Music » Rhythm Section: by Alison Fensterstock

Too Cool for Old School



Choose a band name like "The Cool Kids" and, obviously, a tongue is in a cheek somewhere. With stripped-down, vintage-style production and unaffected lyrics, this retro-nerd rap duo from Chicago has managed to earn the admiration of the coolest kid of all: Lil Wayne. Weezy recently collaborated with the pair on the track "Gettin' It," and when the two performed at the BET Hip-Hop Awards last month, Lil Wayne — apparently unplanned — stepped onstage and danced energetically while they did their thing. Unfazed, they went on.

Although born in the 1980s, the Cool Kids have a fondness for '80s references and references to '80s references — the hook for the track '"88" is the chorus for Nas' 2002 back-in-the-day reminiscence "Made You Look." The two also like chunky glasses, rapping in tandem and fat, fuzzy beats. The Cool Kids stick to retro fun like BMX bikes, pagers, gold dope ropes and self-esteem. One song boasts that the group is "the black Beastie Boys." Oh, the Mobius strip of irony.

Rapper Mikey Rocks met producer Chuck Inglish online in 2005, when he happened across one of Inglish's beats. The two planned to farm tracks to sell to other artists, but things worked out differently. Their addictively listenable songs, which are as endearingly simple in production as they are slyly clever lyrically, hearken back to the Run DMC era of rap, before the music business itself, with its fruits and its evils, became a primary topic to rhyme about.

The Cool Kids' rising star may be the definitive signal that geek chic (not Flava Flav-style clowning, just pedestrian, Nintendo-playing dorkery) has found its way into the ranks of hip-hop. Not in the manner of straight-up 'nerdcore" rappers, like the recent MC Frontalot " rather its emergence is similar to the way it infiltrated rock 'n' roll with the St. Vincent de Paul-purchased Mr. Rogers cardigans and vintage eyeglasses of the college-rock era, a la Weezer.

The duo's got the chops to go to the top of the mainstream when it comes to flow and studio skills, but something about them makes it unlikely that the Cool Kids will ever embrace the VIP room, the Gucci store or the high-gloss intricacy of most chart-topping hip-hop production. Nor, really, will they ever get earnest enough to go full-on backpacker like Talib Kweli or A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, for whom they're opening on this tour, and start making grand pronouncements of social conscience. They have the matter-of-fact complete self-confidence of junior high schoolers, in a sort of Napoleon Dynamite way (lyrics: 'Did you know I made this beat with just my mouth and a bell?").

Their focus " and their charm, really " is sweating the small stuff, staying 'street" in a way that's more corner store than thug. A case in point is the track 'A Little Bit Cooler," off of The Bake Sale, their Chocolate Industries debut, whose call-and-response pattern starts out with the lyric (seemingly hollered out by some taunting bully), 'Does that belt say Star Wars?" followed by the consistent response (as if muttered under their breath, out of earshot), 'I'm cooler than that guy." The song proves they are, as one blogger happily declared, 'nerds who rap about nerd stuff," but as the song evolves, their muttered rejoinder turns into indifferent pride ('I'm in the crib on a Saturday night/ On my Sega that's right/ Playing a game of that Street Fighter"). Then, it transforms, ABC After School Specials-style (now that's retro), into disdain for 'trendies" who won't think for themselves and (apologies to Cool Kids influence Eric B. and Rakim) simply follow the leader, no matter what. 'I'm 'bout to say screw it/ Grow a Jheri curl and wear a diaper like Cupid/ Or something else stupid/ Just to see if people do it." Not once does the pair claim to be 'keepin' it real," probably because that's exactly what they're doing.

Opening for Cool Kids and Q-Tip is the Knux, two New Orleans-born brothers living in Los Angeles since Hurricane Katrina who also like throwback Adidas and thick gold chains. The duo plays instruments live as well as mixes and samples with machines, and sounds like a punked-out version of De La Soul.

The Cool Kids revel in nerdy concerns and '80s references - CLAYTON HAUCK
  • Clayton Hauck
  • The Cool Kids revel in nerdy concerns and '80s references

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