Geeksta Rap Rising

Bryce Case Jr. sounds like your stereotypical street-tough rapper. In 1999 he was convicted of vandalism, put on probation and slapped with a hefty restitution (between $50,000 and $60,000). He dropped out of high school to focus on, among other things, his rapping. He dabbled in drugs and porn production, made spare change DJ'ing at parties and even got to rhyme with hip-hop icons Xzibit, Ice Cube and Too $hort at the annual Player's Ball concert in Las Vegas for pimps and prostitutes. But unlike some of the rappers he's shared the stage with, Case refrains from invoking his street cred because, well, he doesn't have any. What he vandalized were government Web pages, which he hacked and then tagged. Today he performs under the handle ytcracker, alluding to the fact that he's a code cracker--and that he's white.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Case, now 25, is an entrepreneur, a self-described "computer nerd" and one of the more prominent practitioners of a bustling little underground hip-hop scene called "nerdcore," a subgenre created by geeks for geeks. His 2005 album "NerdRap Entertainment System," with music sampled exclusively from Nintendo videogames, is a classic of the style. (Typical lyric: "I hated gym 'cuz I never was athletic/I played a couple sports just to keep it copacetic/But I found more in computers than I ever could in hooping/Every time I wrote a goto, bitch, I had that baby looping.") Of course, ever since Vanilla Ice's 1991 flameout, the rare white rapper has been derided, forced underground--or both--with the exceptions of Eminem and the Beastie Boys. But all of a sudden white rappers are enjoying a mainstream renaissance: VH1 has a hit on its hands with "The (White) Rapper Show," an "American Idol" for would-be Eminems, and in February Bloomsbury will publish "Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America," by Jason Tanz, an editor at Fortune Small Business. There are two indie documentaries about nerdcore in production, and their online trailers have each netted more than a half-million views. The concept of being a white rapper is no longer a joke.

At least the nerdcore rappers take themselves very seriously. In one sense, nerdcore can be considered a bizarro version of traditional hip-hop--like all the best rappers, nerdcore emcees are outsiders. "Nerdcore is totally hip-hop," says Tanz, who devotes a chapter of his book to the scene. "Nerdcore is expressing yourself and not apologizing for it. But they don't want to win over the streets--they're kind of scared of the streets." Unlike Vanilla Ice, whose cardinal sin was not keeping it real, nerdcore rappers write about what they know: mc chris (Chris Ward), a former illustrator and writer for the Cartoon Network's geeked-out "Adult Swim," rallies crowds by chanting "Nerd power!" Damian Hess, 33, who performs as MC Frontalot, professes a love for rap and a deep respect for hip-hop culture. But you won't find him spitting rhymes about growing up in the South Bronx. "I just end up writing about Internet porn and 'Star Wars' conventions," he says, "things that are close to my heart." When computer geeks start rapping, it's only natural that they write rhymes in an attempt to outnerd the next guy. After all, the Beastie Boys initially made it big by rapping about fighting for their right to party. "Eminem takes his upbringing, his failures, his letdowns, his relationships, couples it with this God-given talent that he has with rapping and writing," says Ron Gillyard, a former Interscope executive who's worked with Bubba Sparxxx, who is white, and Sean (Puffy) Combs, who isn't. Even Vanilla Ice can agree with that. Today he can be found, as Robert Van Winkle, with a pantheon of D-list celebrities on VH1's "Surreal Life: Fame Games." "All that s--t about your color and where you come from, it really ain't got nothing to do with s--t," says Van Winkle. "It's simple as a pimple--you either make a good song and people like it or you don't."

Which, astonishingly, the best nerdcore rappers do. "Nerdcore hip-hop is not a parody," says Hess. He, Case, Ward and a few others with dorky names like MC Hawking and Optimus Rhyme have all cultivated devoted followings because, first and foremost, they write well-crafted, witty songs--even if the subject matter is esoteric. Nerdcore acts draw crowds by the thousands to such annual events as January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Penny Arcade Expo for gaming enthusiasts in Bellevue, Wash. MC Frontalot gained widespread exposure to an admittedly niche audience last year when his rap about the origins of toilet paper was included on "Sesame Street"'s "Elmo's Potty Time" DVD.

But is there crossover appeal? Dan Lamoureaux, the director and producer of the "Nerdcore for Life" documentary, tends to doubt it. "I am not sure America is ready to accept a nerd rapper on MTV," he says. Case points out he has many non-nerd fans. "I got a lot of people who listen to my music who have no idea what the f--- I'm talking about," he says. Still, he admits he'll be happy if his new CD, "Nerd Life," outsells hip-hop's newest villain: Kevin Federline. "I'm almost there," he says. Even nerdcore's goals, it seems, are nerdy. It almost makes you feel bad for wanting to give them all wedgies.