Unlikely Mix: Rappers, Dragons and Fantasy. So read an article this past March in the Wall Street Journal. The story was on a new campaign strategy by HBO to reach out to a more “urban” demographic, by putting out a Hip Hop and reggaeton album craftily named “Catch the Throne” (see what they did there?). I like Hip Hop. I like dragons and fantasy. But something about this entire affair and the way it was promoted had me feeling “some kinda way.” Cue the Rains of Castamere.
*parts of this write-up were recycled from an earlier posted 2012 blog. opening art: emcees MF Doom and Bishop Nehru
MC Pointdexter & The Study Crew
Back in a far away time called “The 90s,” there was a television show called Sliders, which for some reason lasted way past its expiration date. The premise was based on an unlikely crew of inter-dimensional travelers (a white guy genius, his white on-and-off again girl-friend, his white professor and a random unrelated black guy…who sings). After a wormhole mishap, the four are sent careening (sliding, if you will) between alternate Earths where history worked out differently. Perhaps the British won the American Revolution or another species of Homo sapiens rose to rule the world.
In one episode called “Eggheads,” the four end up on an Earth where intellect is praised. Quiz shows are the equivalent of the NBA Finals and brain is prized over brawn. Nothing is supposed to exemplify this world-turned-upside down more than a mock music video called “Library Rap” by MC Poindexter & The Study Crew. In it, a (rather wack) fake 90s style Hip Hop group raps about books, learning and “shaking booties” in the library.
I remember watching what was supposed to be a spoof and having that “some-kind-of-way” feel you get when you’re a PoC and your culture is being derided for a cheap laugh. I got the message loud and clear–Hip Hop voices [read as BLACK] in real life were the antithesis of what could be deemed intellectual. The idea of a Hip Hop artist with a book, perhaps even being literate, was so laugh-riot-funny, that it could only exist in some alternate and absurd reality.
This came as news to me, a person who was immersed in 90s Hip Hop and knew emcees who quoted from books in their lyrics or laced their tracks with speeches from Malcolm X etc. But to those in white geekdom who write such things at Sliders, Hip Hop obviously didn’t belong in that space. It’s that very non-belonging that makes the joke in fact so funny, like old notions of Zip Coon–the 19th century minstrel caricature of urban free blacks whose attempts at “civility” [reserved for whiteness] was reduced to outlandish dress and gibbering pretenses at English.
This incident is what came to mind when I read the title of that WSJ article: Unlikely Mix: Rappers, Dragons and Fantasy. What exactly was so “unlikely” about it I wondered? Would it have been as unlikely if it was a rock band? Heck, I’d expect a country music album featuring dragons and fantasy to be more of an unlikely mix. No, the real problem was those voices [read as BLACK] were again out-of-place. Everyone knows what rap music is supposed to be about. That those same artists might be involved in something that is part of the hallowed intellectual space of geekdom seems as absurd as MC Pointdexter & the Study Crew. And that makes zero sense. Because let’s face it, Big Boi looks like he was BORN to rock the Iron Throne.
I saw this same sentiment echoed a few years back in an article over at the gamers site Kotaku. According to the author, Hip Hop was usually a home to “thug” acts and lyrics that don’t “go beyond what can be found between a woman’s legs or at the tip of a lighter.” So imagine her surprise that it had “recently” given birth to a “growing subgenre” that “features nerds and geeks” who delve into video games, comic books and superheroes. But here’s the irony, there is nothing new about Hip Hop and speculative fiction. Nothing at all.
“When I attack your city, y’all gon’ think Dr. Doom did it”- Pharoahe Monch
When I first heard that line back in 2002, I did the perfect screw face head nod. Not only was Quality the debut solo album of one of the dopest emcees of the day, Talib Kweli, but the track “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” (produced by an up-and-coming mostly unknown guy named Kanye West who has delved as well into the fantastic), featured some lyrical heavyweights of the day: Black Thought and Pharoahe Monche. I’d been digging Pharoahe since he was a few pounds heavier and urging me to “Crush, Kill, Destroy Stress.” Now here he was evoking none other than Doctor Victor Von Doom, nemesis of the Fantastic Four, in a rap lyric.
To top off my geek-o-meter, just a few lines earlier, Black Thought began his verse with, “Yo, I hit these emcees with the grip of death like I was a Vulcan.” Niiiiice! But not surprising. In an art form that prides itself on metaphor and simile to prove bravado, and relies on technological innovation to make beats, rhymes and life, delving into the fantastic, the imaginative, the futurist, the beyond-our-natural-world, seems both normal and inevitable.
Yet, like that WSJ title, there remains a popular idea among some that Hip Hop is somehow inherently averse or separate from speculative fiction. A key point of the aforementioned Kotaku article was that certain contemporary black artists are fighting against some anti-intellectual and anti-imaginative norm that permeates Hip Hop. They’re celebrated for their differences, much like the gamers of kotaku–why the site posted the story to begin with. Frank Ocean was championed for having songs with title tracks like Street Fighter, Goldeneye and Soul Calibur. Childish Gambino was hailed for mentioning “geeky things like Minority Report and Batman,” or the games Tetris and Super Smash Bros. This supposedly made such artists relatable to gamers, what the writer called, “‘one of us'” in that they are similarly alienated, in that their eyes might light up to beloved geeky and nerdy franchises.”
The entire line of thought is wince-worthy on its face, as it seems to turn these artists into latter-day Jackie Robinsons, managing to prove their geeky worth and civility to a skeptical gaming community by defining themselves outside of “typical” Hip Hop. One critical tweet sarcastically summed up the undertone of the article: “black rappers are no longer scary to me.” For why this is problematic, see Tanner Higgin’s great article on the “Leroy Jenkins” phenom in the gaming world, and the ways in which the black presence in the subgenre is often depicted, often in coded ways, as invasive, alien or the other.
A brief trip through Hip Hop’s history however says otherwise. Speculative fiction has been with Hip Hop since the genre’s turntablist Jamaican-born godfather Clive Campbell, donned the moniker Kool Herc, after the Greek mythic hero of strength, and dubbed his emcee team The Herculords–which incidentally is a play on the name of one of Hanna Barbera’s World of Super Adventure’s favorite families. Another pioneer of Hip Hop from the Bronx took on the name Afrika Bambaataa, after a Zulu freedom fighter, and used an electro-funk style, with futuristic superhero fashion, to take the new art form into outer space–all the way to Planet Rock.
In the coming years we’d see more electro-funk, like that by a crew named Newcleus, featuring a song with robotic-sounding futurist emcees getting into a battle with none other than the Man of Steel–who it turns out owns speakers some “three stories high with woofers made of steel.” Many of these early acts were re-wiring old speakers and turntables and beatmachines to create this new dynamic sound. Sci Fi. Futurist. Tech-saavy. If that’s not geekdom, I don’t know what is!
During my Hip Hop hay day, speculative fiction was all over the culture. In lyrics, dress, videos and persona, very popular artists like Busta Rhymes and groups like Outkast were making continual allusions to influences from sci-fi, fantasy and the supernatural. Outkast’s entire second album involved space aliens and pyramids, and to this day remains as quirky and full of geekdom as ever. Jeru the Damaja in his comic book drawn video “Can’t Stop the Prophet,” was a hero who “one day . . . struck by knowledge of self” that gave him “super scientifical powers,” ran through the hood battling his archnemesis Mr. Ignorance, whose evil lair was the Brooklyn Lie-brary–“the big one, on Grand Army Plaz.”
Gang Starr made a dystopian futurist video, “You Know My Steez,” based entirely on George Lucas’s THX-138 (how obscure is that!) The Beastie Boys “Ch-Check It Out” and the Grammy-winning “Intergalactic” videos were sci-fi spoofs that let the trio’s geek flag fly. Missy Elliot made videos that seemed to bend and alter reality! And on the boundaries of Hip Hop and Neosoul, Erykah Badu’s Next Lifetime took took us time-traveling with a pair of forever temporally estranged lovers. The Last Emperor not only filled his early albums with allusions to speculative fiction, but created an entire song where he re-imagines Marvel’s Secret Wars as a set of battles between Hip Hop’s emcees and comic book heroes and villains. Professor Xavier fights KRS-ONE mentally and Nas takes on Spidey, while Boot Camp and GI Joe have a battle royale. Crazy!
In a recent panel I sat on for the Baltimore Science Fiction Society the question of diversity was high on the list, and how to bring in more diverse faces to the genre. I pointed out that one of the problems is that sometimes we in sci-fi don’t look for the genre in spaces we least expect. Our ideas of what a fan of speculative fiction looks like are often limited–ignoring that it doesn’t always have to be the typical outcaste (yep, you too self-styled blerds) and could as well be the kid who wears sagging pants and is nodding his/her head with those Beats By Dre headphones.
To stress my point, I brought up none other than the 9 emcees from Shaolin who exemplified much of 90s Hip Hop–Wu Tang. Taking their name and style from Saturday kung fu flicks, with members who sport superhero comic book alter egos like a version of Iron Man through Tony Starks (Ghostface) or the Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze (Method Man), the group is immersed in speculative fiction. On their first album, they even described themselves using sci-fi: “we form like Voltron and the GZA just happens to be the head.” The group’s creative father figure, RZA, would create his own super hero persona, Bobby Digital. Meth rocked silver vampire fangs, chain mail and a broadsword in a post-Apocalyptic video for his track “Judgment Day,” that looked like Mad Max meets Thundarr the Barbarian.
At one point Wu had a series from Image Comics called Nine Rings of Wu-Tang and even–wait for it–a video game! RZA even headed a spin-off group of Wu that can best be described as “horror-rap,” called Gravediggaz—who spit lyrics that could be the soundtrack to SAW. On the second album Triumph, RZA hit the geekdom trifecta, spitting he’s “a Spaceknight like Rom, consumes planets like Unicron, Blasting photon bombs from the arm like Galvatron.” Two allusions to Transformers and one to an old-school Marvel cosmic super hero in one verse! Who does that?!? No wonder RZA would be chosen to create the score to such films as Kill Bill, as well as the classic anime futurist fantasy joint, Afro-Samurai. In 2012 RZA stepped behind the camera, directing a full length martial arts, weird-western, steampunk, magical flick called Iron Fists (hey, I didn’t say these examples needed to be masterpieces–just sci-fi).
What remains amazing about Wu, clashing with both simplistic interpretations of “typical” Hip Hop and what geek-culture might look like, is that they are self-professed thugs–part of the gritty, urban street culture of NYC. They rap about guns and drugs with the storytelling grace of Scorcese, and a level of depth that emcee Jay Electronica compares to Theodor Dostoyevsky. Yet they are full-out GEEKS–science fiction, fantasy, comic book aficionados! Only thing is, they make it look damn cool.
At their height Wu were quite mainstream, defied simplistic stereotypes, and showed that the same dudes who could coolly spit about crime, women and a party lifestyle (Cherchez La Ghost remains a *classic*), were geeked-out gamers, comic book and sci-fi heads–and never had to create a whole sub-sub-genre of disaffected white guys (mostly) called Nerdcore. An old issue of XXL once gave a fitting image of Wu: a photo shoot of all 9 members aboard the Starship Enterprise, their combadges refashioned as the iconic Wu symbol with the RZA in the captain’s seat seeming to say “Engage!” That’s a legacy of speculative fiction cool that can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.
The 21st century has shown geekdom alive and well in Hip Hop, both from the traditional side and the more “alternative” trendsetters. MF Doom wears an iron mask like the supervillain he’s named for, even when he’s on the mic. Jay Electronica (waiting. on. the. album. dude.) creates thought-provoking lyrics mixed in with popular sci-fi references, with titles like “Anakin’s Prayer” and “Attack of the Clones.” Pharoahe Monch creates tales of dystopian futures and makes videos like “Black Hand Side,” combining alternate history with John Carpenter’s They Live to make profound social statements.
Back in late 2000 when Cee Lo Green teamed up with the cartoon-moniker DJ Danger Mouse, the two formed Gnarls Barkley and created videos in which they were time-traveling tourists or where Jamaican youths find inter-dimensional doorways between worlds. Kanye West’s 2010 “Runaway,” an otherworldly avant-garde 35 min video, is literally about a Phoenix who falls to Earth and falls in love with a mortal (who is of course, Kanye). M.I.A.’s horrifying dystopian tale of occupation and genocide Born Free, is sci-fi at it’s darkest. The aforementioned Childish Gambino’s 2012 Firefly, has a whole sci-fi themed video. Two of the best
women emcees PERIOD of this era, have taken their names from popular women in speculative fiction–Jean Grae and Medusa. While Nicki Minaj especially in her earlier incarnations, might be described as a rapping manga character given life. Really, what else explains Starships? And of course, there’s the incomparable android/electric lady Janelle Monae (featured in a recent NY Mag piece as an innovator of sci-fi feminism) whose futurist musical mashup interweaves/intersects Hip Hop and is all-sci-fi EVERYTHING! Many Moons should be a feature length film!
So yeah, Rappers, Dragons and Fantasy may not be such an unlikely mix after all. And Hip Hop’s place within speculative fiction shouldn’t even be a question. As one commenter with the handle DJAwkwardSilence reminded the folks at kotaku, “Hip hop has always been a refuge for creative minded outsiders (dorky or otherwise) to find a refuge and release for their ideas.”