Samuel Hammersley and Dustin Franklin are reliving part of their youth.
The Tilt Studio arcade on the Circle Centre Mall's top floor is nearly deserted one recent weekday afternoon. There's no wait for Hammersley and Franklin to play "Dance Dance Revolution."
"He used to be the king of this game," Franklin says of Hammersley as he watches him follow the blinking lights with his feet. "I used to be OK at it for a while, but I never put in thousands of hours like this guy did."
Something else both childhood friends, who turned 24 within a week of each other this month, have put a lot of time into is music. Starting in fall 2009, the two began rapping under the name Shammers & Lefthand. Shammers is a nickname derived from Hammersley's name, a moniker he's had since junior high. Franklin, who used to describe himself as Lefthand while playing World of Warcraft, picked the nickname back up because he likes playing supporting characters. That, and he's a southpaw.
As it's turned out, it hasn't been the best name for their enterprise.
"A lot of people come up and ask us after shows who we are," Shammers says. "I tell them 'Shammers and Lefthand,' and they'll say something like, 'Bless you. What'd you say?'"
But the two take it in stride because, at this point, they're more concerned with having fun than with building a career. Shammers calls their music "a hobby that's taken off much further than we ever imagined would." A year ago, the duo joined Scrub Club Records, a nationally-distributed indie label specializing in hip-hop - and specifically hip-hop's geeky offshoot, nerdcore. The duo has since performed at anime and video game conventions around the country, including Gen Con here.
"That is our demographic," Shammers says. "We are so comfortable at those types of venues because we're with nerds, with people we have stuff in common with. We're not playing at hip-hop conventions where you're nervous about getting shot on stage or have Faygo thrown in your face. So even if the show tanks, we know we'll walk off stage and be amongst friends."
Indeed, their nerdiness was apparent early on while growing up in Danville, Ind. Lefthand read stuff like the "Final Fantasy 7" walk-through guide in the bathroom at school and was still trading Pokémon cards in the locker room during his freshman year. Shammers quit the basketball team as a sophomore to play in the marching band. Along with their group of friends, they worshipped World of Warcraft and similar games rather than sports. They also weren't ashamed.
"We'd come to school and talk about it in front of everyone," Lefthand says. "They thought we were nerds and geeks, and we didn't care."
Video games and science fiction still heavily inform their songs. As a result, Shammers & Lefthand are commonly lumped into the musical genre known as nerdcore. They freely embrace their geek credentials but don't fully support being categorized.
"It's just a nice buzzword to help you identify people who like nerdy themes in their music," Shammers says.
Rapping about Starcraft may be esoteric to many, but it's not necessarily a hindrance for the duo in gaining fans. They've played plenty of shows on neutral turf too, including Punk Rock Night at the Melody Inn and Scotty's Brewhouse during Gen Con. At the latter, two older women pulled them aside following their set. Lefthand remembers them saying, "We didn't necessarily enjoy the music, but you two were having so much fun up there that we were having fun out here."
"We're more or less good at entertaining people, whether or not they can associate with what our music is about," Lefthand says.
"There are people who would never normally listen to hip-hop that listen to this," Shammers adds. "It's sort of like their gateway to other forms of hip-hop."
In fact, Shammers doesn't even consider himself a hip-hop fan. His passion lies in improvisational comedy, something he dabbled in during high school and got serious about as an undergraduate at Indiana University. He was a member of the troupe Full Frontal Comedy.
"I spent more time reading books on improv than I did about what I was supposed to be studying," Shammers says.
It's one reason why he freestyles so much in their shows. To him, it's an extension of his improvisational comedy.
"That improvising element is so much fun," Shammers says. "I have more respect for artists that can freestyle because it's a rare skill."
Lefthand is more the traditional music fan. As a lad, he played his cassette copy of Michael Jackson's Thriller until it wore out. Working in the music department at a Barnes & Noble afforded him the opportunity to explore a world outside the country and classic rock genres of his hometown. Artists like Gorillaz and Del the Funky Homosapien were his gateway into hip-hop.
"To hear something that actually had some meaning and sonically sounded amazing was really the thing," Lefthand says.
If anything, Shammers & Lefthand are a gateway to hip-hop for people who don't actually like that kind of music. That's something they hear all the time: I don't even like rap, but what you guys are doing is really fun. They consider it a compliment, but don't want to be thought of as a gimmick. Shammers notes there's a song that addresses "geekquilibrium," the concept of balancing one's nerdiness with society's idea of normalcy.
"As trivial as that may sound, it is a real struggle for a lot of awkward people," he says. "That's a very real sentiment we try to get across. People see that on stage and realize we are actually nerds and lovers of hip-hop, and that we've combined them and we're putting on this show for them. But it's not a clown act. It's a fun experience."
So far Shammers & Lefthand have only officially released the six-track EP Shmix Tape, comprised of songs and skits. They plan to hit the studio this summer.
"We call it 'leveling up,'" Shammers says of the experience they've gained since. "We both leveled up a lot. It's really hard for me to listen to the Shmix Tape now because it's so cheesy. For both of us, our caliber has been raised, and I'm so pumped to get in the studio and start hacking away."
Hear: the Shmix Tape EP (zip file, via shammersandlefthand.tumblr.com)