Thursday, November 01, 2007

Free to be Random

There has long been an undercurrent within the nerdcore hip-hop community that delineates artists in relation to their apparent nerdiness versus their hip-hop chops. There are those who argue that the strength of nerdcore is rooted solidly in the style’s openness and accessibility to artists and fans who feel that mainstream rap simply isn’t for them. Likewise, there are those who feel that without a genuine love for and connection to the roots of hip-hop, nerdcore is a slap in the face of a proud musical tradition.

Fortunately, these two facets are not mutually exclusive; it is perfectly possible for a rapper to honor and embrace hip-hop history while simultaneously proclaiming pride in his “dork side.” Acts such as Jesse Dangerously, YTCracker, and Optimus Rhyme have been doing it for years, and newer groups like Metamystiks, Inc. and Dual Core skillfully follow suit.

Also among this number is Random: another artist who understands that hip-hop is about self-expression, even if that that expression concerns science, D&D, or videogames.

Random was nice enough to take some time out of his hectic schedule for an interview with Hipster, please! There-in we discussed the runaway success that is Mega Ran, the nature of musical inspiration, and the nerd’s true place in hip-hop. Read on to get inside the mind of a hip-hop visionary who is unafraid to embrace his nerdy predilections.

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Mega Ran is very much a concept album. What was the genesis of this project?

I really couldn't tell you. I literally woke up one day and got an idea to make an entire project on Mega Man beats. I gotta credit YTCracker for his NES album, which was the first time I'd heard an entire album with NES-sampled tracks. So, 2 years later, when I read that this was the 20th anniversary of a character which pretty much defined and shaped my childhood, I wanted to make one track, and when I couldn't find just one to use, MEGA RAN was born.

You've been rhyming for nearly 15 years, and you've enjoyed both underground success and numerous accolades from within the hip-hop community. Given that Mega Ran followed hot on the heals of your critically acclaimed release The Call, was there any initial fear that hip-hop audiences wouldn't feel an album based on the exploits of a diminutive blue robot?

Well, yeah, but I tried not to dwell on it… When people who were fans of The Call would ask about my next I don't wanna hear an album full of profanity, because I don't use it in my everyday life. album, I made sure to tell them that Mega Ran wasn't my next album, just a fun experiment. I didn't expect too much from the underground crowd. When I let folks close to me hear it, a lot of them just wouldn't say anything… It made me worry, but maybe they just weren't Mega Man fans like I was. One thing I've learned is that people don't know what they want… so I've gotta make music for me. Mega Ran was for me. I'm fortunate that people enjoyed it like they did. I didn't think about it until it was already out, but I could've committed career suicide with this album (laughs). Still, I've never heard or read any negative comments about the album, even got my highest review from a site that is considered an underground hip hop site.

Stylistically, would you consider yourself a part of "conscious hip-hop," or do you prefer to eschew such labels?

Well, the opposite of conscious is unconscious. So since I'm awake, yes, I am a conscious hip-hop artist. I hate that label, as I hate all labels. Labels are for products on a shelf… Music is about emotion. Since I don't curse, or make songs about shooting people or smoking weed, I guess I'd be labeled as a conscious emcee. But Mega Ran, for example, has no social commentary, and that was the way I wanted it. I like to alternate between serious and playful themes on albums. The next album will be a mix of the two.

For those who may be unfamiliar, could you please explain RAHM Nation, and your place within the organization?

RAHM Nation stands for Reform And Healing Movement. Within the organization, I am an artist and producer. RAHM is a collective dedicated to reversing the trend in today's music through creativity. As an independent label, we have so much more freedom, and that's the reason a record like Mega Ran can come out. Would a major label allow me to go from The Call to Mega Ran? Probably not. It feels good to be free… Free to be Random.

Your overall output is both positively spiritual and cleverly political, and you've even gone so far as to call yourself "a rabble-rousing, freedom-fighting, bad-guy slaying emcee's emcee." Given that the character of Mega Man is quite literally a crusader against institutionalized injustice, did you feel comfortable sliding into the role of such a hero?

Absolutely. To risk sounding cliché, Mega Man and I experience the same things... there were, what, 10 Mega Man games with the same plot? That's me. I've been rapping for years, experiencing the same things over and over... the disappointments, the ups, downs… as a teacher, its the same too. I moved from Philly to Phoenix and see the same things in the school districts, from the kids to administration… and it's funny that you think things are different on the other side of the world, and they're pretty much the same. I consider myself somewhat of a rap superhero… the voice of the voiceless.

One undeniable facet of the album is that you manage to make your take on the Mega Man mythos a very personal affair. Hell, you even manage to weave a compelling romance sub-plot in there (i.e.: "Aqua Soul")! Was there a formula or a rubric you followed to ensure that Mega Ran was equal parts canonical Mega Man and genuine Random?

No, no formula. I mean, would it be Random if I had a set formula? I recorded tracks that I liked, and on each album, I have a theme of a multi-layered story, as on The Call ("Tainted Love" parts 1-3): just something to keep the listener interested… in this game it's all about giving the listener something new. If every track was just "Random's the best rapper" over Mega Man beats, then what makes one track more interesting than the next?

Many of your previous efforts have been peppered with styles such as gospel, soul, and R&B. The Mega Ran track "Metal Man," however, has a very distinct guitar-driven groove compliments of videogame rockers The Megas. How did this collaboration come about?

Big shout out to The Megas!! I had heard their stuff and I was so impressed. What they do is very similar to what I did with Mega Ran… They replay Mega Man beats and add their own lyrics and story to the track. So I got in contact with them about remixing one of their tracks, and "Metal Man" was born. I even had an opportunity to perform with them in San Diego at the House of Blues this summer, and that was a huge experience. One of my goals in Mega Ran was to fuse different styles of music together. Most of the Mega Man remakes I had heard turned the tunes into dance tracks… kinda techno-ish… so that'd been done. So I mixed Hip-Hop, Rock, even Reggaeton on the "Ringman" joint.

There is an admitted lack of profanity and overtly violent motifs in your work. Given that these pervade modern hip-hop - at least in the mind of the uninitiated outsider - is this more a matter of social responsibility or simply personal preference?

It's personal preference. I don't wanna hear an album full of profanity, because I don't use it in my everyday life. I can't control what everyone else does, but before being an artist, I'm a fan. So everything I do, from construction of an album to my I moved from Philly to Phoenix and see the same things in the school districts. live show, I think of what I would want to hear as a fan. Rappers could reach so many more people if they could step outside of themselves and look in. I think so much more could be accomplished if rappers just watched their language, in my opinion… whether you want to sell more records or heal the world.

Especially rappers who do Nerdcore, or overly commercial stuff. I mean, you're sampling an 8-bit video game that was played by pre-teens. Do you really think you should be cussing all over it? That's kinda disrespectful, and I'm sure it would be to the videogame's creators... But I love Nerdcore because it's about people doing what they want to do, speaking to an audience that has been overlooked for quite some time… but to commercial rappers: imagine how many more records you could sell if the CD didn't have that "Explicit Lyrics" sticker on it…

You take your role as an educator very seriously. Do your students know about your dual life as a "mild-mannered school teacher" and an underground rap sensation?

Yes, they do know, I give them my CDs when they're well behaved, and we talk about it from time to time... I had the coolest experience last week with them. I showed them my performance video from Nerdapalooza SE in Florida, and I had a little girl ask me, "Are you famous?" I said no. As she watched the video, she turned back to me and said, "Yes you are! They're singing your words! You don't have to tell me, I know you're famous." I got a hearty laugh out of that one.

Who are your primary musical influences? What about non-musical influences?

Hmm… well, they change every day, depending on my mood. Right now I'm listening to Kanye West, and I must say, the new album is pretty inspiring. Other than that I'd say Marvin Gaye, Maroon 5, Bob Dylan… anyone who tries new things and tells stories.

But for inspiration I usually don't have to look any further than my own camp. Ohene is spectacular. I'm always eager to hear what he has cooking; I think he's the greatest mind in Hip-Hop, hands down. Outside of music, my students are a huge influence. I see the things they go through, and that influences the things I say and do, since I realize that I'm always a role model, even when I don't want to be.

It's apparent that you know your way around an NES. Are you still a gamer?

Oh yeah, I still play whenever I get time. Looking forward to getting my hands on that Halo 3!

Mega Ran generated quite a buzz within the gaming media, with mentions popping up at sites like IGN, gaming blogs like Kotaku, and even from Capcom itself. Were you at all surprised by its warm reception?

Yes, very surprised. I look at IGN every day, so to see myself on IGN was a huge shock! I was scared to death when Capcom got involved. I really didn't want to get sued, so I wasn't going to sell the album at all. Then folks at Capcom told me that they not only supported it, but encouraged me to sell it, AND invited me to Comic-Con to sell and sign autographs at their booth. Unbelievable. Early press releases said the album was free, and we had to stay true to that… so I made the album free for 7 days, and it got a ridiculous amount of downloads. Now that it's for sale, it's surprisingly become my best-selling album in less than a year! So I'm thankful. This showed me, more than anything, that it was okay for me to be myself.

Mega Ran was also well received within the nerdcore hip-hop community. Given the strained relations - generally running the gamut from idle disinterest to outright disdain - between more traditional forms of hip-hop and nerdcore, were you at all concerned that you'd crossed a line in the sand?

Nah, I wasn't. I didn't want to be the one to bridge the gap between nerdcore and "traditional" hip-hop, but if this could do it, that'd be cool. I think the only problem that hip-hoppers have with nerdcore is the sound quality… I think it's a pride thing; if you put your music out for the world to judge it, it only makes sense to put your best foot forward. When I made Fundamentals, the sound quality… well, it sucked. But, I thought, and still do, that if people could look past that, they'd find a great album… funny, entertaining and lyrically on point.

There are some wack rappers in mainstream hip-hop, so nerdcore is no different… but there also are some gems in each. I'd put cats like YTCracker and Zealous1 against anyone when it comes to song structure, concepts and overall creativity.

Not to drag you into what is a thorny topic all its own, but is there a place for nerds within hip-hop proper?

They're already there, they're just hiding out. Lupe Fiasco proved that you don't need to fit into anyone's mold to break in. There's SOMEONE out there who listens to lyrics still. There are plenty of undercover nerds out there, we just have to get them out of the closet.

You shared the stage with many nerdcore MCs at August's Nerdapalooza SE. Do you feel as though you connected well with the audience and the other (admittedly geeky) performers?

Absolutely. I had a blast. I love nerdcore events, they're always fun… and people aren't afraid to be fans. When I do shows at traditional hip-hop venues, anyone who gives me props usually has to preface it with "I'm not a groupie or anything, but… your stuff is tight." Most of the time in underground hip-hop venues, you're rapping to an audience who are rappers themselves, with their hands in their pockets, who the whole time you rock are thinking "I can do that better than him." Nerdcore fans aren't afraid to get loose and have fun.

You're a member of the Sedgwick Avenue Alliance, along with such artists as Jesse Dangerously, Metamystiks Inc, Savant, and Grandmaster Pink. Is there a lot of creative give-and-take among the members of the Alliance, or is it more a loose confederation of artists?

So far so good. It's a great thing, it allows us to show off new tracks, get feedback and connect in new ways… I haven't been using it to its full potential as of yet, but I will… and I when I do, it'll be DANGEROUS! Look forward to hearing some new Alliance collaborations really soon.

Okay, I ask this one checkbook in hand: how much will it set me back to hear you and Maja on a track together?

(in Dr. Evil voice) one….BIJILLION KIBBILON DOLLARS. (laughs)… actually, you might be happy to know that Maja and I have recorded not one, but TWO tracks together… No idea where they're gonna end up, but they're done… and they're SICK!! Look for at least one of them to debut on Sedgwick within the next month. Maja is an extremely talented cat, and we've done some building, and I've learned a lot from him in a short time.

What other kinds of collaborations and future projects can we expect from Random in the future?

Right now I'm just knocking out beats and collaborations for some folks… just finished a track with a group out of TX, Crew 54, "Can't Lose,"  I gotta credit YTCracker for his NES album.I did the beat and a verse, it's on their site now. My producer and DJ DN3 and I are working on something called "The House Project," which will feature DN3 on the beats, myself and him on the vocals, and a talented guitarist Grieg Schrock laying down some licks. It'll be really musical, pretty soulful. I'd like to have a short mixtape-like project out in the winter, just a collection of songs that I've been working on, and my next full-length will hit in August 2008. Anything other than that, you're gonna have to keep your ears and eyes open… I could wake up tomorrow and want to release a whole new album… I have ideas in my head about another nerdcore theme album… but I don't know if I can let the cat out of the bag yet.

If there's any single constant across your body of work it's a devotion to the concept of musical experimentation, both lyrically and stylistically. Is there any single musical style or element that you've yet to tackle that you've got your sights set on?

I told some close friends a while back that my first single on the next album was going to be a techno-styled track, but nowadays that's being done, with Timbaland and others mashing Hip-Hop and dance music. So, I have my sights on other genres, and you'll be seeing those really soon. I really want to record with a live band, or an orchestra… and who knows, the Random country album might not be far away….

In the meantime, get Mega Ran! And get The Call! Support indie music!

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I originally planned to title this piece “Rocky, Cheesesteak, and Mega Man” - a reference both to his track “City Boy” and to Ran’s affection for the Blue Bomber - but after reading the finished product, it seemed imprecise. You see, while Random is, no doubt, proud of his Philadelphia roots and is equally at peace with his love of classic videogames, he is far more than the sum of his history, his interests, and even his skillfully selected words. Ran is an artist dedicated to his craft, and embracing that craft means not only growing with his music but growing through his music.

Transitioning from a successful album such as The Call to a concept as novel as a videogame inspired project was a bold move, and one that Random admits he worried over. Though it was obviously his intention, there’s no way he could have possibly known that Mega Ran would capture the interest of hip-hop heads and videogame fans alike. And yet it did; a humble, honest, committed artist managed to weave a cohesive tale of danger, romance, betrayal, and, ultimately, victory not by agonizing over the differences between rap cannon and geek aesthetic, but by focusing on their common, underlying nature.

To put it simply: good music is rooted in passion. Such passion is palpable in Fundamentals, The Call, and, yes, Mega Ran, proving unequivocally that nerdcore and hip-hop are not separated by some thematic wall. Even if nerds and heads sometimes are.

10 comments:

Church said...

Another great interview, Z.

"...I give them my CDs when they're well behaved..."

LMAO. Best teacher EVAH!

Z. said...

Thanks, Church.

Ran is a really fascinating cat, and he was a blast to talk to. If you're a fan of Mega Ran, you should definitely check out his earlier work.

G. said...

Good interview. Well asked questions. And I co-sign on Ran's skillz.

antisoc said...

Wow, very insightful interview.

The Ranger said...

Great read, Z.

Z. said...

Thanks for the support, fellows. I'm glad y'all enjoyed the piece! :)

DRE' ROCK da PHUNKWARLOCK said...

RAN, I REALLY DIG YOUR WILLINGNESS TO BE FREE AND OPEN ABOUT WHAT YOU DO. I STRONGLY SUPPORT THE FACT THAT YOU DON'T CURSE WITH YOUR LYRICS.I THINK THAT IS IMPORTANT FOR TODAYS YOUTH TO UNDERSTAND THAT PROFANITY DOESN'T MAKE YOU AN MC.BESIDES, THERE ARE ENOUGH WORDS TO GO AROUND BESIDES CUSS WORDS. LIKE IT OR NOT WE ARE ALL ACCOUNTABLE FOR WHAT WE SAY AND DO.WE ALL REEP WHAT WE SAY AND DO.
DRE'ROCK /MARGURITE MCDONALD MUSIC INC.

jeff z said...

...yet another insightful and enjoyable interview! thanks Z and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said about Ran, he is one seriously talented cat!

Anonymous said...

I looove Ran's stuff! :)

Z. said...

Well said, Dre'. I like the fact that Ran is a quality MC who is genuinely dedicated to his role as an educator; he really goes out of his way to be a good role model.

Thanks, Jeff. Ran makes fans the old fashioned way, meaning, of course, that he simply creates the best music he can. I think his legion of admirers are a testament to his dedication to the craft.

We all do, Anonymous. What's not to love? ;)