His stature is unassuming, and his voice is a little high in register. His knowledge of science fiction and classic horror films is unmatched. Like a comic book convention on two legs, like a pop-culture tornado, MC Chris is proudly a geek’s geek, a nerd’s nerd.
Chris Ward, the man Kevin Smith once called the “pop-culture poet laureate,” raps about Star Wars, pizza, nerd girls, G.I. Joe, masturbation, and 12-sided dice. And if you’ve ever checked out Adult Swim, it’s more than likely you’ve heard him on Sealab 2021 (voicing Hesh Hepplewhite) and Aqua Teen Hunger Force (voicing the unholy triune of Sir Loin, Little Brittle, and, of course, MC Pee Pants). But if you’re expecting nothing but cartoon-gasms and screeds on Wookies and Cylons, you’re missing an essential element of Chris’ character. He’s spent four years raising funds to combat cystic fibrosis; he produced a children’s album earlier this year; and he’s kept firm control over his music by creating, producing, marketing, and distributing his albums independently.
Chris is scheduled to play the Church this Wednesday, Oct. 19. Beforehand, he took some time to share his insights with The A.V. Club about his music, charity work, and which Steve Miller song takes his breath away.
The A.V. Club: You’re on tour and you’ve recently released an album. Also, you’ve announced a return to animation after being away from it for the last couple of years. How do you relax in the midst of all this?
MC Chris: I’m actually a very chill guy at home while I’m making a record. I go on walks and look for statues. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood got me addicted to landmarks. So I like trying to find all the statues in New York City, and then I take a couple pictures, maybe read the person’s bio on my phone. It keeps me active in between long stretches of Fallout or Borderlands. I also listen to classical music and read nonstop. I’m usually reading one monster book and one history book. And I’m really in seventh heaven if I’m reading a historical novel with a monster in it.
AVC: Tell us a little about the new album, Race Wars. How is it different than the previous albums?
MCC: Well, it sounds different, for one. The same folks that made “Drinkin’ Blunts” on MC Chris Goes To Hell, Superhuman Happiness, came back and made a bunch of new songs that couldn’t be more different from each other. A fan named Shaquan Baker made some standout remixes in last year’s annual remix contest, and he made two songs on the record. And then there’s the meat and potatoes of it, Andrew Futral, who produced the whole record and made the majority of the beats. He’s the reason you can’t stop singing the songs. It’s because his hooks are simple and undeniable. We were going for a Knight Rider/disco vibe with the record, and I think we accomplished that and more. It’s my most diverse record by far.
AVC: What was it like, going from recording a kids’ album at the beginning of the year to a straight-ahead MC Chris album a few months later?
MCC: I made Marshmellow Playground in conjunction with Race Wars in reference to the fact that George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max trilogy, also made the children’s movie Happy Feet. So it’s kind of a companion piece that grew into a bona fide project in its own right. We found that we put our hearts into it. I was trying to deal with finding out my father didn’t have much longer to live, and that became the song “Lullabye.” It’s a deeper, more meaningful record than I thought it was going to be, but that’s a level that no one even knows about. Families and children attached themselves to the record and, for many folks, it was the only thing that worked when it came to calming the kids down, or waking them up, or making them go to sleep. Many of my fans have been fans for 10 years now, and they married their nerd girl and had a kid, and now they want to put something in front of them that isn’t a mouse or sponge. Switching from one subject to the next, and having them be as disparate as possible, keeps me on my toes. It helps me find new ways to connect with an even wider audience.
AVC: In terms of producing and marketing your albums, what are the positives and negatives of doing it all completely on your own?
MCC: You don’t get notes and you don’t have projected numbers. You pretty much only have to answer to the fans, and they can be even harder to please. I really need some help though, because lately I feel like I’m running five simultaneous businesses. I’ve got a cartoon to produce, a voiceover job, a charity, a touring show, an online store, and then I have to make the music that everything revolves around as well. I could definitely use an assistant at the very least.
AVC: You’ve spent the last four years raising funds to help find a cure for cystic fibrosis. How does it make you feel when you see a lot of people donating money through your website or at your shows?
MCC: When I send prizes out for folks that have won an eBay auction I include all kinds of loot: stickers, magic cards, Legos, candy, confetti. I want to make charity feel way more fun than a good feeling inside. I want you to get something awesome in the mail, along with something extra. Because that’s what charity should feel like on its own. You have to sweeten the deal, and then make the experience so great that they feel encouraged to help out again in some other way. I just want to reward my fans for making a positive choice. Doing good feels good.
AVC: Do people sometimes get taken aback when they see a guy who’s known for rapping about science fiction and voicing goofy characters dedicating his time toward a serious and noble cause?
MCC: I’ve never really seen that or thought about that. I think Adult Swim is very important to this generation, and they don’t see it as something goofy. Even though it looks pretty ridiculous. I actually think they literally love the Venture Brothers and Master Shake like family. That being said, I don’t think anyone expected much from me because I’m associated with cartoons as a voice actor. Truth be told, the Adult Swim audience was interested in a live experience, and since I started there have been multiple Adult Swim acts that have gone on to create a live component. Things were going well for me, I was getting a lot of attention online, and I saw that I could divert that focus towards a cause and do something that actually mattered, and that’s been the real reward of this entire experience. It’s like we were sitting outside a 7-Eleven with nothing to do, and now we have something to fill our day.
AVC: Let’s go back to the beginning. How old were you when you got into rap, and what was the first group or artist that you remember hearing?
MCC: I very specifically remember going into my brother’s room and hearing “3 Feet High And Rising.” That, and Public Enemy’s Fear Of A Black Planet, planted the seeds of hip-hop love in my heart. I became addicted to the Native Tongues, their way of flipping rap on its head, laughing at it and themselves. It felt more human, less tough, and more real.
AVC: What other artists, outside of rap, did you like?
MCC: I’ve liked bands that mix things up and try to be new, like Reggie And The Full Effect or Gil Mantera’s Party Dream. These days, though, I think I’m really into the radio, oldies, lite FM, and classical. I can’t really listen to hip-hop. I can’t think of an album that’s come out in the past few years where I listened to it twice. All I ever hear is stuff I did like five years ago. It’s boring. I’m a child of the ’80s so, if I can be honest and very not-hip, I like classic rock and singles from the ’80s. I kind of stop what I’m doing when “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller comes on.
AVC: Are there any current musicians or TV shows you’re really into?
MCC: Game Of Thrones, I’m super into right now. I’m reading the books right now, after loving the show. Other than that, I’ve been watching monster and horror movies a lot to prepare for my eighth record and because I like it. I’m really trying to know my monsters. Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is my latest obsession. Generally though, I don’t like much on TV. There have been some cool imports though, like Let Me In, [and] Troll Hunter, and Attack The Block. America needs to step up. I still can’t believe Game Of Thrones is written by a guy from Jersey. It’s too cool to be American.
AVC: What are you focusing on for the rest of the year, and what’s slated for 2012?
MCC: I have a tour for the next two months, and then I come home to start working on a new short-run called Part Two: Heroes and a sequel to my kids’ album called Marshmellow Campground. The Marshmellows did not melt and die as was originally thought. In 2012 I have a new cartoon on Adult Swim called Tight Bros. It’s got MF Doom and one of the funniest people I know, Todd Barry. It’s made by a couple of guys that used to work on Beavis And Butthead, and it’s been a lot of fun to record, albeit exhausting. I’ve broken some personal records for time spent in a single recording session. We’ll see if another full-length comes out. I’m beginning to think a break would serve me well, but it’s also just not in my nature.