Libertyville artist, rapper becomes voice of 'nerdcore'
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He didn't think of himself as a nerd when he was a student at Libertyville High School, but "nerdcore" music is what made Chris Ward famous.
Nerdcore is an adult-oriented, subgenre of hip hop that includes artists like Ward, known as "MC Chris," who raps funny and sometimes serious lyrics with his trademark cartoonish voice. His "Fett's Vette," for example, was inspired by "Star Wars."
Music is just one part of MC Chris' career, though. While best known for his voice-over work on the Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" shows in the early 2000s — he was the voice of "MC Pee Pants" on "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," among other gigs — he's also an artist, cartoonist, children's musician, nationally touring improv comedian and Cystic Fibrosis Foundation fundraiser.
Now living in Brooklyn, MC Chris, 37, discussed everything from the goofy songs he wrote with friends at Adler Day Camp to the fateful night he got "discovered" after a beer-chugging bet. Below is an edited version of the interview:
Q. Can you explain nerdcore to our readers?
A. Nerdcore is hip hop that's sprung up post 9/11, with a lot of seeds that were probably planted before that. But it started to get noticed and listened to around the dawn of (Cartoon Network's) "Adult Swim." A lot of people were raised on nerdy things and hip-hop at the same time. With the advancements in technology, they were able to create their own music, create their own websites, create their own means of distribution. Having all those ingredients, nerdcore was created. It was a genre of music that popped up as a result of everything that happened in the '80s and '90s. I think all those ingredients created this new art form, which is still alive and thriving today. I see folks getting better and better at it, and the product is getting better and better.
Q. What was your childhood in Libertyville like?
A. Very idyllic. It was very toy-centric. We were really into GI Joe. The entire basement of our house was filled with every GI Joe you could imagine. We'd get a new figure or something every week when we'd go to Hawthorn Mall, and on Christmas we'd get ships and crafts and vehicles and stuff like that. Our lives were basically about watching the cartoon, reading the comic, acting it out downstairs in the basement, which really built our imagination and set a lot of groundwork for things that I would like later on, like screenwriting and writing for television. I had three older brothers, so I was constantly influenced by them. We loved things like Legos, listening to the radio — that was very integral to my upbringing. Just that communal experience of creating things and listening to music. My brothers listened to tons of stuff. I worshipped everything they listened to, from Elvis Costello to Prince to De La Sol to Public Enemy. But drawing was kinda my thing that no one else in the family did.
Q. Were you writing songs since you were a kid?
A. I don't know if I would call them songs, but I do remember writing poems as a very young kid. In first grade, I got a really good grade on a poem I wrote called "The Breakdancing Puppy." I was more a child of "Weird" Al Yankovic, where I'd hear a song, and then I would kind of rewrite it and come up with my own silly lyrics. In Adler Day Camp, some friends and I created a little fake band with sticks ... and we'd play The Go-Go's "We've Got the Beat," but we'd be singing "Smell our feet." So that was our big evolution of the song. We were always parodying songs, which is something I still do to this day. And we loved to lip sync and pretend to be the artist. We'd do "We are the World" and would dress up as every character. We had a really good time constantly performing with the radio. We were definitely absorbing what the radio, particularly WLS, was projecting every night.
Q. How did you end up at Cartoon Network?
A. I was working at Upright Citizens Brigade (in New York), interning in the ticket booth. I'd do things like take out trash and rip the tickets when people come in. The girl I worked in the ticket booth with was friends with folks from Georgia who were from Cartoon Network, but I didn't know they were from Cartoon Network. We all went out drinking one night ... and I bet this guy I could drink a pint of beer in under five seconds — a skill I had acquired over the years. He said OK, and I did it. And I did it again and again and again. I got wasted and started being comfortable and cracking jokes, and they thought I was really funny. The guy gave me his business card and said, "We could use somebody like you." The guy's name was Dave Willis. He was the creator of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." I was just amazed by this opportunity.
Q. Why did you make a kids album "Marshmellow Playground"?
A. It was a joke mentioned in a trailer at the end of the record "MC Chris Goes to Hell." I'd been watching "Lost" and I liked the idea that you can see a reference to something and you can go find it. So it was my way of expanding the MC Chris universe. It was a really fun process. Parents loved it, and it help them put kids to bed, get them to school. It's music that works in ways that other music can't. A family wrote me and said their child had colic and wouldn't stop crying, and nothing would calm the baby down except for my music. There's something about the tone of my voice that's just very agreeable to children and possibly dogs. We're making the sequel and it comes out this holiday season. We're dealing with issues like nature, astronomy, cleaning up your room, having a playdate, being a brat. Stuff like that.
Q. What projects are you working on that you're most excited about?
A. We're working on my eighth full-length album, "MC Chris Forever," and my second children's album, "Marshmellow Campground." This winter, I'll be releasing a sequel to a short-run called "Friends," which is four songs about Batman characters from the Gotham Universe. And then next spring, I'll be working on my ninth full-length album and trying to get that done before I head out on a tour. I'm also looking for a manager or agent for the MC Chris cartoon.
Q. You do a lot of fundraising for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation because of your nephew. How is he?
A. He's 5, and he's had the disease his whole life. He's doing great. We've raised over $125,000 just by putting a bucket on our "merch" table and eBay sales of stuff from my apartment. The fans really support it.
Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz to feature in their column. If you know of someone who would make a good feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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