MC Lars talks about the industry, free music, and Yo Gabba Gabba. Yeah, you’re gonna want to read this.
Disarray Magazine: Alright, let’s get right in to it. You are Stanford educated. Were you doing albums and rapping back while still in school?
Lars: Yeah, I put out an album, “Radio Pet Fencing,” 2003, and then “The Laptop EP,” when I was Junior. Then “The Graduate” came right when I finished. So I was just doing it independently, playing shows on campus. I went to England in 2003 for my Shakespeare requirement and then in Oxford I met so many indie bands. I convinced them to let me open for them at the pubs and stuff and that led to a label called Truck Records which led to me being able to put out “Radio Pet Fencing” and I was able to tour there because they had a festival. All my free time in college I spent making music. I was learning how to perform, learning how to promote myself. It was my passion, and it blows my mind that I can do this now as my career. It pays my bills, and every day I get to do this weird thing that I never thought I’d be able to do professionally.
DM: You’ve been doing this for eight years, but was there any point where you felt like you might just be beating your head against the wall? How do you get over that hump and keep going?
Lars: I put out an album called “This Gigantic Robot Kills,” and that was more of me trying to do pop-punk hip-hop crossover music. The label situation wasn’t ideal and it didn’t sell as much as the album before, in part because I told everyone to steal it (laughs), but also in part because the community was changing. So, I read this book by KRS-One called The Gospel of Hip-Hop. It is like his bible of the spiritual power of hip-hop to save mankind, and to inspire, enlighten, entertain, and to bring all this positivity to people. I read this book, and it changed my life. Hip-hop is not just about the numbers, not about the right pop culture references, but it’s about the human ability to say something without needing a bunch of tools. To be able to rhyme you don’t need much vocal training, you just have to have a message and something you want to say. Doing beats is easy, you don’t need a whole band. With breakdancing, you just need cardboard. Graffiti art, you don’t need all these tools, you just need a wall. So, hip-hop is really about returning to the human element. So, I was like, alright. What I’m doing now is more of a spiritual thing. I want to harness the power of hip-hop to inspire, educate people, and try to make the world better. It really is a mystical thing, and KRS-One really delves in to that in his book. When I read that book I realized that yes, I might be selling less records, but I’m still doing what I want and making money other ways. Doing shows, Warped Tour, and building my business in a different way. I’m on my own path and hip-hop has really guided me. If I can inspire people to find their own path and their own voice then it is a blessed day.
DM: So are you speaking for you or for the people? In the piece you did with CNN Money they made you out to sound a little crazy with pro-piracy and your Karl Marx reference to the proletariate.
Lars: I am speaking for myself because I have no patience for the lazy middle man taking commission doing no work. He’s just sitting in an office trying to guess what is cool, throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall. I’m talking about the major labels who aren’t passionate about the music and just want to connect the dots and make a bunch of money easily. The CNN thing was interesting because I feel like they edited it so I seemed a little insane like I’m a pro-piracy artist. I don’t want people to take “The Graduate” and take albums and sell them on the street, but it is new media economics. The more people that know about your music then the more people that are gonna come to your shows and buy your shirts. There is a quote that the drummer of Ministry said, “It’s not a problem if 30,000 people download your album for free, it’s a problem if they don’t.” Meaning you need awareness, you need people to have the music resonate with them, and have meaning for them. I don’t mind if people steal my music. It’s nice when I get the iTunes check and I can pay my rent, but I don’t do it for the money. If you do it for the money, it’s not a good place to be because you’re not coming from your heart. I feel that I am in a good place where I am financially stable and now I have Weerd Science and artists on my label and my business is growing so I don’t have to worry, but at the end of the day it is my own thing and I get to dictate how my music is distributed and if I wanna give away a free mix tape then no one can get mad at me because it is my music...and I don’t have to clear the samples, too.
DM: Horris Records, your label. How old is it? I know you’ve got Weerd Science on there.
Lars: It’s about 7 years old. I did this album with this rapper, YTCracker, out of Colorado Springs, who was a hacker dude who got in trouble for hacking NASA in the nineties, but he was 17, so he didn’t go to jail. Then there is this girl K Flay, who is a phenomenal producer/DJ. They’re not on my label, but I put out collaboration with them. Then there is Weerd Science. I am still growing, and once Weerd Science becomes profitable I am going to look to sign more artists who are amazing and talented people. I want to help people grow their careers and it is an interesting world because I feel like I can help with my touring networks, my knowledge, my ear, my sense of design. But I’ll never put out something unless my heart is completely in it or I am good friends with the people because Weerd Science and I are like brothers. We live together on the bus, his bunk is right above mine, and we’re on stage together every day. He’s got a good mission and I believe in what he has to say. If people are on the same mission and see hip-hop as having the same power to make the world better then I want to work with them. If they just want it for themselves and the money, then I won’t.
DM: You have also been credited with coining the phrase, or word, “iGeneration.” Who is that?
Lars: The iGeneration is all the kids that grew up where the technology was that having all your songs on your phone in your pocket was not a surprise. The kids born in the eighties, I was born in ’82, but mostly the kids born in the late eighties. It’s where everything went digital. The kids that had the internet growing up; the internet generation. The people who were able to harness that power for good or bad. I think that MySpace was an example of something that had a lot of potential, but it became so corporate and overrun with SPAM that it kinda died. So many kids would spend so much of their life in it. They were huge on MySpace, and now it’s gone.
|Photo by Wesley Bauman|
DM: With subscription music services and the age we live in where no one wants to own anything, but want access to it, are people going to have to look at your business model and say, “OK, who is making money? MC Lars.” Have you thought of starting a consulting firm for the likes of the major labels to show them that things can still be profitable if we change the way we look at the revenue streams in music?
Lars: Yeah, that’s a great idea, actually. I have no idea where it is going, but I know I am gaining a lot of skills being on the forefront of what we do sonically and buisness-wise. I think something that was awesome was Kickstarter. The fact that, collectively, Science and I raised $30,000 just by asking the fans to help us put out the music. That was great. That’s the new model. You make it directly or the people. Talk about eliminating the lazy middle man, because then the profits are higher. $30,000 to make an album, that’s a lot. It helped us pay for the tour bus, it helped us print merch, ya know what I mean? That’s awesome to have fans that are so passionate. I’m like, “look, I know you’ve been stealing my stuff for eight years, if you wanna hear the next record then let’s have a few bucks. You can have it, and here’s a cool T-shirt with my drawing that is only for you.” That’s the new business model. I feel like it’s been trial and error. Yeah, if I can help other people see where it is going...because the music business really is growing. It’s the whole new thing about the middle-class artist. I don’t make six figures a year, but I make enough to live a middle-class lifestyle and I do what I want, and I can sustain it. Maybe one day I will write a book.
DM: In that same vein, you have raised money from the people to invest in a future project. Is this an experiment in musical socialism? Do you feel like you’re employee owned in a sensed now, with your fans funding ahead of time a project that has yet to be delivered?
Lars: Yeah, the mastering has taken longer than I thought on “Lars Attacks,” so I did the mix tape as a way to hold the people over. Yeah, the fans own it, which means that I have to deliver. I have to do the best thing I can, get it to them fast, and put my heart in to it. It’s just me, and if I mess that up then goodbye, because those hundreds of fans who supported it aren’t gonna come back next time. It is socialist because everyone owns it. They don’t own the copyright, but it is their thing. I’m all about giving it out to people, copy, burn it, please, because you helped create this and without you it wouldn’t exist. Then that means more people will support the next project. Kickstarter is the future. That is the thing about the music industry, it is kind of like the canary in the cole mine for where the world is going. If there canary dies in the cole mine you know you need to get out. The music industry is a litmus test for how the economy is going. If people share something, if it is smaller and niche, more technology driven and smarter, then it survives. Businesses can look at that and see that there is still ways of doing it and Kickstarter is a way to do it well.
|Photo by Wesley Bauman|
DM: So with the industry, it is large. I might be inefficient. They have to pay for massive buildings and secretaries. So you might be smaller, with a smaller fan base because you don’t have Lady Gaga-like machinery behind you, but you are more like a small village and not the sprawling city with a government maintaining roads and making decisions for you.
Lars: Yeah, because if you’re on even a big indie label your first week’s sales have to be huge. It’s a lot of pressure. I like to grow at my own pace, and the cool thing is that when you have that village, you know you can grow. It grows and you own it. I feel like in ten years Horris Records and MC Lars can reach the Dead Milkmen status. Where you are this underground thing that people love that never sold out. You know, my dream is to do a kids’ hip-hop show like Yo Gabba Gabba, but with hip-hop. I want to do it myself, produce it myself. That’s the dream. I want to hit the mainstream audience, but through my own channels. That’s the next level. I want to inspire young kids about the power of hip-hop to change the world. That’s where I want to take MC Lars.
DM: Do you think that people can be receptive to this kind of message? Because I think I see you as an antithesis to what is trending out there in mainstream hip-hop. I look at the nineties and people were getting for being popular in gangster rap.
Lars: At the end of the day, if you think negative thoughts and do negative things, then that comes back to you. Karma is so real and I’m a strong believer in that. What you put out in to the universe comes back to you ten-fold. I have a song on the new mix tape, “male feminist,” and that song is about that you got to respect women. Don’t be denigrating them. We all came out of a wonderful person who created us and it’s just negative to hate women. Racism, homophobia, violence, all of that sucks. When I was a kid I used to listen to ICP, but as I got older I realized that that stuff is dark and negative. I think what they do is dope, aesthetically, but it’s negative, and that comes back to you. You have to project positivity so that people can become their better selves. The problem with objectifying women is that we all have the ability to be an angel or an animal, and it brings out the animal inside us when we call women “bitches.” That makes us animals, too. So, I try to bring out the angelic side of people. WHen people are out in the crowd and I ask them to put their hands in the air, you’re reaching for the stars, metaphorically, and you’re reaching up to be that better version of yourself. Without hip-hop I don’t think I would be a happy person. I’m kind of a quirky, sensitive, introverted guy, and it saved me. I’m able to do it and meet awesome people and talk about this kind of stuff on tour while I spit the gospel. Ya know?
|Photo by Wesley Bauman|
DM: I know you were associated with the “nerdcore” movement, in both documentaries, but a lot of your stuff is pretty high-brow, from “Mr. Raven” to “Annabelle Lee,” do you think some of your tracks might be over the heads of the listening public? Is this the Stanford education coming out?
Lars: I make music for smart people. If that makes me “nerdcore” then I am “nerdcore.” I think that people who are in to nerdcore...it becomes culturally removed from the genesis of hip-hop. It didn’t start with us. It started with KRS-One, Public Enemy, and Nas way back in the day. On that line though, “Mr. Raven” has not been a song that has been doing well on Warped Tour, so we had to cut it out of our set. We did it in the bay area, but we did it in Las Vegas and people were like, “What? What is this?” So, you’ve gotta play to your audience. Warped Tour audiences are mainstream, the Hot Topic kids, really, but if you can drop that reference in to a mix tape, and they hear a song, then they might want to read the book.
DM: In that same vein, and you led me right to it, how does it feel being on the Warped Tour? I mean, on looks alone you look a little out of place here. Do you feel at home here or are you just a fish out of water here?
Lars: Well, punk rock is about being yourself, and that makes us some of the most punk acts on here because we are doing what we want and following our hearts. Yeah, I feel out of place, and I feel like when I am in line at the catering line in the morning I don’t have any tattoos, and here that is rare, but it is cool because we are all doing what we love and we’re having fun and getting good reactions. I think being different has worked to our benefit. We’re just working hard. The fact that we are putting up all of the posters every morning and really working to promote ourselves...if we didn’t do that then we would just disappear.
DM: Do you think that people are coming to your stage to see MC Lars and Weerd Science, or are they wandering by a stage and they are about to find out about MC Lars and Weerd Science?
Lars: I think it is half and half. I think it also has to do with when you play on stage. Warped Tour is weird like that. It’s like hitting the jackpot at the casino. Some days you’ll be on a big stage and a good time and some days you’ll be in a weird place [at the venue] and you’ll be at a weird time up against A Day to Remember, and that’s hard, so you’ve got to stay up and realize that this is my calling and let me bring it. Let me pour my heart in to it.
DM: So the start times are rolled out random? I remember seeing that Grieves was at like 3:30 in AZ and I was stoked he had a good time and then when I got to this show he was playing first act on the Skullcandy stage. So that is random start times?
Lars: Every show it is random, yeah.
DM: So no matter the start time you guys are running the whole tour? So, the time may change, but everyone will get a chance to see you?
Lars: Yeah, we are running on the whole tour.
DM: After the tour, what have you got planned? Are you touring? What is planned for Horris Records?
Lars: We might be going on tour. It depends on who we might be touring with. We might go to Russia later this year. Honestly, I want to start working on my kids’ album, and working on my kids’ show and building that. So, that is the plan. I am going to move back to California. I was in New York.
DM: Why the move?
Lars: Being close to my family, being closer to the industry. I want to do something different. Every time I make a new album I try to be in a new place.
DM: So, you mentioned Russia. World wide? Do you really have a following across the planet?
Lars: Yeah, we get a few hundred people a night in the UK. In Australia the song “Download This Song” actually charted. I had a great radio plugger out there. Even in Japan, too. We just really work hard at networking.
DM: There you are, social networking is at the heart of what you do. 25 years ago, would MC Lars even exist?
Lars: Yeah, you would need a major label.
DM: With that, what is stopping a kid on the street from being you now?
Lars: Nothing except talent, hard work, time, and patience. You need to have the ability to network and the ability to never quit. You gotta be able to give ten years of your life to this and sacrifice relationships and grad school and everything, ya know what I mean?
DM: There you have it, kids. Give up grad school to become an indie hip-hop artist. Since we’re on it, what was the reaction when you were putting out albums and you told your parents you were leaving school to rap?
Lars: They were fine as long as I went back to finish my under graduate. I went out on tour with Bowling for Soup in 2005 when they had their hit song, and that was an awesome time, but I took senior year off and then went back and finished it.
DM: So, the application of it. Clearly as an English Lit. major, you’re using this every day. Not in the most traditional way, but it is there with you every day, right?
Lars: Yeah, studying literature teaches you how to think, write, and how to form ideas when you make comparisons. When I write a song it’s like the thesis is the chorus and the defending statements are your verses. It teaches you how t arrange your thoughts and teaches you how to say something controversial, something meaningful, and something that your heart is in. Hip-hop is poetry and iambic pentameter and studying that kind of thing, I feel like I really use my degree every day.
There you go, people. That is about thirty minutes with the one and only MC Lars. You can check out his personal website at MCLars.com, find him on facebook, and on Twitter, I am betting. The man is the master of indie hip-hop. Also check out Weerd Science who has a few albums available on iTunes and is on Horris Records. Weerd Science is just ridiculous; the man is a rap master. I want to thank MC Lars for sitting down with us for so long. It was a great and personally inspirational interview to hear about being independent and working from the heart. I think a lot of what he said can be applied far beyond hip-hop and as an independent writer I am pretty inspired to cut my own swath through life and my career. So look him up for some interesting and masterful albums. If you want a free mix tape of his works then check out mclars.bandcamp.com for a completely free download of the “Indie Rocket Science” mix tape he recently put out with cameos by Weerds Science, KRS-One, and even MC Frontalot.
All Photos by Wesley Bauman
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About the Author
Wesley Bauman, author of Doggy Paddling in the Deep End, is a writer/photojournalist originally from Oregon who makes his home in Ventura, CA. He's contributed to the VCReporter and maintains an active blog (http://projectpoppycock.com/) where he writes on political and social satire regularly. Follow Wesley on Twitter @myownfalseidol