Let’s take a second to talk about our favorite 90’s Tom.
No, not that one.
The one that introduced us to DBZ and Sailor Moon. The one that launched us into a world of anime we didn’t even know existed. Fast forward to 2016, where it’s now branched off into nearly every aspect of pop culture. It’s been discussed extensively, but from hits like Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones, to box office smashes on every comic book character ever, to billionaire computer geeks being the cool kids in town, nerd culture is taking over.
And one of those branches has taken root in the hip hop’s underground. This past weekend was MagFest, one of those conventions you read about where people dress weird, listen to panels that sound like classes offered at Hogwarts, and generally geek out all weekend. This con has a unique spin though; it’s a celebration of video games and the music that endeared them to us.
Here’s the scene. I walk into a dim room with red lighting. “It’s probably gonna be chill tonight” my friend tells me as I look around at a crowd of a couple hundred. It’s called the ‘nerd prom’ and they have decided to take it literally. Couples are dancing, non- couples are rocking out, and there’s even a surprise proposal in the works that involves live snakes. On stage, a band is belting out tunes from Ocarina of Time and I am amazed, taking it all in.
My friend, who’s stage name is Kadesh Flow, meets up with a guy who is royalty here. Known as Mega Ran, he’s “the OG of this whole thing”. “Just look like you belong”, Ran tells us as we walk backstage (I do not belong. I didn’t even pay for a badge tonight). Everyone is insanely nice, and even people just meeting each other greet like old friends. Kadesh gives me more background. “Mega ran started this. He’s like my mentor in a way. It’s insane that I get to chill with him and perform with him. I would never have gotten into this without him. He’s created this network. Me. Sammus- you would love her. She’s so dope and her songs are like black woman power. Then there’s Richie Branson. I mean if anyone is gonna blow up, it’s him.”
So what exactly is it? And what exactly is this network trying to accomplish? “I was at a summit for hip hop artists in ATL a few months ago. And I just introduced myself as a rapper. But my friend kept saying, no, you’re Nerdcore. People know about Childish Gambino and they think it’s hot. It’s like the next big thing”.
“So you guys are trendy?” I ask skeptically. He gives me a half-laugh and a shrug, and we both turn to look at the ever- growing crowd arriving for Mega Ran’s performance, which seems to have doubled in a matter of minutes. This is about to be an interesting weekend.
I walk downstairs and the NPC (Nerdy People of Color) collective is gathering. It’s a group of hip-hop artists whose songs look at life through the lens of anime, video games, and comic books. All independent, each one essentially got their start by putting videos on the internet and letting it go from there. And in a way, they are making their own waves. MegaRan’s latest album, RNDM, floated to #2 on Billboard’s heatseeker mountain chart, #1 on CMJ charts, and #26 on Nielson’s new artist chart. Richie Branson was recently featured on Complex and iHeart radio for viral mash ups like “Life After Death Stay” (Biggie and Star Wars) and “Marshall vs Capcom” (Eminem and Street Fighters). Kadesh Flow’s anime and gaming EPs have landed him coverage on IGN, Kotaku, and TokyoPoP, as well as chance to create music for Toonami Asia. Sammus has been featured on outlets such as AfroPunk and MTV Iggy, and all of them boasts thousands of followers and views on Youtube.
Currently, Sammus is performing on a small stage and my friend is right- I love her. “I am not one thing, I’m not two things, I’m not three things, I’m not four things. I am more things.” she spits, as she describes a life of video games and mirror twerking (i.e. my life) in her song “Mighty Morphing”. The only female of the group tonight, I’m definitely here for her smashing stereotypes about black womanhood.
We all applaud and head to the massive room where the main show is taking place. There are about 6 of us gathered in the dressing room. My friend, Kadesh Flow, tunes his trombone while 1-up, who is noticeably cute and regrettably “practically engaged”, fiddles with his saxophone. EyeQ is the most nervous in the crew. He’s insanely tense as Soultron tries to calm him down. “It’s not that I’m nervous.” He says. “It’s just, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her”. They are all so comfortable with each other, you’d think they’d been friends forever.
But believe it or not they haven’t. It wasn’t until late 2013 that Mega Ran brought the group together, and this will be the first time the majority of them have been at the same place at the same time (Only two-Shubzilla and Doug Funnie- are missing this weekend). “Can you believe this all started with a Facebook message?” Sammus proclaims, grinning.
Eventually Mega Ran makes his appearance and we all get ready. I am charged, along with two other fans, with taking good pictures and videos. (I failed. Never ask me to take good pictures and videos. It will always end in blur and weird lighting).
Confession: I know nothing about music. I don’t even listen to music that much. And even knowing I was coming here to hang with all these artists, I had only ever listened to songs by Kadesh Flow and Sammus. So I was completely blown away by how legit these guys were.
It was literally everything you could ask for in a live performance. Nostalgia- as references and samples popped up from my favorite childhood video games. Lyricism. Off the chart energy. There is so much talent in this circle of friends, and I feel insanely lucky that I get to watch.
But the thing that got me the most was the unfiltered passion. You could see it as they stepped on stage, each one looking like they were born to be there. You could hear it in their lyrics, unapologetic to be black in a crowd of thousands of mostly white faces in the type of event that doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for diversity.
You could feel it as they supported each other- no matter who was performing, the other acts were back stage rapping along, jumping around, just as geeked as the fans in the audience.
And you could feel it most with EyeQ, as the cause of his pre-show jitters became clear. He rapped about a teacher he had lost, and it was one of the most heartbreaking live performances I’ve ever seen. He croaked out the last verses, voice choked by tears, as a crowd of thousands put hearts in the air to show their support. It was one of those moments when you remember that the power of music is that it moves you. And I guess at the end of the day that’s what I loved so much about all of these performances. Nostalgic. Proud. Defiant. Heart-broken. Love- I felt so much, watching them leave their nerdy souls on the stage.
Anyways even if you’re not a nerd I would strongly suggest checking them out. And of course, enjoy my low quality videos and pictures.
Huge thanks to the entire NPC collective for letting me stalk them for a few hours! And special thanks to my pal Kadesh Flow- even though he was too bougie to provide a set list I managed to find one here