Making music about a fandom? For rappers Wordburglar and More or Les, the devil's in the details
"The facts are definitely important to me and the nerds will fact check you"
This week in Toronto, Fan Expo Canada takes over the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. One of the draws of that or any pop culture convention is fan art.
Creative cosplayers wander show floors dressed as their favourite characters and when they're given the space, local artists make and sell everything from Pokémon paintings to TARDIS tea-cozies.
Art like that, which is inspired by existing characters and entertainment, but not officially-sanctioned by publishers, is often deemed "fan art" and placed in a distinct category from original art. But for two Canadian rappers, making music about books, movies and games they love is just the same as writing rhymes about anything else.
"Everything I do is a celebration of the things that I love and that inspire me," writer and rapper Wordburglar told CBC Arts. "So it could be comics, could be Star Wars, food or hockey or Canada. Then always the bottom line is the songs have to be good and the rhymes have to be the best rhymes ever."
Wordburglar is based in Toronto and grew up in Nova Scotia, where CBC Arts reached him. His latest album SpaceVerse (which will be available online as of Aug. 27) is inspired by a variety of science fiction media including Star Wars and Transformers.
Toronto rapper More or Les, who frequently collaborates with Wordburglar, echoes that sentiment, saying his mantra is to rap about what he loves, be it Doctor Who or brunch (he has whole albums about food).
More or Les' latest full-length album, 2018's Nerd Love, features tunes about The Avengers, Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons. It was his second album explicitly about pop culture, his first being 2015's Doctor Who-inspired Bigger on the Inside: A Time Traveller's Mixtape.
When writing a song about a fandom, both rappers say the devil is in the details.
"I think the details really are about why I love this stuff, so the more intricate that I can get, it's just me really explaining all the reasons why it's worthy of me putting it into a song to share with other people," Wordburglar said.
"If I'm making a reference to a Batman villain that's obscure, I'd like to be absolutely on point. I can back up any rhyme. After a show if people come up and talk to me and say, 'Hey you know you said this thing,' I'm like, 'What do you want to know? Yes. There was a time when that Batman had the Green Lantern powers. Yes. You wanna talk about that?' So the facts are definitely important to me and the nerds will fact check you."
An example of a surface-level song that lacks details might be Vanilla Ice's Go Ninja, Go Ninja, Go, which was featured in the 1991 movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and never delves into the story of the movie beyond calling out some fighting moves.
"That's a great example of a terrible song that could have been amazing," Wordburglar said.
That being said, accessibility is important. Wordburglar said he always considers the famous Marvel comics creator Stan Lee's philosophy that every comic is someone's first.
"So if this is your first time ever in a rap song, specifically a rap song on a topic you may not know that much about, I want to make sure I include it enough in there to make a new listener access the song easily."
An example of that is his song on SpaceVerse called "Torontaun," about a tauntaun (an alien from Star Wars) that roams free in Toronto and shows love for local sports teams.
"So you pretty much knowing Star Wars is already the cost of admission to enjoying this song. But I think what I've done, is create a really fun story around that idea."
Good storytelling is what differentiates a meaningful song from a commercial, More or Les said. "It isn't cheerleading. What I'm trying to accomplish here is not just like a jingle for you to associate a certain concept or a certain character with."
"I feel when that attempt is made, it always comes off as inauthentic."
To prevent a rap from becoming too much story and not enough music, More or Les said he also works to include stylistic elements that invoke what he writes about.
In "The Sound of Drums," his rap from the perspective of Doctor Who villain The Master, More or Les used an unconventional time signature and beat meant to invoke the character's obsession with drumming. The song is a favourite of his.
"I always want to have a unique bend to it, which I feel makes the difference between it just becoming a cheerleading jingle and an actual song worth listening to even if you aren't necessarily interested in that subject matter."
In his 2016 song "Dis(S)incorporate," More or Les is fiercely critical of the music business and corporate influence on the arts. "Where the bottom line for them is money, then art is going to suffer," he said.
To some degree, More or Les said he sees a contradiction with criticizing corporations then rapping about Disney-owned characters like Captain America and Black Panther. But he maintains he would rap about them even if nobody knew who they were. He hasn't shied away from making music from obscure media, like the 1985 martial arts B-movie Gymkata.
And as Wordburglar points out, "Star Wars doesn't need my help advertising."
Wordburglar is holding a launch party for his new album SpaceVerse on Aug. 24 at Nerd Noise Night, a recurring concert series held at Toronto's Rec Room.