head, I always thought I was an idiot for having dreams of being a successful musician.

Adam Warrock, however, wasn’t having it. When his unfulfilling job had taken its toll on him, he did the only logical thing to do after spending years of his life and countless dollars on schooling for a well-paying career:

“I quit,” he said with a smile.

It was like Office Space but real, and even nerdier. He then explained that he had been a full-time musician since 2010, making a living from an annual donation drive while still giving away hundreds of free songs. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old, or too young, or not good enough to follow your dreams,” he added.

Warrock thanked the venue and the crowd, and gave a precursor to his last song. “This one is about the greatest television show in history,” he said with a smile. He clicked play on his laptop, the beat started, and the place burst into laughter and cheering.

Adam Warrock was rapping over the theme song to The Golden Girls, and it was awesome.

That’s when the entire night seemed to click. Here was someone who was like me, with the unfulfilling career, the nerdiness, the love for music. He was one of us and he made it. All of it was possible, naysayers be damned. Maybe it was because I too was a huge nerd with a degree in a field I didn’t like, but this was the first time that message had really clicked with me. It was like Obi-Wan explaining the Force to Luke for the first time. There’s this whole other thing that exists that many people don’t know is real, and it’s called doing what you want. Maybe I wasn’t an idiot for having dreams.

I walked away from that show with my first real encouragement, determined to do the things I love for once. Our band kept with it, and I was actually feeling positive about the future. Songwriting, promoting, and practicing felt less like a fruitless endeavor. We wrote more songs, released more music, played more shows, and made a little name for ourselves in the local scene. Later that year we booked our first tour, and it was honest-to-goodness the most fun I’ve ever had. We are playing at a festival for the first time soon. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t know if any of these experiences would exist if I hadn’t been at this show in the basement of a comic book store watching someone rap about 1980s sitcoms. And while we aren’t anywhere close to being as successful as someone like Adam Warrock, it was the push we needed to be more successful than we were.

I don’t always feel positive or inspired, but I can always come back to the memory of that night and it helps. Like reaching a checkpoint in a videogame, I can fall back on it because I realized something that night: Dreams aren’t dumb. Dreams are cool. If someone tells you you’re crazy for working on your dreams, just remember there is somebody out there who makes a living rapping about The Golden Girls. And then get back to work.

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