If you ask Chris Ward, “Hip-hop is always about being true to yourself.”
So while other rappers write lyrics about life on the mean streets, Ward raps about the stuff that’s close to his heart: science fiction, video games and other geeky obsessions.
“It has a lot to do with what I grew up with,” explained Ward, better known as the rapper, animator and voice actor mc chris. “I grew up around hip-hop. I grew up around ‘Star Wars’ and comic books.”
Over the past decade, Ward has gained a fiercely loyal fan base that shares his passion for nerd girls, ninjas and “Dungeons &Dragons.” His songs can be heard on the soundtracks of “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and “Good Luck Chuck,” as well as in commercials for the 2012 Honda Civic SI.
“There are some things that have happened in my life that I can’t believe they’re happening — like meeting George Lucas and visiting the Playboy Mansion,” said Ward, who performs Wednesday in San Luis Obispo alongside MC Lars, Mega Ran and Adam WarRock. “I’m always amazed. I’m always a fanboy at heart.”
Born and raised in an affluent Chicago suburb, Ward’s early exposure to hip-hop came from two sources: his older brothers and MTV. During his freshman year in high school, he discovered more cerebral, politically charged groups such as Public Enemy and De La Soul.
“They educated me in ways that ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ couldn’t,” he said, referring to the popular sitcom. “When you grow up in the suburbs you’re being raised in a fictional fantasy land where nothing ever happens. Rap was a window into another world.”
Ward made mix tapes with songs by A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep and listened to them every morning as he drove to school. As he memorized their lyrics, he said, he learned how to craft his own.
Still, it wasn’t until years later that Ward revisited his rap-loving roots.
He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied screenwriting at New York
University before working briefly with controversial documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Ward was taking improvisational comedy classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City when he landed a gig as an animator, writer and voice actor on “Sealab 2021,” part of the Cartoon Network’s new late-night programming block “Adult Swim.”
When Ward’s song “Fett’s Vette” — about “Star Wars” bounty hunter Boba Fett — appeared on an episode of “Sealab 2021,” his music career as mc chris was born. He offered his first album, “Life’s a Bitch and I’m Her Pimp,” as a free download in 2001.
Over the years, Ward has self-released a total of eight albums, including “Race Wars” and the children’s album “Marshmellow Playground.” He’s also found fame as evil rapping spider MC Pee Pants on another “Adult Swim” show, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
Although Ward’s high-pitched voice and nerdy lyrics aren’t for everyone, he’s determined to earn respect.
“I know that as awesome as I could possibly be, I’ll never be taken seriously,” Ward said. “It’s OK. I can surprise people by being serious. I can surprise people by being good.”
His latest album, “Race Wars,” examines the current state of geek culture — particularly its adoption by the mainstream.
“Nerd culture has created some great games and very cool movies,” he said. “It’s also created a lot of manipulative entertainment that doesn’t provide any positive effect on its audience.”
As examples, he offered “Sucker Punch” and “Tron: Legacy,” two highly anticipated science fiction movies that opened to poor reviews.
“These movies just aren’t any good,’ Ward said. “We wait for them for years and then we’re disappointed.”
At the same time that show business standards have dropped, he said, newly entitled nerds have become bullies online.
“There’s a lot of people who have forgotten what it’s like to be made fun of and ridiculed,” Ward said, comparing Internet trolls to the similarly self-righteous “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” “I want to remind people that they need to treat people better.”
He’s doing his part by raising money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Ward and his supporters have raised more than $100,000 since his nephew, Murray Goff, was born with the disease three years ago.
Ward has also been seeking donations on Kickstarter.comfor his upcoming television show, “the mc chris cartoon.” (The current tally is more than $71,000.)
“A lot of people are wrapped up in the studio system and think that’s the only way to get things done and that’s not true,” he said. “My career proves that again and again.”