Dual Core rocks the 'nerdcore' hip hop stylings (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: CNET sits down for a dissection of songs like "My Girlfriend's a Hacker"--and to find out how a Cincinnati programmer became one of the most popular geek rappers around.

If you don't know what nerdcore is, you might find the lyrics to the song "My Girlfriend's a Hacker" a little strange.

"My girlfriend's a hacker, best hacker ever," the song begins. "She's quick on her feet and her code is so clever. Yes she's a hacker and brilliant as well. Who knows what she cast, but I'm under her spell."

The song is from nerdcore hip hop specialists Dual Core, the duo made up of a programmer from Cincinnati, Ohio, known as Int Eighty, and a graphic designer from Manchester, England, dubbed C64.

Nerdcore has no clear origins, but several well-known practitioners, artists like MC Frontalot, MC Paul Barman, MC Lars, Beefy, ytcracker, Schaffer the Darklord, Random, and perhaps, MC 900 Ft. Jesus, have been leaders in the underground genre for years. The themes are geek, the musical stylings are hip hop and rap. Just without all the references to drugs and guns. But nerdcore rappers definitely extol their virtues. They might just use their lines to tell the world how much better a programmer they are than anyone else.

Being that Dual Core's front man is U.S.-based and his producer partner is in England, Int Eighty spends a lot of time on stage at hacker and geek-oriented conferences and other events by himself. Indeed, the two didn't even meet face-to-face until after they'd already released their first album, 2007's "Zero One." But they've been "rocking the more studious side of the hip-hop underground since" then, their Web site proclaims.

I recently caught up with Int Eighty for a 45 Minutes on IM interview. And before getting into any other subjects, we cleared up what had to be the most important point.

Q: Welcome to 45 Minutes on IM. Thanks so much for doing this. So, first things first: Is your girlfriend a hacker?
Int Eighty: Thanks for having an interest in our music.

My girlfriend is a hacker. Technically, she's actually a Java developer, but she knows how to test Web apps for security vulnerabilities.

How much of what's in that song is real?
Int Eighty: The majority. She did not post on every site in my RSS reader, and she did not pwn a random person in the park. However, she did camp out with me in a below-freezing Cincinnati night to be No. 1 and No. 2 in line for a Nintendo Wii. She also did come home and exploit some sites with XSS after seeing me give a talk about it at 2600. It is a matter of public record that my girlfriend is the best hacker ever (to me, at least).

So, explain your names, Int Eighty and c64. I'm assuming that c64 means Commodore 64?
Int Eighty: Yes, though his name has better double-meanings than mine. His first system was a Commodore 64, his first name is Chris, and his height is 6-feet, 4-inches. My name is from an assembly instruction in Linux on x86, technically "int 0x80." It's the interrupt used to interface between ring3 (userland) and ring0 (kernel). In Windows, developers use the windows API, but in Linux a developer can just use syscalls loading the registers appropriately and then interrupting the kernel to make the needed syscall.

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My first system was a Commodore Vic-20, and my second was a C64. What did you start with?
Int Eighty: The first place I really got into coding and hacking was on my parents' old 486dx. I wrote tools for AOL, "proggies" as they were known there, and hacked Gibsons with Windows 3.1 and vb3.

How did you get started as a nerd-core rapper?
Int Eighty: I was peer-pressured into writing my first raps by a guy with whom I programmed online. He was from New Jersey and got me into hip hop. Then he challenged me into writing some. In college, I began free-styling, since it was fun to do at parties and was also challenging. Everything collided at a hacker conference called Notacon in Cleveland when one of my friends told the people throwing a room party that I could freestyle. Not knowing what to rap about in a room full of hackers, I just started free-styling about the programming and hacking I've known and loved.

What was that like?
Int Eighty: It was really surprising that people enjoyed rap music about technology, or anything at all. Pretty much every hacker I'd met had only liked some form(s) of electronic music and had an avid dislike for hip hop.

Its seems like that's changed then?
Int Eighty: Probably I've just met more people. I didn't really know a lot of hackers up to that point, as that was only my second hacker conference. We do have people come up to us at almost every show to say they don't like rap music but they love our songs. To me, it just sounds like they haven't found rap music with appealing subject matter. But the sound of hip hop is aurally pleasing.

A significant portion of rap music is about violence or drugs, neither of which are interests of mine. So I don't [generally] identify with most rap music. The beat still sounds good, though, and I definitely love the feel and texture of hip hop. But like the people who "don't like rap" but like our stuff, I don't waste my time listening to unappealing music either.

How much of an audience have you found outside the geek community?
Int Eighty: We have a pretty decent cross-over, if you'd call it that. One of our good friends has played our stuff for all of his friends who like hip hop but aren't into nerd-core, and he says they all love it. We do play regular hip hop shows, and people have a good time there. But I would say nerds are our primary constituency.

What's your favorite lyric you've written--and how come?
Int Eighty: The first one that came to mind was from our song "Rock It," from the album "Lost Reality:" "Mortars'll fly 'til they're scorching the sky, sorta like the northern lights on the Fourth of July." I like that one because of the rhyme scheme and because I remember the site I was hacking into when I first thought of the lyric.

What was the site you were hacking?
Int Eighty: It was a client when I was employed by Neohapsis. My NDA won't let me say who it was, but you've heard of them, and quite possibly use their services.

Do you write raps about newsy geek issues?
Int Eighty: We definitely make songs about current technology, but not about individual news pieces. for example, we don't have any songs about Nate Dogg passing away or Charlie Sheen/Tiger blood/Winning. We do, however, have a song called "Painting Pictures" about a girl who is born deaf then is the recipient of a cochlear implant and is then able to hear.

Would you write about, say, the iPhone 4 antenna issues?
Int Eighty: That could definitely be included as a line or used as a simile/metaphor in a lyric, but we wouldn't dedicate a whole song to it.

I want to ask you to dissect a song. "The Game."
Int Eighty: Sure. That's one of my favorites.

You write, "Pack my own malware, write my own crypters, With more entropy than a Mersenne Twister." Can you explain those lyrics, and tell me why the song is one of your favorites?
Int Eighty: So, let's start with "pack my own malware."

A packer is a program that can compress and obfuscate a target program. This can be used to make smaller sizes or just bypass antivirus. Almost all malware is packed. In this case, it's the author of the song who is writing and packing the malware.

Then, "Write my own crypters."

A crypter can encrypt sections of a target program. This can be to protect your intellectual property or to bypass anti-virus. Writing a crypter is no small task, and reversing encrypted binaries, or programs, can be a huge pain. The author writes his own crypters.

Finally, "With more entropy than a Mersenne twister."

Entropy is the measure of disorder or randomness in a system. A Mersenne twister is a rather fast pseudo-random number generator. The more entropy you have, the more random your "random" numbers are, and in cases like crypto, you want more entropy so that it would be more difficult to predict the seed or the next number in the pseudo-random number sequence.

'The Game" is a favorite of mine because C64 initially pitched the idea for the track, and he was beyond pleased with the way I wrote the song. Additionally, I feel that most people automatically paint malware authors in a bad light, and in reality, yes they are doing bad things. But I was able to portray a malware author in a different context and our fans really seemed to enjoy the different perspective that was offered in the song. Also, the hook in the song samples my voice, and usually you have to be famous like Nas or Mobb Deep to have your voice sampled in a track.

If you write the lyrics, what does C64 do?
Int Eighty: He does all of the hard work in making the beats, mixing the songs, and he even creates our artwork. I have the easy job of writing, recording, and performing the raps.

How long does it generally take you to write one of your songs?
Int Eighty: It can be anywhere from five minutes up to a couple hours. I almost always walk the walk before talking the talk, so writing about what you know is pretty easy, and songs are much shorter than the 20-page papers I would have to write in political science class.

When you say you walk the walk, you mean?
Int Eighty: I rap about hacking computers, and I hack computers. I rap about cracking software, and I crack software.

Are you a PC guy, or a Mac guy? Or do you build your own machines? Or is that the kind of question a Luddite would ask?
Int Eighty: I build my own desktop, rock the eee 900a (Atheros chipset with Madwifi) for my tracktop (backtrack). I never owned a Mac because when I was in school I couldn't afford them. Now they use Intel chips, so the only difference is the OS, and I'm a Linux guy at heart. I wouldn't turn down a MacBook Pro if someone gave me one, though.

What's your idea of geek heaven?
Int Eighty: Geek heaven would be somewhere with infinite video games, computers, software, vodka and Red Bull, and everyone would be there and they would all love all the things there and be friends.

Last question--and it's my standard for this interview series: I really like doing IM interviews, for several reasons. First, I get a perfect transcript. Second, it gives my subject a chance to be a little more thoughtful and articulate than they might be in a phone or in-person interview. And finally, because IM allows for multi-tasking. So, what else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Int Eighty: Listening to a metric butt-load of new beats from C64. I have to go buy all new pants now.

Correction at 4:17 p.m. PT: Due to a typo, this story originally misstated the source of Int Eighty's name.

 

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