Devyn “Nerdboy” Swain is a native Philadelphian living in Pittsburgh, a hip-hop artist and a teacher, a student of mainstream hip-hop and a subversive voice outside it. In October, the 29-year-old released Philadelphia Warrior
, a seven-song EP introduction to his witty, un-rushed delivery and patently old-school beats. It’s a promising release and a certified must-have for old-school purists and modern hip-hop fans alike. CP spoke with Swain via phone and email about Philly vs. Pittsburgh, hip-hop vs. rap, and how he became “Nerdboy.”
How did Pittsburgh’s hip-hop scene strike you in comparison to Philadelphia’s?
Devyn “Nerdboy” Swain
Growing up I used to listen to a lot of different artists in Philly, whether it was Will Smith or The Roots or Eve or State Property or Cassidy. When I was growing up the scene was more about the hardcore street rappers, before guys like me. I didn’t really feel like there was necessarily a lane for me there.
Because I’ve come of age more as an artist during my time in Pittsburgh, I would say that I prefer the scene here a little bit more for what I’m trying to do now. I feel like the network, even though it’s a big network, it’s not too big where you don’t know who the major players are, and I think that it’s a little bit easier to maneuver here. The Pittsburgh sound, while you have different artists out there on the mainstream level, you have Wiz [Khalifa], you have Mac Miller, and now on the local level you have people like Boaz and some other people that I’ve heard about... I think that while it’s a smaller market than Philly, there’s more opportunities for people that are kinda underdogs.
What made you want to stay in Pittsburgh?
I met some friends and started to gain some more opportunities after I graduated from school in 2012. When I didn’t really know anybody and it was harder to get things like jobs or for the musical part, it might have been tougher to get venues to perform at and everything. Once my network started to broaden a bit and I started to gain more opportunities and started to reap more fruits for all my labors as far as going to school, volunteering and working, it just started to become a more livable place for me. Because initially I came out here, I thought it was just gonna be a two year stint, and that was it. But because of all the opportunities that I’ve been afforded, I feel like that has been the primary reason I stayed out here, because of the network.
I feel like in the late 90s and early 2000s there was a cultural emphasis on the differences between hip-hop and rap, but we don’t talk about that as much any more. Do you ever think about that dichotomy?
I do think about the dichotomy. Some people would say that poets can be rappers but rappers can’t be poets. Maybe they mean that rappers aren’t naturally inclined to be poetic. That’s why I model myself after people like Kanye West, Mos Def, Common, or even Lupe Fiasco, and even to a lesser extent, some of the newer MCs that have come out in the 2010s. I think guys like Kendrick [Lamar] and J. Cole, if you turn the beat off and have them recite their lyrics a cappella at a spoken word event, I feel like it would still carry well because of the passion, the raw emotion, the authenticity is there to carry it.
Rap is an extension of hip-hop, but hip-hop, to me, is limitless, whereas rap can be very formulaic. Hip-Hop, when we talk about the complexity of it, will never be formulaic because there’s space for Eminem, space for gangster rap like Ice Cube and NWA, there’s space for conscious rappers like Lupe [Fiasco] and Common, there’s space for guys that might different or off-the-cuff like Chance The Rapper. I feel like hip-hop is ever-evolving whereas rap is kind of narrow-minded, it’s just an expression of hip-hop, but hip hop is the bigger thing, it’s the culture.
You mentioned that “Blackademia” was the last song finished for the EP. What was it about finishing that track that made you feel like the album was complete?
I like the way that it sounded. It was time. I really like the beat a lot because it reminded of something, maybe some old-school Tribe [Called Quest] stuff or Wu Tang, I can’t really put it into words, but whatever golden-age era song or producer you can think of, that’s the kind of feeling that I got when I heard the beat for “Blackademia.”
It doesn’t really sound like Wu-Tang exactly, but I definitely got a RZA-vibe from the beat, in the way that it’s sort of melodically open-ended. It’s a really strong song.
Yeah, thanks man. I appreciate that. I tell you, beat collection can take a talented artist and make them a legendary artist. That’s what I’m all about, I’m all about the beats that when you listen to it it doesn’t matter what era you listen to them in, but they’re still gonna sound dope. LIke when you listen to Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt
or [Nas’] Illmatic
, they’re gonna groove really well, because the beats are fresh.
When I look at Kanye, who’s my biggest influence, I don’t look at him as the best technical MC. Around the time College Dropout
came out, I was just this nerdy dude senior year in high school that was just a fan of hip hop but you had Jay-Z with The Black Album
, you had Freeway with Philly Freeway
, you had 50 Cent with Get Rich Or Die Trying
, you had all these albums out here but they seemed to be pretty much the same, where they sold drugs or they’re gangsters or they’re ladies men that get all the girls. Then when Kanye came out with College Dropout
, he kinda seemed like this choir boy with edge, he was the bridge I needed between the mainstream world and MCs like Mos Def, Common, Talib Kwali.
Has working as a teacher effected your approach to music and vice versa?
Absolutely. I think the best indicator I receive is when the kids tell you that they looked you up on YouTube and they start quoting some of your lyrics and it makes me want to be more accountable for the things that I say.
At the end of the day, I know that my value is to the community before it’s to any rap industry or anybody’s idea of hip-hop, I know that I’m somebody that wants to be revered in the community more than I want to be a big star. However if i ever do become a big star, I want to be able to leverage the opportunities that I’ve received through being a star into healing the community. The kids are constant reminders that I have to be accountable for the things that I say, and if they ask me a question of what I meant or why did I use a certain word or phrase to describe how I was feeling, then I want to be able to defend my lyrics the way a grad school student, a doctoral student has to defend their thesis or their dissertation. it makes me really self aware of the stuff I’m saying.
How did Renaissance Music Records start?
It was something started by my friend Cedric [Perry] based off my conversations with him about how we want to get back to that old vintage sound in hip hop, definitely loving the golden era of hip-hop.We just really wanted to bring back that sound so Renaissance Music was perfect.
We’re history buffs, we’re foodie buffs, anything that has to do with culture, heritage, anything that we can cling to that’s positive we want to make sure we bring it back and be diverse. I think that’s what Renaissance Music is essentially about: it’s about the guy that really doesn’t fit in anywhere but he’s able to create his own niche and get people to follow behind just because he’s being his authentic self.
How did you get the name Nerdboy? [question via email]
Prior to my attendance at Cheyney University, I wrote an anthem for students that were considered geeks, outcasts, dorks, etc. The song was called "Nerdboy Step." In fact here are the lyrics to the hook:
"Tape on glasses, A's in classes/
NERDBOY STEP! NERDBOY STEP/
We stayin' out of trouble, persevering through the struggle/
NERDBOY STEP! NERDBOY STEP/
Poindexters get it in, bookworms can get it in/
NERDBOY STEP! NERDBOY STEP/
Now just pocket-protect, just pocket protect/
Just pop, pop, pop 'n' lock, pocket protect.”
Nerdboy begins work on The Spectrum
, his full-length named for the iconic Philadelphia arena, in 2016.