Bridging fairy tales and hip-hop with MC Frontalot
MC Frontalot | Photo by Ben Trivett

Back in 1985, when all the other kids were at recess playing kickball, 11-year-old Damian Hess was hanging out by himself in the school library obsessing over books of fairy tales. That interest stuck with Hess over the next three decades, and at 40, now known as nerdcore hip-hop pioneer MC Frontalot, he’s offering his own take on ten classic stories on his sixth album, Question Bedtime (Level Up). He’ll bring songs from the album and the rest of his catalogue to North Star Bar on Friday.

“There are liminal parts of childhood around 11 or 12 where you’ve gotten a good handle on the fact that adults exist and that they have this whole different world that they have access to but you’re absolutely not allowed into it,” Frontalot says. “It’s that moment when you’re aware enough of childhood innocence to want to get rid of it, but you’re not equipped yet to deal with the adult world, so you’re stealing peeks into it whenever you’re able. I think the violent and terrifying and scary aspects of all the medieval fairy tales fit into that liminal moment in childhood, and I think maybe that’s why those stories continue to be so widely trafficked and resonant.”

With Question Bedtime, Frontalot takes a unique twist on some familiar stories, while telling a few, in his own skewed way, that most listeners won’t have heard before. Into the former category fall songs like “Gold Locks,” told from Poppa Bear’s perspective and depicting Goldilocks as a bear-killing home invader who used to scare young cubs at night; or “Start Over,” which reframes “Little Red Riding Hood,” Rashomon-like, from three different perspectives. Then there’s “Mornings Come and Go,” from the Norwegian story “The Master Maid,” about a king’s son who goes to work for a giant and gets magical help from the title character; or “Wakjakága,” named after the trickster figure of the Ho-chunk Indians.

These are all stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, culture to culture, accumulating variations and additions along the way. “I love the idea that they don’t have authors,” Frontalot says, “that they’ve bounced around the world for a long time, even when they end up with a written version that manages to establish itself as the version that everyone knows – the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Anderson. I like the idea that these stories organically bubbled out of human culture over the centuries instead of being something that someone came up with at some point and that we can identify.”

That tradition of reimaging stories for a new audience has some resonance with hip-hop’s practice of sampling, which similarly takes familiar bits and pieces from well-known songs and repurposes them for modern ears. Frontalot has addressed that topic directly in the past, through songs like “Good Old Clyde,” which is about its own appropriation of a beat by legendary James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield.

That’s the kind of self-referential and self-deprecating subject matter that has become a major part of the nerdcore movement, which Frontalot gave its name in his 2000 song “Nerdcore Hiphop.” Along with names like mc chris, MC Lars, and Optimus Rhyme, Frontalot is one of the stars of the subgenre, which features lyrics extolling geek-chic subjects from gaming to Star Wars to science. His 2006 debut tour was captured for the documentary Nerdcore Rising, which has raised his profile in the ensuing years.

“A lot of other indie rappers took my band a little more seriously because of that movie,” Frontalot says. “There’s a zillion indie rappers out there and it’s hard to tell which ones to take seriously, so having a documentary about you on Netflix makes you seem more important than you might actually be.”

Question Bedtime might broaden Frontalot’s demographic once again if younger listeners catch on. While he didn’t design the album for kids, he did make a concerted effort to make sure they could listen to it if they chose to. “I definitely made a goal of not having any cussing or anything that would cause a responsible parent to confiscate it from a child,” he explains. “But I didn’t simplify the language or the conceptual stuff in the songs. They’re just as complicated and convoluted as any of my other records, so you would have to have a pretty capable 11-year-old to parse this record. My hope is that the songs can operate on a few levels, and maybe in my ideal imagined world you would get hold of this record when you’re 11 and get obsessed with it and it sticks with you over the years and you understand more and more of it as you go along. But maybe I’ve just created something that will bore children of all ages.”

MC Frontalot performs at the North Star Bar on Friday, September 19th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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