Genre of the Week: Nerdcore

Everyone who's vaguely into African music knows the story of Soukous. Musicians in Kongo became fascinated by the faraway sounds of Cuban music* and made their own version, originally misunderstanding the musical content of the music they copied and eventually developing it into something that sounded nothing like. Bad copying by those outside the cultural core leading to new exciting developments in music - it's a familiar story and one of the great processes of creativity.

Nerdcore (not to be confused with the softcore porn genre) is a bit of a Soukous. The difference is that the socially distant group is not Central Africans, but white, middle-class, perenially uncool computer nerds. (It should be called nerdperiphery, really.**) And the music they source is not Afro-Cuban music but a music which in theory should be very distant from them, culturally, and which is strongly based on coolness indeed: African-American hip-hop...

It was inevitable, I guess, with the wide spread of the internet. Nerds have had their own musical subcultures before, but spreading through articles in fanzines is never going to be very dynamic. Now that there's a form of distribution so closely linked to the nerds' primary interests it's not surprising that this music has spread so fast, with big web sites, articles in major newspapers, club nights, documentaries being made, even speculative subgenres. It's been seven-and-a-bit years since the genre was concieved, but the recent growth seems very healthy indeed.

Still, the genre seems far from finished in its development. I'll be the first to admit that nerdcore is closer to the "misunderstanding" phase of transculturation than the attachment one, and the quality of the message and the rapping flow is generally abysmal. But I think the genre is definitely coalescing, and some of the beats are starting to come together real well. Quite to the opposite of what you might expect there's only a little quirky geeky eastcoast influence; instead the music has a great bent towards the minimalist and electronic that I really appreciate. There's a lot of metal-ish guitars, video game music and sound collage influences that work really well in the setting, I think.

Instead, the genre's potentially biggest problem is a social one. I think the way it grew out of some sort of prole parody with minstrelsy undertones and the ethnically largely monocultural white fan/artist base risks the suggestion that this is in fact racist music. This impression is reinforced by the seeming lack of any understanding of (or connection to) the "nerdy" side of African-American music, which has existed for ages, been instrumental in the development of hip hop and which still thrives today.*** It's not that strange that two seemingly similar musical styles exist side by side without interacting, but I do think a bit of cross-acknowledgment could be healthy. Not least for the genre's reputation's sake.

Still, it's good to see nerd subculture (which in some ways is as strong and as oppressed an identity as any gender, sexuality or ethnic group) stand up for itself and make interesting music. I'll definitely be following the nerdcore scene in the next few years to see what they can come up with...

*Well, okay, not so far away if you consider that the Rumba is obviously based on percussive sounds coming with slaves from Africa. But that's certainly not the form that made it back across...

** Political Science joke.

*** But I guess it's always been the nerds vs The Cool Kids, eh? :-)

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