“I’ve always been a nerd,” acknowledges Marshall “Gripp” Gillson, “but I’m starting now to be more upfront about it in my art.”
Gillson is definitely no geeky-come-lately, trying to cash in on the popularity of ComicCon-friendly fare: The indie hip-hop artist—who has also earned acclaim on the national slam poetry circuit—recently graduated from Georgia Tech with a Master’s Degree in computer science. But Gripp doesn’t necessarily buy into the whole “nerds rule!” mythos.
“There’s an emerging fiction that nerds are becoming cool. They’re not,” he insists. “It’s just a vogue marketing tactic. Out here in the real world, we still get the same crap for reading too much and for programming. But science and academia have been integral parts of my day-to-day life over the last few years, so it would be disingenuous for me to not rap about them.”
It was Gripp’s distinctive rhyme style—blending intricate lyricism with a scholar’s impressive scope of knowledge—that initially piqued my curiosity when I saw him at a local slam poetry performance. But what really earned my respect was the way those rhymes were married with slick, creatively accessible backing tracks on 2012’s Head In The Clouds. His fourth self-produced, self-released album, Clouds recalls influential indie-rap greats such as Sage Francis and Atmosphere.
Though he may self-identify his style as Nerdcore, there’s a welcoming accessibility to Gripp’s music that avoids lo-fi backpacker hip-hop pitfalls, as well as a soulfulness to his lyrics that prevents the non-nerdy from feeling unwelcome.
“Mainstream pop rap has been trending toward simple, repetitive tracks for a long time,” he reasons. “But as much acclaim as those artists get, they don’t represent the state of hip-hop to me. There’s definitely a market full of people who love hip-hop and are looking for more stimulating lyrics. I’m aiming to give all of those people an alternative.”
After six years in Atlanta, where he attended Morehouse as an undergrad, Gripp recently moved away from the hip-hop Mecca to take a day job in the Boston area. He admits that leaving the city’s warm artistic embrace was not an easy decision.
“I’ve lived most of my adult life in Atlanta,” he says, “and I have a lot of close friends there. It really was an artistic home. That being said, I think that living in Boston is going to be a great new experience, and the Internet makes it much easier for independent artists to maintain widespread fan bases.”
So now, Marshall “Gripp” Gillson finds himself at one of life’s crossroads. With degree in hand and a full-time job in his chosen field, will Computer Science become his life’s focus, or merely something to fall back on?
“At this point,” he responds, “my only concrete goal is to keep making art, trying to make it both personally and universally meaningful. Really, I feel lucky that I have a job that pays well enough to take the pressure off of my art. Good art is not always the same as salable art. This way, I can focus entirely on making my art good, without having to worry about bankrupting myself with a bad project. Right now, being a full-time artist doesn’t seem like the right decision for me, but I haven’t written it off.”
In the meantime, he’s still on the grind with his glassEyeballs production company. In addition to putting out Head in the Clouds, last year he appeared on several mixtapes and Greydon Square’s album. His agenda for 2013 includes writing and recording another solo album, producing an EP for Atlanta rapper Quez, and qualifying for a slam poetry team in New England.
”My biggest goal,” he insists, “is to just keep releasing new art. I am continually humbled by the support I get. I feel like people expect me to maintain a certain level of quality and artistic integrity, and I owe it to them to keep developing.”