MC Frontalot’s new album NET SPLIT: OR, THE FATHOMLESS HEARTBREAK OF ONLINE ITSELF dropped this weekend. (Or, is it still dropping? Is the moment of album-drop an indivisible quantum thing? Probably no one cares.) Five years in the making, NET SPLIT is in some sense a concept breakup album, in which the Godfather of Nerdcore Rap wrestles with all the aspects of the Internet that are increasingly awful: memes, trolls, dating, stalking, dating/stalking, and of course, comments. It’s hooky and at times heart-wrenching, and here I chat about it with Frontalot, co-producer/beatsmith Baddd Spellah (Dave Cheong), guest verse contributor Lex the Lexicon Artist, and frequent Front collaborator/keyboardist Gm7 (Gaby Alter):
Dom Mah: Is this your “rage” album?
MC Frontalot: I don’t know if the album is characterized by rage so much as by cantankerous complaining. Some of the song subjects are plenty rage-worthy, but I try to keep the tone fun. It is best to laugh in the faces of both evil and tragedy.
DM: Do you feel better? How has this album made you feel better, or not, or the same?
MC Frontalot: I wonder this too! Is this just a therapy record? Did I learn anything while writing or recording it? Is it just a bunch of semi-relatable whining that all us Internet Olds can find comfortingly familiar? Does it offer anything concrete to make our increasing online entrenchment and inevitable matrixization any less miserable? I am not sure! It feels good to have finally stopped being up my own ass long enough to finish the album. I hope it inspires a bunch of good nerds to draw the line and one or two bad nerds to rethink their behavior. But tried to make it entertaining more than I tried to make it thought-provoking. And I definitely hope it’s more fun than it is preachy.
DM: Dave, what’s the proper way to spell Baddd Spellah? I think I’ve never known. I suppose I could look it up, but might get conflicting results.
Dave Cheong / Baddd Spellah: That’s exactly how I spell it. I like that my pseudonym is kind of a tautology; your asking me for the “correct spelling” tickles me to no end. A while back I’d learned of a DJ in the U.S. who called himself Badd Spella (or some variation thereof) and that IRKED THE HECK OUT OF ME but I can’t seem to find him anymore online.
DM: Any tracks you especially enjoyed working on, on this album or any of the albums past?
Baddd Spellah: My first pass on this list exceeded 15 songs, so I’ll list my favourites from each of Front’s albums:
- Nerdcore Rising, “Special Delivery” – When Dubya invaded Iraq, I remember feeling so outraged and powerless, it felt good to contribute to something that was an outlet for my frustrations.
- Secrets from the Future, “It Is Pitch Dark” – I dig the movements, parts and changes in this song. Furthermore, its a fucking song about Infocom text adventures!
- Final Boss, “Tongue-Clucking Grammarian” – This beat bangs. Gaby gave me some amazing musical parts to play with. This song might be my all-time favourite contribution.
- Zero Day, “Disaster” – I love posse tracks. I love storytelling raps. This is all of the above! I had so much fun arranging the beat around the vocals. Again, all credit due to Gaby’s playing.
- Solved, “Stoop Sale” – This one is a total package for me: I recall the beat came to be with almost effortless clarity — like it was meant to be, the tone is perfect how it skirts the line of playful and melancholic, and the video is wicked.
- Question Bedtime, “Much Chubbier” – This one has the same spirit as “Stoop Sale” for me in terms of the clarity of its provenance. I also think it bangs. Plus it’s my son’s favourite on the album; I’m not above buying his affection with whatever means I can.
- Net Split or, the Fathomless Heartbreak of Online Itself, “Bad Nerd” – I love the energy of Corn Mo’s singing in the chorus and its interplay with the beat. Sadly, this is a topic that barges into my mind when I least expect it, I lament what’s become of the extremities of nerd culture. On the whole, working on NET SPLIT and contemplating the abyss it describes made for dark head-spaces.
Gaby Alter / Gm7: I agree with a lot of Dave’s best-of list. I’m super proud of “Stoop Sale”, “Pitch Dark” and “Grammarian.” “Bad Nerd” is definitely a fave from the new album. I also think “First World Problems” is awesome–it has an amazing old-school beat, I’m proud of my riff, and the idea is, to say the least, ever-relevant–and I have a soft spot for “Wallflowers,” which has something Devo-esque about it. And “Secrets From The Future” — Dave’s groove is sick, Damian’s flow is great. Something about the interplay of the keyboard groove, the bass and the beat on the verse is just really exciting – it’s a little off-kilter, in the best hip-hop way possible.
DM: Gaby, could you describe for us the process of you and Baddd Spellah working on tracks?
Gaby Alter / Gm7: The process for developing the tracks starts with Dave creating a groove, or Damian hacking up a Sturgenius drum track. Then I give Damian a whole bunch of keyboard tracks over that, different riffs and sounds. We’re in the same room when I record, so I can see what he likes and doesn’t, and he can push me in different directions. Then he and usually Dave get together and hack on those. This process does tend to make me feel alienated from my playing, almost like I did it in my sleep or something. This is particularly true for the current record, because I worked on some of the tracks a while back, like maybe even four or five years ago, and Damian just sat on them until recently. So when I heard them again I was like, “Did I play that? I’m pretty sure I did.”
….Also, sometimes Damian makes the tracks on his own, or just he and Dave work on them together without me.
….Dave is kind of a genius. His beats are so incredibly funky, they have something both organic and machinelike about them, and they have a sense of humor, which is perfect for Damian’s style. There’s a lot of subtlety to his work. Two of my favorite tracks on this album are “IWF” (ed. – featuring Taiwanese-American rapper LEX the Lexicon Artist) and “Bad Nerd” — both have such incredibly sick beats; he is just a master. Also, I like that those tracks are the most like ones from our older albums, with all of us contributing equally (I say narcissistically).
DM: Speaking of “IWF (Internet-ing While Female),” look who’s joined us, it’s Lex the Lexicon Artist! (J/K, we are so not in the same room, that would be ludicrous.) Lex, any comment on “IWF” and the album in its entirety?
Lex: Awesome as it turned out to be, “IWF” was a challenging song to work on. Like many women do, I at first felt responsible for delivering a well-rounded message that was representative of all women’s online experiences. Obviously that proved impossible, so I took the path of recounting a very specific experience I had. Long before I started rapping, I made YouTube Poop Music Videos and Team Fortress 2 song remixes, and became a minor viral sensation within those communities. In one video I revealed my gender, which caused a backlash that ended up in me quitting the channel. It’s an interesting story and a fun little alter-ego most of my fans don’t know about (although there is intersection between gamers and nerdcore fans, so some have figured it out!). I went back and forth on whether I actually liked my verse, but when I heard it in context on the final cut, I loved it. I’m glad “IWF” seems to be a fan favorite!
….Two other tracks I love on Net Split are “Memes are Stupid” (featuring int eighty)” and “DDoS” (featuring Quelle Chris). int eighty and I went on tour last year and we shared a lot of spicy memes on the road. When the preorder for Net Split came out, I saw the track “Memes are Stupid”, and eighty told me about that feature and how that song came to be. I love that Front brought him on to offer a different perspective. “DDoS” has the grimiest beat on the album; I love the slow burn and the dark nasty bass line. It reminds me of El-P’s production.
DM: The unplugged hits versions at the end of NET SPLIT are really a nice gift to those of us who’ve followed Frontalot for a while. Did you play on those?
Gaby: I played on those with Bl4ck Lot4s and The Sturgenius, with Brendan Brown engineering. That was really fun. The piano was a super old janky upright, so far gone it couldn’t be tuned to the correct pitch, so it was either up or down a half step, every key, and I had to play in different keys than I’d practiced. I was just pounding on it really hard. It was fun to record tracks live with a band; we almost never do that with Frontalot, and I’ve only done it a few times period.
DM: Mr. Frontalot, do you feel comfortable with having invented the genre of nerdcore hiphop? (At least, that’s how I still understand it, I don’t know if it is in dispute or retconned.) Any thoughts on how goshdarned elderly you and I and nerdcore rap are now? Like, the first songs I latched onto of yours were “Yellow Lasers” with the Paul Simon sampled beat and “I’m Gonna Be Your Man” with the Muppets beat. Do we get to even speak of those now, and if so, how may we speak of them?
MC Frontalot: I came up with the term “nerdcore” as a song title and chorus 19 years ago. I like to say that I coined the term instead of that I invented it, partly to simulate humility, but mainly because A) there was plenty of nerd sentiment rearing its head in hip-hop already (all of 3 FEET HIGH & RISING, the song” I Wish” by Skee-Lo, “Raar, raar, like a Dungeon Dragon” in Busta Rhymes’s debut, etc.), B) there were a few nerd-focused indie acts already making tracks in those first couple years, such as mc chris, ytcracker, and MC Stephen Hawking, and C) I am not comfortable saying I invented anything that I’d like to have recognized as hip-hop.
….RE: “Yellow Lasers” and “I’m Gonna Be Your Man”: Everything I made from 1999-2004 was built on samples. In true cowardly dork fashion, I never sold any of those, and then I remade a bunch of them with original music beds for the albums as I went along. We can talk about the old demos, though I don’t keep them posted any more myself. They live on in the outlaw corners of the information superhighway. I’m proud of my work on those beats and much of the writing from back then. When I listen back, though, the rapping seems painfully amateurish.
DM: Baddd, Gabbby, Lexxx, what other music are you working on these days?
Baddd Spellah: These days, Baddd Spellah mainly exists to contribute to Frontalot’s music. I like riding his coattails. Outside of Front’s albums, I noodle on beats and work on the odd collab with folks. I recently worked on Gaby’s cool cover of “Ooh Child.”
Gaby: I’m currently working on putting out my own album, “Yes Gabriel”, which will be released in April. It’s the name of the album and the project, which is basically me singing my own songs, and then I play out with a live band. It’s a heartbreak album. I write musicals–full disclosure to your readers, you’re the reason why, as we wrote a number of them back in the day together and it was awesome–but I have been out of that loop for a couple years, so I plan to get back.
Lex: I’m currently working on my sophomore full-length. It’s too early to tell what the theme will be or when exactly it’ll be released, but I hope to be done with it by late this year. I’m crafting it to be a darker, more complex, and more emotionally mature sequel to Raging Ego (2018), which was a mostly autobiographical exploration of my personality, values, and thought processes as a psych major-turned nerd rapper.
….My full-length albums (Raging Ego and this next one) tend to be more personal and psychological in nature, but I also make mini-projects based on pop culture. Most recently I made “Special“, an album based on the anime Mob Psycho 100, which is having an incredible second season so far.
DM: A final question for all: F–k Marry Kill – The New Mutants, The Avengers, The Internet?
Frontalot: Marry: The New Mutants, but only when Bill Sienkiewicz was penciling. Fuck: The Internet, since that’s always what it’s been there for. Kill: The Avengers, ironically the only way to keep the franchise alive (as they’ve already demonstrated. No takebacks!).
Baddd Spellah: Oof. The presence of The New Mutants muddies this for me, they’re kids! Hard pass on them. (ed. – I DIDN’T MEAN THE TEENAGED VERSIONS, jeez, see below) Fuck and Marry the Avengers. At first I thought Captain America would make a great husband, but he’d be away on missions all the time, also he turned out to be covertly Hydra. But then, Clint Barton is a well-actualized, loving husband. As for sex with the Avengers, the mind boggles. Leave aside Scarlet Witch or Iron Man, I wonder: have The Hulk and/or Giant Man ever used their great powers irresponsibly? I’m certain, the answer exists in myriad forms on the Internet. Speaking of which, kill the Internet. Not the super-cool band, the all-seeing engine of surveillance-capitalism that gives misplaced succor, validation and identity to people that were formerly mere village idiots, kooks and crackpots. I’d gladly go back to sending and receiving shit in the mail and physically going places to buy things. Then again, I’d never have met Frontalot nor have been able to easily collaborate without email, FTP or cloud-based file-sharing web-services…Agh.
Gaby: The only thing I can say for sure is kill the Internet. Kill it in its current form and replace it with a common space where there’s personal accountability and no nefarious bots or trolls or revenge porn because there are real consequences for those things, and the tech giants are broken up and intellectual property holders are paid adequately. In the abstract. The New Mutants are underage so both options besides killing them are out of the question. Right?
DM: I will stipulate that the INTENTION was to refer to the New Mutants in the current form, i.e., adult mutants in their eternal 20s, but then you guys took it to a weird place. Yes at one point they were new and adolescent, but their teenage ages were not frozen in time, the original members are all fully sexing adults now. I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse.
Badd Spellah: Marrying a 20-something still seems fraught.
Gaby: See this reveals my blinding ignorance of the Marvel Universe’s evolution. Last I checked I was probably 12 or 13 and the New Mutants were teenagers in blue suits getting killed by the Beyonder or something.
DM: Well, that definitely happened too. The Beyonder is terrible and bad. And so is his blog.