With regular old bad songwriting, at least there's the occasional hooky melody or propulsive beat listeners can grab on to. With bad comedy bands, the demands are much higher. It's all about the punch line. If you hit the right nerve, you're Jack Black or Weird Al. Misfire, and you're Arsenio Hall as Chunky A. Making a career out of satire has to be one of the riskiest routes a musician can take. I applaud the brave ones who take that chance — as long as they're hilarious. There's nothing sadder than a clown who doesn't make you laugh.
This brings me to MC Frontalot. The San Francisco native (and current Brooklyn resident) is a Dilbert-looking dude who coined the "nerdcore" genre of hip-hop a couple years back. He reigns over a universe of affable geek jesters that also includes MC Chris, MC Lars, and MC Hawking (who "raps" in cosmologist Stephen Hawking's robotic voice). These fellas dish about their obsessions with computer games, uncool comic books, and other socially suicidal pastimes. In the world of nerdcore, self-effacing MCs fake-boast about their giant brains and microscopic brawn, referencing high-tech more than getting high.
Frontalot (aka Damian Hess) named a genre that has in turn spawned two documentaries, a festival called Nerdapalooza, a Newsweek profile, and a budding demographic bonding over public awkwardness. Like the Beastie Boys and Princess Superstar before him, wisecracks are the cornerstone of his rhymes. Unlike those artists, though, Frontalot's music is forgettable, comprising simple pop beats and occasional Beck ripoffs. The punch lines are the focus, but the jokes are alternately too complicated or too generalized for laughs.
On Frontalot's latest disc, Secrets from the Future, Hess balloons stereotypes, aiming for parody but often just landing in obscurity. The title track is littered with references to file formats and math formulas, followed by a jab at the (over-) thinking man's disability on "You Got Asperger's." Along the way, Frontalot raps about characters from computer games, engages in bouts of Ping-Pong, and invents a baby genius who brings peace to the Middle East. There are in-jokes everywhere on the album — I had to Wikipedia references to "grue" and "Nord and Bert," not being versed in online interactive fiction — pushing the humor into a specialized niche. Another example on "Secrets from the Future": "You better PGP the .rar, because so far they ain't impressed/You better take the .pgp and print the hex out of it, scan that into a TIFF." It's too much work to get that joke. Don't force me to drag over the office IT guy: He's still teaching me the voice-mail system.
Not everything in Frontalot's repertoire is squarely aimed at techies, though. But his broader spoofs, including a riff on creationism, are long-winded and lack the absurdity he's striving for. (Here's a verse from "Origin of Species": "What has this so-called science ever done for us but trumpeted that when ashes go to ashes & dust to dust, despite the fuss of living, energy gets conserved?")
There is one exception of success on Secrets: "A Skit About Robots." The bit is hilarious. Here, Frontalot is thwarted in a phone call to his financial institution by a voice-activated "operator" that understands nothing — except his threat, "I'm going to stab you in the eprong."
I have no idea what the hell an eprong is, but the skit cracked me up nonetheless. It's straightforward, relatable, and cuts to the punch line. As for the rest of Secrets from the Future, Jello Biafra said it best in the trailer for Nerdcore Rising, a documentary about Frontalot and his fans. "Be careful of your own stereotype," Biafra warns. "It could become a prison." As it stands, MC Frontalot is stuck in lockup.