Teaching “Ahab”: An Interview with MC Lars

Not terribly long ago, I made a blog post discussing the nerdcore performer MC Lars and his music video, “Ahab,” as appropriations from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

We have been using Lars’s video as a resource for our Teacher’s Strategy Guide for “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” I ended the post with a plea to help me get in touch with MC Lars and it’s a tribute to the network which has emerged around this blog that a little later, I did hear from the performer (and ex-Lit major) who was excited to learn that we were deploying his performance in schools. Since then, MC Lars agreed to respond to a set of questions submitted to him by Rebecca Rupert’s students from Aurora Alternative High School in Bloomington IN. It serves students who have not experienced success in traditional settings. Rupert’s English Language Arts classes are part of the pilot program for our project. I added a few more questions in the mix myself designed to place the students’ questions in a fuller context.

How would you define nerdcore?

To me, nerdcore hip-hop is a genre of music that has lyrical content of things “nerds” would typically be interested in: computers, Star Wars, Final Fantasy, Magic the Gathering, Lord of the Rings, etc. Culturally, nerdcore “trades on” the implied notion that “authentic” hip-hop artists from urban areas spend less time reading comic books and more time “doing drive-by shootings”, hence the instanty novelty appeal of the genre to any one familiar with pop culture. One can also ascertain the implication that nerdcore is “4th generation hip- hop created by 3rd generation hip-hop’s target audience”, as a new generation of thousands of rappers who make beats on their computers can attest. Nerdcore can be viewed as hip-hop created by a generation of artists whose parents may have grown up listening to artists of the genre’s golden age, such as Chuck D, KRS-One, and Eric B & Rakim (much like the punk generation grew up listening to the three chord progressions of the early Beatles and distilled it into a more distilled presentation). If one wants to be cynical and explore how hip-hop has transcended racial and class boundaries, there is an implication that nerdcore is “white hip-hop”, in lack of acknowledgement of its African American cultural roots.

How did you get involved in the movement?

I started out playing guitar in punk bands as a teenager growing up on the Monterey Peninsula. When I started by undergraduate work at Stanford, I was drawn to KZSU, a station that proudly boasts having “the oldest hip-hop show on the West Coast”. One of my projects was to alphabetize the vinyl library of thousands and thousands of records… and this gave me a quick education on every important performer in the first 30 years of hip-hop. I continued writing and performing my rap songs, and when I went to study in Oxford, I made friends with local indie rock bands who asked me to open for them. This led to me getting signed to a British label and everything else that followed. When “nerdcore” became an “authentic” genre in 2003/2004, I looked it up on Wikipedia and saw that I was officially part of the movement. Reading more about it I was happy to have the label as a description of part of what I do.

How do you see “Ahab” as part of the larger nerdcore movement?

There isn’t an MC in the scene who raps about 19th century American literature. I

thought it was time to make waves, so to speak. Nerdcore is an important cultural

phenomenon because it gives voice to people who write songs about things they love, and nerdcore gives license to people to rap about very “un-hip-hop” topics. I enjoyed my literature studies in college and wanted to write a song about one of my favorite books, and because only people with a certain education and understanding will understand what I’m doing, that makes “Ahab” part of the larger nerdcore movement. My hope is to inspire kids to read more Melville and turn off their televisions (after watching my video, of course).

One of the students got very passionate in arguing that mc Chris was better at rapping than you. This raises the question: How do we evaluate appropriations and remixing of materials within nerdcore?

Great question. Chris Ward is a talented rapper with a strong flow whose success can be directly attributed to his voice work for Cartoon Network and his comedic blurring of the line between “real hip-hop culture” and “nerd culture”. He trades on the notion, as mentioned in my response in your first question, that nerdcore is unique in its lacking of songs about “bitches, blunts, and 40′s”. But Chris surprises people with album titles like “Life’s a Bitch and I’m Her Pimp” and songs about recreational drugs, to show that nerds can relate to comedic elements of gangsta rap culture in their own ways. One might argue that he is a better rapper than me because of this, but I would argue that his act plays on elements of mocking African-American culture and verges on being a minstrel show. His voice and grammatical choices emulate African American culture in a way that would make the typical person laugh, this being its primary selling point. We evaluate mc chris’s appropriation of culture by his closeness to “authentic hip-hop” and his use of comedy in the blurring of lines between “gangsta” and “nerd” culture. Other elements for evaluation of appropriation and remixing include musical craftmanship in constructing “beats”, vocabulary, and originality in subject matter in writing lyrics.

Can you share some of your own experiences as a reader of Moby- Dick? When did you first read the novel? Do you consider yourself a fan of Moby-Dick?

I first read Moby-Dick as a Junior in college. My professor Jay Fliegelman taught a class on Melville, and we read Moby-Dick and some of Melville’s shorter stories. I remember being frustrated at first with the slow pacing of the novel, but found myself being drawn into it one chapter at a time. I love the metaphor of the Pequod as a cross section of 19th century American life, with all of the racial and class diversity of American society at the time, and the depth of the characters who reflected different elements of American life during that time. The layers of metaphor and allegorical references are dense, and the footnotes to the Norton Critical Edition were very helpful in discerning the meaning. I am definitely a fan of Moby-Dick, especially because of the overarching theme of mankind’s hubris in the face of Mother Nature’s sublime indifference.

You’ve sung about the so-called “iGeneration” in ways that are very similar to our concept of new media literacies. What do you think this generation is bringing to the culture and what do you see as the relationship of these new ways of thinking to the things we’ve traditionally taught through school?

The iGeneration is the generation that grew up with an innate familiarity with the

internet. Kids can instantly access music by any band, old or new, and can find

information and background info on any film or book ever written through any medium they want. We are used to hyper-stimulation, chatting on AOL instant messenger while

emailing friends while watching a movie while download torrents while updating our

websites. We are used to creating our own niches within the subcultures through which

define ourselves, through Myspace pages of our local bands, or YouTube videos of our

local comedy troupes. But technology has shortened our attention spans as well, to the

point where if we can’t “Wiki” something and understand it instantly, we move on.

Students can now comprehend the world a lot faster than the previous generation, because we are used to old technologies and are adept at using new technologies more quickly. We are used to processing many streams of information at once and are more discerning about the sources and intentions of those preventing the information (.com, .org, .gov etc.). Basically the “iGeneration” is the “information / internet” generation who is bringing new technologies and creative ways of implementing them and has the

responsibility of using their powers to leave the world a better place when we go. With

all of the technology at their disposal, the iGeneration could come together and find

cures for AIDS and for global warming, if we put down the Wii controller and log off of

Myspace for an afternoon. It’s an exciting time to be alive and affecting culture.

What follows are the student’s questions and his responses, including Lars’s advice to teachers who want to engage the “iGeneration” with excitement about traditional literature.

Why did you want to make this video?

To retell Moby-Dick in an engaging and exciting way and to promote my 2006 release The Graduate. With our media-saturated culture, videos are an important way to promote albums and “Ahab” was a fun single from the last record.

How long did it take you to make this video?

I was on tour in Australia for most of June of 2006 when preparation for “Ahab” began, but the set designers and artists spent three weeks creating the sets, ship, and fish costumes. When I got back, we rented a warehouse in Brooklyn and filmed for two hot summer days, from 6 am to midnight. The post-production lasted another two weeks, compositing such scenes as the boat floating in the sea, the transition between the sailors on-deck and below the ship, and and exiting of the whale’s stomach to reveal a cast of students taking bows. The entire project took 6 weeks of very hard work.

Why was it so cheap?

We had a finite video budget of $3,000, which is why the aesthetic differs from a Kanye West video. That’s why it looks “cheap”, or quite conveniently, like a school play.

Why did you put people in fishy costumes?

I made the video to show students how books can help us explore worlds we’ve never been to before. I wanted to bring the world of Herman Melville’s dark tale to light, as done through the eyes of a 4th grade production. Our aesthetic for costume design was that of the feel of 80′s-era PBS learning programs, such as Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow, where the fantasy world of imagination and the real world were brought together with color costumes and low budgets. The entire video was shot in just a few conjoined takes, to give the feel of a live performance. Having kids reenact every aspect of the novel was a pivotal part of the framing device of the presentation is a children’s play for adults, which is why the choreographed dancing in the fish costumes was a key part in the design and presentation. The charm of a grade-school production is meant to help emulsify Melville’s weighty prose.

Why is the whale limpy?

I’d like to have an erudite, complex answer for you, but the truth is that we had a

relatively small service elevator we had to use to get the Moby Dick model up to the

third floor of the warehouse where we shot. Moby was carried by three very patient PA’s on the set, who walked around with walkie talkies and listened as the director Sean

Donnelly shouted directions to them. The tail was originally designed to move up and

down by the people in the costume, but it was snapped in half when we crammed the

costume into the elevator. Hence its unintentional “limpy-ness” – giving it a relaxed,

limp appearance, and perhaps more charm.

What point were you trying to make–were you trying to make fun of Moby-Dick or what was the point behind it?

As a writer, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope are big influences on my work. Swift

reveals mankind’s shortcomings through his portrayal of the human condition and Pope was a master of the satirical verse and social commentary. Both of these writers were

influences on me as I worked to retell Moby-Dick for a younger audience to remind us that hubris can be deadly, and until we learn that the sublime power of nature is nothing to be tempted, we will be doomed to repeat Ahab’s fate. When I wrote the song in 2005, the Iraq War was in its relatively early stages and many people in the media were comparing Bush to Ahab, a crazed leader in search of the white whale of terrorism, seeking justice in a confused and self-destructive way. It made me think about how relevant the story still was, so I decided to retell the book for a new audience,

updating it with modern references (Steve Wozniak, Supergrass, etc.) and compressed it into a Wiki-Wiki version, the cliff notes version of the cliff notes. It serves as a

warning for future politicians who may become crazed with power, presented in a fun,

catchy way.

How would you teach Moby-Dick to make it fun for students?

Young people have been brought up in a postmodern cut-and-past culture, replete with pop culture references and media saturations. A steady beat and cadence draws listeners in, as they are used to hyper- stimulation. Hip-hop is a very, very effective way to pique students’ interest, in any topic, since it is the platonic manifestation of postmodern culture. I am intrigued by the lineage between Chaucer and KRS-One, a tradition of verse that reflects our struggles and victories as human beings.

As a lesson plan, I would encourage students to read Moby-Dick and find characters with which they identify. I would encourage students to keep an eye open for some of the less famous characters, such as Daggoo or Tashtego. I would then ask them to each write an 8 to 16 line verse that interprets their characters’ experiences in the novel, and ask them to explore how these characters could be translated to a modern context…. either through their similarities to modern celebrities or how they reflect struggles of notably personalities in current events. For instance, Fedallah’s stowaway experiences could shine light on immigration policies, while Pip could shine light on child labor laws or the class struggle.

I would then have students get into groups of three to four people each, bringing their verses together and create a song. I’d ask them to find similar themes between themselves to find a “hook” for the chorus song. They could then think of a lyrical chorus that reflects these similarities between character, and perform the “rap” for the class. Some instrumental beats that could convey the cadences and rhythms of such a translation are as follow:

Hip Hop by Dead Prez

Shook Ones Part II by Mobb Deep

MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know by KRS-One

This would show students how the plights of the characters in Moby-Dick relate to current events, and through an updated presentation of the form, this exercise would also inspire them to find more similarities between works 19th century literature and postmodern life in the 21st century.

Speaking of Geeks

A little while ago, I mentioned that the CMS grad students had been reading The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in anticipation of a conversation with its author, Junot Diaz. Given the interest this generated for some readers, I wanted to add a pointer to the podcast version of that exchange. Diaz offers a masterful account for why he thinks comics, science fiction, and horror may speak truths that are excluded from official histories or from “serious literature” and explains how his novel was structured in part around borrowings from The Fantastic Four and Dune. Enjoy.