Pop music and nerd culture have shared a long history.
Led Zeppelin repeatedly referenced the Lord of the Rings
in its lyrics, Parliament-Funkadelic adopted a space-traveling Afrofuturistic image and countless rock songs were inspired by science fiction books and films.
Now, with videogames an increasing part of fan culture, it should serve as no surprise that musicians are referencing them in their lyrics and even incorporating melodies from game soundtracks into their compositions. Enthusiasts call the burgeoning genre “nerdcore.”
“We grew up playing video games as little kids,” said David Ortiz, trumpet player and transposer for San Antonio group Mariachi Entertainment System, which performs mariachi-style covers of videogame soundtracks. “It’s not just this tune, it’s my heart as a child. It’s my childhood. Nerdcore combines the old and new. It’s seeing your childhood for the first time in a way — it takes you back. You have that sense of wonder again as you listen to the music.”
MES’s name is a play on the name of the iconic Nintendo Entertainment System, and the group’s set list includes music from classic titles such as Castlevania
and Street Fighter
. Which helps explain why the band was booked to perform at the PAX South gaming conference, which will take place Friday, January 17, through Sunday, January 19, at the Henry B. González Convention Center.
MES isn’t the only Alamo City musical artist repping nerdcore.
Metal outfit Bitforce composes heavy covers of songs from old-school games such as Sonic the Hedgehog
, hip-hop emcee Gross Angel references gaming culture in his rapid-fire bars and David Ramos’ ocarina covers of video game tunes have amassed millions of views on YouTube.
Local nerdcore rapper Richie Branson even provided theme music for Adult Swim
’s resurrected Toonami
programming block after the network discovered his track “Bring Back Toonami.” He’s now headed to Boston to work for Harmonix, the company beind the hit game series Guitar Hero
“San Antonio is a cultural melting pot of sorts,” said Branson, whose real name is Marcus Brown II. “A lot of people living in San Antonio are transplants from other areas, and so you have this huge diversity of thought and interests. Being someone hugely interested in anime and video games, I never felt alone here.”
Since its 2014 formation, Bitforce has toured with nerdcore top billers like rappers Megaran and MC Chris while releasing albums packed with brutal covers of video game songs. But its earliest gigs were not in traditional music venues but game stores in front of like-minded enthusiasts.
“I took my passion of gaming, and before I knew it, Bitforce was playing Gamestop, Gameover, anywhere that would let us play,” said Joey Devine, guitarist for the trio.
Gross Angel, whose birth name is Angel Guzman, started his musical career as a guitar player before discovering beatboxing and hip-hop. References to video games and comic books crept into his raps from the beginning.
“The first rap verse I ever sat down and wrote out was the story of Nightcrawler from the X-Men,” said Guzman, who added that he’s working on a project devoted entirely to the popular Marvel Comics franchise.
‘Felt like an alien’
While nerdcore is a relatively new phenomenon, musical homages to the gaming life go back decades.
One of the first appearances of such references in pop music was via the duo Buckner & Garcia, whose “Pac-Man Fever” peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1982. In 1997, all-female indie band Autoclave released a cover of the theme song to the video game Paperboy
East Coast rapper Sammus, named after the protagonist of Nintendo’s Metroid
game series, said musicians make references that are within them. If gaming was something that musicians spent and continue spending a lot of time with, chances are they may make a reference from a game title or two. She recently finished a PhD in science and technology studies at Cornell University and teaches a hip-hop class at Brown University.
“As an emcee, you reference what’s within you,” said Sammus, who’s real name is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo. “Because I grew up playing all these games and being in game spaces, that was naturally what I started to reference a whole bunch. I didn’t even make the connection that there was already a community of folks who were invested in artists who were using video games to talk about their lives.”
Pointing out that box office success of superhero movies, Lumumba-Kasongo said nerd culture is booming because society seeks connections outside of itself. People want to relate to the lives of others through comics, anime and video games.
Social media, she points, out has helped fans connect — and it’s also widened the audience for nerdcore.
“Growing up, I definitely felt like an alien,” Lumumba-Kasongo said. “There weren’t a whole bunch of black kids in upstate New York. [And] especially when you talk about being a geek — and being super into games — there wasn’t a huge community there for me to fall into. So, through Twitter and Instagram, I’ve been able to see that we are really out here.”
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