The grainy video on YouTube shows a rapper with wild hair, goth-like mascara, and vintage clothes, marching from one end of the stage to the other.
Colorfully tattooed arms sweep from side to side, and the rapper’s voice is that of a grade-school thug — high and scratchy but with a swagger more friendly than your average bully. The tattooed arms and nimble hands are good at physical things — stripping down a computer and rebuilding it, say. Or aiming the rifles that Army snipers use. Or playing instruments like the bass and cello. They’ve been trained to lob grenades in real life and to kill a thousand enemy soldiers in a Nintendo game, as well as hold a mic and sip from a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can at the same time. But on a typical Fort Worth afternoon, those hands are helping deliver yet another soy-milk vente latte to a Starbucks customer at a Westside coffeeshop. They belong to MC Router, the internationally recognized pioneer of a burgeoning hip-hop sub-genre called “nerdcore.”
The fact that she’s a white female rapper and a self-taught musician on several instruments would make Router a rare bird under any circumstances. And also, how many other rappers have joined the Army with the dream of becoming a sniper?
But to understand just how much Router stands out from most other recent Arlington Heights grads, download any of her numerous song files that are careening around the web, and listen carefully to the words. Her favorite subjects include computers, robots, sci-fi flicks, wi-fi technology, and “message-board assholes.” Within the rarefied but increasingly recognized musical style called nerdcore, Router, her fellow rappers, and fans worldwide have built a genre in which hyper-smart, socially downtrodden, mostly Anglo, self-made musicians spin rhymes about their fave “geek” obsessions. The former Kristin Ritchie is known to her fans as the First Lady of Nerdcore.
Her raspy, witty lines have attracted attention from VH-1 and international software companies She’s an angry, restless, potty-mouth artist who loves Pabst Blue Ribbon so much that her other nickname is “the Janis Joplin of nerdcore.” And at 21, she’s still directing a lot of that anger at the straight-arrow, popular kids who used to make her life hell. As she said, unofficially speaking for the whole nerdcore movement: “We had to listen to you in high school and take your bullshit. Now stand there and listen to us.”
No “star wars” kids allowed in my sector
I’ll light you up down to the last vector
Makin’ you dig for dilithium crystals
Space pistols, silent missiles … — Router, from her song “captain’s log 3.1337,” rapping on behalf of Star Trek fans and against the dastardly Star Wars devotees.
Computer-savvy geeks have been rapping online about their preoccupations since at least the late ’90s, but this particular sub-genre wasn’t christened until 2000, when Brooklyn-based artist MC Frontalot coined the term in his song “Nerdcore Hip-hop.” Last year, his first national tour was captured in a soon-to-be-released indie documentary called Nerdcore Rising. There are other signs that nerdcore is moving a few rivulets closer to the mainstream. The helium-voiced nerdcore artist mc chris, recently profiled in The New York Times, worships the Star Wars movies and rages against frat boys and popular kids. He went to the top of the iTunes hip-hop charts earlier this year. He also voices several characters on the Cartoon Network’s late-night Adult Swim animated serials, including Aqua Teen Hunger Force (he’s MC Pee-Pants) and Sealab 2021.
Those are modest inroads, granted, but the youth culture of 2007 is already so thoroughly geek-ified — with gamers, instant messagers, MySpace surfers, and kids who can multi-task in sophisticated digital media — that nerdcore is just waiting around the next bend for people to realize how mainstream it is. MC Router may be little known in Fort Worth, but in cities like Seattle and Portland, she draws crowds of a couple of hundred to the clubs. She finished her first national tour this year and has just completed her first full-length album. And she’s the subject of endless discussion on the nerdcore web forums.
At the clubs, Router’s onstage persona is set for “stun.” She makes direct eye contact with the audience, even striding into the crowd to share the mic with fans who know her raps from MP3 downloads. She shuns the tight, booty- and boob-baring outfits of so many female performers. The elaborate tattoos on her arms and upper chest make her look more like an old-school punk rocker than a rapper, and her vocal rhythms are slightly less staccato, a little more musical, than others. The DJ who works with her doesn’t scratch a turntable; instead, he presses “enter” on his PC keyboard to activate various beats and sounds and tries to look busy while she performs.
The differences between her shows and those of many other rappers are not so surprising. Unlike many of her compadres, her childhood was much more influenced by Euro-pop computer bleeps than hip-hop gangsta rhythms. Sure, she owned MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice t-shirts, but that was about as gangsta as little Kristin got. Growing up in a west Fort Worth apartment with her single mother, her early musical favorites were The Cure, INXS, and The B-52s. But she was also an avid console gamer and took an early interest in the science of robotics. “I was the kind of kid, my mother would have to tell me ‘Go outside, get some sunshine, you’re getting jittery,'” from playing hours of Super Nintendo and Commodore 64 games, she said. “I was like, ‘Just let me beat this level and I promise I’ll go.’ “I didn’t have many friends in high school,” she continued. But, “I was one of those kids where everybody knew who I was, even if they didn’t know my name.” Her nickname was “Bob,” and her punkish look set her apart: spiky hair, pierced lip, garish plaid pants, t-shirt emblazoned with an obscure band name. School peers, she said, would call her names in the hall and laugh at her; once they even threw rocks at her.
She spent most of her adolescence in her bedroom, reading science textbooks and staring at TV and computer screens. Her first musical foray was learning the cello at age 14 from a Korean girl in her apartment complex who exchanged lessons for tutoring. Ritchie then taught herself bass, guitar, and accordion. She has played in at least 15 different short-lived bands, ranging in style from punk to ska to swing jazz. Still, she wasn’t the only budding nerdcore artist in the school. She met her future producer and occasional beatmaker Tanner “T-Byte” Brown in a gym class. They made an immediate geek connection. They were both “the kids who got asked to fix other people’s computers,” Brown, now 20, remembered. “That’s how I stayed out of fights. I’m not very strong.” Ritchie’s interests were far from those of a stereotypical teenage girl — she loved console games, web chat forums, reggae-influenced riffs and beats — and computers. “I was into hardware,” she said. “I like to use my hands. I can take apart and reassemble a PC from scratch, but as far as programming, I have no clue.” She also worked weekends for a few years at the Christian-influenced youth club The Door, first as an in-house assistant to visiting bands and, later, helping to book touring bands for the club.
Meanwhile, Brown taught himself to play the drums so that he and Ritchie could form a band, called cowspunge, with two other teens. “It was sort of a cross between They Might Be Giants and Ween, though not quite as vulgar as Ween,” Brown said. In this incarnation of her musical self, Ritchie was a singer. Her vocal style was scratchy, squeaky, very Peppermint Patty-ish, but quite charming and even melodic. Meanwhile, Brown’s musical interests were ranging farther afield — he became interested in home-studio digital technology, including programs that allowed him to remix tracks and generate synthesized beats. He became enmeshed in the online culture of MP3 file-sharing and stumbled upon his first nerdcore rap artist, Colorado’s ytcracker, who’d uploaded a whole album’s worth of songs onto the internet. As per the nerdcore ethos, the music was free for listeners to download. “Ytcracker is considered one of the pioneers of nerdcore,” Brown said. “I downloaded the songs, remixed them, added a few beats, and then sent them to him. He contacted me back and said he really liked the new mixes. So we started collaborating a little.”
In much the same way that Ritchie had pulled Brown into the Fort Worth live music scene, he ensnared her in the world of online nerdcore hip-hop. At the time, she professed to hate most rap, although she later developed a fiery appreciation for mainstream artists such as Missy Elliott, as well as nerdcore line-droppers like ytcracker, Beefy, and mc chris. She decided to give rap a whirl. In person, Router is only slightly toned down from her onstage persona, gesturing extravagantly to emphasize what she’s saying, the tattoos and punk clothes adding more drama. She laughs a lot, although an undercurrent of fragility runs through her words. Above all, she obviously yearns to make you understand what she’s saying — and obviously thinks that most people don’t. She detests women who use sex to sell their music, in any genre. In her male-dominated musical world, her aversion to doing that costs her points from some would-be fans. And it was her anger over sexist comments — though she probably wouldn’t describe it that way — that helped get her started as a rapper.
When someone posted a lascivious message on her MySpace page in 2002 that pissed her off, Ritchie recorded a reply to it. It was her first rap song. “I did it freestyle, and it went on for more than four minutes,” she said, sounding excited all over again at the memory. “I didn’t think I was going to stop. It was like opening a treasure chest and all the dust flies off.”
From there, she wrote raps about Pogs — the game played with bottle cap-like discs that reached a zenith of popularity in the mid-90s — as well as the TV game show The Price is Right, with Brown providing digital rhythms. She posted the raps online. Like almost every other rapper in the genre, Ritchie/Router discovered she was nerdcore before she was 100 percent sure what nerdcore was. “I had heard Tanner talk about it, but I wasn’t really listening to it at the time,” she said. “But ytcracker heard [the early tunes] and told me, ‘You’re nerdcore.'” Bryce Case, a.k.a. ytcracker, lives in Colorado Springs. An erstwhile spammer for the porn industry, the 24-year-old has been rapping since 1998 about “my love-hate relationship with computers. They’re wonderful inventions, but it’s scary how dependent we are on them.” As ytcracker, he tours clubs, comic conventions, and computer shows nationally. He and Router have recorded two songs together, including a rap duet called “Nerd Love,” which turns digital slang into sexual double entendres and discusses romance from the geek-male and geek-female points of view. “She’s authentic and original even for a nerdcore artist,” he said of Router. “A lot of people identify with her. Her songs aren’t gimmicks. She raps about the real things that geeks think and talk about.”
Over the next couple of years, Router’s personal life took a series of turns as she honed her hip-hop skills. She dropped out of high school, which she said she always hated, earned a GED, took a few courses at Tarrant County College, and finally made her most dramatic decision: In 2005, she enlisted in the U.S. Army. She felt like her life was aimless and unfocused, and she was full of unused energy. She turned to an old geek obsession to justify her decision. “I wanted to see what the sandbox was like,” she said, using military slang for the current Iraq War. “I wanted to be a sniper. I think it was the video games — I’d been playing since I was eight.” Somehow, computer-game skills didn’t translate all that well to real soldiering. Her military career was short-lived. Sent to boot camp in Fort Jackson, S.C., she continued to write raps, but her behavior increasingly unnerved her superiors. “They told me that I couldn’t tell the difference between video games and reality,” she said. “During boot camp, we’d do convoy ops and have to kick in doors. The whole time in my head, it was like playing video games.”
The last straw might have come during grenade training, when she asked if she would get to handle plasma grenades. What the hell, her trainers wanted to know, were plasma grenades? The weapons from the video game Halo II, she replied. She wasn’t delusional, she insisted. “I just really thought that plasma grenades were based on a real kind of grenade.” Router was issued an ELS (entry-level separation), or “uncharacterized discharge,” the kind granted to individuals who’re deemed unfit before they finish their first six months of enlistment. Talking about what happened, she sounds matter-of-fact. She was actually relieved about her early dismissal, though disappointed in herself for not making it to Iraq. So she was shipped back to Fort Worth and never got to see action in the sandbox. But she’d begun her elaborate collection of body tattoos while in the service — always a plus for an edgy musician. And Brown and ytcracker were waiting to help her assume the tiara as First Lady of Nerdcore.
Chicago filmmaker Dan Lamoureux has just wrapped his first feature-length documentary, Nerdcore 4 Life, a comprehensive North American survey of the nerdcore scenes of San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, and Toronto, as well as cities in Louisiana, Florida, and Texas. His crew visited Fort Worth to film interviews and concert footage with Router, one of the movie’s key nerdcore players. He’s hoping to submit it for next year’s Sundance Film Festival. “She brings a gravitas to the whole genre,” he said of Router. “Besides being the first female artist, she’s completely committed to it, very businesslike about what she does. And she knows what she’s talking about — she’s very bright, very tech-savvy. But a lot of computer guys want to cry foul. She takes some heat because she’s a woman.” Lamoureux confirmed what Router and Brown also know: There are a lot of haters on the internet, eager to dismantle Router’s hard-drinking, tough-bitch public persona because, well, girls aren’t supposed to be able to build computers and talk like that. The nerdcore chat forum Rhyme Torrents regularly posts angry challenges to her credibility.
YouTube offered one homemade video in which a stranger viciously insults her weight and questions her computer knowledge. The film clip includes a picture altered to transform Router’s mike into a dildo, and Brown’s onstage PC has gay porn playing on its screen. Ah, the creative skills of America’s next generation … “I don’t want to sound like a fucking feminist,” Router said, “but it’s hard enough being a girl and white and a nerdcore artist. Some people think nerdcore is a gimmick anyway. And some guys get mad at you if you’re not out there shaking your ass, trying to be sexy.” She pretty much sees herself as just one of the nerdcore guys (though she admits she “got to make out with the sound guy” at one club on her last tour). “It’s so easy to be obnoxious on the internet,” Lamoureux said. “You can call somebody gross and fat and stupid and send it out to the universe without any consequences. But [within nerdcore] there’s a paranoia about who’s legitimate and who’s not, because so many people record and upload one or two novelty raps and call themselves nerdcore artists.”
He cited a recent calendar called The Girls of Nerdcore that had absolutely nothing to do with the music, but featured naked women curled around computers. Somebody just wanted to cash in on the phrase “nerdcore.” And, he said, there are occasional female nerdcore artists whose photos are so glossy, their appearances so mainstream glamorous, and who are so often followed by rumors that they don’t actually perform their own raps, that people have become wary of so-called bandwagoners. He declines to name names. But nobody in the nerdcore scene could point to any other female rapper as prolific as Router, and certainly none so good at dropping lines about robots, Nintendo games, computers, and Bill Gates.
Lamoureux was so impressed with Router that he did a second collaboration with her early this year. The software company Axo Soft conducted something called the “Geek-to-Geek Marketing Challenge,” an ad contest aimed at web-literate folks that called for the best amateur video singing the praises of Axo Soft products. Lamoureux and Router made a video called “Bugging Out” (whose rap was written by Router), that featured the artist being rescued from computer bugs (in the form of a tall man in a fly costume) by an Axo Soft specialist. “It was a slam dunk,” he said. “YouTube made it a featured video on their front page. We won the $5,000 prize. I’m not sure a lot of people even realized it was a commercial.”
Router finished her first national tour earlier this year along with her friend Beefy, a Seattle-area nerdcore performer. They started in Portland and went through Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles (performing at the famed Whisky a Go Go), Boise, and San Antonio. They played venues ranging from comic book and gaming conventions to a so-called Graffiti Flesh Show at a punk club, where they rapped about message boards and Dungeons and Dragons (one of Beefy’s fave subjects) while naked people had elaborate designs painted onto their bodies. More recently, the music video channel VH-1 requested that she send a video audition for their upcoming Female Rappers competition, based on the recommendation of ytcracker. And she just completed her first full-length album, produced by her high school pal Brown and released on cracker’s Colorado-based label Nerdy South. An official CD release show is scheduled in Seattle in late August. The album will be available online for free but will also be sold in disc form. Why, you’re probably wondering, would people pay for something they can download in seconds at no cost? “A lot of nerdcore fans download our music and buy the discs,” said ytcracker. “They want to support us.” In any case, he believes, the U.S. corporate model of distributing and promoting recorded music will eventually be forced to move in the direction that nerdcore already has. CD sales, he pointed out, have plummeted in recent years because people are burning and downloading so much for free. He thinks the future of music profit-making lies in concert ticket and merchandise sales.
“You can’t download a cap, a t-shirt, or a live-show experience,” he said. He points to Prince, a decidedly non-nerdcore superstar, who recently stunned corporate music suits by handing out his new album for free — at a show where fans had purchased tickets. “He sold out every show in the U.K.,” ytcracker said. Still, no nerdcore artist has yet been signed to a major label. Lamoureux said he believes it could eventually happen — he thinks Router is one of several worthy candidates — but right now, “Nerdcore makes major labels nervous. They don’t trust the audience because they think, ‘They’re getting it for free, anyway.'” Router hopes Lamoureux’s documentary will get major exposure and that she’ll be taken along for the ride. She plans on putting together another small national tour soon. But for now, she’s mostly just waiting. “I live with my mother, I work, I make music, and at night I hang out in bars and drink,” she said. “I’m kind of a drunk.” She’s been taking yodeling lessons, of all things, to smooth out the breaks in her voice. Her bosses at Starbucks have been very understanding about her periodic forays to other cities for shows. But, as is typical for the prophet in her own village, what she really craves is a fan base in Fort Worth, which she admits doesn’t have a solid nerdcore scene. “I fucking love Fort Worth, I fucking love Texas,” she exulted in her raspy voice. “I want people to know me here. I’m gonna burn a whole tray of CDs and start going to where my target audience is — game shops, comic book stores, computer stores. I’m gonna draw signs and stick them at random places all over town — on telephone poles, at intersections — that say ‘Nerd? Geek? Video Gamer? Interested? Here’s my web site.'” She paused. “Is that illegal?”
MC Router performs Tuesday, Aug. 21, at Club Dada in Dallas. The show starts at 9pm.
You can reach Jimmy Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org.