In Nineteen Eighty Five, the comic book series by James Reitano, a group of teens come of age as hip-hop hits Santa Cruz. Their lives are shaped by the a then-budding youth culture revolving around DJs, MCs, street artists and break dancers. Technically, the story is fiction, but it's inspired by Reitano's own high school experience.
Reitano is the founder of the design and animation firm TFU Studios. He's created lots of music videos for artists ranging from The Dickies to Cut Chemist. Reitano's roots are in street art and, back in his high school years in Santa Cruz, he befriended an up-and-coming DJ now known as frequent Kool Keith collaborator Kutmasta Kurt. The connection between the two pop culture phenomena is strong for Reitano and Kurt and they aren't alone. That was the gist of "Hip-Hop & Comics: Cultures Combining," an in-depth discussion panel featuring hip-hop and comic book artists at WonderCon last Saturday night.
Journalist Patrick A. Reed, who writes about music and comics for Depth of Field Magazine, is moderating panels like this one across the country. He put together a similar event at New York Comic Con last fall. The WonderCon talk was one of the best convention panels I've ever attended. The guests were top notch. Reitano and Kurt were joined by Chali 2na of the recently reformed group Jurassic Five, producer extraordinaire Dan the Automator, comic book creator Kenny Keil and music business insider Toni Isabella. The conversation was lively and the insight given into the intersection of hip-hop and comics was outstanding.
Prior to the panel, I had the chance to speak to a few of the artists on board for the event. Kutmasta Kurt pointed out one of the earliest intersections of hip-hop and comics, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's seminal single "Renegades of Funk." The cover of the 12" mimics that of a comic book cover, complete with a spoof of the Comics Code Authority seal of approval. He talks about the "narrative" in hip-hop, about artists creating characters in their songs. "It's alter egos, larger-than-life personas, self-mythologizing," says Kurt in our interview.
Chali 2na is a painter as well as an MC. (He's working on an art book to coincide with the release of five solo Eps called Against the Current.) Comic books helped him develop his drawing skills. But, his love of comics has also seeped into his musical work.
"I always felt that we were a Justice League type of group," says Chali 2na of his work with Jurassic Five, "like a superhero team so to speak."
He adds, "Everyone had their own power."
Dan the Automator, who has worked with Chali 2na, nods in agreement. "Especially with the first [Jurassic Five] record, everyone had a different rhyme style."
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Dan sees the similarities between comics and his own career as well. He's adopted different personae for different projects, like the Nathaniel Merriweather character who appeared in Handsome Boy Modeling School and Lovage. As he notes during our chat, he also worked with a cartoon band. That's Gorillaz. Dan also mentions that there will be "a comic component" to his new Deltron 3030 album that's due out this summer, adding that the group has been working with Alex Pardee.
During our pre-panel interview, Kenny Keil says that hip-hop and comic books entered his life at the same time. Now, he's the artist for Rhyme Travelers, a fantastic, hip-hop-influenced, sci-fi comic book. At the panel, Keil talked about how combining those two interests kickstarted his career. On a lark, he mashed-up N.W.A. and Thor for a fake album cover, "Straight Outta Asgard." A series of comic book album art pieces followed, helping Keil gain a bit of Internet notoriety. Those illustrations are now available in the book My Longbox Weighs a Ton.
The connection between hip-hop and comics books runs deep. It's something that's been evident since the early days of the music genre, but it's only grown stronger over the years.