Gangsta Rap Posse #1
Benjamin Marra, writer/artist
American Tradition, 2009
Or: “What If N.W.A. Weren’t Making All That Shit Up?” The idea of a Bush I-era hardcore hip-hop outfit who actually are gun-toting, ho-pimping, mass-murdering drug kingpins as outlined in their platinum-selling rap career is so fucking brilliant a high concept I’m stunned I’ve never seen it in action before. It’s difficult to remember now, in an age when Jay-Z has more number-one album debuts than anyone but the Beatles and the President jokingly banters about Kanye West’s antics, but when my generation of white kids was growing up, “rapper” was a career that took on the same sort of quasi-mystical air as “cowboy” or “ninja.” Obviously there really were people who did those things for a living–okay, maybe not ninjas so much anymore–but the word, the concept, had a totemistic quality above and beyond “performer who composes and recites rhymes over beats.” Now, I was never a huge gangsta fan, but the less criminally minded but equally angry Public Enemy were one of my favorite groups of any kind during middle school, and from Flav’s accessories to Chuck D’s barn-burning baritone to the marching, uniformed S1Ws to that crosshairs logo, P.E. came across like a black G.I. Joe squad. The kinds of hip-hop that politicians and parents groups rent their garments over back then were tailor-made for action-hero status, and that’s what Marra delivers here. Watching his N.W.A. manques roll up on a rival MC’s compound and strafe his bodyguards with machine-gun fire fulfills a long deferred desire to see the larger-than-life lyrics of such groups made real, or at least as real as an action comic would make them.
It’s so effective in that regard that it’s tempting to overlook the obviously problematic racial territory we’re in. What we have here is a white guy taking Easy, Cube, Ren, and Dre’s lurid cop-killing, bitch-fucking, crack-pipe-illuminated fantasy world and drawing it, and that’s a bit of a sticky wicket, innit? It’s an ugly portrait, even if you’re just painting by the numbers left by the subjects. Fortunately, aside from the all-too-real hairstyles of that era, the visual stereotyping is kept to a minimum; Robert Crumb’s “When the Niggers Take Over America” this isn’t. But the irony is that while, to me, Crumb’s comic is an obvious parody of white racism, Gangsta Rap Posse‘s lack of Crumb’s corrosive irony and sarcasm might make it tougher for some to take despite its simultaneous lack of Crumb’s most outre visuals. Similarly, the dialogue’s ebonics are a far cry from Crumb’s pidgin dialect, but it’s also never half as clever, say, the lyrics from Straight Outta Compton, which were so wickedly funny that they came across like the group letting you in on the joke. Here, it’s a little tougher to tell if the joke’s on them.
But it seems to me that what Marra’s doing is simply taking vintage gangsta and treating it like any other kind of genre fiction. Perhaps the big clue is the sequence where the GRP’s manager complains that the record label’s been waiting for their new album for two years–how could they possibly have time to maintain their recording career when they’ve got an organized crime empire to run? The Gangsta Rap Posse doesn’t exist in continuity with Malcolm X or the Last Poets, they’re in the tradition of Robert E. Howard or the film library of Golan and Globus, and Marra’s using “Fuck tha Police” here the same way he used exploitation cinema in Night Business, or maybe even the same way Bryan Lee O’Malley uses Mega Man in Scott Pilgrim. He’s working much, much edgier territory here than either of those works–it has a lot more in common with Johnny Ryan than O’Malley–but you get that same thrill of cross-pollination and unexpected magpie influences. So I’m down. And I’m really hoping the GRP come up against a fictionalized black-nationalist paramilitary organization version of Public Enemy in the next issue.