?We like to think that nerdcore is something new, but here’s the truth: Ever since the Sugar Hill Gang rapped about stealing Lois Lane away from Superman in “Rapper’s Delight” more than three decades ago, nerdy topics, particularly superhero comics, have been a big part of hip-hop culture. Gangsta rap in the 1990s created a sort of cultural amnesia that apparently made everyone forget that Grandmaster Flash made an entire song about being the superhero he shared a name with.
This isn’t to say that entire albums about Mega Man or videos about D&D or mixtapes about cult sci-fi shows would have flown 20 years ago, but there’s always been something of an undercurrent in rap that proves nerdcore isn’t as far removed from the rest of the genre as you might think. To prove it, I present to you nine rappers who, while they don’t completely present themselves as nerdy (which is why self-proclaimed supervillain MF Doom isn’t on here), they’ve proven themselves to be nerds of one type or another.
9) Ghostface Killah
Really, any member of the Wu-Tang Clan could rightfully hold a spot on this list. With their shared love of classic kung-fu cinema, appearance in their own comic book, and fighting game, there’s plenty to prove the Wu-Tang’s nerdy credentials. But Ghostface takes it to an even more admirable level with his intense love for Marvel’s Iron Man. He called his debut solo album “Ironman” and regularly refers to himself as “Tony Starks.” He was even in a scene that got cut from the first Iron Man movie and did a song for the soundtrack. On his albums, his skits often take on the style of classic superhero cartoon-style narration. There’s a good chance no one loves Iron Man more than Ghostface.
8) Del the Funky Homosapien
You may best know Del from his appearance in Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” video, where he emerges as a sort of psycho-ghost from drummer Russell’s head and summons a graveyard full of ape zombies out of the earth. So that’s pretty cool. On his numerous solo albums, Del exhibits less of an all-encompassing control over undead primates and more of an unabashed love for videogames. Take for example, the song off his 2000 album “Both Sides of the Brain” that samples the soundtrack from the Capcom classic Strider. Or maybe this song, from his 2009 “Funk Man” album all about SNK fighting games. Those aren’t just references to gaming, they’re the deep cuts.
7) Kool Keith
In Kool Keith’s debut album, “Dr. Octagonecologyst,” he portrays time-traveling gynecologist and surgeon from Jupiter (who is also terrible at being a doctor). That’s sci-fi nerdy enough already, but the even crazier thing is his third album, “First Come, First Served” the one where he aimed to return to “street-level hip-hop” — on that album, he portrayed an evil, supervillain-style character named Dr. Dooom. In just one song, he namechecks Dracula, The Avengers (the TV show, not the comic), Ric Flair and Riverdale. On his “back to the streets” album.
Definitive Jux records founder El-P has explored the topics of robots and space travel quite often in his own music, but the true nerdiness comes out in the music he produces. Take, for instance, Cannibal Ox’s one album (sadly, they’re not together anymore, or they’d be on this list), where there’s a song straight-up called “Battle for Asgard.”
5) Talib Kweli
You might think that the other half of Black Star (side note: if you haven’t listened to “Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” get on that), Mos Def, would be a prime choice for this list, given his appearance as Ford Prefect in the not-so-great Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie a few years ago. And that’s pretty sweet, but what Mos Def didn’t do was appear on the MF Doom/Danger Mouse/Adult Swim collaboration album “The Mouse and the Mask” (an album on which Ghostface Killah also appeared) to rap about Saturday-morning cartoons. Case closed.
4) Lupe Fiasco
On his song “I’m Beamin’,” Lupe Fiasco says he merged nerd and hood: “Hood’s where the heart is; nerd’s where the words from.” But, unless you count skateboarding as a nerdy endeavor or the occasional bit about space, Lupe doesn’t have a ton of nerdy stuff in his songs. That is, unless you count the very existence of his rock project Japanese Cartoon. Check out the video for their song, “Army.” It’s got anime clips and is a little more than a hat tip to Gorillaz!
Ice-T doesn’t just love videogames. He self-identifies as a fanatic. His Twitter username is @FINALLEVEL. He includes his gamertag in his Twitter profile. He makes giddy videos of himself unboxing games (in this case, Gears of War 3). He even has computer repair videos (okay, computer destruction videos, but you get it).
Remember when Redman was on Cribs? It was a thing of comedic beauty (sadly, it’s not on YouTube, but you can find the clip if you Google it). But before he got to the really great stuff — his broken doorbell, his missing screen, his box full of wadded dollar bills — he talked about the videogame systems he had set up in his bedroom, right next to his bed, hooked up to a monitor he got directly from Japan. “All day,” he says to the camera while he taps away on a Dreamcast controller. That’s right, a Dreamcast. And videogames work their way into his songs, too, like when he shoehorned “the new PlayStation 2” into a song way back in 2001.
1) Kanye West
Kanye West made an entire song about RoboCop. I can’t emphasize this enough. A whole song. About RoboCop. (Also, check out that awesome fan-made video. It’s awesome.)