Geeks. Nerds. Gearheads. These are the words that typically label engineers today, at least those in the United States. Hip? Cool? Unlikely.
Back in 1989, when he left his native India for graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, Rajeev Bajaj discovered that his choice of chemical engineering as a career was decidedly unhip. Law, business, medicine—these fields were revered, but engineering got no respect.
That never seemed fair to him. So in late 2003, after nine years as a successful developer of advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes, he decided to do something about it.
”I figured that in a typical high school, you had the geeks at one end and at the other end you had the rappers, the rock bands—those kids were in the cool crowd,” Bajaj says. ”So if you could get the geeks rapping, you’d close the distance between the two.”
Bajaj had never listened to a lot of rap. He isn’t proficient on a musical instrument, and he doesn’t know much about music production. But he figured his writing skills weren’t bad, and his years in high tech had taught him that you can outsource just about anything.
In January 2004, Bajaj wrote lyrics for four songs. In October, the first CDs came off the pressing line. Today Geek Rhythms has sold 2000 copies at a list price of US $12 each. An additional 300 people have downloaded the audio tracks from iTunes. And an accompanying music video that features three-dimensional computer graphics is now also available for purchase online [for a sample, see http://spectrum.ieee.org/sep06/geekrap].
Bajaj, born in Delhi, India, got his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1989 from the Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University, in Varanasi. After getting his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in semiconductor packaging materials in 1995, he worked for a number of semiconductor manufacturing technology firms, before joining NuTool, in Milpitas, Calif., in 2003. That same year, he also started thinking about writing a few rap songs.
On a trip to India in December 2003, before he had written a single lyric, Bajaj lined up a producer. Hitesh (”Rikki”) Madan had made a career in Delhi of performing Western-style rock at engineering college functions and selling CDs of his performances. Bajaj hired Madan to write original music, recruit musicians, and mix the final tracks. The two then held auditions for lead vocalists, hiring Jasz Kohli, a freshman electrical engineering student at the University of Delhi.
Back in the United States in January, Bajaj began writing, e-mailing the lyrics to Madan, who put them to music and sent the rough tracks back over the Internet as MP3 files to Bajaj in Milpitas. Of the four songs Bajaj wrote, the first, ”Geek Dreams,” was to become the lead track. It talks about all the things engineers have done—built airplanes, cars, calculators, computers, and the Internet—and looks back at their high school education in math, physics, and chemistry. Bajaj’s favorite line from that song is ”I am an engineer / Respect my mind / So bow down when u see me down town.”
Another song, ”Free Energy,” takes on the laws of thermodynamics and physics, including entropy, enthalpy, and the Reynolds number. ”Enjoy the Ride” is an ode to semiconductor and computer engineers that calls the Internet ”creation divine” and urges listeners to ”Sit back enjoy the ride / Computer geeks have arrived.”
Mechanical engineers star in the final song, ”Metamorphosis,” which covers the Carnot heat engine cycle; Bernoulli’s Principle, describing the behavior of fluids; and various aspects of robotics. ”Mr. Mechanical ” the song concludes, ”can change the world.”
By the end of April 2004, three of the songs were essentially complete, and the duo finished the fourth in May. On 30 June, Bajaj finished his contract and left his job at NuTool; the next day he was on his way to India for two weeks of recording sessions.
Madan worked on the final sound mix until the end of August. For the CD cover, Bajaj searched the Internet for images that looked both scientific and hip. When the cover was selected, he contracted with a company just a few miles from his home in Fremont, Calif., to press a thousand CDs for $2000; a second run a year and a half later would cost $1500.
That October a delivery service dropped 10 boxes of CDs in Bajaj’s driveway, and he found that getting the CD made had been the easy part. The tough part—promoting and selling the discs—was ahead; the CDs were not going to make engineering cool just sitting in his garage.