From Run DMC to Run The Jewels, This is How Comic Books Influenced Hip-Hop

We chat with Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels about heroes, villains, and the rap imagination.

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mar 27 2015, 2:51pm

In 2009, 50 Cent, alongside the author Robert Greene, published The 50th Law - a semi-autobiographical New York times bestseller which became a treatise on how to succeed in business or die tryin'. The book was an unquestionable success, but there were still lots of eyebrows raised when Fiddy and co decided to re-issue it three years later in illustrated form; as a comic book. Despite plenty of references to Fantastic Four in the original, the book just didn’t translate, and the graphic novelisation was tacky and clunky, reading like an afterschool special with lines like, “I could escape it all by taking drugs. But once you start down that path, there’s no turning back.” Real talk.

Obviously there shouldn’t be much love lost over 50 Cent releasing a dud comic, but it did feel like a painful and gimmicky footnote to what is actually a prestigious and long line of major figures in the hip-hop world trying to converge their two most precious loves. From Wu-Tang to K.dot, nearly all your favourite rappers, producers and general B-boy luminaries are absolutely mad about comic books.

The documentation of hip-hop's multi-faceted behemoth’s history spans many forms: films ranging from Style Wars to Something From Nothing, endless articles and books detailing and dissecting various strands of hip-hop culture, and a buttload of artwork that explores the origins of it all. But despite all the intense scrutiny and academia, those telling the story of hip-hop often overlook the Technicolor universes that shaped the imaginations of those first B-boy pioneers: the comic books they read as kids.

Truth is, so many of them were creatively nurtured by them, influenced just as much by the sharpened pencil of an imaginative illustrator as they were by the deconstructions of the Amen break. Yet the overwhelming legacy of graphic novels, that’s sewn deep into the development of modern hip-hop, remains largely hidden from a 2015 mainstream that tends to view comic books largely as the heavily plundered preserve of Hollywood directors with big budgets and low originality.

A Marvel Comics tribute to Run The Jewels

“Comic books are a part of the creative world of a kid in an urban environment. You might not admit it on record, but you talk to almost every rapper — we all grew up with that shit. I guarantee you 80 percent of any rappers that you meet probably went through a large comic book phase.” So said El-P, one half of Run The Jewels, in January to Rolling Stone, after Marvel created a tribute to them.

In fairness, the clues were everywhere: DOOM’s mantle, Killah’s concept albums, Birdman tenting his hands menacingly on the front of The Amazing Spiderman (below). And it’s not just backpack rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Gambino who are giving outs to the comic book world for helping shape their voice. This stretches all the way back to the granddaddies of rap, the OGs, revered names that command respect from all and sundry. Names like Darryl McDaniels, the legend who added the ‘DMC’ after ‘Run’.

A photo posted by Birdman5star (@birdman5star) on

“I was into comics before hip-hop even came over the bridge to touch me. In ‘King of Rock’ I don’t say, ‘I’m DMC, I can rap,’ I say, ‘I’m DMC, I can draw,” he tells me. “You’ve got to think: when did hip-hop come? Hip-hop came in the early 70s. And at the same time, you had Bruce Lee, who was a motherfucking hero, and comic books. And all of that existed for all of us who became those early and current hip-hop artists. It was part of our lifestyle.”

McDaniels brings some serious crossover credential to this conversation. His comic publishing imprint, Darryl Makes Comics, saw the fulfilment of a 40 year dream when the first volume of DMC was released, featuring an alternate universe where mild-mannered Darryl McDaniels never becomes a rapper and instead finds himself teaching English by day and bashing criminals by night. Particularly interesting is his costume, which sees the heroic DMC clothed in the B-boy uniform that his supergroup popularised: black fedora, gleaming chain and, most importantly, boxfresh Adidas.

It’s driven, says DMC, not by his rhyme-slinging, swaggering rap persona, but by the little boy inside, “whose life was changed by comics.” This is a labour of love that happens to be set inside a B-boy universe, not as a gimmick, but because hip-hop and comic book cultures intersect so well that it becomes a natural environment. After all, for kids like DMC, weaned in the poorest areas of a merciless metropolis, comic books were the most accessible culture around.

Art by Shawn Crystal, Khoi Pham, Chris Sotomayor and Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez

“They used to cost less than a dollar,” recalls Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, current editor-in-chief of Darryl Makes Comics. “I wasn’t even working class - I was poor. I grew up in the South Bronx and I used to collect bottles and cans. When I finally had enough loose change, I would go to the comic shop and buy myself a comic. It was affordable.”

Equally, Ed Piskor - the brains and fingers behind 2013’s graphic rendering of the history of hip-hop, titled Hip-Hop Family Tree - also sees accessibility as the biggest factor in his mutual love of both. “I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it doesn’t get more salt of the earth than that. There wasn’t much money to throw around on entertainment. But you could get a comic sometimes for 60 cents, and hip-hop was everywhere in the air. I could give a blank tape to my friends and the next day at school I’d have a bunch of fresh rap songs. Both forms were so democratic; all you needed was pencils and paper to make a comic, and rap didn’t even require that! Kids at school would just bang a beat out on a table and someone would rhyme over the top of it.”

Now, it’s pretty obvious to see how the tales spun by graphic novels inspired the kids who went on to lead a cultural revolution. Stories of naturalistic, flawed heroes, fighting against unjust social systems in order to protect themselves and their loved ones? How could these narratives fail to influence people growing up in a society that seemed designed to keep them firmly at the bottom?

Look at the early graffiti associated with the hip-hop, you can see they were pretty open about the stimuli. There’s the infamous Lee Quiñones handball court mural that features Howard the Duck in pride of place, or Lee’s work as part of the iconic NY crew, The Fabulous Five, who daubed endless subway cars with incredible, vibrant paintings that unmistakably adopted a clear comic book aesthetic. “See Style Wars,” says DMC, checking the definitive 1983 hip-hop documentary, “I think the oldest guy in it was 17 years old. These are young kids drawing the images and visuals that we were living daily. You’d put Captain America’s shield and Batman up there when you tagged your name. The artistic influence of comic books was always there.”

Art by Chase Conley and Mare 139 (cropped)

Now, so many of those young B-boys of the 80s are dominating hip-hop, as the rappers, producers, art curators and general tastemakers, respected by all. Even so, they haven’t lost their love for an art form that showed so many of them the power of imagination. “I curated an exhibition in about 2009 with Marvel,” Edgardo remembers, “and Pete Rock turns up, with a huge stack of comic books. He just walks up to Joe Quesada, then editor of Marvel Comics, with this big cheesy grin on his face because he wants Joe to sign all of them.” He laughs, adding: “And in the background there’s Axel Alonso [the current editor of Marvel] totally fanning out going ‘Yo! Yo! That’s Pete Rock!’” He mimes Axel pulling out a phone. “Look! I got Mecca and The Soul Brother right here!”

Hip hop has been ruled by comic book mad ‘B-boy geeks’ (a term coined by Edgardo and the formidable Atlantic Records executive, Riggs Morales) since the first Bronx block parties took place in the sticky heat of a 70s summer. And even now, you see the contemporary evolution and expansion of this in rap’s close ties with the cartoons of Adult Swim: Tyler the Creator, Chance The Rapper, Flying Lotus, Killer Mike and loads more all appearing on the channel. So 50 Cent didn’t severe the connection between hip-hop and comis after all.

Perhaps previously, the significance of comics was ignored because they weren’t valued by the majority as legitimate literary and artistic works. Now, faced by an endless stream of diluted big-budget Hollywood superhero movies, the attention is turning to their original source material and the world is waking up to the existence of an incredible Technicolour universe that’s inspired some of the most important purveyors of culture today. As DMC says: "The whole thing people should realise is this isn’t nothing new. It’s always been there, it’s just now the world is starting to find out just how much comics are a part of our everyday lives.

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