With the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con over and people now examining trailers to find Easter Eggs I find myselfcoming back to the trailer for Luke Cage. More specifically the tone it sets. Instead of a sweeping orchestra or a poppy rock song like most comic properties they went with Shimmy Shimmy Ya by Ol' Dirty Bastard. Between that and a poster the Notorious B.I.G. featured in the trailer it's clear that classic east coast hip hop is a major influence on the show.
The Wu-Tangification of Marvel
These influences are more than skin deep though. Not only are these heavy hitters of east coast rap are represented the show will truly embrace the roots of hip hop. Cheo Hodari Coker, the executive producer of the series and former editor at Vibe, revealed that each episode would be named after a Gang Starr song. It is what Coker has dubbed the "Wu-Tangification of the Marvel Universe." He continued "It’s intense. It’s got a grip. But it’s elegant." He would further elaborate on this idea by explaining that he wanted the show to play out like an album.
“When a Prince record came out, or some big record came out in the old days, we shut down everything and listened to it. The only time we do that now is binge watching.”
The Blueprint: Comic Books In Hip Hop's DNA
While this may seem like an odd fit to some hip hop and comic books have a long history together. In fact it goes back as far as the Sugarhill Gang's seminal track Rapper's Delight when Big Bank Hank rapped "I said, "By the way, baby, what's your name?"/Said, "I go by name of Lois Lane/And you could be my boyfriend, you surely can/Just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman." It would continue throughout the years with rappers not only mentioning comic books in their rhymes but they would hire comic artists for album art (GZA's Liquid Swords), naming albums after comic stories (Jay Z's Kingdom Come) and have even crafted their personas based around comic books (MF Doom and Kool Keith).
Comic books have influenced nobody in the rap game more than the Wu-Tang Clan. Mainly known for their love of old school kung fu flicks comic books are just as important for the collective. Breakout star Method Man would be give himself the moniker Johnny Blaze for Raekwon's classic album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. As if he needed to prove his passion for comics further he did a song on the Batman Forever soundtrack called The Riddler. That's right a whole song from the perspective of one of Batman's arch villains. He would be considered the biggest fan if it weren't for cohort Ghostface Killah.
Calling himself Tony Starks on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx he would not only record songs about Marvel's Iron Man but he even named his first solo album after the Avenger. It even featured samples from 70's cartoon The Marvel Super Heroes. More recently he has gotten into the comic book business himself releasing adaptions based on his concept albums Twelve Reasons to Die and 36 Seasons. Ghostface Killah and Method Man would finally live their comic aspirations when they released the comic inspired album Wu-Massacre in 2010.
The Breaks: Hip Hop's Influence on Marvel
Marvel's attempts to integrate rap culture into their books wouldn't be too long after Rapper's Delight. Wanting to capitalize on teh success of Wild Style and Breakin' they released the comic Wolfpack in 1987. Created by Larry Hama and Ron Wilson the comic about superpowered teens that lived in the South Bronx. Think the New Mutants mixed with Wild Style.
In the early 90's, under the short lived Marvel Music line, Marvel would release biographical comics based on hip hop pioneers KRS-One (which came with a free cassette) and Onyx. They even had a family friendly book based on the Kid 'N Play Saturday morning cartoon that lasted 9 issues.
Far and away the most outrageous example came in 2009. In preparation for his comeback album Relapse rapper Eminem would not only dress up as The Punisher for an XXL magazine cover story but also have his own comic where he teams up with The Punisher. Infamous in rap and comic circles alike it has the record holding wordsmith not just beating up Frank Castle but teaming with the vigilante to kill Punisher rival Barracuda. Why? Because Barracuda plans to kill Slim Shady and sell his memorabilia after he disappears. As a reader of XXL at the time I can assure you that it is as insane as it sounds.
Out Here Grindin: Rap and Marvel Today
In late 2015 and 2016 Marvel had a slate of new titles making their debut after the Secret Wars crossover. Returning to a similar idea from 2013 they released a series of variant covers based on classic hip hop albums. Spanning not only different era of hip hop but they represented all kinds of artists from modern hit makers A$AP Rocky and J. Cole to 80's pioneers like N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Not only were they met with critical acclaim but were quickly embraced by the hip hop community. Record label owner and legendary rapper Nas had this to say with Mass Appeal.
I grew up on Marvel Comics. They helped open my imagination, expanded my love for illustrated art, and even helped me with my writing. This is a dream in real life. Now my 6-year-old son is a huge Spider-Man fan. He’s going to love this!
Most recently Marvel and Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates linked up with rapper Jean Grae to create a song called What You Came For for the Black Panther video series A Nation Under Our Feet: Part Three. Like Luke Cage naming episodes after Gang Starr choosing an indie darling like Jean Grae shows not just a casual knowledge of hip hop but a true passion for the culture. With a second wave of hip hop covers in the works I can't help but get excited to see how Marvel will not only embrace hip hop but continue to treat the art form with the respect it deserves.