Hip Hop and Comic Books: Doppelgangers in the Best Sense

An article by Aaron Burton

Can you name a hip hop artist who has not made a reference to comic books in their lyrics? I have tried, and I have failed. I remember having this very conversation with my girlfriend as we laid in bed listening to hip hop records. She challenged me by asking to find a comic book reference made by Eminem. I ran through many songs worth of lyrics in my head until we both had the "duh" moment. We had totally forgot about the song from 2003's The Eminem Show entitled "Superman".

Many indie hip hop fans are familiar with artists heavily influenced by comic books, such as MF Doom and Czarface. Old school lovers may be aware of when Ghostface Killah was sued by Marvel for all of the copy write-pushing Iron Man imagery. These accounts just scratch the surface. Hip hop and comic books have a longstanding relationship. What better way to honor this relationship than by creating a comic book that chronicles the history of hip hop? Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree does just that.

In addition to telling the complex story of the origin of hip hop, Piskor hides what I feel to be the most important part of the series in the back of the book. A short comic called "The Hip Hop/Comic Book Connection" beautifully describes the relationship between the two mediums. Both art forms, in their modern sense, started in New York. Some say New York City is the best city on Earth. Though that statement is conditional to subjective opinion, I am forever grateful to have been born in the state that developed two of my favorite types of media.

Hip hop artists embody many of the same qualities that comic book readers love about super heroes. Both pronounce their character through the use of alter egos. When Clark Kent suits up he becomes the nearly-invincible Man of Steel. When Trevor Smith steps onto the stage he becomes the maniacal wordsmith known as Busta Rhymes. Both characters personify the strength and courage a lot of us wish we had. That said, this demonstration of ego is merely a facade. It is the front made to show the best representation of the human spirit. As much as superheroes are at the mercy of the people they have vowed to protect, hip hop artists are at the mercy of the fans. Superheroes need to use their powers for good in order to make the world a better place. Rappers need to use their powers to entertain and inform.

The connection between hip hop artists and comic books goes much deeper than the aforementioned personality traits. The iconic formats in both hip hop and comic books seem to mimic each other in even the most minuscule of details. One of the most exciting aspects of listening to a new hip hop album is finding tracks where multiple artists collaborate. A prime example of this is Pusha T's 2011 hit "Trouble on My Mind". Pusha T features Tyler the Creator on this track, and the two blend their own distinct styles to make a truly unique hip hop song. This team-up is no more odd than when early nineties comic book readers were treated to Batman/Judge Dredd crossover comics.

Hip hop artists and superheroes also team up to form some of the most famous groups in all of media history. Some of the most famous hip hop groups include Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, NWA, and A Tribe Called Quest. The other side of the coin shows The Avengers, The Justice League, and the X-Men. They say there is power in numbers, and these two mediums are no exception.

Both superheroes and rappers are no stranger to in-group fighting. Way before Drake and Meek Mill, Batman had beef with Superman on the pages of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Nas and Jay-z's diss tracks are nothing compared to the idealistic struggles found in Mark Millar's Civil War. Conflict will always arise within groups, but hip hop artists and superheroes take it to the next level.

Whether or not you enjoy both hip hop and comic books it is hard to ignore how these two art forms fit together like two pieces of an urban sprawl puzzle. The similarities are so uncanny you would have thought Stan Lee was orchestrating the whole thing. I learned a lot of history from reading Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree. The most important concept I learned, however, was how two of my favorite kinds of art are in a relationship much deeper than I would have expected.


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