In an age when Kanye West would rather rant at people than relate to them, and Jay Z is more concerned with selling overpriced clothing, and new cell phones, than crafting meaningful music, it's refreshing to come across an artist like MC Lars.
With an almost cult-like following thanks to his history as one of the originators of Nerdcore, and as a current progenitor of lit-hop, Lars has a fan base that's both large, and extremely dedicated. Lars, in turn, is extremely dedicated to his fans, not just in the sense of making music for them, but in the personal connection he maintains with them, often staying late after shows just to make sure everyone who wants to say hello has the opportunity.
This week, MC Lars said hello to us, as we had the chance to sit down him to discuss everything from the children's project he's been working on (it involves hip-hop puppets!), to his current feelings on the term Nerdcore, to the friends and memories he made while being a part of this year's Warped Tour.
Adam Bernard: We met at Warped Tour back in July. Tell me about the most fun moment you had behind the scenes. Something none of us would have seen.
MC Lars: When we were in Philadelphia, Mac Lethal and I, and his crew, we all went into town. We went to see this show at this really small club, (featuring) one of his friends, I think he worked with Jedi Mind Tricks. It was really cool because Warped Tour is such a young, pop punk, thing, and to go with a hip-hop fan to see a friend of his in a small hip-hop club in the middle of Philadelphia was great. The best thing about the summer was personally becoming friends with Mac Lethal. Now we're doing a mini little Alaska tour.
AB: How well did you know Mac Lethal before Warped Tour?
ML: We collaborated remotely through Pro Tools online. I'd met him a few times, but I'd never really hung out with him. So I knew about him, and he knew about me, but we weren't really friends.
AB: So that Philadelphia experience was a real bonding moment.
ML: Yeah, as different as he and I are, we were the closest two acts on Warped Tour, especially on our stage, so we kind of helped each other, and we inspired each other. That was cool, and making friend with The Aquabats, and Reel Big Fish... it's just all the scenes at Warped Tour, it's so diverse, you can't leave that tour without making friends in scenes you never would have known.
AB: What have you been working on since then? I know you mentioned something about a children's album when we last spoke.
ML: Yeah, the children's album is kind of manifesting itself as this puppet show where I'm writing all the songs, and we'll put out a soundtrack for it. A few of our friends are gonna be involved, and we are currently putting together the pitch document, and shooting promos. We did a few promos for Warped. That's been cool, trying to take the work I've done in education and then go into the hip-hop kids market. It's been a fun new challenge.
AB: Has your work in education been with that particular age group?
ML: The age range is five to eleven, and I've done workshops with kids that young. What's so great about them is they have no filter. They'll come up with rhymes, and they'll be really creative. So I have (worked with that age group), but mainly my work has been with high school kids, (with) the more literary element.
AB: Speaking of that literary element, you released The Edgar Allen Poe EP last year. If I recall correctly there were other authors you wanted to give the MC Lars treatment to. Have you done that yet?
ML: Yeah, I've done Shakespeare, and Melville, and other authors. I want to do a series of EPs of different authors, or at least for one of my upcoming releases I want to do a bunch of different authors, like a pure lit-hop album. In the meantime, the show, the whole theme of it is these robots and I travel through time, we meet literary figures, or famous artists, and writers, and then figure out how their lives relate to hip-hop, so we get to bring a lot of it into that element in that regard.
AB: And there are puppets involved.
ML: Yeah, the robots are actually puppets. They each represent the four elements of hip-hop culture. We have a spider who break dances. Pickles, who's the first one we built, who's a DJ. Michelle, who's a microphone, and then Art, who's this giant body suit spray paint can.
AB: Giant body suit spray paint can? It sounds like we all missed a great Halloween costume opportunity right there.
ML: Yeah man. That's the goal, right? Kids dress up like the Yo Gabba Gabba characters, so one day they'll dress up like our characters.
AB: Have you had to watch a mind numbing amount of children's programming while putting this together?
ML: Yeah, definitely. I started working on this in 2009, and that's been interesting, seeing what appeals, because some stuff appeals mainly to kids. The Backyardigans, and The Wonder Pets, that is more straight up kids, but stuff like Yo Gabba Gabba, and Sesame Street, appeal to all generations.
AB: Going back to some of your intellectual projects for the fully grown, when you do something like your Edgar Allen Poe EP are you ever worried people aren't going to understand the finished product, or is that an audience you aren't concerned about?
ML: I think that's the whole beauty about being independent. Everything now is a niche market, really, so yeah, doing an EP about Edgar Allen Poe is not commercial, in the broad sense, unless you have some sort of guest, like if Justin Bieber sang a hook, that might be commercial. A few years ago I started realizing that with pop culture you're hit or miss, so you may as well do something that's interesting. I asked Weird Al this question, I said to him, what is his goal to hitting pop culture, with everything changing, and fragmenting, how does he hit as broad a market as possible? He said there's no way to do that, you just have to do what's meaningful to you. My brand of hip-hop is not necessarily for everyone, but the people who do get it, like it, and understand it. They're protective of it. It's kind of like the Juggalos, in a way. It's like their thing.
AB: I think you buried the lead there. You had a conversation with Weird Al! How did that come to be?
ML: I mentioned him, I talked about how he was a big influence of mine, and he saw the interview, he hit me up, and thanked me. We kept in touch. A few years ago, when I came off tour I was in LA. We met up, and had coffee, and I asked him a bunch of life questions.
AB: That's amazing. Speaking of life questions, what's your current relationship with the phrase Nerdcore? Do you embrace it, or are you done with it?
ML: I think it's something that's recognized, so I don't shy away from it. Back in 2007, when there was this whole media thing (surrounding it), everyone jumped on the bandwagon, so there was a low quality of art. Now I think the people who are still doing it are the people who are more aligned with hip-hop, and who are more into the craft of making songs, so I think the quality of it has increased as it's proven that it sticks around. So it stuck around, but it's still perceived, I think, by the press, as a novelty. Spin, they had a thing in their anniversary issue of a bunch of sub-genres, and they said it was nerds in need of a beat down, or something like that.
AB: I wrote a ten page paper about Nerdcore in grad school.
ML: Wow, what was your main point?
AB: It was really an exploration of it, and why it works. A big part of it ended up about the relationship between the artists and the fans. These are guys, like yourself, who are at the merch table every single night, meeting every single fan, and a lot of hip-hop acts don't do that, and this is why you have a Nerdapalooza, and you have documentary films, because there's a real relationship with the fans.
ML: There are so many artists, especially mainstream hip-hop artists, who don't even have merch. A few years ago we did this two month college tour with this band Cartel, and Yung Joc. They make so much money, and their production was just him, two emcees, and a DJ. They didn't even have merch, and I think a lot of rappers don't even bother with that because they make so much just to show up.
AB: Going back over your entire time in music, what do you consider one of your biggest career altering moments?
ML: I think doing Warped Tour was a great opportunity, and the fact that they asked me back has been cool because I'm in this niche-y, this subculture, and to be given an opportunity to play for that many people, and be on something that has such a far reach, really showed me that, in a way, even though I've never really been mainstream, there is a mainstream market that gets what I do, even if it's small. So that was really cool, cuz I was debating three or four years ago, I talked about this a lot on my last record, Lars Attacks, I talked about figuring out; is doing independent hip-hop worth the return, or is pursuing art for art's sake a diminishing thing? Warped Tour showed me there are new markets you can grow into, and that was a big turning point for me creatively, and also business-wise.
AB: That was an interesting stage, too, because you had acts like Wallpaper., and Five Knives, so I'm guessing you had some leftover wanderers from previous sets who were still hanging around.
ML: Oh yeah. Being on like the etcetera stage means that you get all these different kids who are looking for something different, so they're open to it. Also being on the Warped CD last year was cool. That really helped our YouTube exposure, because everyone buys the Warped compilation, so to be the one artist on there talking about iambic tetrameter, and sampling "Pachelbel's Canon," that was a cool look. So I love Warped Tour, and any time they ask me to do it I'll drop everything and do it, because it's so dope.
AB: What has been the most interesting opportunity music has afforded you, or most random place you've found yourself due to music?
ML: You know what, last year, I had good commercial success in Australia with one of my singles a few years ago, so I get to keep going back there, and I did a New Zealand leg on my Australia tour, and one of the shows was in this mountain village called Ohakune, on the North isle of New Zealand. It was for all these snowboarders who were up there. The set started out with me doing my songs, and then it became kind of this freestyle cypher, and all of these Maori rappers came on stage, and we were freestyling and they were so funny, and so cool, and so positive. It was an interesting cultural fusion of this native culture meeting the snowboarding culture meeting the punk rock meeting the hip-hop. It was a cool moment because I was like, man, I would never have access to this intersection of cultures were I not doing this. That was a cool moment. It wasn't like a lot of people, but it was a special night.
AB: At Warped Tour, I saw you speak with every fan who approached you, and you were really genuine and nice with everyone. I have to know, has anyone ever made you mad?
ML: I think the thing is as soon as you stop being personable, and open, to your fans, that's when they stop coming, and that's when you have to start looking at other career options, so you really have to force yourself to have a high tolerance of patience. There are two instances where it becomes frustrating. The first is, I have a lot of fans who are Autistic, who have Asperger's, and they get the intellectual component of it, and they're cool, they're totally cool, but sometimes they won't have a sense of space, because they can't really read your emotions. That can be frustrating. The other is when you're trying to be nice to someone, and they have negative things to say about what you're releasing. It's not the place for it. An email, or a Twitter comment, is better than when it's like 120 degrees in Vegas, and they're complaining about why this track is mixed this way.
AB: That takes some balls, to get into an artist's face and be like, "By the way, I'm a guy in the crowd, the mix sucked on that!"
ML: Yeah. That can ruin your day.
AB: Let's close on a happier note. Tell me about the greatest fan interaction you've ever had.
ML: That's a great question. I did this song about a friend of mine who took his life, and I get a lot of people who tell me that song kind of helped them through a dark place, and helped them deal with some dark emotions. Whenever someone has a story like that it always makes my day. To think that music can transcend from the CD into someone's life, and help them not make a bad decision, like killing themselves, that is always cool. When you hear someone say, "Your music inspired me to do something really positive," or when someone's like, "Hey, I got an A on my Hamlet paper because I remembered the lyrics to your songs and I could talk about this, this, and this," that's cool, too. Moments like that, where the music becomes more than just the music.