MC Lars, “Ahab,” and Nerdcore

My major focus this month is on developing a teachers strategy guide for Project nml on “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” which uses as its major case studies: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley’s Moby Dick: Then and Now. I’ve written about this project here before in essays on “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “Was Herman Melville a Proto-Fan?”

A central theme in the project has to do with how we bring contemporary cultural concepts of remix culture into conversation with the study of more traditional literary texts. We want to get teachers to think a bit more about writers as existing in conversation with their cultures rather than as original creators. Teachers have long asked students to write about Biblical Allusions in Moby Dick, say, without fully working through what it means that Melville draws upon, reworks, and ascribes new meaning to the story of Jonah, who surfaces directly through sermons or discussions of whaling lore and implicitly through the fate of Ahab’s crew.

As I was speaking on this project recently, a member of the audience shared with me via his iPod a recording of MC Lars’s song, “Ahab,” which has now become an integral part of my work on the project. I thought I would share with you today some work in progress which looks at MC Lars and the Nerdcore movement as a way into thinking about contemporary remix culture. Hope you Enjoy.

MC Lars, along with Sir Frontalot, mc chris, Optimus Rhyme and Baddd Spellah, is widely considered to be a founder of the so-called “nerdcore” movement. Nerdcore refers to a subgenre of hip hop music whose themes and images are drawn from subject matter generally considered of interest to geeks: games, science and science fiction, computers and digital culture, and cult media in particular. Like other nerdcore performers, MC Lars often incorporates allusions to films, television shows, comics, and novels into his work.

For example, consider his video for “Space Game” which not only celebrates the virtues of early arcade games but also makes references to characters from Star Wars (Darth Maul, Boba Fett, Sith girls, etc.), Lost in Space (Dr. Smith), Classic Star Trek (Captain Kirk, Scotty, Spock) Star Trek: The Next Generation (Q, The Borg) , 2001:A Space Odyssey (Hal), The Matrix (Neo and Morpheus), X-Men (Magnito), Superman (Zod), even Doctor Seuss (“The Obleck”). In the later verses, the song lays claim to being “postmodernist” (under the banner of Robert Ventura and Andy Warhol) and lays smack down on modernists such as T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Virginia Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, e.e. cummings, Wallace Stephens, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Watching this video with your students might be a good way to help them understand what an allusion is and how it creates a juncture between old and new stories and in this case, between high art and popular culture.

Several of MC Lars songs, including “iGeneration” and “Download this Song,”constitute manifestos for those who have grown up in a world where music is easy to access and where remix is part of what it means to consume popular culture. As one critic explained, “MC Lars is a member of what he dubs the “iGeneration,” a group born and raised in the time of the Ninja Turtles, cassette tapes and new wave music, who now live in the age of Desperate Housewives, Sidekicks and screamo bands. These are the kids who have grown up using the Internet as a part of their every day life. They can conveniently carry 5,000 songs in their pocket, but are faced with the glooming fact that the world’s oil supply and Social Security will both run out in their lifetime. MC Lars is the hero of this new generation, addressing their thoughts and every day struggles in his music.”

The “iGeneration” has in return deployed all of the resources of participatory culture to do their own mash-ups to MC Lars songs, such as this version of “iGeneration” which combines characters from the Japanese Anime, Naruto, with a visual style associated with iPod advertising, and another fan video which deploys images from advertising, news, The Matrix, and Battleship Potemkin. So, how do the two different image tracks deployed here change the meaning or bring to the surface different aspects of the original song?

“Ahab” should be understood in this larger context, one of several songs which MC Lars, has composed based on cannonical literary works which he reads with the same playful irreverence with which he approaches icons of science fiction culture. “RapBeth” represents his hip hop ode to William Shakespeare, while “Mr. Raven” signals his respect for Edgar Allen Poe.

MC Lars has a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and has said that he would have pursued a career as an English teacher if he hadn’t found success as a hip hop performer.

He jokingly told one interviewer, “I read Moby Dick, and I thought it was a great book but it was really long, so I tried to put it into three minutes.” “Ahab” does manage to include a high number of reference points in the novel, some of which are expressed through the lyrics (such as the reference to the gold doubloon which Ahab nails to the mast or the shoutouts to Queequeg), some through the visual iconography of the video (for example, the scar on Mc Lars’s face or his peg leg). For example, the line, ” Hey Ishmael… can I call you annoying?,” plays upon “Call Me Ishmael,” which is probably the single most famous phrase in Melville’s novel. The repeated chorus, ” Peg leg, sperm whale, jaw bone, what!,” not only refers to some of the recurring icons of the narrative but also hints at the novel’s linkage of Ahab’s leg with the Ivory of the whale. The conflict between Ahab and Starbuck is hinted at by “You’re Never going to find him! He’s a big sperm whale. The ocean is enormous!” while other lines hint at Ahab’s self absorption and solitude, “excuse me while I go be melancholy in my room!” Another lyric neatly captures a key subplot in the novel: “Pip went insane when he almost drowned, So profound when he shrieks like a little sailor clown.” The visual logic of the video, which takes us under water and then into the mouth and through the belly of the whale, may hint at the story of Jonah, who is swallowed by a great fish, which Melville reads as a whale, while the hectoring figure in the turban here may suggest Elijah’s warning.

What other references to the novel do you and your students identify here?

Would the song even make sense if the listener did not have at least a broad exposure to the major themes and plot twists of this classic American novel? That’s the essence of an allusion: MC Lars is able to shorthand Moby Dick because so many of his listeners will already know the story through other media representations if not through a direct experience of the book. MC Lars simply has to point us in the right direction and our mind fills in all the rest with much of the humor here stemming from the brevity with which he is able to sum up elements of such a vast and intimidating work.

Yet, the song also suggests some of the interpretations of the song which arise in high school literature classes. Ahab described himself as a “monomaniac,” draws parallels to Oedipus, talks about “hubris” as his “tragic flaw,” defines the book’s conflict as “man vs. beast,” and sums up the book’s message as “revenge is never sweat.” All of this is the stuff of Spark Notes and bad high school essays, suggesting a work which isn’t simply familiar to us the first time we read it, but also may come predigested, neatly broken down into familiar modes of literary analysis.

The sense that “Ahab” is responding to the rituals of the English classroom is further hinted at through the visuals here, which depict a group of students re-enacting Moby Dick, and ends with a shot from the wings as the performance concludes and the audience applauds. The Nerdcore movement, in general, tends to embrace low tech and amateur looking graphics in many of its videos, hinting at the Do-It-Yourself culture which inspires them and their audiences. Ironically, here, the stagecraft is more elaborate than would be likely to be seen in any school play, making, perhaps, a reference to the spectacular and equally unlikely high school productions of films like Apocalypse Now depicted in the cult classic, Rushmore. Either way, though, the visuals reinforce lyrics which connect Moby Dick back to the classroom, suggesting that the video may be in some sense a thumbing of the nose at the practices of secondary education, even as it is also an affectionate tribute to the novel itself.

Like many examples or remix, the song combines its primary source — Moby Dick — with a range of other allusions. “Ahab” evokes a range of contemporary reference points which would have been anachronistic in Melville’s novels, such as Steve Wozniak, the Mariana Trench, Titanic, and Finding Nemo (suggested by the clown fish at the end of the video) Is the suggestion here that the novel remains relevant to contemporary concerns or that it is hopelessly out of date?

A tossed off reference to “a Supergrass beat” acknowledges another group whose music MC Lars has sampled for this song. Remix often gets described as “plagiarism,” yet in fact, it can be seen as the opposite of plagiarism: plagiarists usually seek to cover their tracks, masking the sources of their material, and taking claim for them. Remix, on the other hand, depends on our recognition of that the material is being borrowed and often depends on our understanding of the specific contexts it is borrowed from. This song would be meaningless if we did not recognize its references to Herman Melville. And it says something about the ethics within this community that the songwriter wanted to acknowledge the beats that he sampled, even if the reference makes little sense within the context of its re-purposing of Moby Dick.

So, the above discussion suggests some questions which you and your students might want to ask about any remix:

What was the context within which the remix was produced?

In this case, we read “Ahab” in relation to Nerdcore as a specific subgenre of hip hop, one which makes extensive use of allusions to forms of culture which are valued by its “nerd” audience, including video games, science fiction, and cult media. In this case, we also saw it as part of a larger strand in MC Lars’s work which appropriates themes from works commonly taught in high school and college literature classes, acknowledging his own educational background and professional experiences.

What content is being repurposed here?

In this case, the primary source material is Moby Dick and to beats taken from a song by Supergrass. The song also makes a series of topical references.

What relationship is being posited between the remix and the original work?

“Ahab” is a good natured parody, one which deflates the elevated reputation of the original novel, even as it pays respect to its potential continued relevence to the present day. The song may be harsher towards some of the ways novels get taught through schools. Like several of MC Lars’ other songs, “Ahab” blurs between high art and popular culture, suggesting an ongoing criticism of cultural hierarchies.

Are the works of the same or different genre?

Moby Dick is a literary epic with tragic overtones; “Ahab” is a music video with comic overtones.

Are the works of the same or different media?

Moby Dick was a printed novel; “Ahab” was a music video distributed primarily through YouTube.

How does the remix tap or transform the original meaning?

Some of both. The song remains surprisingly faithful to the themes and narrative of the original novel, even as it shifts the tone by which we understand these elements.

What techniques are deployed in reworking the original?

There’s a lot going on here. First, the song compresses the complex and lengthy novel into a series of evocative phrases which summarize key themes and plot elements. Second, the song relies on anachronisms to hint at the relationship between past and present. Third, the song incorporates key phrases from literary analysis to suggest a particular set of interpretations of the novel. Fourth, the staging of the music video is intended to evoke a school pageant, again hinting at the relationship of this text and higher education. Fifth, the song’s bouncy beat transforms the tone and spirit of the original book, inviting us to have fun with the story rather than taking it totally seriously.

I welcome any feedback from serious nerdcore fans: “Ahab” was really my introduction to the genre and I want to get this right. I’d also love to be in touch with MC Lars, if he’s out there reading this.