Mutants of rap: DMC, Jean Grae and others on the enduring connection between comic books and hip-hop
2:52 pm Oct. 16, 2012
It's nothing particularly new to point out the prevalence of comic-book themes and characters in hip-hop.
Q-Tip, The Wu Tang Clan and all its alumni, Pharaohe Monch and Jay-Z are particularly well known for making reference to comic books in their lyrics; then there's MF Doom, a sort of indie-rap complement to Jay-Z, who uses comics more than anybody, and who borrows both his name and the trademark mask he seldom appears without from the Marvel character Dr. Doom.
But for Darryl McDaniels, the rapper better known as the DMC of Run-DMC, there is a connection both subtler and a deeper between hip-hop and comic books than just dropping names.
"Everything I did artistically came from the same place as the comics," he was saying Saturday before a small audience at the Javits Center.
It was about 5 p.m., and so the peak time of the peak day at New York Comic Con, and the largest group of conventioneers was at the show's headlining event: a panel discussion with the actors and creators of the AMC show "The Walking Dead."
DMC was at the head of one of the center's many cramped, windowless, smaller rooms, flanked by a cadre of hip-hop luminaries and comics celebrities talking about the relationship between hip-hop culture and comic books.
DMC’s vocal chords have been badly damaged after years of rapping at the top of his lungs to arena crowds, and he now has a condition known as spasmodic dysphonia, which causes his vocal chords to spasm as he talks, making some syllables inaudible or muffled. When he addressed the audience, his voice sometimes cut in and out in strange ways, as though what he was saying was being broadcast from somewhere else or being played at differing RPMs on an old turntable. It lent his observations an element of otherworldly pronouncement, like a crippling illness that, viewed another way, is really a superpower.
"I was always into the comics, and subconsciously comics always was in there. If you listen to our early lyrics"-here, he started rapping a segment from Run-DMC's 1985 track, "King of Rock")-"Crash through ceilings, come through floors, break down windows and bust down doors"—when Run was like, 'write a rhyme,' I was like, I’ve never sold drugs. I’ve never been to jail. I’ve never been shot. That shit hurts! So when I wrote rhymes I had so sound big, bad—everything had to come out. I was the microphone master, devastating mic controller. I had to have super powers. So I took them from the comics I was into.”
Arguably hip-hop's most critically beloved female MC, Jean Grae, who actually took her name from an X-Men character, was there too, and as fantastic as her rapping voice is, speaking before an audience she had the smooth appeal of an NPR broadcast, if those were loaded with F-bombs.
"Rappers talk about shooting one another with 87 guns," she said. "That’s obviously not something that’s ever going to happen—it’s not a threat. You can’t do that, even though it would be awesome! It’s that next level, that ultra-violence, that makes it work."
"When I started doing music in the early '90s was when I started to realize how much my imagination, my vivid imagination was informed by comics that I’d absorbed," she said. "I think it came out in my music because there was no other medium that people without any money or resources can express that and also share it with other people. It’s making movies on a budget.”
HIP-HOP HEAVILY FEATURED BATTLE RAPPING in its early days, and the battle rhyme is still a dominant narrative scheme in rap. Relying as it does on visually evocative bombast, battle rapping was a natural environment for rhyme-writers to pour out their comics-inflected view of the world. And in both New York hip-hop and the comics, that world is a very particular New York world.
Congealed, for instance, in the Marvel titles from the 1960s into the 1990s was a very New York, very urban sensibility. More importantly though, it was a New York sensibility that was a post-"Mad Men," pre-Giuliani version of the city. New York was maybe as dark and labyrinthine as the Gotham current Batman fans know, but it was never as Gothic, never as elaborate; and the daylight city of Metropolis, which lately has come to resemble a city of gleaming towers, as though the Sixth Avenue canyon were repeated in an infinite pattern, is similarly grand compared to the environments Marvel comics took readers through in the old days.
This era of Marvel presented a real New York, with its grit cheek-by-jowl with glamour, towers casting shadows over tenements.
“Iron Man, Spider-Man, they were outsiders," DMC said at one point, and the crowd applauded. "They were practically B-boys. And one of the things that was cool about those Marvel characters was that they were from New York. You’d look at the books and see the graffiti in the backgrounds and the skylines and you’d picture yourself in the story. There wasn’t many stories like that.”
“I’m from New York City and I remember growing up and looking around and thinking—this is Gotham," Grae said. "I look at other cities and I think: there’s no fuckin' skyscrapers. Spider-Man would be fucked.”
Then there's the character back-stories of the D.C. and Marvel comics, and the way they came to serve as template for the life stories both of rappers talking about their own lives and the fictional characters that populate their songs.
Grae touched on it when she explained why, when she left a crew in the late 1990s to step out on her own, she changed her name from What? What? to Jean Grae, an homage to Jean Grey, the civilian in the X-Men universe whose transformation into the superhero Phoenix is the template for X-men storyline "The Dark Phoenix Saga."
“I definitely thought of myself as an outcast," Grae said. "That part of the Jean Grey character, the outcast, it was part of how I understood myself, especially when I was starting out.”
The Marvel titles all featured disenfranchised misfits and the books had a decidedly urban edge, especially in the 1970s, when it was being read by the likes of the Cold Crush Brothers and Afrika Bambataa. The protagonists of the Marvel Age were obvious stand-ins for the rappers who read about them.
Panelist Adam “Illus” Wallenta, a rapper, writer and illustrator who has provided album art for Public Enemy, put it this way: “Comics and hip-hop share an underground voice. There’s a whole world of secret identities in both. You can express yourself and present yourself in more than one way in both worlds.
"You can be that nerdy guy with glasses whose good at school and be a superhero D.J. at the party. It’s the whole Peter Parker thing. The X-Men were outcasts hunted by the government. Hip-Hop is countercultural and always has been. N.W.A., P.E., they all had the F.B.I. investigating them. Comics have had to deal with censorship, but also disrespect. I mean, comics were something for delinquents. Parents and teachers would say it rotted your brain. The same was true of hip-hop. It was something that had a positivity that you gravitated to—and there was a lot of positive messages in rap music—stay in school, stay away from drugs, all of that. But parents hated it. It rotted your brains—just like comics.”
As hip-hop made its way into comics, there was a lot of resistance. Ron Wilson, the artist on the fondly remembered hip hop-infused '80s Marvel title The Wolfpack, remembers the editors' fear of hip-hop’s politics and the concern on the business end that hip-hop and its themes were a passing fad.
Ultimately though, the bond between the two forms was recognizable to enough of the people who mattered in each.
Wilson told a story about his first meeting with comics legend Jack Kirby that seemed to leave a lot of the crowd a little verklempt.
"I only ever got to meet Jack Kirby once," Wilson said. "He had this olive skin and shock-white hair. It was in San Diego, and I was there with my editor at the time. I saw Jack Kirby and he had this crowd of disciples surrounding him all the time. I knew my editor knew him, and I said to him, 'You think I could meet Kirby?' So my friend goes through the crowd and I see him mumble something in Kirby’s ear. Kirby looks up kind of surprised and excited and he came toward me. The crowd around him parted like the Red Sea and Kirby—the King himself—came up to me, clasped my hands in his, looked me dead in the eyes and said, 'Son, do it your way. Always do it your way.; That was my proudest moment in my entire career in comics. It was like the moment when I knew I was going the right way.”
Kirby’s edict about the guiding ethos of creating good comics has always been the same idea at the heart of hip-hop: the greatest value, to the true-believer, is in an authenticity of voice, and so however fantastic or unbelievable the stories, they can't possibly rot your brain; they just give it some room to play.