Adam WarRock Talks (and raps … and podcasts … and writes); a Conversation with Eugene Ahn
Image by Rusty Shackles (tabletopfetus.com)
Eugene Ahn, a.k.a. Adam WarRock, describes himself (or at least his lyric-spittin’, mad-rhyming alter ego) as a “geek emcee.” It may be accurate, but it by no means encompasses the many aspects of the 29-year-old Northern Virginia (Metro Washington, D.C.) resident.
Ahn, who was born in Pittsburgh, but raised in Memphis, is well known in some circles for his podcasting efforts. First, the now-defunct (yet still archived and recommended) interview podcast, “The People You Don’t Know.” More recently, he’s teamed up with humor writer and comics culture commentator Chris Sims (The-ISB.com; ComicsAlliance.com; much more) on the not-quite-weekly comics-centric show, War Rocket Ajax.
(For more coverage of podcasting, see “It’s The New Dial: Popular Podcasters Talk About Talk” and “A Serving of The Sporkful: A Conversation with Dan Pashman and Mark Garrison“)
The opening theme to War Rocket Ajax is performed by Ahn — and it sets the mood for the show wonderfully. This was my first taste of Ahn’s musical output, which, in his Adam WarRock guise, he mostly releases — for free, rather prolifically, and seemingly spontaneously — on his Web site. As of press time, there are 57 tracks. Fifty-seven. Covering themes of a wide range that usually veer into pop culture and/or geek culture.
Indeed, the “geek emcee,” wrote a song not only praising public radio standout Glass; Ahn turned “Ira Glass” into an adjective. And people–the right people–dug it. And the Scott Pilgrim recap was retweeted by the creator of that comic series and the director of the pending movie based on that comics.
Building on this attention, Ahn just finished recording a full-length Adam WarRock album with DJ Ruckus Roboticus, which is due for release this fall. (Their first collaboration, Starving Artist, can be heard here). In the meantime, he’s still updating his site; the latest track concerns the recent groundswell of nerd support for producers to go post-racial and hire Donald Glover of Community to play Spider-Man in the next movie.
We caught up with Ahn, who graciously took some time to answer our questions about his many ventures, his musical influences, and the possible shared touch points between comic book fandom and fans of rap.
Osmosis Online: You seem to be very interested in many disciplines, and very good at many things. Multiple podcasts; earning a JD, then practicing as an attorney; being a movie critic . . . and now, going for it as a fulltime musician . . . are you pretty much willing to try anything? No fear?
Eugene Ahn/Adam WarRock: That’s funny that you, or anyone, might think I am a “no fear” kind of guy, because I can definitely remember a time in college when I was actually very scared to try a lot of different things. I passed up a lot of opportunities to do more writing, comedic performance things like sketch or improv, and more musical (i.e. non-rap) areas that I just never bothered to go into because I simply thought it would be embarrassing. I think that’s why I have such a high standard of quality for things I’m involved in. I mean, we may have inferior equipment for a podcast, I might not know how to professionally master and produce a music track, I may not be classically trained to write reviews or pieces, but I just act as if I’m a professional when putting out content out of fear that anything less than that semi-delusional state of mind would create something that’s sort of embarrassing to have my name on it. I guess it’s a fake it until you make it [your] mentality.
So when I put a song out, or me and Chris Sims cut the podcast together, or I write a review, I strive very hard to make it at the very least sound professional on first glance, even though there’s a lot of things about them that could be seen as non-professional when you delve in closer. But in a weird way, I think those amateurish elements are what also appeals to a lot of people. At least, that’s what I tell myself in my delusional mindstate.
So I guess the answer to that is I’m willing to try anything, if I believe I can delude myself into thinking I can make something that seems like I sort of know what I’m doing; or, if I just feel like I won’t embarrass myself. Ironically, I think I was the worst at being an attorney out of all those things you listed.
OO: Is there anything you aren’t especially good at that you wish you were?
EA: Honestly, I wish I could play more musical instruments. I’ve played guitar since I was in middle school, and I played a bit of trumpet in school as well (band nerd!), but I was never, ever good at any instrument that required my hands to be moving at different rhythms, like piano. When you throw in the feet, like with drum pedals and hi-hats, forget about it. I am a total mess. But I do wish I could play piano.
I also wish I knew how to use Photoshop at all, which people seem to think I do for some strange reason, when the truth is that I know absolutely nothing about that magical, mystical program.
OO: When your interests are so widespread, how do you pick which path to pursue?
EA: I don’t think you really have to pick a path. I think it’s very much about throwing everything you have at the wall all at once, and seeing which sticks up there the longest and going with that until the flame burns out. Then you move to the next one, and then the next one. I think if you stick with that philosophy, eventually one of those things will resonate with an audience as long as you are putting yourself out there, and you have the talent and passion in doing what you do.
The hard part is having the drive or the stamina to sustain the minimal effort required to see if any of those things has a chance to succeed. That’s the key, just allowing yourself to feel open to doing any number of things, and seeing if it takes off. I am a contributing writer to the FakeAPStylebook feed, and I can remember back when Ken and Mark (the creators) procured a book deal for the twitter feed, and first told the contributors that we’d be doing a real, tangible book, I thought to myself, “I can’t freaking do this.” Only through sticking with it, and the great support and positivity of the group of writers in the project, did I start to feel like I could be someone who could contribute meaningfully to that project, and now, lo and behold, I’m going to be a published writer, sort of. And I never would have specifically sought out to write a satirical humor book like that.
A lot of people just tend to pick something they feel might be successful, when in reality, success isn’t something you get to choose. Success chooses you, and you either have to kind of go with it, or you miss out. I had given up music years ago, and made the first track on the Adam WarRock site largely as a joke for the War Rocket Ajax podcast, and people responded to that. So I made another…and another, and so on. And all of a sudden, I was a rapper, while I was doing all the other stuff. I didn’t necessarily choose it, but I’m very happy that what chose me was something I really enjoy doing.
OO: Do you aspire to do comics someday, or are you the rare comic fan who can resist the call of creating sequential art, esp. with your other outlets?
EA: Oh god, I have zero interest in doing comics. I know so many people doing comics, whether it’s print, web comics, indie, self-published, every permutation of the genre, I am just happy to be a total consumer when it comes to that medium. I listen to my friends and how they script and write out panels and pages and arcs, and my brain starts to already melt. And I used to be an avid artist in high school, but my knowledge of drawing stopped with being able to do sketches of like Simpsons or Dragonball Z characters.
OO: “Continuity” — that is, enforcing the history and events of fictional realms across those shared worlds — is very important to many comic book fans, who can cite chapter and verse on why Iron Man wouldn’t do X or why Lex Luthor shouldn’t be able to do Y. (of course you know that).
Would you agree with my speculation that the rap/hip hop world has a continuity that, while of a slightly different stripe, is no less important to fans?
EA: There’s definitely a mythology that exists in any musical genre that becomes just as important or meticulous as continuity concerns in comic books. With our album, there are a TON of lyrical in-jokes that only old-school hip hop heads would really understand. And I’m not entirely sure why we did it. It just seems to come out naturally when I write lyrics, and when Ruckus, Niles (another emcee I worked on the album with) and I write stuff on the fly in terms of samples, hooks or little additions to the songs. On the one hand, it’s almost like an homage to the history of the genre; but on the other hand, it’s this wink to those in the know. So in the former’s case, it’s a pure, honor-driven thing; and in the latter’s case, it’s an inclusive, snobby sort of thing. And toeing that line is probably where music, or any culture that has a similar concern for tradition, swings back and forth from innovative and welcoming, to pretentious and exclusionary.
For me, it was always important to acknowledge the fact that I am an avid rap fan. I love hip hop, from the 1980s old school joints to the golden age rap in the 90s, to the sample-heavy, club hits around 2000, to the electro/bounce stuff that dominates now towards the end of this decade. I mean, I hate plenty of specific music, but in general, I love it all. I have a problem with a lot of geek emcees, or scenes that have branched off of hip hop that seem to want to splinter off of the genre because of their dissatisfaction with hip hop and a desire to create something new and in defiance of the genre. I don’t want to be separate from hip hop; I very much want to be seen as someone who makes rap that sounds like golden age rap, influenced heavily by a modern aesthetic. And sure, I want to build on it, create something new and different, but I don’t do it because I hate hip hop, or have my issues with it. I love hip hop to death, and all the history and tradition that goes with it. We made the album very much with that specific sentiment in mind: it is our love letter to rap, not our attempt to circumvent or transcend or splinter off from the genre.
In that respect, I think it very much parallels the desire to make good comics nowadays. Marvel and DC are such huge publishing houses, and they’ll always have their problems. We, as fans, will always have issues with so much of what they do (listen to War Rocket Ajax and you could swear some weeks we just plain hate comics). Which is why it’s so great to see writers and artists who make great comics from within that structure, playing off of that continuity and history and building upon the past in honor of that which came before them. There are a lot of writers out there who are doing that on a regular basis, and rather than go off and create some balls-out insane indie book that hurts your head to read, they make great comics that use the characters we love, and play within the history and continuity of the stories before them. The result is a comfortable, almost warm reaction, not unlike hearing an old favorite song, or seeing that Marvel logo with the flipping pages before a Marvel comic movie starts. You get excited, and we, as creators, hope to honor and meet the level of expectation that the history establishes.
I think the continuity concerns in rap and comic books are very similar, and I think from a creative standpoint, it’s both a boon and a big minefield to step into. You just have to start from a base of knowledge and love of the genre, and go from there. Stick your chest out and just assume you’ll make something that honors all of that.
OO: Who are some of your musical influences? How about from a subject standpoint? I really can’t see anyone else out there cutting tracks about Ira Glass or a relative disinterest in Doctor Who.
EA: Whew, musically, I am all over the place. I’m one of those people who have way too many albums, and a base of musical knowledge that has no real center or anchor. I honestly own I think something close to 1,500 CDs, as well as gigs and gigs of music digitally. My biggest influence is probably Atmosphere, a hip hop group from Minneapolis. I modeled so much of my flow and rhyme style after Slug, the lead emcee from that group, when I was developing in college. Other than that, I could go on for days about the emcees who influenced me: Sage Francis, Black Star, Redman, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, P.O.S., and on and on. And that doesn’t even begin to go toward the non-rap music influences that are all embedded in the musical DNA of my stuff.
Subject-wise, I basically treat the TrackLog as an extension of the blogs I read on the web daily. I can go to like, Best Week Ever or NY Mag’s Vulture and read serious stories about pop-culture, or totally satirical pieces about politics or current events. I think being so immersed in Web culture makes you see topics and potential subjects in that frame of mind: do I want to make fun of this? Or do I want to use this to make a point? I try very hard to make most of my music have a serious message somewhere inside of the madness, even when it’s a totally ridiculous song idea. And the album, of course, was completely taken from comic books, which I think can also take culture and twist it however they want to make a statement, whether artistic or ideological.
OO: So, according to the Adam WarRock FB page, you’ve finished recording the album? Where do you go from here in terms of production? And how about support of the album? What are your short- and medium-term plans?
EA: We did finish my vocals for the album just last week. Now, my DJ, Ruckus Roboticus, will take a few weeks to mix the vocals and finish producing the tracks, adding effects and scratches and finalizing the songs. Then it will be mastered for a week, and we’ll do some last minute revisions before it’s completely done. We’re hoping to release the album in mid-September. In the meantime, the totally new “Ira Glass” single should be available August 5, 2010 for digital distribution everywhere, and our debut single, “Starving Artist” is a track that I’m still very proud of. I’ll also be getting together a lot of merchandise, and some other plans connected with the album and the site that I can’t yet officially announce. As always, the site’s TrackLog will always have new, free music to download whenever I finish a new song.
This fall and winter, we are hoping to do some events and cobble together a tour through the Midwest and the East Coast. After that, I really have no idea. Ruckus and I have already discussed what a second album will be like, I want to work with a lot of different artists not really just in the realm of hip hop. And in the long-term scope, I am working with some people on hopefully putting together a new live show that will encompass everything from the podcasts I’ve done, comics and comic culture, and music live shows. We’re hoping to create a new event show that will give the public a new way to experience live music and panels/interviews. Hopefully we can take that out on the road and get a good reaction to it, and maybe start something new that takes off.
As for the support, it’s all still a completely insane thing for me to consider. I still look at totally dumb things like the number of my Twitter followers and feel like I’ve accomplished something real, even though it’s a totally arbitrary number and a completely meaningless thing. I am so appreciative of all the support I get, as well as all of the help people have given in terms of helping get my music out there. But most of all, I am so incredibly blown away by how personal people have made my music and the whole venture. I get emails from people who talk to me about their jobs, what they’d do if they could quit their job, what a certain song meant to them. I love the personal connection people have to the music and the accessibility people feel they have to me. That’s probably the best thing that’s happened.
I remember lamenting once to Curt Franklin (who writes the webcomic Let’s Be Friends Again with artist Chris Haley) about my worries for the future of my music, and he simply responded to me, “You make music. If you’ve entertained one person today, then you’ve done a pretty huge thing.” And that’s always stuck with me. It got me through a big valley in me trying to figure out what I wanted from the Web site and my music. To think that a good number of people are entertained on a semi-regular basis because of something I did, well…I’ve begun to realize that it IS a pretty big thing, and it feels pretty good. Hopefully, I can keep it up.
I’d like to thank Eugene Ahn for indulging in questions from Osmosis Online; be sure to check out what Adam WarRock’s up to here, and Ahn’s many other efforts through the hyperlinks scattered throughout the above article.