Geek Rhythms

Can rapping make engineering hip? Semiconductor engineer Rajeev Bajaj thinks it can

Photography: Timothy Archibald; Styling: Shannon Amos/Artist Untied

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.

Photography: Timothy Archibald; Styling: Shannon Amos/Artist Untied

Bajaj ran into trouble immediately. Amazon refused to sell the disc; distributors wouldn’t stock it; publicists wouldn’t touch it. Bajaj began sending out promotional copies to anyone he could think of—local newspapers, engineering journals, and, on a whim, a Portland, Ore., company called Engineering Education Services, which provides high schools with materials about engineering careers.

The response from Engineering Edu­cation Services was positive, and Bajaj had found his first market—educators. Thanks to this Portland contact, a monthly newsletter for potential engineering students called Pre-Engineering Times featured Bajaj and his CD. The newsletter story was picked up by The San Jose Mercury News for its education coverage—not its entertainment section, but Bajaj wasn’t fussy. National Public Radio also did a short feature on Bajaj.

With this publicity behind him, Bajaj went back to music distribution firm Hapi Skratch Entertainment, in Loveland, Colo., and this time he got the boxes out of his garage. Amazon now sells the CD, and some 30 online services sell the tracks. Bajaj has sold enough discs so far to recoup his $15 000 investment.

Adults appear to be buying most of the discs. Teachers tell Bajaj that they play the music in class while the kids are working quietly and at meetings when they’re making presentations to other teachers; engineer parents are playing it for their children.

So what does Bajaj’s music sound like? I should tell you up front that I’m no fan of rap music, but I did like some of the more melodic moments in the four songs that make up the Geek Rhythms album, in particular the guitar introduction to ”Free Energy” and the lyrical refrain of ”Enjoy the Ride.”

Still, I found the voice of the main rapper annoying. He sounded like he was imitating—almost parodying—a U.S. street rapper, leading to some odd pronunciations that were distracting: ”eng-en-aire” and ”co-pro-cess´-or” (rhymes with professor). But that’s just me. I asked a few adult engineers to listen to it and passed out CDs to half a dozen teens who are either math stars or robotics team members.

I had a hard time getting feedback from the kids. I felt that the ones who didn’t respond didn’t like it much but were embarrassed to say so. Meghna Dholakia, a ninth-grade student at Gunn High School, in Palo Alto, Calif., liked the variety of rhythms. She called the overall effect ”highly amusing.” Alex Browne, a ninth-grader at Palo Alto High School, would classify this music under ”comedy” if he put it onto his iPod. He liked ”Metamorphosis” (my least favorite) but thought the other three were ”lame, stupid, or unintelligible.” The low point for Browne came in ”Enjoy the Ride,” with the rap ”WAN and LAN, WAP and SAP / Stop and think.”

The adults were impressed with the production values and thought the music wasn’t bad at all, ”a mix of Pink Floyd, electronica, and rap,” said one. Several of my adult reviewers agreed with me that the rapper’s voice sounded contrived.

Meanwhile, Bajaj says, it seems many engineers are closet musicians—he’s received a number of compositions from engineers hoping to be included on a future disc. And he’s heard from women engineers who urge him to add a female geek rapper to his next effort.

He’s made no plans for a second album yet. He’s working now on promoting the recently released music video. And he’s founding an engineering start-up—SemiQuest, in Fremont, Calif.—which is developing new materials to make semiconductor wafers smoother and flatter. Bajaj hopes that an established rapper might take his songs mainstream. But for now, he says, he’s just ”enjoying the ride.”

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