Damian Hess has been recording and performing as MC Frontalot for 11 years now. When he started out the music he made didn’t have a name, so he named it himself: it’s called nerdcore. Frontalot raps about computers, video games, Dungeons and Dragons, superheroes, action movies, cartoons and other things beloved of the Comic-Con crowd.
He inverts the gangsta swagger you usually associate with hip-hop: Frontalot rolls self-deprecating. He comes to Comic-Con every year — music isn’t a medium that’s well-represented at the show, and he occupies the role of its unofficial composer in residence.
(PHOTOS: Comic-Con 2011)
Frontalot was at the con this year to promote his new album Solved, which drops August 23. “The last album, Zero Day, was all about problems — the difficulty of it all,” he says. “This one seemed to naturally come out of it. Plus I find myself saying that all the time, any time I get done with a chore: all right, solved! I decided to name the album that. Which sucks,” he added, after a pause for reflection, “because I can’t use that as my thing that I say all the time. I sound like a jerk.”
Among the problems solved on Solved are jocks, power users, and when you’re part of a mech squadron that assembles itself into a giant robot, who gets to form the head? “It’s not exactly a concept record, but the songs fall into little acts,” Frontalot explains. “The first act of it is trying to dig all the way through the authenticity question that ought to be raised by my rapper name.” You can’t accuse Hess of under-thinking anything.
Frontalot’s songs are nothing if not funky and funny, and you can enjoy them on that level, but it’s all a bit of a feint – the more you listen to them, and the further you get into decoding Frontalot’s densely wrought lyrics, the more layers you find. “There’s the whole idea that solutions themselves aren’t necessarily real until you’re dead,” he says. “Problem-solving is never really over, and all solutions are hacks. This is the existential crisis of nerdcore.”
Just so. Take for example “Invasion of the Not Quite Dead,” a collaboration with alt-rockers Wheatus. “It’s a song about zombies eating flesh, but really it’s a song about mortality,” Frontalot says. “Another problem of life solved in one specific way — but then what if that solution didn’t work either? What if you died and you still had to keep wandering around, and eat your friends?” Nothing on Solved stays solved forever.
Nerdcore has been bubbling under for a decade or so, its roster of performers and fans growing linearly rather than exponentially, but the incremental growth of the genre he founded doesn’t worry Frontalot. "Nerdcore is in the fortunate position of having never yet gotten so big that it creates a backlash, and the whole thing would be over. There are so many consumers of culture in the English-speaking world that it’s conceivable for something to start out tiny and continue to get bigger for a really long time without ever having gotten genuinely huge. The way Internet music consumption has shaped people’s habits, there’s a lot of room for microgenres to be totally sustainable and have really dedicated fan bases without being mainstream cultural forces. It’s sort of ideal.”
He seems remarkably content making records out of his house in Brooklyn, without a major-label record deal. The big commercial route genuinely seems to hold very little allure for Frontalot. “I would love to do it just for the experience of having done it, so I could know with certainty that it’s a horrible mistake,” he says. “In reality I’m much happier making things that don’t sound totally current and don’t have all the, like, now-freshness in them, that by definition expires. Though I would of course love to have the opportunity to work with those people just to learn stuff, because they know everything about how to make music, and I’m sort of like home-schooled."
To Frontalot Comic-Con is a lot like Burning Man, which he used to go to until PAX, the Penny Arcade Expo, a more video-game focused convention where Frontalot is received more or less as a living deity, started conflicting with it. “There’s costumes, there’s people trying to cross boundaries, internally and externally, wild noisy chaos, things that you look at and you’re like, wow, how did they get built, whose idea was that? And these booths that are just like Burning Man camps, where everybody’s trying to build some crazy art thing to attract folks to come and interact with them. In terms of, ‘oh my God, I saw Cowboys and Aliens two months before everyone else did,’ that’s not exciting to me. But I love seeing my friends and meeting comic book people who I’ve been a fan of for lots of years. That’s still super-exciting for me. “
And of course, he sells records. Though he isn’t selling Solved yet, or not officially. He had a few copies on hand at Comic-Con, but in order to buy one you had to pass a suitably nerdcore test: rolling a natural 20 on a 20-sided die.
“Two people have managed it so far,” he says. “It’s the only acceptable roll.”