If you believe his press clippings, MC Chris is the smart-ass king of nerdcore. He rhymes about ephemera such as the Marvel Comics mini-series House of M, and spits dorky raps in a high-pitched, childlike voice. His best-known song is "Fett's Vette," a tribute to the Star Wars bounty hunter that gets props from George Lucas and My Bloody Valentine: "My backpack's got jets/Well, I'm Boba the Fett/Well I bounty hunt for Jabba the Hutt to finance my 'vette."
MC Chris doesn't seem to give a shit about hip-hop culture -- or your mama, for that matter. But Chris Ward, the 31-year-old man behind the helium-voiced cartoon, cares as much as anyone. "I've been doing this for 10 years, so it's weird to be doing something for a long time and then have it be classified [as nerdcore]," he says. It's a distinctly Internet phenomenon. He estimates he has sold 20,000-25,000 CDs of his catalog, which includes two albums (2004's Eating's Not Cheating and this year's Dungeon Master of Ceremonies) and an EP (2002's Knowing is Half the Hassle). But most of his income derives from sold-out shows around the country, where kids who downloaded "Fett's Vette" know its words by heart.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a run-of-the mill indie-rap fan who has heard of nerdcore's leading artists -- MC Chris, MC Lars and MC Frontalot, among a few others. But there's a reason why "Weird Al" Yankovic's "White and Nerdy" was a surprise hit this year. Even though plenty of African-American MCs rap about nerdy stuff (check Del tha Funkee Homosapien's Deltron 3030 and MF Doom's Operation Doomsday for proof), nerdcore derives its popularity from white fans who feel both alienated and fascinated by urban America.
Ward remains unabashedly equivocal about his place as a white person who makes rap music. "I like to think of myself as a nail on the coffin of hip-hop. I'm an affront to music, really. I think any self-respecting rapper would say, 'What is this kid doing?' It's like Elvis stealing rhythm and blues," Ward says. It's a strange admission for him to make after the critical and commercial success of white rappers such as Eminem, El-P, Sage Francis and Paul Wall. "I think all white people feel weird [doing hip-hop] ... I just know that when I heard Public Enemy and I heard De La Soul, I said this is the best music in the world.
"I like to think of it as an alternative kind of hip-hop. Hip-hop should be an art form that's played with like clay, experimented with and changing," Ward says of his music. "[My music is thugged-out] because it's satire. I'm commenting on what rap is a lot of the time, as well as making personal statements and commenting on nerd culture."
Produced by John Sewell and featuring backing music from Brooklyn bands the English Department and the Ergs, Dungeon Master of Ceremonies follows MC Chris as he descends into alcohol and drug addiction and struggles to record a follow-up to "Fett's Vette." "We're smoking that Danger Girl/We're smoking that Gen 13," he raps on "Wiid." Before he can finish, however, his record company hires assassins to murder him and boost record sales.
One of the cuts, a skit titled "The Package," is pretty offensive. (Leave it to a lapsed Catholic to tell the raunchiest Jesus joke.) Then again, so is the rest of Dungeon Master of Ceremonies. Despite his reputation for obsessions with Star Wars, video games and computers, MC Chris rhymes as much about sex and drugs as your favorite gangsta rapper. The nerdcore guise is context for Ward's wildly imaginative spoof of hip-hop culture.
Much of Ward's success as MC Chris is due to his prior work with Williams Street, the studio that produces adult-oriented cartoons on Turner Broadcasting's Adult Swim. Before then, he was a Chicago transplant in New York, a liberal arts graduate of NYU and sometime-student of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a New York-based acting theater that teaches comic improvisation. He made goofy rap songs such as "Fett's Vette" with a friend, pop-punk musician Adam Rabuck, to relieve tension from a rash of low-end jobs and corporate assignments on commercials and other soul-killing gigs. "It was something to make ourselves laugh and to cheer ourselves up when we were pissed off about our lives and our jobs," Ward says.
By moving down to Atlanta with Williams Street and working on Adult Swim shows such as "Sealab 2021" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," bizarre comedies that fused deliberately clunky animation with subversively juvenile humor, Ward realized his talents for drawing, painting, writing and acting. "Adult Swim was paramount in terms of its influence and importance," he says. "It was an amazing thing to be a part of and to witness." That same year, his own breakout moment arrived as "Fett's Vette" was played on the "All That Jazz" episode of "Sealab 2021." He had just finished his debut, Life's a Bitch and I'm Her Pimp, and posted it for free on his website, www.mcchris.com. Adult Swim flashed the URL address following the episode, and MC Chris' site traffic swelled.
Ward moved back to New York in November 2004 to pursue a full-time recording career. Although he has discussed recording contracts with several indie and major record labels, nothing has come to fruition yet. "I sat down with a lot of labels this summer, and they're like, 'What is this?'" he says. "And I'm like, if I get big, there's going to be a hundred million of me."
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