Shortly after I posted a video of the recently released Fermilab Rap, Funky49 himself found the post and left a comment. Also known as Steve Rush, Funky49 was kind enough to agree to an interview about his rap career, science outreach as a hobby, nerdcore, and School House Rock. You can download the song and see more of funky49 at funky49.com and rapbassador.com. You can also check out the video director Dan Lamoureax's website. Enjoy!
How long have you been rapping?
Rapping is my hobby. I work in IT. My frist official rap song was in 2000. I've been making music since 1997. I would write poems and raps while at work and while I was bored or inspired.
How and why did you get into rapping?
I had a love of the music and the environment. I just wanted to be able to express myself and express what I had going on inside. Hip hop is a great way to do that. I got some [music] software and listened to a lot of music and hung out with some musical friends and then started to make my own sound.
Where does the name funky49 come from?
I was at work, back in the day, and I overheard my friend talking to a customer. He was talking kind of loud because the person needed a password that had to have so many letters and numbers and he was annoyed that the person on the other line couldn’t make their own password. He said in this exasperated tone, “Ok, your password is funky49!”
That weekend I went home and made a mix tape of all the beats I was working on, and I gave it to my friend and labeled it “The funky49 mixtape.”
It’s just fun. It just sounded interesting. I didn’t want to make a name for myself or think too hard about it. I just wanted it to happen organically. Sometimes you just see how things go and let them happen.
You see this as a type of science outreach. What does it acheive that other types of outreach don't?
I was contacted by Dr. Kilminster to do it, and it was intended to raise awareness about Fermilab and just give people an extra reason to be interested in science and the research that goes on there. The stuff going on at Fermilb is extremely interesting but not always immediately applicable, so sometimes it’s hard to grasp. When you want to get things out there, I’m a big fan of just using putting the spotlight on it in a large number of ways. Hip hop is very accessible to some people. Fermilab does a lot [of outreach], but as far as getting a message out there I thought this would be an interesting way to raise awareness. I hope I’m able to make things interesting while also presenting accurate science.
You’re not a scientist yourself, and you don’t even work for Fermilab but you’ve chosen to do outreach for them. What motivated you to do outreach on your own? Just a general love for science?
Outreach isn’t something that other people do, it’s something anyone can do. I am most definitely a science fan. One of my favorite memories from growing up in south Jersey was going on a field trip to Philadelphia and going to the Franklin Institute, which is kind of like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. They present a lot of science information and real world applications, and I just got to see a lot of interesting, nerdy science things all in one place. I’m enthusiastic about learning and sharing information with people.
Did you know much about Fermilab and particle physics when you started?
I knew only the very basics of particle physics. I had to do some reading but what I found the most helpful was the PBS documentary called "The Atom Smashers".
Do you consider yourself a nerdcore rapper?
I don’t have the self esteem to label myself as nerdcore. There are much, much nerdier rappers and I don’t know if I’m nerdy enough to be on their level. I like hiphop and if I’m nerdcore I will take up that banner and say I’m nerdcore. This track is pretty nerdy but sometimes you need to be told what your place is and I have not been told that I am nerdcore. But I’m a pretty nerdy guy.
Is there a sense of irony in nerdcore?
I don't see any irony in nerdcore. It's people making music that is authentic to them. That is something that nerd rap can offer audiences... performers being themselves and the audience being able to appreciate that and identifying with the artists. If one does imitate a professional rapper, it is to emulate and incorporate their rap style.
What other raps have you done about science?
I released an EP that was inspired by my local Museum of Science and Industry and that was specifically formed to promote the science museum. One track was on the Bodies Exhibit that traveled there; one was on MOSI permanent structures; there was a track that was bent on a wake-up call for sustainability; there was a cover track by a friend of mine called Mad Science and it was a cute track about Tesla and mad science. There was another piece that was more autobigraphical called “Still Nerdy” and that tells the tale of a fat kid with the glasses, and one of the lines is says how I was fat but now my pockets are fat. I’m not that kid anymore but I’m still nerdy. I like that track. It’s an interesting take on where I’ve been and where I am now.
You didn't go the route that alpinekat did (not that you should have) and make your lyrics explanatory. They seem like they are primarily meant to entertain. But you are both rapping about physics labs. Is there competition there?
That’s what’s cool about science, there’s competitive collaboration. There’s competitive collaboration between CERN and Fermilab. They want each other to succeed but they also want themselves to succeed and they will collaborate but there’s also competition. That happens in rap. You don’t want to be the second best rapper on a collaborative track, you want to be the best. There’s interesting parallels I believe.
I did see the LHC rap when it first came out and I’ve watched it a couple times, while creating my rap. I wanted to be parallel but also to have a different take. They’re both factually correct. It’s not cool to mislead people with half truths. I did have Dr. Kilminster (of Fermilab) fact check my rhymes to make sure I wasn’t telling any falsehoods or being misleading. But I also I guess I didn’t want this to be a classroom instructional piece. I wanted to be more School House Rock where I wanted things to be very entertaining but also extremely educational. A little more digestible and palatable.
And there are messages beyond science that I wanted to get across. In the 3rd verse I wanted to talk about US science test scores dropping compared to other countries. I know somebody’s got to come in third and fourth, but it would be nice since we spend so much on education to get more out of it.
What has the response to the video been like?
People like it. There have been some haters on the internet but let the haters hate. One person says they should have got Eminem to do it which I totally agree with. Why didn’t they get Eminem to do it? I tried to contact Kanye West’s management group to do it. They didn’t reply. Rock bands have covered School House Rock; why not have rappers or country artists or rock artists focus on education? Why can’t something be smart and also make you excited about the music?
Do you think this video competes with professional rappers like Kanye?
No. It would be hilarious if [Kanye] were in the video for a second or something. But he’s up in the stratosphere, and I’m down here in the lower depths of the atmosphere with the humans. That’s what’s going on. The video is very low budget. Dan Lamoureux, the director, did all the shooting and editing on his own time. This is the time and talents of hobbyists. And given enough time and talent you can make up for money that goes into a professional video, but honestly you don’t want it too polished because then you lose some authenticity. Who says it has to be highly polished and professional to be of interest to people? There are a lot of videos out there that are passed around that were shot on a camera cell phone. I would much rather watch something that I really enjoy in standard definition than the stupidest TV show in high def. The message trumps the messenger.
Will you release the song on an album?
I will release it on my pro-science collaborative album entitled "Dirty Apes Discover Science". It will be free to download. I don’t want to make money from it. If people want the mp3 now, they can have it now. I was playing with some different software to make the video compatible with ipods. You can actually get ringtones for the song as well. The lyrics are available; the pictures taken at Fermilab are on flickr. And hopefully it will go more viral, like a tree branching out.