By Elizabeth Keenan
Ever since Afrika Bambaataa named graffiti as one of its “four pillars,” hip-hop has been tied to visual expression. But hip-hop’s influence on comics (and vice versa) isn’t only about cool graphics.
Moderator Patrick Reed assembled an all-star group of hip-hop legends, as well as comics writers and artists, at New York Comic Con for a tour-de-force exploration of the connections between the two art forms.
The panelists included Adam "Illus" Wallenta, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Eric Orr, Jean Grae, Johnny "Juice" Rosado, Kagan McLeod, Pete Rock, Ron Wilson and Ronald Wimberly.
Before he got into hip-hop, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels was into Spider-Man and Superman.
“I was able to relate to Peter Parker, and even Clark Kent, Superman, because they wore glasses like me,” McDaniels said.
McDaniels’ first exposure to hip-hop was Eddie Cheeba. And the reaction was nearly instantaneous—he made his friend rewind the song again and again.
“We spent like three hours in the school yard listening to that, that 30 seconds,” he said. “My transition from being into Spider-Man into this rap thing was that it gave me a place to be vocal.”
Once he got into hip-hop, McDaniels sold his comics to buy DJ equipment.
“Before I was in a group with Run, he used to buy comic books from me,” McDaniels said. But, he said both comics and hip-hop, “Gave me a way of leaving the world I was in and going to somewhere I was accepted.”
Producer Pete Rock found other similarities between hip-hop and comics. “I look at the groups of heroes, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Defenders,” he said, who work together. “I took that attitude and applied it to what I do.”
Johnny “Juice” Rosado, a member of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, used comics to guide the way he thought about scratching. “I wanted to arrange the scratches like musicians arrange music,” he said. “The thing was like a comic book fight. Sometimes it is sequential. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. That’s what Public Enemy was, production wise. It was put together in a similar fashion as a comic.”
Reed asked Rosado whom he would consider most similar to the Bomb Squad in the Marvel Universe.
“The X-Men. We’re outcasts,” he said. “First of all, we’re from Long Island. There was a big difference. … Long Island changed hip-hop in every way. We changed the way you look at things, and the X-Men changed the way you look at superheroes.”
Although the musicians on the panel all related to comics, Eric Orr was the first to combine the two in a hip-hop comic in Rappin’ Max Robot. Orr published the comic in June 1986, and all 500 copies sold out by July.
“It was received well,” Orr said. “It did well, it sold out. And then I went on tour. And once you go on tour, you never go back.”
Hip hop’s influence on comics goes both ways, Wallenta said.
“You started to see different lines, different characters,” he said. “The fluidity of the artwork became more graffiti-oriented.”
McDaniels made a connection between hip-hop and comics in terms of stage personas and superhero identities, with names like Amazing Spider-Man and the Invincible Iron Man.
“What appealed to me when I first heard of the Cold Crush Brothers, was that their names were like superhero personas,” he said.
When Run-DMC’s Jason Mizell needed a new DJ name, McDaniels said, he looked to comics for inspiration. Mizell had been calling himself “DJ Jazzy Jay,” a name that was already in use.
“Biting is weak,” McDaniels said. “You gotta be original. I started thinking about my comic books and about the Cold Crush Brothers. It came to me like a comic book idea. He’s got to be the Jam Master Jay. Jam has two meanings. A party, or a jam was dope. And a jam was a song. I ran down and told them that Jay is a super hero and his name is going to be Jam Master Jay. And they just looked at me, because they weren’t into comics.”
McDaniels might have been influenced by comics, but it’s only now that he’s bringing his life to comics.
“If you listen to my rhymes, now that I look back at all that, all of that stuff came from the comic books,” he said. “I’m going to create a superhero of the life, my life that I’ve been living, and all that I’ve encountered on my Run-DMC journey.”
DMC looked toward comics to inspire Jam Master Jay’s name, but Jean Grae was the only one whose name directly comes from comics.
“I have a brother who is six years older than me, and he was and is obsessed with comic books,” she said. “We lived upstairs from a comic book store, and I was pretty much raised in that store.”
Grae grew up with comics, graphic novels, and videogames, reading things like Love & Rockets at an early age. When she started writing, her vivid imagination took over.
“In my mind I’m seeing comic book visuals the entire time,” she said. “Fight sequences . . . that’s how I write. The pacing of words is either a dance or a choreographed fight.”
Although she took the name Jean Grae, she finds parallels with other superheroes.
“Jean Grey is not the character I look to as I age, it’s Doctor Manhattan,” she said. “You want me to save you? I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t know. I’ll see how I feel.”
Ron Wimberly, creator of Vertigo’s Prince of Cats, said he was at first confused why he was asked to be on a hip-hop panel.
“I just drew a comic,” he said. “Why are you trying to say it’s hip-hop because a black dude did it? I looked at it like people were dissing me.”
But, after listening to McDaniels, he realized that “hip-hop is part of my language,” he said.
The first page of his comic features Shakespeare, Biggie Smalls, and Langston Hughes. “I didn’t deliberately do it, it’s just what it is,” he said.
Adam Wallenta added that, like McDaniels, he also felt out of place while growing up. In both comics and hip-hop, he could have a “secret identity.”
“For me, hip-hop growing up was that place where you had a voice to express yourself,” he said. “You can be that nerdy guy with the glasses, and you can be the person who rocks the party.”