Interview w/ MC Frontalot

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Photo credit: Deborah Lopez

I have the great pleasure of being able to call MC Frontalot my friend. Well, maybe more of an acquaintance. Uh... He'll return my calls and texts, how's that? I met MC Frontalot a few years ago when he was doing a show in Houston. I had managed a couple of bands in college, one a touring band. I knew how hard the road was, and how most sustenance is obtained from places with Kings or Arches, or from a gas station.

I sent MC Frontalot an email and asked if I could take the band out for dinner before or after the show, as they were playing around the corner from a friend's restaurant. They graciously agreed, and I showed up like a fanboy with a bag of stuff for them to sign. We had a great time at dinner, and Frontalot and his band put on a great show.

Over the years I've stayed in touch with MCF and his band, and any time they pass through Houston they know I'm good for a meal. Frontalot has become a bonafide nerd celebrity, and I feel like he has the pulse of geek/nerd culture. A while back I asked if he would be willing to do an interview with the WSGF and thankfully he agreed.

Hopefully this article brings some new questions and insight to the table. Some questions were asked with tongue firmly planted in cheek (and some were quite wordy), but even then Frontalot's answers were insightful. I had fun picking his brain, and hopefully you enjoy reading. And I hope I didn't annoy him too much with my follow up questions.

The Music

Q - How does the creative process work? I know you work extensively with Baddd Spellah and Gminor7. Is there a typical workflow? If so, what does it look like? Do you take verses to them? Does Bad Spellah create the beats first? Does Gminor7 bring the melody or hook? Or, is it a collaborative effort?

Rare picture of a young MC Frontalot
At the beginning of an album cycle, I will bring The Sturgenius and/or The Categorical Imperative into a drum studio and track a bunch of raw beat material. At that same time, Baddd Spellah will send me a stack of in-development grooves with electronic percussion. Then, usually, I will bring Gm7 in to play keyboards all over the live drum and electric drum material. Spellah and I will spend a lot of time going back and forth, chopping and assembling the melodic and rhythmic components

When I'm psyched about any particular groove and have a couple of its sections far enough along that they're suitable candidates for verse/chorus/etc, I will match that to something from my flat file of "songs to write," and start writing. I put down a scratch vocal, then continue to work with Gm7 and Spellah to tighten the groove around the lyric. Then comes the final vocal, another round of tightening, mixing, mastering, and release.

That's the process for the majority of tracks, but many individual songs go through different channels. I occasionally start with a chorus vocal idea and try to let the groove spring out of that. Some music beds are entirely Gm7's, some are entirely Spellah's. And I often bring in other instrumentalists, like Matt Steckler's horns on "Jacqueline Hyde" or Mr. B's banjo on "Better At Rapping," and scratching, harmonicas, theremin, you name it.

Q - What are the details of your recording rig? What kind of mic do you use? Software? What are the specs on your DAW?

I'm still using the setup described here: ...although now on Windows 8.

Q - Who are your musical influences? Who in the hip-hop world influenced (or continues to influence) you?

I grew up on Public Enemy, De La Soul, NWA, The Coup, and 3rd Bass. All that late-80s and early-90s stuff remains dear to my heart, and you can probably hear it in my rapping. In the current era, I love the interesting stuff like Busdriver, MF Doom, Kool Keith, Brother Ali, Jean Grae, and the radio stuff like Kanye West and Jay-Z. I try to soak up whatever I can. Almost anyone who makes a recording has something going on that's worth understanding.

Q - One of my favorite guitarists, Chris Duarte (a blues guitarist), cites (jazz great and horn player) Miles Davis as one of his biggest influences. Who are some of your influences that might surprise people?

Paul Simon? PJ Harvey? Mary Lou Lord? Tom Waits? I don't know whether anyone would be surprised by anything I've ever listened to.

Q - Word on "the street" (Wikipedia, I think) is that you have a new album in the works? How is that coming? Do you have any samples/demos you can share with us?

It has been slow going this time around. But it's coming! August, I think. The whole thing is about fairy tales, folk tales, and bedtime stories. I have got a particularly exciting roster of guests lined up.

Illustration credits: Nerdcore Rising (Tony Moore), Secrets from the Future (Mike Krahulik ), Final Boss (Scott Campbell), Zero Day (Jhonen Vasquez), Solved (Evan Dorkin)

Q - How does it feel to be considered the "Godfather" of nerdcore? Do you even see yourself as such? Does it add any pressure to you in regards to your albums, shows, convention schedules, etc?

I like 'godfather' much better than 'grandfather.'

Q - What other nerd musicians (of any genre) would you recommend?

Everyone who's ever played on a JoCoCruiseCrazy or a Nerdapalooza or a PAX. Plus Weird Al 4ERARRR.

Music + Gaming

Q - I have a strong connection between music and gaming in my formative years. Almost all of my early gaming years were a confluence of classic Prince (Dirty Mind - Controversy - 1999 - Purple Rain - Around the World in a Day), and classic computer RPGs and Adventure games (Ultima - Bard's Tale - King's Quest - Space Quest - Hero's Quest). Is there any intersection for you of gaming and music in your early years?

My friends and I used to collect SID demo songs on the C64. My only strong memory of booting an actual game just to listen to its music was Monty Mole, which had this laconic, plodding rendition of the Colonel Bogey March on endless repeat. Games always have music, so I think I've never listened to external pop music while gaming. Actually, that's not true -- just recently the SimCity (5) music got tedious so I turned it off in-game and have been catching up on all my friends' latest albums while I play.

Q - Gaming is obviously a one of the nerd topics you cover in your writing. (See: original intro to "Crime Spree", "It is Pitch Dark", "Final Boss" (song, album, album cover, etc). How has gaming influenced your writing, stage show, or other aspects of your art?

I spend a lot of time in fantastical gaming environments, and I spend a lot of time writing fantastical song narratives, so I guess it's natural for those to overlap. But when I set out to write a song about gaming, it's usually lands on some kind of a concern that's external to the narrative, like the difficulty of separating fantasy and real life (It Is Pitch Dark) or a goofy critique of the standard conflict arc of every game with a final boss in it.

Q - Recently there has been a rise in interest in gaming soundtracks (Jonathan Colton, Jim Guthrie, etc.) Have you, or anyone else in the "Frontalot Family" (Baddd Spellah, Gminor7, Bl4k Lotus, Vic20, etc.) been involved with any gaming soundtracks?

Gm7 scored the new Asymmetric Publications RPG, Word Realms, and I know he'd love to get more gigs like that. Spellah works at Relic in Vancouver, but as a visual art director. I wonder sometimes if he has to hold his tongue when the score to one of their games isn't funky enough.


Q - How have your gaming habits (or attitudes towards gaming) changed since your "formative years".

Photo Credit: Sean McPharlin
It's kind of just like it ever was: I get wide-eyed at how vivid the gaming tech is and how immersive the experience gets. And then I keep playing because the games are well designed to light up the reward centers in my brain. They are a sort of cocaine that I've been addicted to since I was 10 or so.

Q - What does "gaming" mean to you do today? How have the changes in the PC landscape changed gaming for you?

Obviously, the hardware and its attendant potential software gets fancier every year, though increasingly sophisticated gaming platforms create an ironic chain -- higher expectations, more expensive development necessitating broader audiences -- leading to dumber games. I'm in the camp that thinks it's a shame that consoles have gotten so important to AAA game development, because their simplified mechanics and control schemes now bleed over into most PC gaming.

I'm more enthralled by a Diablo or a Civ game than by anything you can do without a mouse and a QWERTY keyboard. But I'm not at all opposed to casual gaming. I do love the recent renaissance in indie studios -- everything that's happening on Steam and in the PAX 10. I can beat a couple best times on Offspring Fling and get back to work without abandoning my whole day.

Q - What are the specs of your PC gaming rig? Is this the same rig as your DAW? Is PC gaming your primary gaming avenue these days?

I'm still on an i7-920 chip. I recently upped my nVidia card to a GTX660Ti so that I could bang through Far Cry 3 and Infinite (though I'm saving Infinite for after this album wraps). It is my music production rig too. If gaming were not so integral to my professional music career, I'd probably have to separate those missions into two computers, for tax reasons.

Q - What are your favorite genres/franchises/titles/etc. in gaming (PC specific, if possible) ?

The best games ever made are Lode Runner for C64, Portal, Katamari Damacy, Civ 5, Shadow of the Colossus, and Psychonauts. I also love the GTA games, ever since version 1, even though their terrible moral landscape is kind of fatiguing.

Q - What are you playing now, and what is your dominant gaming platform?

Simcity 5, Stacking (doublefine's kid's game). Just got done w/ Darksiders II from a Humble Bundle. I have an XBOX and a couple of Windows boxes. The windows box is the main rig.

Pop Culture

Q - What constitutes "nerd" these days? Is it affinity for modern gaming? Vintage gaming? Is it a reverence for 80's pop culture, or possibly interest in things like board gaming and other IRL games such as Magic: The Gathering, D&D and Warhammer? Comics? Cosplay? Anime? Star Wars/Trek? Joss Whedon? Like at least five of the previous things? Gaming is now a mainstream pastime and source of entertainment. Comic book movies are the biggest things in pop culture. And the cool kids all sit around hunched over their little mini computers (iPhones, iPads, Androids, etc.). What was once our own niche and culture, now seems to be mainstream. What constitutes "nerd" in our current culture?

Nerds are as they ever were, folks marginalized for their lack of social or physical prowess. If the wider culture continues to have its 'moment' of pretending that it thinks we're cool, let it. It's a nice break from being reminded constantly by the media that we don't deserve status, recognition, or love.

Q - What are your thoughts on (damn dirty) Hipsters? It seems to me that they take many things from the historical nerd culture (80's pop culture, gaming, comics, glasses, gadgets), and seem to like these things in an ironic way. They like the things, in spite of the things. Counter-posed to that are nerds/geeks have a genuine affection for their specific areas of interest. What's the interaction between the nerd and the hipster? Can you be both? How can fashionable nerds avoid being mistaken for hipsters?

I understand the urge to try to withhold cultural totems when we think that other people Just Aren't Appreciating Them Correctly, but that urge is dumb and we should resist it whenever we're able. Those things are all entertainment objects/properties. If the cool kids are getting something out of them, or even just performing a ritualized simulation of getting something out of them, more power to 'em. What are we, wine snobs?

Q - What are some of your other favorite geek/nerd things (books, comics, TV, anime, music, games, etc.)?

Please refer to any previous interview for lists like this, thx

MC Frontalot gesticulating at PAX 07. Photo credit: Tom Mathews. Click to embiggen.

The Industry & Relationships

Q - In you recordings you've gotten to work with a lot of famous/classic "nerd" people, such as John Hodgman and Wil Wheaton. How do you get to work with these folks? Is there anyone else you really want to work with?

I got to meet Hodgman through Jonathan Coulton, because they were college chums. Wil has been a fixture at PAX for a while now. If you attend enough Nerd Royalty functions, you will end up having a drink with everyone eventually.

Stand up comics are the rockstars of my world. They do this thing onstage that I can fantasize about but could never accomplish. I have been excited to make pals with my favorites and coerce them into my album skits and videos. I'm hassling Kyle Kinane for the next one, and I'm still dreaming of getting Patton Oswalt on something, some day.

Q - Beyond any stable of nerd icons or nerdcore rappers, are there any mainstream/traditional rappers you'd like to work with? Why?

I wish I could get Busta Rhymes to come reprise his "like a dungeon dragon" line from Scenario. I could make a hook out of that and take the nerd world by storm.

Q - How was the experience on "King of the Nerds"? I was hoping they'd have you as a mentor, to help them write their songs. How much time did it take to get the amount of screen time we saw on the episode?

I was there for only an afternoon, and the shooting part took less than an hour. I was very glad that they cut down all the nonsense I said to just a few seconds of me being nice to them. In the actual shoot, we (Garfunkel & Oates & I) presented long American Idol style critiques. They could easily have made an edit where I'm the mean asshole judge character.

Q - Given your relationship with Wil Wheaton (see PAX and MCF albums) and Kate Micucci (judge on "King of the Nerds" and 1/2 of "Garfunkel and Oates"), when can we expect your guest star on Big Bang Theory?

Maybe when I'm ten times more famous and it would not be quite such a waste of screen time to put me on network primetime.

In Closing

Q - Penny Arcade named you their "Rapper Laureate". What other awards or titles have you received?

I got a medal for "Best Sandcastle" at the King Richard's Faire in Illinois around 1983.

Q - You're the only rapper I know, and I have a hip-hop question that has been bugging me. On their last album ("Hot Sauce Committee Pt 2") the Beastie Boys had a track called "Too Many Rappers". On this track (with Nas), they talked about there being "too many rappers, not enough MCs". What is the difference between a "rapper" and an "emcee"? And what can be done to restore the balance?

If there's some real difference in definition, I've never heard of it. People have often claimed a contrast based on authenticity or talent or heart or etc, but as far as I can tell, it was just some kind of quality distinction. "I like you and think you're a genuine part of hip-hop culture, therefore you are a real MC. That other guy seems to just be putting rhymes together, and is therefore merely a rapper."

That is a longstanding sentiment. I feel it would be brash for me, a rapper who has cobbled a career together based on fronting, to address any issues of hip-hop authenticity. It is heartening that the Beasties were eventually allowed to hold forth on the topic, though, considering the fact that their first disc was a genre parody created by punk rock children.

Q - On your website you say "Ya moms is a cheesy rap parody novelty act, worth barely a moment's smirking half-appreciation!" Question is, how do you know my Moms?

She conducted most of the pre-interview.

I would like to that MC Frontalot for taking the time to do this interview, and indulge my repeated emails with more questions. As a fan it was great to interview him, and get his take on gaming, music and nerd culture. I hope everyone enjoyed his insight and answers as much as I did.

Check out MC Frontalot at: Website - Facebook - Twitter - YouTube (Official Video Playlist Below)