Black Nerds: a reprise

01 Dec 2007

Editors Note: The below text is a follow-up to Raafi’s now-famous post about Black Nerds.
Over the past couple months I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching over exactly what the word “nerd” actually means and found myself in a sort of Potter Stewart limbo. After all, blogging about what it means to be a nerd isn’t very cool, but I digress. My fragmentary notion that the black nerd is an emerging presence in our culture that is under-recognized has provoked many sorts of reactions from the vituperative (I see you Tai) to the laudatory. In the process the link has found its way into blogs at USA Today, MIT, and Ebony/Jet. The New York Times called to say wassup and just this week I appeared coast-to-coast on Canadian radio. Did I mention that Clutch Magazine thinks I’m a black man to watch? (I’ll mention here, in passing, that the Beastie Boys once recorded a song entitled “Hey Ladies!”).

It has always amused me that rock journalist Chuck Klosterman — someone who is often an entertaining read and probably one of the most successful hipsters to never play in a band — is undeniably nerdy yet someone who is counted on to know what’s cool. The hipster label being its own can of worms, I’ll calmly shunt this paragraph by noting that many of our cultural labels can be deceiving. For instance, the line from rock star to rock journalist to fanatic record store employee is quite fluid in terms of the personality grouping involved yet the coolness factor thereof swings wildly high in the case of the rocker and wildly low in the case of the ranter. It seems that making good music is always cool, having a good record collection is only cool to some, and that telling everyone so ad nauseam requires its own category of uncool.

where do you put old Chuck on the coolness scale?

Still, the record-loving nerds behind the video game Guitar Hero III got their revenge a couple weeks ago to the tune of a cool hundred mil.

In the spirit of the season and because I had gone more than five years since hearing this song, I’ll share a story and then some music:

During the years when I counted hip-hop producer among my career aspirations — you know, back when I thought it was cool to drop lyrics like, “breaking down crews to their inverse ratio” — I spent a lot of time in record stores. Crate digging, nahmsayin? Strictly vinyls. Maybe a little too much time. On one such occasion while poring over the endless stacks at Planet Records‘ now defunct Comm. Ave. location in Boston the familiar sound of crackle and hiss played over the house hi-fi. In a few seconds I found myself hypnotized by the vertiginous trills of a guitar sound so lush I dropped my records and speed-walked to the elevated desk at the front. “What IS this,” I demanded.

The store manager, a near dead-ringer for Jeff Albertson, looked at me knowingly and nodded, “Eddie Hazel.”

“Wha…” I began again breathlessly.


He raised his hand, shaman-like, bringing my twenty years to a dead stop and explained that Hazel, now considered one of the greatest guitarists ever, had been asked to join Parlaiment when he was just seventeen years old. Game, Dames, and Guitar Thangs would be Hazel’s only solo album — my enthusiasm for which lowered the price from fifteen to ten dollars. Long after the otherworldly sounds that had sent my head spinning resolved themselves into Hazel’s interpretation of California Dreamin’ — a song you will never listen to the same again — I am left with the image of the record shop geek at his absolute zenith: proud, empowered, and in a position to disseminate his unique knowledge.

Hazel, the black rocker who died at 42 due to years of excessive drug use, natch, is decidedly not a nerd. The man who sold me the record was neither black nor any more of a nerd than Chuck Klosterman (i.e. undeniably so, but in a socially acceptable way that defies the label). But when Nora Young the host of CBC’s Spark asks a nasal-sounding dude a straight question, “are you a black nerd?” he, I mean me, gets a little Romney-ish with his slang. I think I’ll do a little more soul searching now. Any record suggestions?

You can hear me repping on CBC here.
Here’s a low-res file of Eddie Hazel’s California Dreamin’.


  1. 4 Dec 2007 Thadd Clark

    Thanks for the Eddie Hazel info.
    Here’s more on Klosterman:

  2. […] Here’s also Raafi, whom everyone who is up on the Black Nerd Phenomenon (!!) is already aware of. […]

  3. […] Verily, the proliferation of media voices and sources enabled by the internet has allowed (surprise!) a more nuanced and (bing!) less gangster voice of young black America to emerge, untempered by market concerns and sensationalism. But you knew that. Right? […]

  4. […] Well, BFD, we’ve been milking black culture for ‘cool’ since before Charlie Parker played a note. But it is in couterpointing this slam dunking/hip-hopping definition of Blackness that caused Raafi’s essay about Black Nerds to go viral. […]

  5. 11 Dec 2008 Gardner Swan

    Music suggestion: I just converted some crazy Ethiopian chanting that my friend/classmate recorded while over there visiting family, I can hit you up with mp3s if interested.

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