You don’t have to recognize the theme from Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda or appreciate a musical shout-out to the Power Rangers in order to appreciate what Nurdy Tunes has achieved. Winners of Strange Arrange—a hip-hop and R&B live-arrangement competition held in Nashville last July—the five-piece band put together a medley of hip-hop, R&B, pop, chiptunes, and cartoons and smashed it, earning them the title, a trophy, cash, and a recording session and video shoot with Musiq Soulchild.
In a cohesive 10-minute set, the group cut up and stitched together familiar melodies and original measures to transform the songs of Cash Out, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Wiz Khalifa, Daft Punk, an elf named Link, and some costumed children’s television heroes. “We go for authenticity, mixed with a new youthful energy,” says Jamahl Smith, one-fifth of the group.
Dropping some 8-bit funk into the mix would have been enough to reinforce the Nurdy Tunes name, but the way the band finally came together is pretty geeky as well: It happened through the Internet. Sean “Chopz” Wright, Dwele Coore, and Smith all attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, while Kerry “2Smooth” Marshall Jr. and Tadarius “T.Ray” McCombs live in Birmingham, Ala., and Miami, Fla., respectively. At Berklee, Wright started building a reputation by uploading videos of recognizable songs with reworked grooves that made you fall in love with the jam all over again. Links made it to Facebook walls, and pretty soon the guys found out about each other, started talking by Skype, and began comping together performances. Word got down to Soundtrack Entertainment, the organizers of Strange Arrange, who offered the group an audition for the competition. Despite all of this activity, the guys hadn’t performed in the same room as a complete group until the day before they took the stage at the Limelight in Nashville.
But they killed it. Exhibiting the ability to vibe off each other’s body language, Nurdy Tunes used guitar, bass, drums, and two sets of keys to add color and embellishments without obscuring the original songs. “We were in complete shock that we won at first, because we went last and got to hear everyone murder it and do some things we wanted to do, so we had to adapt on the spot while staying true to ourselves,” says McCombs. “Next thing you know, it’s five in the morning and we’re on our way to the studio.”
“Nurdy Tunes coming together was like the [Olympic basketball] Dream Team,” says Marshall. “Everyone is strong in their area, but you can change any person’s role and they’ll step up to the plate and do what they need to do to deliver an arrangement that stays true to our formula and is full of feeling.”
Following the competition, Nurdy Tunes reconvened at SAE Nashville with Musiq Soulchild, putting touches on a song and an interlude, stretching out motifs while adding sing-a-long flavor that stays true to the artist, injecting a J Dilla-type swing, and showcasing original touches. Working collectively with one mind and one goal, taking advantage of sharing a warm soundboard rather than emailing each other parts, Nurdy Tunes got that lightning in the jar.
Now, building on the momentum from the Strange Arrange endorsement, Nurdy Tunes will put out more videos and field new opportunities, including recent ones from artists including Diggy Simmons and Jacob Latimore, without compromising the little detailed, almost nerdy touches that make the group’s core.
“It’s all about staying in your lane,” says Smith. “We didn’t jump on live arrangements because it was hot, and we won’t switch up our sound or underplay just to fit in. This isn’t just a hobby, but it’s also not just about capitalizing on one moment. We formed a brotherhood that will last a lifetime, and from that we’ll grow, continue to move forward.”