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Hip hop’s Nerdboy finds inspiration in the Steel City

“I’m all about beats that it doesn’t matter what era you listen to them in”

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Devyn “Nerdboy” Swain - CHRISTOPHER RUTH
  • Christopher Ruth
  • Devyn “Nerdboy” Swain

When Devyn “Nerdboy” Swain moved to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia to get his master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, he planned on a two-year stint. But in the Steel City, the hip-hop artist and poet found a network of like-minded young professionals and artists who inspired him to stick around. That was in 2009.

“While it’s a smaller market than Philly, I think there’s more opportunities for people that are kind of underdogs,” says Swain. “I didn’t really feel like there was necessarily a lane for me [in Philadelphia].”

Now working as a teacher and assistant band director at Westinghouse High School, the 29-year-old has clearly found his lane. The proof is in his latest EP, Philadelphia Warrior, a seven-song exhibition of expert old-school production and clever, honest lyricism, released in October on locally based Renaissance Music Records. 

Nerdboy is relentlessly charismatic throughout Philadelphia Warrior, channeling golden-era hip hop without descending into nostalgia or parody. “Chill Baby Girl,” for example, samples a piano line from a Billie Holiday song, with Nerdboy waxing about the challenges of maintaining friendships while in a committed relationship as a late-20s millennial. It has the same idiosyncratic humor and personality as Kanye West’s College Dropout, an artist and album Nerdboy lists as primary influences. 

I’m all about beats that when you listen to it, it doesn’t matter what era you listen to them in,” says Swain. “They’re still gonna sound dope.”

The nickname “Nerdboy” dates to Swain’s undergrad days at Cheyney University, where he was roommates with Renaissance Music Records’ future founder and label-runner, Cedric Perry. The label was born out of conversations between the two about the lack of the vintage sound in modern hip hop. The label now has three artists on its repertoire, with a fourth, Chicago-based Sincere The Poet, signed recently.

“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,” says Swain.

Nerdboy begins work on his full-length, The Spectrum, in 2016.


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