Nerd Night at the Marquis
What happens when MC Chris and co. descend on Denver
On Friday August 31st, the comic book stores in Denver stood empty. Silence gripped the channels of Xbox LIVE while video game systems fanned themselves to coolness and frat boys drunkenly mashed buttons at 1up in a huge display of irony. During all this, the nerds were elsewhere—congregating in a knot descending on the Marquis Theatre as if summoned by a mage, or someone leaking the trailer to Ironman 3. There for hours amid the thick aroma of grease-dripped pizza, the geeks bounced their heads up and down to the sound of a subculture that many never knew existed: nerdcore.
For those new to the term, “nerdcore” is, at its roots, hip-hop for nerds. Ink is spilled writing about videogames rather than “the game”; shows feature more beards than you’ve ever seen rapped to, the only crowd to enthusiastically clap along to an organ solo, and a place where referencing Caligula earns huge you-told-him-so “oooh’s” from the audience. During the Mega Ran’s closer, he was actually handed a “Magic, The Gathering” card.
Nerdcore is a genre permeated with a feeling of the tongue-in-cheek. It contributes to the fun, but is surprisingly unnecessary. Over the course of the evening, Schaffer the Darklord, Mega Ran, and MC Chris showed consummate skill in their approaches on the genre, delivering the view from the “bottom” of the social ladder in a way that deserves high scores in any rap circle. Especially because when it needed to, the music could hit hard. Each artists’ set brought moments that managed to make the entire room sway, revealing that no matter who you are, underneath everything we all have the hidden urge to just thump every once in a while.
Inserting myself in a crowd filled with piercings, couples clutched in high school-style stand-up embraces, the evening started with the opener summoned on-stage to chants of “STD”. Schaffer the Darklord, fresh-flown from NYC (which in his words is “full of rats and smells like garbage”), takes the stage wearing a black jacket with thin silk lapels and threatens the audience with goodwill from the get-go. “We came here to cheer you guys up,” he announces at one point, finishing menacingly with glaring eyes shouting, “Right?” Schaffer’s set kicks off with a bang as he starts the track and begins striding across the stage shouting lines akin to “The largest air battle in the history of mankind”, with a 20th Century Fox intro blaring behind him. About 20 seconds into this, you realize he’s quoting the entirety of the Bill Pullman speech from Independence Day and before you know in the entire crowd has joined in, screaming the final words over crashing cymbals in unison.
Schaffer raps fast—something he claims the altitude affects but isn’t noticeable from the crowd. His breaths include necessary shrugs of his glasses up his nose with one finger, and his telegraphic facial expressions and and wide-swinging arms possess a level of theatricality that belies an actual theatre kid. And sure enough on “Tom Girl”, he talks about loving musicals and tries to convince the invisible conversationalist that he’s not gay. Classic theatre trouble.
Schaffer (who prefers to be called a “Rappist”) working up a respectable sweat during his set, disrobing to his rolled sleeves during “Cat Song” (yes, it’s about loving cats), as he continued to ejaculate surprisingly positive messages to the venue. He amends a call for women to raise their hands to, “anyone who identifies as a women”. Classic rap elegies of “bitches and hoes” are replaced with his weak promise that “I’mma do sex to all of you / everybody in this room” on the song “Do Sex”. He even makes the declaration from stage at one point that men need to treat women better. “I’d say you know who you are, but you don’t!” On the final song, Schaffer hits stride the hardest and as he stretches his arm over the crowd, heads snap into bouncing action with the metronome swing of kids who were in band and can keep perfect time.
It’s at shows like these where you see hip-hop for what it is at its most basic; all the swagger stripped away, all the champagne. It’s an eloquent vehicle for packing more information into music than was ever possible before. Look up STD’s “The Bender”, and you’ll see what I mean. Hyper-referential and clever, hip-hop as a mechanism is perfectly suited to a crowd that did much too well in school, and hangs ample fruit for those fast enough to pick it.
The second act, Mega-ran, burst onto stage about 30 minutes late, and immediately gets to the business of delivering rhymes with heaving articulation and familiar rap bravado. The affect fools you into thinking he’s an ordinary rapper, until you look at his 8-bit artwork shirt and he announces that the opener is about one of his favorite games, Final Fantasy 7. Still, he does deserves “real” hip-hop credit for sounding more than a little like Biz Markie, though with speech therapy thrown in.
Now an official licensee for Capcom, Mega Ran was made famous for his albums made featuring beats built from vintage Mega Man audio. Spitting and crackling, the Marquis speakers deliver brash 8-bit melodies mixed with bass-heavy hits as he vents to his compatriots about childhoods spent beating screens and not bullies. In between moments of pulling on a plush Mega Man arm cannon and twitching the end at the crowd, and a rhyme about how much he loved his underwater robot girlfriend (Splash Girl), you do get the feeling that this is music with persistent notes of loneliness. Everyone in the crowd is definitely having fun, but looking around you can see a certain degree of seriousness flash through their faces when lines drop about isolation and not getting played with as a kid that make you realize all this was not quite as brushed off as they make it seem on the surface. Maybe that’s what makes the atmosphere so infectious at the Marquis. Whether you intend it or not, this crowd and these acts find a way to draw you in and make you feel at home with strangers with their odd mix of honesty and humor. It’s as if this is a group of people who know what it feels like to be outcasts, and they’re determined not to make others feel that way as well—the love flows thick from the stage to the crowd, and right back again.
Nowhere is this hidden struggle of childhood brought closer to the surface than when the star of the evening appears. Many people would think MC Chris still looks and sounds like a child himself, but he takes the stage with the self-conscious, grown intensity of someone who’s been picked on his whole life. For those who have never heard his music, he sounds like someone on speed and a tank of helium. Everything is fast, and his unmistakably high voice is where napoleon complex meets nerd rage. He delivers his raps in a trance, eyes closed, his slight shoulder rocking left to right as he reads the complex lyrics from inside of his eyelids. On stage, the evening is MC Chris’ moment and we’re just a part of it. Though he is happy to invite us along. Decked out in a Nightwing t-shirt and the black baseball cap that’s hardly ever off his head, he cajoles and directs the crowd with something that’s not quite force and not quite a request either.
As the night rolls on, the feeling of the patently uncool intensifies as the drinks flow and the crowd and artists meld together intoo one giant note of fun, as if saying “this is the stuff that we love, and fuck you if you don’t like it.” In fact, Chris spent large portions of the night waving upstretched deuces back and forth in front of the audience, so this might have been his actual intention. The set ranged wide; he celebrated Batman and then he launched into “Hoodie Ninja”, which samples DEVO in the only serious way since “Whip it” was played for the first time in 1980. There’s a mis-pitched but thoroughly fantastic version of “Call Me Maybe” about doing bath salts (find it HERE), which he follows with a political diatribe mélange heavily sampling M83. He leads with the phrase “Obama, I’ve got a question for you” shouted over the triumphant sounds then stopped abruptly six or seven times when the accompaniment cuts out, leaving Chris to repeatedly freeze momentarily and then robot crazily around the stage before rushing back to the laptop. It’s entirely unclear if this is a technical difficulty, or just all part of the act. “Is it just me or does everyone born between 1940 and 1960 need to die?” he yells soprano in one of these breaks of silence, assuring the audience he’s serious with offers to supply torches at the door and go out and “kill the old people”.
These weird robot-filled moments of silence are just the final piece in the fantastic DIY feel to this assemblage. When covering Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood”, Chris backs his track up with two taps of the 30-second skip and re-performs the entire second verse again. When Mega Ran asks for a towel to mop his sweat, an invisible figure thrusts a giant wad of paper towels through the curtain 10 minutes later and wiggles them around like a jellyfish until he notices. These are people making music out of the public eye, not caring whether they make it big or not, and doing so in way they don’t even care if it seems cool. But what they do care about is people. In the middle of all this, there’s another glimpse of community to be caught: the reason for the show in the first place. It’s the woven apple basket sitting on the bar with a hand-written note that proceeds collected go to the victims of the Aurora shooting; a basket that Chris beckons forward and asks loudly for people to contribute to. He sends it around the room while singing his song “Wiid” (Weed is by my side / it’s always been there, always been there), and when it comes back with less money than he wants he sends it back out, commanding the crowd again with his odd mix of not quite anger, and not quite pure fun.
After a brief step off-stage, he returns for an encore that encompasses the biggest swath of his persona. Finishing at the highest with crowd favorite “Fett’s Vette”, Chris walks off stage to sign posters and meet his fans, telling everyone he loves them before he goes. But although this was the finish to things, the moment more fitting to encompass the night came in the middle of the set. There, Chris managed to sum up everything about the show—all the silliness, the geek pride, and maybe even a bit of the bittersweet too—in one quick comment that was met with roars from the crowd. “I recently got engaged…In Skyrim. She makes this one fucking casserole that makes it really easy to kill an Ice Dragon.”