Science songster interview #5: Kate McAlpine

Today our interview series marches onward with a former marching band flutist who has achieved fame as a science rapper: Kate McAlpine, a.k.a. alpinekat.

SAS&M: YOUR EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND IS MOSTLY IN PHYSICS AND WRITING. WHAT SORT OF MUSICAL TRAINING DO YOU HAVE, IF ANY? HOW DID YOU FIRST GET STARTED AS A RAPPER?

KM: I was in the marching band in high school, playing the flute. Took some piano lessons as a kid…learned how to sing and harmonize from my mom (she also got me started with the piano). Most of it doesn’t seem relevant to rapping, but I think an understanding of rhythm from an early age is probably part of why it didn’t seem difficult. I got started as a rapper in 2006 with a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, inspired by the “back to the lab again” line and the nuclear experiment I was observing at Michigan State’s cyclotron.

SAS&M: YOUR MOST FAMOUS WORK IS THE LARGE HADRON COLLIDER (LHC) RAP VIDEO, AND ON YOUR WEBSITE YOU DESCRIBE HOW THE MEDIA HELPED POPULARIZE THIS VIDEO AND HOW VARIOUS REMIXES AND SPINOFFS WERE CREATED. BUT LET’S BACK UP A BIT. HOW WAS IT DETERMINED THAT THE LHC SHOULD HAVE ITS OWN RAP VIDEO? IT SEEMS THAT SOME FAIRLY HIGH-LEVEL LHC PEOPLE MUST HAVE AGREED THAT THIS WAS OK.

KM: By the time the high-level people knew about it, the rap and beats were already close to finished and we were trying to shoot some video. Initially, these attempts raised a few red flags – the gatekeepers for the ATLAS experiment were dubious about “rappers” in the cavern, and they ran it by the head of the press office. He emailed me, requesting more information. As I was a press guide at the time, he thought I was taking some rappers around CERN rather than rapping myself. Once he learned the truth, I’m not sure what he made of the project, but the powers that be let it go forward.

SAS&M: YOU’VE SPOKEN ABOUT SCIENCE RAP AT VARIOUS CONFERENCES. WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING OR SURPRISING FEEDBACK THAT YOU’VE GOTTEN FROM PARTICIPANTS AT THESE CONFERENCES?

KM: I’m afraid the feedback hasn’t been all that surprising. Those who like the idea and the music tell me so, and those who don’t must not bother to speak with me. I often describe how we made the videos with easily accessible tools, so I wish I could tell you that someone said that they’d go and do a rap themselves…but it hasn’t happened!

SAS&M: WHAT ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES (IF ANY) ARE THERE IN USING RAP TO CONVEY SCIENTIFIC CONTENT, AS OPPOSED TO OTHER MUSICAL GENRES SUCH AS FOLK, HEAVY METAL, ETC.?

KM: Oh, I’d say the main advantage to using rap is that I don’t know how to play the guitar or the drums. Also, I’m terrible at coming up with melody lines. Will Barras, who did the beats on three of the raps, might have more talent for that… I can’t think of any real disadvantages though. All musical genres are disliked by some section of the population – you can’t please everyone. But one of the most fun aspects of using rap is that the style is most likely to be considered diametrically opposed to physics: commercial rap is largely about being cool, whereas most people don’t see physics that way….

SAS&M: WHICH OTHER SCIENCE RAPPER(S) DO YOU PARTICULARLY LIKE OR ADMIRE? WHY?

KM: Let’s see…I particularly like Jonathan Chase (Oortkuiper, best known for Astrobiology), Tom McFadden (tomcfad, best known for Regulatin’ Genes), and Steve Rush (Funky49, best known for Particle Business). Jonathan Chase has done the most to advocate science rap as a serious way of communicating. Apart from raps about science, he also did one called “Black Scientists – To be mentioned”. We like to think of science as very open, and in some ways the scientific community has often been ahead of the rest of society when it comes to integrating groups that have been oppressed or shut out – probably in part because scientists tend to prefer evidence to popular wisdom. But there are loads of scientists who didn’t get their share of the credit for discoveries because they weren’t white or male, so hats off to him for telling some of those stories.

Tom McFadden is probably the most prolific science rapper I know of. He did a lot of parodies and original songs when he was working as an instructor in human biology. I like his natural selection rap “3.5 ’til infinity” best.

I like Steve Rush for pure enthusiasm. He’s not a scientist or science communicator by training – he just thinks science rocks and wants to share it. I admire his use of the Fermilab bison in “Particle Business”.

Also, I should mention Bill Nye the Science Guy. Though he didn’t rap himself to my knowledge, he hosted some young science rappers on his show.

SAS&M: SINCE YOU ARE A JOURNALIST, IT SORT OF MAKES SENSE THAT YOU HAVE EXPLORED RAP AS A WAY OF COMMUNICATING WITH THE PUBLIC. DO YOU FORESEE A DAY WHEN THE PUBLIC REGULARLY LEARNS ABOUT SCIENCE IN THIS WAY, OR IS SCIENCE RAP DESTINED TO REMAIN A FRINGE ACTIVITY?

KM: Oh, I think there will always be scientists and enthusiasts singing about science, but it’s a lot of work to write a song, record it, and shoot and edit video! I’ll predict that it will always be a fringe activity as long as it’s a labor of love. Sometimes Youtube commenters suggest there could be a market for this kind of thing, but I’m not the person to try and tap it.

SAS&M: ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON ANY NEW SCIENCE RAPS? IF SO, CAN YOU GIVE US ANY DETAILS?

KM: I’m not working on any raps of my own at the moment, but Steve Rush says he’s ready to record a song I wrote a verse for, so that could be on the horizon!

[Related link: video interview of Kate McAlpine by NSCL]

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One Response to Science songster interview #5: Kate McAlpine

  1. Pingback: Science songster interview #17: Steve Rush | Sing About Science & Math

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