An Intro to "Geek Music:" Chiptune, Nerdcore, Filk, and Video Game Soundtracks
It is such a fantastic time to be a geek. When you think about it, a not insignificant portion of our popular culture has come to embrace geekdom in many forms. And while some in my tribe decry this as the homogenization and dilution of what they snobbishly declare “true” geekdom, I, as a pudgy, pale, balding, aging, once bully-bait bull geek, am quite pleased with how things have turned out. Books, movies, TV shows—heck, entire conventions drawing tens of thousands of people from around the world all revolve around the geek culture. One of the richest expressions of this newfound acceptance is the rise of geek music!
As a geek of many hats—computer guru, cyberpunk enthusiast, Doctor Who fanatic (I’ll miss Matt Smith!), gamer, tech blogger, etc.—I have a fairly broad knowledge of the culture at large. For many of my formative years I was even a band geek, playing trumpet in the best of my school’s ensembles. That said, I never was the sort to obsess over rock bands or rappers.I was a “band geek,” not a “music geek.” I had a few groups I listened to way too much (please don’t ask me which ones; it makes me cringe to think about it now) and that was pretty much it. I didn’t care to broaden my horizons at all.
While I have since become more learned in the world of music, the geek flavor still took me by surprise. It never occurred to me that our culture would merit, let alone think of, having its own musical subgenres. I mean, we’re geeks. We don’t celebrate our culture; we squirrel it away from everyone else as a natural reaction to being ridiculed for it our entire lives . . . right? Well, that had always been my way, but thankfully there are geeks out there who aren’t closeted, weak-minded introverts like me who didn’t let themselves be programmed into being ashamed of their passions. They are proud of their geekdom and have developed a number of brilliant musical styles to suit our very specific tastes.
A brief clarification: There is no umbrella term, “geek music.” It is merely a convenient way for me to group different genres of music spawned and enjoyed by those of the geek and nerd populations. As you will discover, neither I nor any other geek considers himself a fan of all these styles merely because they are "geeky." That does not diminish those genres in the slightest. One cannot pigeonhole geek music tastes any more than geeks themselves; we're simply too complex.
My first taste of geek music was Chiptune. Chiptune is a subgenre of electronica that draws inspiration, not to mention instrumentation, from the 8- and 16-bit video games of the late 80s and early 90s. Video games of that era were still in their infancy, at least technologically speaking - graphics and audio were downright primitive when compared with today’s Pixar-like interactive productions that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to create and feature full orchestral soundtracks. Back then, we gamers had to live with synthesized approximations. Well, I say “live with,” when in fact we loved it! Hey, we didn’t know any better, it was what we were raised on.
Chiptune either incorporates that gritty, chunky, electronic style into more modern musical productions or it may comprise the entirety of a composition. While the video game music from the days of yore can be emulated by modern computers, many Chiptune musicians have reappropriated old video game consoles to actually act as musical instruments!
My first exposure to Chiptune was through the movie adaptation of Scott Pilgrim VS The World and its downloadable video game tie-in which utilized 16-bit style graphics and music. And, what music it was: kinetic, rocking, colorful, gets-yer-blood-pumpin’, 16-bit goodness that took me immediately back to my teenage years. I was in love. After some Googling I discovered that there was an actual band who composed the soundtrack: Anamanaguchi. Much to my delight I also found that not only had they created that soundtrack, but they had two studio albums out as well, both of which have since been in heavy rotation on my MP3 players and smartphones. They have a new album out this year entitled ‘Endless Fantasy.' Here, watch them send a slice of pizza into orbit set to the title track - truly, there is fantasy in everything we see:
Since I lack the vocabulary and the editorial nuance to precisely distinguish one musical group from another (I never did read Rolling Stone), I’m sadly unable to describe all the different Chiptune groups as if they were an assortment of wines, craft beers, or coffees. Not that I could do any better with beverages, mind you. So I’ll just link to some of the other Chiptune artists I’ve enjoyed, mostly thanks to Spotify and last.fm: Sabrepulse, 64revolt, 047, 8 Bit Weapon, She, Dubmood, Pixelh8, and ComputeHer. That’s just the tiniest of samplings of an ever-growing number of Chiptune artists. Check out Chiptune’s last.fm page for a more comprehensive list.
I’ve always enjoyed rap as a form of self-expression. The poetry, storytelling, rhythm, and vocal skill of rap is impressive to say the least. Sadly, I'd have to confess that I am almost entirely ignorant of current pop-culture rap artists beyond what gossip occasionally oozes into my Facebook feed.
Nerdcore, however, is another story. Nerdcore is a form of rap for the nerds and geeks of the world. Science, gaming, politics, robots, geeky pop-culture, zombies, science fiction and fantasy, the singularity, computers, comics and then some—you know, all the stuff near and dear to a geek's heart—are the focus of Nerdcore rap. Nerdcore tends to be self-deprecating, as self-deprecation is a defense mechanism and source of humor for many geeks, myself included. We’ll “talk smack” about ourselves before we chastise others. Another key characteristic is the dense amount of content in any given Nerdcore song. It is music you must pay real attention to in order to take any real enjoyment in it. Though much of it may sound like novelty music to the outside observer—and you might be forgiven for thinking so—its very existence means the world to geeks.
The most prominent nerdcore artist is MC Frontalot, aka Damian Hess. Frontalot/Hess is responsible for coining the term "Nerdcore" with his 2000 track ‘Nerdcore Hiphop’ and is considered the Godfather of Nerdcore rap. Hess released his first studio album, ‘Nerdcore Rising,’ in 2005 and has gone on to release four other albums. Below is one of his music videos, 'Nerd Life,' that I think succinctly explains the lifestyle Nerdcore is all about:
I would have liked to embed another video of his, 'I'll Form the Head,' but it was slowing down the page load, so click here to watch it. Fans of the 1980's cartoon 'Voltron' will get a kick out this one.
Another Nerdcore video I enjoy, which I also think demonstrates the diversity of topics that Nerdcore "glorifies," is MC Lars' 'Flow Like Poe':
Other artists worth checking out, besides MC Lars, are MC Chris, Beefy, Dr. Awkward, Schaffer the Darklord, Nursehella, Optimus Rhyme, Supercommuter, and more. I have particularly enjoyed the stylings of Supercommuter, but you should sample them all if you have an affinity for rap or just want to find out what is important to geeks. For more on Nerdcore check out last.fm’s page on the genre.
Filk is by far the oldest form of what I loosely term “geek” music and, sadly, the one with which I have the least experience. This genre, apparently birthed in the 1950s but which began wider enjoyment in the 1970s, is mostly a folk style of music. The term ‘Filk’ actually resulted from a typo of the word folk. Filk is inspired by science fiction and fantasy fandom and is a common form of entertainment at conventions organized and run by science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. For an example of Filk, listen to this ballad inspired by Captain Mal Reynolds of the sadly short-lived show, 'Firefly.'
As I wrote, I have pathetically little personal experience with Filk. While I do not have a passion for it the way I do Chiptune and Nerdcore, I admire it and its artists immensely. Filk and the perhaps linked fan fiction culture are so taken with a story’s world and its characters that they give new life to those stories long after they have officially ended. The energy and creativity behind that passion is, in a word, astounding. Given that I don’t want to insult the genre by pretending I know what I’m writing about, and that I’ve already lifted a great deal of this information from Wikipedia, I’m going to refer you to Filk’s entry on that site.
Video Game Music
I hesitate to fold video game music into my “geek music” grouping. Video games have grown to be much more inclusive over the decades as new genres and hardware have enticed new demographics including everyone from your grandmother to, well, do I really need to give a range past “your grandmother?"
The point is, games are no longer the sole purview of the geek. The annual ‘Madden’ purchaser is less likely to refer to himself as a geek than the subscriber to ‘World of Warcraft’ is, but they are both gamers nonetheless. Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t expose the growth and importance of music in my favorite pastime.
In the section on Chiptune I wrote about the humble origins of video game music. Game music back then was limited both by the playback quality of the hardware but more importantly by the space limitations of the storage media, namely cartridges. Those limitations quickly became a thing of the past as CD-ROMs turned into the storage media of choice for video games, first on PCs, then more popularly on the Sony Playstation. Video game music remained mostly synthesized since CDs were still limited to roughly 700MB of space that had to be shared with graphical assets, but that music was still drastically improved. It really wasn’t until games on DVD-ROMs went mainstream, again on the Playstation 2 and later the first XBox and PC, that developers had the necessary gigabytes of space on which to store soundtracks on a par with Hollywood films.
These days all major game releases feature soundtracks without which the game would be a dud. In my opinion, soundtracks are going to play an ever more important role in video games as technology runs into the wall of graphical realism. That uncanny valley is fast approaching, and it’s not a place anyone in the video game industry should want to go. With that in mind, a game's sound effects and its soundtrack are all the more vital to its success.
There are many tracks from games with deep, rich stories that I would like to share with you and that I wish could move you the way they move me. However, given the lack of context, they won't, so let me just try to impress upon you how fantastic video game soundtracks have become. Listen first to the "soundtrack" for the original 'Super Mario Bros,' released in 1985:
Now, listen to the the main theme for ‘Assassin’s Creed II,’ by Jesper Kyd, released almost 25 years later in 2009:
And, try the main theme for ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ by Jeremy Soule, released in 2011:
I think you get the point.
I’m sure there is more to geek music than this short post can possibly cover, but I hope it gives you a good overall understanding of a musical subculture you might not otherwise be familiar with. Who knows, maybe you’ll find something here you enjoy. If there is one lesson I take away from my time listening to geek music, it’s to never be ashamed of your passions. Period.