Nerd Alert!

October 30, 2013

Lawyer-turned-rapper Eugene Ahn, a.k.a Adam WarRock

is carving out unique niche in hip hop

Eugene Ahn (a.k.a Adam WarRock) / Courtesy of Joey Miller

Eugene Ahn (a.k.a Adam WarRock) / Courtesy of Joey Miller

By Kim Young-jin

Eugene Ahn, a.k.a Adam WarRock, is used to being an outsider.

Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he was a “loner” caught between black and white in a region where racial tension is not uncommon. As a litigation lawyer with an Emory University degree, he was itching to get back to the music that inspired him.

It’s what one does with that angst that matters, believes Ahn. “I grew up pissed at the world,” he sings on his new album, “The Middle of Nowhere,” available Tuesday. “Now I put that (expletive) inside every MP3.”

These days, Ahn is fitting right in.

Not only is the Korean-American pursuing his indie music aspirations, he’s unabashedly rapping about the things he loves ㅡ­ comic books, video games and science fiction ㅡ even though they fall outside typical rap culture. By doing so, he’s carving out a unique niche in hip hop.

Ahn, along with artists such as MC Lars and MC Frontalot, is part of a movement known as “Nerdcore,” a loosely defined sub-genre that touches on the geekier aspects of pop culture. For him, this means rhyming about topics from Marvel superheroes and space aliens to the loveable NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation.”

He releases songs online for free and builds his fan base by touring venues such as comic bookstores, comedy clubs and recently, a concert in Florida called Nerdapalooza.

But Ahn says the outlook wasn’t always so bright, especially before he quit his job at a law firm.

“It was a huge risk,” said Ahn, 33, in an email, “one that I’m still hoping pans out even today, almost four years later.

“It just came down to the feeling that I could be a better (and more successful) musician, than a lawyer ㅡ if you take out the bottom line salary I’d be making.

“You make it work, and it’s always more rewarding to do something you’re really good at, than something you just make more money at.”

Album cover of "The Middle of Nowhere’’  / Courtesy of Bruce McCorkindale

Album cover of “The Middle of Nowhere’’
/ Courtesy of Bruce McCorkindale

Middle of Nowhere, like previous efforts, features catchy beats and Ahn’s clever, staccato rhymes. He’s also more reflective than ever, delving into his journey from being ostracized at school to finding personal success.

We spoke to Ahn about Nerdcore, the new album and his love for Parks and Recreation.

Q: Talk about Nerdcore. Do you find the label to be confining or empowering?

A: I think genres or labels like that are useful to critics and some consumers; but to a lot of the people who are Nerdcore, we kind of got called that after we had already started making the music we were doing anyway. So I don’t know if it’s empowering, but we’ve kind of taken the label and run with it, made it our own thing.

Q: Were you part of a group of nerds as a child?

A: I definitely was a nerd, though I don’t know if I traveled around in a group. There was a group of nerds in school that were huge into computer programming, and they were the typical nerd group that you’d see in the movies. I was more just kind of a loner.

Q: On “High School Reunion,” off the new album, you mention growing up in Memphis as a “little Asian Kid trying to stay alive.” Can you describe the challenges?

A: I think when you grow up in the South, which to this day is still a heavily segregated society (by choice, not by law), and you’re a nerdy kid who grew up as a huge fan of rap music and hip hop culture, you tend to feel like an outsider.

There was a lot of tension between Southern White Conservatives and African Americans. So you just tend to keep your head down, and feel a bit ostracized, and definitely marginalized.

Q: A lot of your songs ­ㅡ and comic books in general ㅡ­ are about heroes. Why do you think heroes are important, particularly, perhaps, in the Asian-American context?

A: All heroes are to some degree, outsiders. They may be powerful, or exceptional in some way; but for that reason, regular people will ostracize them to a certain degree.

It’s a big reason that comics blew up to the extent they did. First with the Jewish and immigrant families in New York; then angsty teenagers more towards the 1970s and 80s; and so on.

In the Asian-American context, especially as the child of immigrants growing up in the South, it probably was something I identified with: the idea that these great people dealt with the same kind of issues you, as a child did. It made you feel less alone.

Q: You rap about some stuff that some people are huge fans of, but others might not know about. How challenging is it to make the songs catchy for all listeners?

A: I guess the easy answer is that not everything is going to make sense to everyone; and after you establish yourself with enough songs and material, people begin to like watching you, as an artist, exhibit enthusiasm about anything. Enthusiasm is catchy, so it becomes this thing of talking with a friend who’s into something you may have only heard of.

Q: Tell us about the new album. It feels more personal.

A: It’s way more personal than my last one, which had a lot to do with space and aliens and otherworldly stuff.

It was written from the point of view of having succeeded to a certain degree, but still far enough away from being comfortable at a higher level, and reflecting on all the emotions involved in that.

I think a lot of Internet/indie musicians deal with this, the idea that you have to stay relevant in this short-attention span media age.

Q: You wrote a song to the beat of Gangnam Style. People didn’t really say weird stuff to you about Psy just because you’re Korean-American, did they?

A: Ha ha, Yes! And it’s equally from non-Asian people, and Asian people who just assume that the next step is for me to make a dance phenomenon and make a ridiculous video.

Q: Care to elaborate?

A: I’ve had every older Korean relative and friends of my parents ask me if I dance on stage, or if I am going to go on TV like Psy. Or basically, during the height of Gangnam Style fever, when I told people what I did, everyone who was not into rap or whatever, would just ask if I sounded like Psy.

Q: I have to ask you about your love for Parks and Recreation. Why do you like that show so much?

A: Man, I don’t even know. Maybe the fact that it was such an underdog show, and had such a drastic change from Season 1 to Season 2, going from a workplace comedy, to a universe-creating, emotionally rewarding show about people who genuinely love each other. It’s just the most positive, uplifting and best written show on TV. I just love it so much.

“The Middle of Nowhere” is available November 5 at adamwarrock.bandcamp.com as well as iTunes, AmazonMP3 and other distribution sites.

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