Vinny Newsom and Russell McKamey Are Redefining Music—One Video Game at a Time. Just Ask Your Kids

Russell McKamey (left) with Vinny Newsom. Photo by Maximus McKamey

It could be the sunlight bouncing off his shiny purple hair or the bit of IPA foam resting just under his 1970s-style mustache—or maybe it’s his boisterously displayed opinions on topics such as YouTube algorithms and new Overwatch characters—but Vinny Newsom is drawing more than a few middle-aged eyes to his table at Riip Beer Co. No one in the Sunset Beach brewery seems to know who he is, but that’s to be expected when the bulk of Newsom’s millions of online fans are barely old enough to drive, let alone drink.

“If I were to ask any parent who had a kid between the ages of 8 and 12 if their kid had ever listened to a song about a video game, 100 percent of them would say, ‘Yes,’” Newsom says. “If you took a poll of hundreds of them, it would probably be every single parent. They might not listen to it because they think it’s not real music or just silly, but we try to make the chorus of every song catchy enough and use [professional-grade] production value. We try to make enjoyable songs for everyone.”

As one half of “nerdcore” duo Rockit Gaming, Newsom—who goes by “Vinny Noose” for internet purposes—wasn’t the first to make a career out of writing and recording songs about video games, but he’s among the most prolific. With close to 230,000 subscribers and almost 50 million views on YouTube, Newsom and his business partner/band mate, Russell McKamey, have become one of the most consistent and professional gaming-based musical acts in the world.

But in rapidly growing industries such as gaming and YouTube, even the relatively stable and financially viable career Rockit Gaming has brought to its two members is baffling to most people older than 30. Although the duo has composed soundtracks for games and performed during gaming award shows and conventions, Newsom knows all too well about the negative connotations that accompany the title of “YouTuber” as a chosen profession.

Aside from recently amassing another 200,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and developing accounts on Apple Music, iTunes, Google Play and several streaming services, everyone from major companies such as Nintendo to renowned indie publishers such as tinyBuild have worked with Newsom and McKamey. And yet the 28-year-old Newport Beach native has been making moves to expand the duo’s music to platforms both on and off the web.

“[Nerdcore] gets so many views on YouTube, but nobody really knows what it is in the music industry,” Newsom says. “We have more monthly listeners on Spotify than some of the artists on [Spotify’s] big New Music Friday list, but we’re not being pushed like they are. We’ll reach out to people in the music industry saying that we’d love to work with them, and they don’t respond. They don’t realize what it is because it started out with so many parodies and silly stuff, so people think of it as a parody thing.

“We’re trying to really merge into the music industry because we bring a really professional-grade quality to the songs that’s really untouched by the other artists,” Newsom continues. “[McKamey] is a monster when it comes to production, and I think him bringing his production value to it changes everything. We always judge things by percentages, so we’ll be working on a song like, ‘That’s 92 percent radio quality,’ and then he’ll go in and tweak the rest of it.”

Vinny Newsom (foreground) with Russell McKamey. Photo by Maximus McKamey

Whether or not Rockit Gaming manages to put nerdcore on the mainstream map in the near future, the genre’s ascension seems inevitable. What started in the early 2000s as a small subgenre of hip-hop about video games has grown into a wildly diverse and popular style of music for those who have grown up with gaming and YouTube as their primary forms of entertainment. Much like ’90s gangster rap and the now-nostalgic third-wave emo movement of the 2000s, the dividing line between those who contribute to nerdcore’s 4 billion YouTube views and those who see it as nothing but foolishness tends to be right around the age of 18. But what Newsom wants to prove to his peers and elders is there’s no reason a song about the characters or story of a video game should be scoffed at any more than a tune about a movie, book or other work of fiction.

“Video game characters are characters, too,” Newsom says. “One of the biggest songs of 2016 was the song about Suicide Squad. Even though it’s about the movie, nobody gives a crap that it’s about the movie if they’re not interested in it because it’s just a good song. The way we try to write it is specific enough that all of the gamers who enjoy the games will latch on to specific references about the games, but it’s still general enough that somebody who isn’t a gamer can understand it, too.”

Growing up, Newsom either had a controller or an instrument in his hands. When he wasn’t learning to play piano or guitar along with his musically inclined parents, Newsom—whose father still performs in a “dad band”—spent hours working his way through classic games such as Diddy Kong Racing and Crash Bandicoot. But he discovered his passion for songwriting when his mother insisted he take the option of creating a song instead of a more conventional type of presentation to complete a grade-school project.

From there, Newsom wrote songs about anything and everything, eventually performing his first concert as an Elliott Smith-inspired teenage “sad boy” at Newport Beach’s Alta Coffee. The young songwriter moved north to attend Cal State Chico, where he pursued both music and technology. It was in a songwriting class that Newsom met McKamey.

“[McKamey and I] were both majoring in music business, and we took a bunch of classes together but never really knew each other,” Newsom says. “In our last year, we took a songwriting class together, and we were the first two people to share our songs. I went up to him after class and asked him where he recorded his song, and he said it was in his kitchen. That basically started our friendship, and after that, we were always writing music together.”

After a short collegiate run with a pop-punk cover band called Girls Drink Free (each of the four band members would dress in tank tops and pants of the color of their chosen party cup—a lesson in spectacle and showmanship that Rockit Gaming continues to this day), Newsom found himself unhappy as a technology salesman living in the Bay Area with his grandparents. A few years and considerations of giving up and moving back in with his parents later, the temporarily retired songwriter was intrigued by an extremely risky proposition from McKamey to pursue a career in video-game-related songwriting.

“[McKamey] hit me up to work on this little project as a side job because we were both working in sales at the time,” Newsom says. “It started as a way for us to stay working together on music, but then it really started gaining some traction, and we realized it could be a pretty serious thing. [McKamey] said, ‘Dude, quit your job and move to Austin with me. It’s going to be sick!’ and I was like, ‘Nah.’ Then I went home and thought about it and realized that it was the only time in my life when I could make that decision. I didn’t want to regret not doing it when I was 35 and had kids, so I quit my job and moved to Austin, Texas, two weeks later.”

Of course, the beginnings of any band are generally far from glamorous, and a YouTube-based duo for a niche market in 2015 is a tough sell. In order to stretch his savings and limited income from a few odd jobs in Texas (such as customer support for FedEx) as far as possible, Newsom set up in McKamey’s kitchen before the two gained enough of a following to make Rockit Gaming a full-time endeavor and moved into a slightly bigger space.

Although it took them a couple of years to establish themselves and reach an audience big enough for the guys to make a living, the past year or so has seen them take an immense step up in popularity and recognition. Newsom believes there are only a few nerdcore acts that can keep up with Rockit Gaming at this point, and their combination of McKamey’s professional-quality production skills, consistent weekly release schedule, and mature understanding of the corporate world has made them a go-to for not only young fans, but also video-game publishers and artists within the genre.

“[Newsom] is one of the most creative people in the industry,” says tinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik. “I’m loving what the Rockit Gaming guys are doing.”

Photos by Maximus McKamey. Design by Richie Beckman

But while companies such as tinyBuild—who has had Rockit Gaming craft everything from an album themed around the game Hello Neighbor to a ridiculous musical for its E3 advertisement this year—may have already embraced nerdcore as a viable artform, Newsom’s biggest issue with many companies (both gaming and otherwise) has just been getting in the room with them to show them what the duo can do. As thankful as most YouTubers are for the variety of content available on their chosen platform, the bulk of it being extremely unprofessional and/or ridiculous vlogging has hurt some of the more serious creators’ credibility when it comes to more traditional businesses.

From makeup and home renovation to music and car customizing, well-known YouTube specialists representing all sorts of industries often spend several years developing their personal branding before earning the opportunity to work with a brand carried in major stores. Thankfully for Rockit Gaming, that divide between online videos and “the real world” is getting smaller by the day, and Newsom’s experience in the music and technology industries is paying off.

“Our dream is to set up our own record label and hire new artists to become the new Rockit Gaming,” Newsom says. “[McKamey] and I would become the back line and keep writing songs, but there’d be all these new artists to perform them. It’s like how the music industry is run today—a band like Maroon 5 doesn’t write their own songs. We like to write in so many different genres and do so many different things that some songs might sound better for someone else. We’re trying to take this to the next level, and now a lot of our colleagues are starting to do the same. At the end of the day, we’re all just songwriters who want to work together.”

For now, Newsom’s happy to continue cranking out songs about video games big and small. While the idea of sticking to one topic may seem a bit dull for some, the incredible amount of new releases and stories in the gaming world mean the Rockit Gaming guys rarely have to stretch for content. For that matter, they’ve already released more songs in their three-year career than most musical acts do in a decade, and their ability to turn around a professional-grade song and entertaining music video within a few days helps them beat most of their colleagues to the latest subjects.

“Staying on top of trends is probably what me and [McKamey] are best at,” Newsom says. “There are so many games coming out and so many trending topics that we’ll never run out of things to write about—and we’re both workaholics who love writing songs and are obsessed with things sounding pristine. We haven’t missed [releasing a song on] a Friday in over two years, and normally, we come out with two songs per week because everybody started writing songs on Fridays. We release a song on Friday, decide what song we’re going to do next over the weekend, and then we usually write it the next day.”

Once the song is written and recorded, they head into their own rooms so McKamey can mix and master the track while Newsom puts together a music video, (usually) composed of gameplay footage and emphasized lyrics. While the stress of constantly having to come up with new material in appropriate genres and the never-ending grind of pleasing the internet in order to live a relatively modest lifestyle might not fit for everyone, the songwriter can’t see himself ever doing anything else. After all, every time he feels as if he’s lost a battle in his fight for validation from an outside industry, all he has to do is look at the recent past to see how far his medium has come.

“I was just reading an article from, like, 10 years ago about how advertisers aren’t going to want to go to YouTube,” Newsom says. “Obviously, they were wrong. The whole world is there, and gaming is literally the biggest entertainment industry in the world. A few years ago, people were talking about how [Star Wars:] The Force Awakens hit a billion dollars in 13 days, but Grand Theft Auto V—which isn’t even the biggest game in the world—did that in three days. Right now, the gaming industry is doing exactly what we’re doing in that they’re trying to be taken seriously for what they do. It’s going to take everyone a little while to get there, but it’s not going backward.”

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