While commercial hip-hop's fascination with gold, gats, drugs and ass is by now as fresh as a "Married "¦ with Children" episode, some artists live up to the form's fine heritage.
Since hip-hop made its bones selling an urban fantasy to suburban kids, perhaps it's fitting that one of the wittiest rappers making the scene is Stanford-educated, middle-class kid Andrew Nielsen, aka MC Lars.
Although he grew up on punk rock, Nielsen soon discovered hip-hop, trading the guitar for a laptop and microphone. He began playing shows while studying abroad in Oxford, England, where he released a bedroom recording that opened the door to a publishing deal with Universal Records when he returned home to California. That financed the emcee's first tours alongside Bowling for Soup in 2004, and it's been onward and upward ever since.
If cleverness were bling, Nielsen could be a commercial for Jared Jewelers. His "Generic Crunk Rap" thanks Bentley, Alizet and Sean Jean for sponsoring the materialistic sub-genre before literally fulfilling the title's promise: "Phrase about my gun, rhyme about my loot / Phrase about these haters I sometimes have to shoot."
"Hipster Girl" opens with a Valley girl name-checking Pitchfork and lauding Conor Oberst over Pavement's Stephen Malkmus before concluding, "Did I show you my new miniskirt/leggings combo / You know what they say, ugly is the new hot."
"Signing Emo" features a spot-on parody of a typical emo song by a made-up band called Hearts That Hate, and Nielsen busts iPod-packing, self-congratulatory, bourgeoisie rebels buying Noam Chomsky books with Dad's credit card on "No Logo," scored to Fugazi's "Waiting Room." He's argued that "Hot Topic Is Not Punk Rock," "Internet Relationships (Are Not Real Relationships)" and "Guitar Hero Hero (Beating Guitar Hero Does Not Make You Slash)."
"Weird Al said he's a pop-culture Cuisinart, and that's kinda of what I do. I write songs about everything that's interesting to me, because otherwise, why write songs?" Nielsen said.
While his rhymes are rife with LOL lines, Nielsen brings much more than the jokes. His "Guitar Hero" slam makes a point about our culture of consumption and the lack of engagement, encouraging kids to live their dreams, not just to play pretend. He's imagined going back in time to battle-rap Chaucer, and even turned historic subjects like "Manifest Destiny" and literary classics such as "Hamlet," "Macbeth" and "Moby-Dick" into raps.
"The literature stuff is definitely a way people get into my music, and it hits a certain audience but it's not a limited thing," said the former English major. "I don't consider what I do comedy or humor-rap or anything. It can be funny without being a joke. I think most nerdcore is a joke in that it's white people rapping about computers and 'Star Wars,' and even though I love that and a lot of my friends do it, I think that genre is pretty played out.
"I'm not a comedian telling jokes about my penis and then rapping about Robitussin. I'm rapping about real stuff. I have to believe in what I do and take it seriously. Even though I'm not afraid to have fun and be silly, I do it with some passion for and understanding of the culture."
'SINGLE AND FAMOUS'
Although he began with just a laptop, these days, Nielsen's also playing guitar and touring with a live crew, including DJ Damondrick Jack and protégé K. Flay, a female Chicago rapper and guitarist he met at Stanford, and who appears on his latest EP, "Single and Famous."
Nielsen remains quite prolific with six releases in the last four years. He's already at work on his next album, tentatively titled "Lars Attacks!" In the meantime, he hopes to turn kids on to the music that inspired him, like Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat to KRS-One and Rakim. He's energized by punk's DIY ethos and hip-hop's brash admonition to keep it real, something Nielsen said he does 24-7.
"That's kind of the whole point of hip-hop: that you have something to say, then say it, and say it well," he said. "That's exciting, but people need to be smart with their time because we're inundated with messages to just sit back and unplug our brains. That shouldn't be the case."
MC Lars with Bowling for Soup, Smile Smile and Sweet Action perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at Diamond Ballroom, 8001 S. Eastern. "Chris Parker