Growing up, I was the awkward white nerd girl who was simultaneously obsessed with comic books and hip-hop.
It was the early '90s, arguably the best time to discover the genre. Although I had no way of understanding the urban plight and struggle the artists faced, I knew their words were powerful. As they spoke out about oppression, discrimination and equality, pudgy, ginger 13-year old me found courage in those songs. I related to it in my own way, having been the victim of pretty intense bullying because I was a bookish late bloomer with the social skills of a cat. One particular line from Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" became an anthem I repeated quietly to myself whenever those 8th grade bitches got me down: "We got to pump the stuff to make us tough from the heart." Those words fortified me in the same way superheroes did and I began to see connections between comic books and hip-hop music. You know who else was tough from the heart? Superman. You know who else had to fight the power and crusade for justice? Batman. Hip-hop spoke to me the same way comics did. Sadly, I was scorned for loving rap and told in no uncertain terms that it wasn't for me. Unable to articulate my feelings about my fandom, I eventually stopped trying to convince people of its authenticity. I didn't understand how to intermingle these things I was so passionate about, since the culture of hip-hop seemed to be no place for an asthmatic Irish teenager who preferred Ecto Coolers to gin and juice, and my nerd friends weren't able to comprehend that the East Coast/West Coast feud was as important to me as Marvel/DC loyalties.
It wasn't until the first time I heard mc chris in 2001 (over a decade after my secret love affair with hip-hop began) that I found harmony in the discord of my interests. Equally white, equally nerdy, equally sincere about his love of rap, Chris "mc chris" Ward is the missing link between geeks and gangsters. One of the earliest rappers in the nerdcore genre, he wrote songs covering the entire gamut of geekery -- everything from "Star Wars" to LEGO collecting to Neville Longbottom. It wasn't just that the references in his songs were clever, his rhymes were tight and his beats were sick.
Last fall, Ward released his "Friends" EP, featuring four songs from the perspective of Bat-family allies Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl and Alfred Pennyworth. Rich with backstory and the emotion of transitional experiences, it not only reflected the depth of storytelling in the comics, but also Ward's personal experiences with recovering from the loss of his father earlier in the year. He currently has a follow up album in the works: "Foes" -- a response from some of Gotham's most notorious villains.
Although he has shied away from press in the past, Ward agreed to meet up with CBR before the San Francisco date of his current summer tour. In an alley behind the bar where he would later perform, he opened up about his lifelong love of Hawkeye, his relationship to the nerdcore genre and his plans for spitting comic-inspired rhymes in the future.
CBR News: Chris, in the past you've firmly distanced yourself from the label "nerdcore." Where are you at with that label today?
Chris Ward: A rose is a rose. Part of my life now is accepting that things are the way they are. When I first started making music I was like, "No! I am the only one who has come up with this amazing idea!" But so many people grew up on hip-hop and grew up on nerdy stuff; it's like chocolate and peanut butter.
In the beginning I felt like I was an individual and not part of anything, but now I'm proud to be part of this genre of music. I sit down with [nerdcore pioneer] MC Frontalot and I say that in the history books they're going to look back on this time and say: this was nerdcore, we were nerdcore. I'm just happy to be included in anything, really. It's nice that a lot of folks consider me part of it. It's actually embarrassing how I used to think I was the only one playing with "Star Wars" toys and making music, and it just wasn't true. I have absolutely no problem with the label now.
What comic books do you currently keep up with?
Matt Fraction's "Hawkeye" and "All-Star Western." I used to spend like $130 a week at the comic book store and bought tons of stuff, but then they started losing me. I think Marvel lost me on stealing the kill shot from Hawkeye on the Skrull Queen in "Secret Invasion." Hawkeye shoots an arrow into her mouth and I was like, "Yes!! That was a great ending!" But then Osborn shows up and blasts her in the head and he becomes the head of the Marvel Universe for a while. I understand that those were all plot points, but I was really disappointed that they stole the kill from Hawkeye.
Have you always been a comics reader?
I started when I was a kid reading Marvel's "G.I Joe." I was a big "G.I Joe" kid -- got all the toys, watched the cartoons, I loved it. I started seeing the books in this one store in the mall. I was just like, "Woah, what's this?" Once you start, it's like crack. If you get issue #29 of something, you've got to get #28 and down.
My brothers started reading different things, like "X-Men" and "Batman." My family rules were structured in such a way that we weren't allowed to buy the same titles that our brothers were buying. I had to have my own titles that I bought. I had "Amazing Spider-Man," so I got to see all of the Todd McFarlane first prints. I also had "Hulk" and "Fantastic Four," but my favorite title was "West Coast Avengers." I really loved Hawkeye too, which is why in issue #39 of "New Avengers," Hawkeye is wearing a mc chris shirt.
But I would sneak into my brother's rooms to read "Fall of the Mutants" and "Batman," but I had to put them back really carefully.
They weren't into sharing?
You had to ask for permission and then they'd be like, "Don't break the binding!" It was more fun sneaking and stealing than getting permission and asking. I was a little comic ninja! What I really loved though was Batman.
Speaking of Batman, you had your EP "Friends" come out last year. All of the songs are packed with a really detailed history of the characters: Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl and Alfred. What kind of research did you have to do for that?
The research that I put into those songs took years. I literally bought Batman encyclopedias, got all the best Batman stories and just read and read. When it came time to finally start spitting stuff out, I read DC's New 52 so I would be up to date on what I was talking about. I rap about "Batman R.I.P." in the Batgirl song. I really wanted to cover as much as I possibly could about the characters. So much prep work goes into making sure I have my Bats crossed and my Robins dotted.
The Batgirl song is one of my favorites. You cover so much of her history, getting all the way up through "Birds of Prey," and continuing into the New 52 where Barbara recovered from her injuries and is no longer in the wheelchair. What was important about that character arc for you?
I like to read the political history of comics. I really got into the time era and what was going on in our country when Batman was created. At the beginning of World War II, Poland was invaded by Germany, LaGuardia airport had just opened and the Great Depression was ending. Those three things mixed up created Batman -- you needed this dark hero, who represented flight and these new changes to the world, a hero who was of the times. Batman is this folk hero existing as whoever we need him to be. In the '60s he was this campy, funny thing because everyone was on acid and it was a trippy time. Present day, we've had 9/11, and we need a grittier, more realistic Batman who we can see existing in reality.
With Batgirl, she got put into a wheelchair after she was shot. The song is from Robin's point of view, and his crush on her doesn't diminish at all. He's still in love with her; she's just hotter to him, even in the chair. To have her come back from being shot upset a lot of people. My point was that if Batman can have his back broken by Bane and repair himself, why can't she? It's almost derogatory to have her stuck in a chair forever and not be able to heal physically. I like how her coming back reflects us -- if times can change, so can these characters.
You've got two more comic-related albums coming out soon: "Superfriends" and "Foes." What can you tell tease about them?
"Superfriends" will be about the JLA. I'll do a song about Flash, a song about Superman, probably Wonder Woman.
"Foes" is a follow up to "Friends" about the Batman villains. I'm going to have a Joker song, which is to me the highlight of my career. I've got friends who are telling me that I have to write a Killer Croc song. I don't know if that's going to happen, but I've got some plans for my personal favorites, like Mr. Freeze.
As for the other song ideas, I like Catwoman, I like Scarecrow, but I also like characters like the Librarian and stuff from the TV show like Egghead. There's stuff I want to do, but I'm not sure if I should do it because people might not remember those guys. It might end up being a full-length album [instead of an EP] because it's like picking which child, or bad kid, you love the most.
Do you run into any licensing issues with your music? Not only do you use Marvel and DC characters, but also a ton of "Star Wars" stuff.
Nope. I actually got to tour DC Comics and they gave me a bunch of books. They're totally nice. Everyone is a fan, you know? I've been able to tour Marvel, Dark Horse and everyone's so cool. I never hear anything negative. I'm sort of like the Girl Talk of nerdcore. It seems like messing with me could be bad PR.
I just had a tour of Industrial Light and Magic today and someone asked me if I'd ever been approached [about legal issues.] I told them no, but one time Steve Sansweet, who was the head of fan relations at Lucasfilm, came to my merch table at a convention and we all started shitting our pants, thinking the jig was up because we had all of this Boba Fett stuff. He took a little pin, bought it and walked away. Nobody messes with me, which sort of gives me license to write about whatever I want -- which is awesome!
Do you have any plans to write your own comics?
I do! I have an epic story that I've been working on since I was 18. I wrote screenplays for it when I was in school at NYU where I was a film major. I think I'm going to tell that story in comics first, but there are so many things I want to do before that! When I toured Dark Horse, I told them the plot of my comic in about two sentences and they said it sounded interesting, so it's definitely something on my bucket list that I really want to do. We'll see what happens.
You do have a book coming out next year, though. What's that going to be like?
As you've seen with some of my songs, fans make their own videos and put them up on YouTube, which is totally fine. I love watching them try to decipher what the hell I'm saying. A lot of the times, well, almost all of the times they're totally wrong- so! I have a book coming out next year that will chronicle all of my lyrics and explain their origins, starting from my 8-track days and going all the way up to "mc chris Forever," which is the album that comes out this fall. It will be my first book, and hopefully the first of many books.
mc chris is currently on his Revenge of the Nerd 2 tour. For more information, visit mcchris.com.