By the late '90s, though, the novelty (tunes) had worn off. Sure, there were the occasional left-field hits -- see Cake, Soul Coughing, and the Presidents of the United States of America -- but radio programmers mostly chose bonehead metal and slick rap over dork-rock. If you wanted a chuckle, you had to laugh at artists, rather than with them. While David Lowery and Cracker may've suggested that we need another folksinger like we need a hole in the head, they didn't say anything about snarky goofballs.
But don't fret, yon smart-alecky listener: There just may be a savior right in our own backyard. Say hello to MC Lars Horris, a white, 21-year-old Stanford junior who raps about aliens, robots, and, um, Macbeth.
Before you scoff, let it be said that Horris' debut CD, Radio Pet Fencing (released by the British indie-rock label Truck), has received airplay from prominent DJs on both sides of the pond, including Dr. Demento in the U.S. and the BBC's Steve Lamacq in merry ol' England. With his silly lyrics and exuberant live show, Horris could easily be the next "Weird Al," one the Bay Area can call its very own. But there's only one thing standing in his way. Himself.
"In my new material, I'm trying to move away from the novelty stuff," Horris says. "I don't want to be pigeonholed."
Houston, we have a problem.
MC Lars Horris, aka Andrew Nielsen, looks like your typical college student. When he shows up for our interview at a Haight Street cafe, he sports a Nintendo jacket and a slightly askew A's hat, his blonde mane poking out in all directions. He speaks hesitantly, until the conversation moves to something he's passionate about, like old-school rapper KRS-One or author Herman Melville, and then his eyes light up with a missionary's zeal.
Nielsen has been writing songs since he was eight, when he penned a tune about not wanting to clean his room. After hearing the "Weird Al" spoof "I'm Fat" at age 11, he took up guitar lessons. "I'd been listening to a lot of Nirvana, but 'Weird Al' made me realize you could be funny and rock," he says.
The aspiring comedian played in a couple of bands during his teen years, including one rock group called Horris (named after a horselike guy, "Horace," on the TV show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Following the accession of Beck, Nielsen started messing around with his home computer, recording raps over guitar loops and techno beats. At 16, he received a homework assignment to "make fun of Macbeth," and concocted "Rapbeth (Foul Is Fair)," in which he fit the Bard's words over a 4/4 house beat.
Like a lot of suburban white kids in the '90s, Nielsen was exposed to hip hop through lame rap-rock hybrids like the Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid. It was only after he got to Stanford and scored a show on KZSU-FM (90.1) that he gained access to old-school LPs by Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. (He still does his show, "Pandora's Beat-Box," every Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m.)
Hoping to marry this consciousness-raising rap to the geek-rock of Ween, Wesley Willis, and King Missile, Nielsen took up his stage name, adding "Lars" (from a 1995 fat-camp comedy Heavyweights). But the hip hop community wasn't quite ready for a white MC who name-dropped Mark Twain, bragged about his SAT scores, and rapped about anti-slavery advocate John Brown.
"Sometimes they hate on it, because it's different and because I set different standards for myself," Nielsen says. "I'd rather make a pun about Jello Biafra and Bill Cosby than cram 32 syllables into 16 bars." As for the suggestion that African-Americans might not want to learn about the evils of society from him, he says, "The argument that a white person can't educate people about racism is a difficult one for me to accept, because you don't have to be directly affected by racism to view it as wrong."
Interestingly, Nielsen found his most receptive audience in the Oxford punk community, when he studied there in early 2003. "The punk rock scene in England is a lot more open-minded than the indie rock scene, both of which are more open-minded than the hip hop scene," he says.
While there, Nielsen played 11 shows in three months, gaining the notice of Truck Records. Although the label's owners mostly devote themselves to lo-fi indie-rock, they took a liking to Nielsen. "His educated humor is undoubtedly American, but the sort of American character who is often hidden by the media's obsession with beauty and dumbness," writes Truck's Paul Bonham via e-mail. "Sure, MC Lars can be dumb, but behind the jokes are some very clever references to politics, literature, and global issues."
Truck released Radio Pet Fencing in the U.K. in September 2003 and in the U.S. in January 2004. The disc has its share of groan-inducing moments. Nielsen sounds whiter than Vanilla Ice when using such phrases as "funky fresh flow," and he should be pistol-whipped for suggesting that "compared to me, 50 Cent, your rhymes are a joke." "Sarah" is as mawkish a love song as a teenager could write; the über-obvious "The Séance at Harper's Ferry" could turn anyone off of American history.
Nielsen's humorous tunes, however, rule. He hits pay dirt with kooky one-liners like "Don't panic, even though I'm galvanic/ I'm the only non-Hispanic on the Mexican Titanic" and "I satisfy women like GER's [General Education Requirements]/ I advocate the destruction of SUV cars." And of course there's "Rapbeth," with its escalating beats and its catchy chorus ("double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble/ Fair is foul and foul is fair, we must warn you, Macbeth, beware").
The response to the latter tune was so positive that Nielsen followed it up with "Mr. Raven," an ode to Edgar Allen Poe. Still, the rapper is nervous about being known solely for "literature songs." "It's cool to reference canonized poets, but eventually it will be cooler to not have to do that to get recognized," he says.
A new three-song demo shows Nielsen moving away from his hip hop background. He samples guitar riffs and choruses from nu-emo bands like Piebald and Brand New for a harder sound closer to the geek-rockers he loves. On "Hurricane Fresh" he speeds up his flow and makes fun of the racial/musical politics that occasionally embroil him: "I take chances, I rhyme, so what?/ I like James Brown and Beyoncé's butt/ Whatever your race I'll Friendster you/ and rent two Spike Lee Netflix, too." "iGeneration" is even better, a hokey protest song for the downloaders and bloggers that has novelty hit written all over it.
But, as previously noted, the world isn't too kind to novelty acts these days. Dr. Demento may get as many submissions as ever, but mainstream hits are few and far between. Established labels want artists with longevity and consistent marketability, and video channels like MTV seldom stray beyond high-profile acts. Also, the increasingly homogenous radio stations don't take chances on comedic material -- if it gets played at all, it's during morning shows.
So Nielsen's chances at a huge hit aren't the best. Nevertheless, he's doing remarkably well. He's being flown to Asbury Park, N.J., for the Skate and Surf Festival in April, he's getting more and more radio play, and his songwriting continues to improve. And just in case he doesn't strike gold, he's got a back-up plan. "I'm going to give it a few years after graduation," Nielsen says, "and then if it doesn't work out, I'll probably go teach English."
Most likely, he'll sing the whole lesson plan.