The evolution of Hip Hop, from superhero to super villain
“A common goal of entertainment and education“
Hip Hop and comics is not the most obvious association when viewed from afar. However, several parallels can be made when one looks a little more closely. Comic books were born long before Hip Hop. From the beginning of the latter, there were already synergies between the two worlds. Both arts were directly addressed to the youth, with a primary goal that is none other than to entertain, to have fun, but also to pass a message, and therefore to speak to the youth, in a sense to educate them. It is clear that when we address young people, getting our didactic message across in a playful way always works much better. However, it is important not to be too didactic, and especially not to appear moralistic, with the subtlety of teaching life lessons.
In its early days, Hip Hop was mainly an entertainment music, the social message was present but much more subtle. The discourse was essentially centered on a desire to bring the Black American community together, to bring it to a common cause, to a common direction, to a path of knowledge and awareness. This message became much more radical, and especially less festive, only much later, from the end of the 80s, notably under the impulse of Public Enemy, N.W.A. or the Brand Nubians.
“The superhero rapper, messenger of youth”
Since the first block parties in the mid-70s, the combination of the MC and the DJ has been the very definition of a superhero. The one who is on the front of the stage and the one who acts more behind the scenes, in the shadows, Batman and Alfred, Ironman and Jarvis. The Master of Ceremonies finally operates as a superhero, a man off stage and the hero of the youth at night when he is on stage. We know his identity off stage, but we know him differently on stage, he is another character, another identity, notably through the pseudonym. He is also the hero of the youth, the one who acts for his neighborhood and represents the neighborhood, who entertains, who gathers, while pushing a social message. But the goal at that time was mainly to impress, to assert oneself and to show one’s superiority with boastful punchlines and full of ego, this style of Hip Hop will be one of the most popular until the end of the 80s.
Later on, crews would form in Hip Hop, acting as superhero teams in the neighborhoods, with the visual identity that goes with it, including the logo, like the X-Men, the Avengers or the Justice Leagues. The iconic Staten Island group, Wu-Tang Clan, understood the importance of the logo in building their image, the yellow W is probably the most recognizable symbol that Hip Hop has known, even more than 30 years after its creation. Other MC gatherings such as the Juice Crew, N.W.A & The Posse and Public Enemy are similar to its superhero associations. Older, the names of the groups are strangely reminiscent of the titles of superhero groups, Grandwizard Theodore & the Fantastic Five, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five and even the Stetsasonic.
“From an entertaining Hip Hop to a more concrete Hip Hop”
This tendency will disappear little by little in Hip Hop with the appearance of Gangsta Rap or simply in a Hip Hop of more personal expression, plotical or not. The role of educator is less and less felt and this image of superhero at the service of society fades with time. The political and social Hip Hop remains but with a very different image, much less playful and much more aggressive and bellicose. The rapper is no longer a superhero, he no longer boasts, he speaks of his reality, his daily life, in some cases his desire for social and material success, as an individual from an underprivileged background. In a sense, the rapper becomes a super-villain in the eyes of society.
However, some rappers will continue to draw inspiration from the comic book universe, but no longer as superheroes themselves, but through the intermediary of an alter-ego, superhero or super-villain, either to spread a social message or simply for personal identification. The goal here is not to draw up an exhaustive list of superheroes or super-villains in Hip Hop, but rather to understand how rappers have introduced and used the comic book universe in their art and especially for what purpose.
“The visual identity of comics in Hip Hop”
The Wu-Tang directly took this universe of the comics with a mixture of Asian mythology and culture of the martial arts. In addition to the logo, led by the leader of the troupe RZA, the rappers will be similar to superheroes, Method with Johnny Blaze a.k.a. Ghost Rider or Ghostface Killah with Tony Stark a.k.a. Ironman. We finally end up with a group like the X-Mens led by Professor Xavier played by RZA, the other rappers each having their own skills, personalities and styles, in a sense, each one has a superpower that complements and combines. However, the members of the Wu will not embody their characters for social purposes, but rather for personal reasons and in order to escape their reality or on the contrary because the character embodies their reality. The visual identity of the group is partially inspired by comics, and the most obvious is Wu-Massacre released in 2010.
Some other rappers will create alter-egos of superheroes, but with a much more partial use, without taking directly the visual identity of the comics. Among the most notable are Big Pun with The Punisher, Jean Grae with Jean Grey from the X-Men, or producers David Banner a.k.a. The Hulk or DJ Clark Kent a.k.a. Superman. For these artists, the parallels with the comic book universe are mainly made by the pseudonym chosen, although some allusions can be found in their music, usually by simple personal identification or by passion for comics.
In this passion, one of the most fervent fans of comics within Hip Hop is undeniably Eminem. He frequently uses the comic book universe in his art, the first example being the song Superman, a metaphor used to describe his complicated relationships with women. We often find the imagery of comics in clips, including Shake That with Nate Dogg or Without Me. His album with Kid Cudi is also very strongly inspired by comics, The Adventures of Moon Man & Slim Shady released in 2020. Beyond the visuals, Eminem uses his image of superhero to finally identify with the Superman of Hip Hop.
Jurassic 5 rapper Chali 2Na also used the comic book universe with his 2019 album with Krafty Kuts, Adventures of a Reluctant Superhero, accompanied by a short comic book. Wu-Tang affiliate rapper Afu-Ra followed his crew’s lead in creating a universe related to both Asian martial arts and the world of manga with striking visuals.
“The metaphor of the super-villain, the evil of society”
Superheroes have a definite, if fictional, social impact. But it is precisely this fiction that allows them to criticize society or to send more or less indirect messages. Some rappers have understood this, but identify themselves with the super-villains of the comics. The rapper is aware that he is not the superhero of society, but the one who is rejected by it. The super-villain is by definition the embodiment of the evils of society, the evil that must be fought, who has no place in this world, the pariah, the recluse of society, who withdraws into himself to avoid being seen. The metaphor of the super-villain then takes all its meaning for a rapper who wishes to criticize society.
Czarface is undoubtedly the group that has taken over the comic book universe the most. The trio composed of Wu-Tang member Inspectah Deck accompanied by the duo 7L & Esoteric will take all the visual identity of the small comics with a musical atmosphere typical of the genre. The alliance between heavy and dramatic beats and the Boom Bap of the 90’s generates an atmosphere that immediately reminds the comics. Unlike Wu, Czarface are more like super-villains than super-heroes, which allows them to skillfully criticize society with a subtle social message.
MF Doom has built a whole universe around super-villains, with multiple alter-egos, Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah or Dr. Doom. Daniel Dumile was raised with a vision influenced by Islam and Afro-centrism inspired by the Five-Percenters philosophy. In this sense, from his beginnings with KMD, his rap had a very protesting tendency, which made him get fired with his group by his record company Elektra before the release of Black Bastards initially planned for 1993. His brother, also a member of KMD, was killed at the same time in a tragic car accident. Following these events, MF Doom retired from the music industry before returning 6 years later as the masked super-villain. Rejected and disgusted by the music industry, MF Doom will spend the second part of his career in the underground, in the shadows, as the new character he embodies, masked, acting under a new identity. In addition to the musical and visual aesthetics strongly inspired by comics, the rapper will use this metaphor to criticize society, he does not speak in his own name, but as the repressed super-villain of the world.
With Czarface, MF Doom is probably the most achieved artist in terms of association between the Hip Hop and Comics universe, their collaboration in 2018 on Czarface Meets Metal Face is actually quite natural. These artists fully embrace the comic book universe with a concept pushed to the extreme. They take on the very philosophy of comics by embodying super-villains, added to the visual and musical identity.