the uberbensch & the superhero in hip hop

By Elle Kosman

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Nietzsche envisioned the “Ubermensch”, or the superman, as an individual with their own values independent of others, affecting and dominating the lives of others that in themselves do not have predetermined values, but rather a herd instinct. The ideals of the ubermensch have been inoculated into the iconography and narrative of superheroes - the superhero animates and resolves the problem of binding adolescent males into the larger community to benefit their social group.

The work of MCs is constructed out of truth-revealing parables and images; hiphop artists are a medium of self-proclaimed contemporary prophets, and through their voices the art becomes the politick. Hiphop is a genre of myriad aliases, a global forum in which the individual can embody and mock and expose other individuals as to transcend the post-industrial landscape. Emcees construct clear cultural illustrations of hypermasculinity and male duality premised on their need for social and political identification, providing a counter-narrative to the emergence of a corporate driven music industry and the mass commodification of black expression. Hiphop may represent the last black popular form to be wholly derived from the experiences and texts of the black urban landscape.

The influence of comic book superheroes is seen in the lyricism and production of hiphop. From stage names to alter egos to producers using soundscapes borrowed from animated cartoons, we see Superman’s telephone changing-room booth transform into the recording booth. In hiphop, the superman, or supervillain, is an icon that is celebrated and explored. As hiphop evolved it began to embrace antiheroes, which is linked to the duality of being African-American - being both oppressed and “free” in the same society. These dual identities - the villain, the superhero/heroine, the good against the bad, the blues and the badman tropes are all crystallised as pastiche in the hiphop idiom, such that Tupac raps about how being villainous is synonymous with being real on Hit ‘Em Up and also viscerally exposes the inefficacy of welfare for his family and crew.

The perfect model for this kind of dualism is the notoriously unusual emcee Daniel Dumile. Dumile has a myriad of aliases - MF (Metal Face) DOOM, Danger DOOM, The Supervillain, Viktor Vaughn, King Dumile, Metal Fingers, King Geedorah - all of these are connected and embodied when Dumile wears his characteristic mask - a copy of a prop mask from Gladiator. The idea is to conceal Dumile’s identity as to remove the person, the character creator, from the false-prophet creation. Just as a superhero’s biography is crucial to his or her identity, Dumile’s alter egos are incapable of being hypocritical in message or philosophy (unlike Dumile rapping as Dumile himself), as of course the character has a mutable biography. The character can be inconsistent, unreal, be shocking and visceral and cruel, without backlash on the creator himself.

Dumile always plays “the supervillain”. This identity is crystallised on Madvillainy, one of the most anticipated releases in underground rap history. As the opening sample mentions, the album plays on a "seminal connection that audiences can relate their experience in life with the villains and their dastardly doings." Here is our ubermensch. Translating and dictating the culture to the listener, impacting their lives and ears, with a meta-understanding of their reactions. Madlib (Doom’s producer-collaborator and fellow “illest villain”) is interested in throwing out ideas as fast as they have them, giving them as much attention as they need, and moving on to the next thing; he is the king of brevity. On “Great Day” the rhyme pattern and rap topographical stereotype demands the word “bitches” but Doom hilariously says “booze” instead. Doom continually passes comment on Madlib’s production, riffing on the sample that gives Accordion its name, calling out Madlib on his use of “an old jazz standard” on Money Folder, or that perfected blend of cartoon theme-music instrumental and supervillain mission statement that is All Caps. The considerable charm of Madvillainy is best expressed on the closer Rhinestone Cowboy. Based on a sample of South American singer Maria Bethania, we get typically fantastic bars: “Got more soul than a sock with a hole” and “Overthrow like throwing Rover a biscuit / A lot of bitches think he overly chauvinistic.” Considering the smatterings of sampled applause that Doom shuts down and the lyrical focus on the album’s origin story - “Wasn’t even tweaked and it leaked into cyberspace” - we can say that, like Madvillainy itself, Rhinestone Cowboy manages the meta-relation of being about itself by way of being about Doom.

The point here is that, as with any hiphop track that samples anyone/anything, there is a certain metatheatrical connection between the producer, his selection, and the listeners’ acknowledgement of that selection. Madvillainy’s compulsion with the sporadic universe of cartoons is a reflection on its own sound, that never stays in one place. The supervillains Madlib and Doom are pedagogical, and Dumile’s narrative that he exists in a struggle between the will to become an agent of justice and submission to external pressure to conform, to sign away his soul on a record deal is a microcosm of the problem of hiphop - to be a prophet of reality, or to conform to the pre-constructed narratives of gangster rap.

The violent outlaw is the new hero of the story - being called a villain is a term of respect - a status, a validation that you are more masculine, you have more agency than the next, non-real emcee. This aesthetic form of commodifying criminality is hip hop's way of conceptualising masculinity - the way you can have more agency as an African American man in a society where your demographic is unjustly criminalised is to get as close to the ubermensch ideal - to be authentic in your bars. You see this in the narrative of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid mAAd city where we see Kendrick playing the part of his younger self spreading his wings as a bonafide rapper on Backstreet Freestyle - the epitome of self-aggregation, where he’s gonna “fuck the whole world for 72 hours”. Kendrick as a teenager thinks he is the ubermensch on this track, not caring about anything but life and money and what you see in front of you. But as the rest of that record unfolds, we see that being vainglorious does not give the oppressed individual more agency, or make him the ubermensch - a mistake which many emcees have made and continue to make to this today. These rappers claim to be the ubermensch, the GOAT, by arguing that they have the most stacks and girls and cars, but they misunderstand that earning such a title involves evoking that definition we started with: the realest does not imitate, he synthesises new ideas, is immune to the herd, and he changes our way of thinking.

In hiphop the listener never identifies with the victim, the proverbial ‘you’. We identify with the person speaking, who embodies characters of villainous or heroic intent, and so imitates the ubermensch. Consequently, so does the listener.  Through this identification, hiphop allows us to explore the weird frisson between reality and fantasy, the distance between who we are and who we'd like to be.