“Tony Starks is Ironman!” Exact words of a friend who back in 2008 made the connection that Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah, alternatively known as Tony Starks (with an s) was linked to the comic book icon, Iron Man–also known as Tony Stark (no s). Wu had just won over an otherwise oblivious new fan for Marvel.
Anyone familiar with those 9 emcees from Shaolin who stormed the world in 1992 as the dynamic Wu-Tang Clan, knows that larger-than-life personas are what they do best. From RZA’s self-created super hero persona Bobby Digital, to Method Man’s adaptation of Johnny Blaze the Ghostrider (with its
double multi-entendres), Wu-Tang prides itself on its knowledge of all things “geek,” wrapped up in black masculine cool that defies any easy categorizations–so-called “Blerds” with indisputable street cred. 100% bully-proof. See a previous post, The Tao of Wu for more.
In the midst of this charismatic super group of Alpha Male personalities, Dennis Coles–better known as Ghostface Killah, or just Ghost (a name taken from the 1979 Kung Fu flick Mystery of Chessboxing), still manages to stand out. The 43-year old not only has a distinct voice easily recognizable amid his cohorts, but his lyricism is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Fast-paced, emotional, cryptic and filled with the most obscure non-sequiturs, Ghost can delve deep into 5% spiritual philosophy, give a bird’s-eye-view of crime-ridden streets, engage in a lengthy praise of Wallabee Clarks or travel through time and space in just a few bars. His rhymes show off a penchant for storytelling, with a skill comparable to Martin Scorsese. When paired with his complimentary twin Raekwon’s “machine-gun rap,” the two are a dangerous pair–as proven on the now legendary Only Built for Cuban Linx, of which Ghost might as well be called a co-author. From his first solo album, aptly named Iron Man, we all knew that Tony Starks was going to be one of Wu’s hottest commodities.
And he proved it, managing to continuously put out albums even as Wu receded into legend. Not all of them were great, but some were–Supreme Clientele, Bulletproof Wallets, Fischscale. And the mediocre ones still had a track or two, or three, that were pure gems. Even songs he didn’t seem to put much lyrical effort into, like the infectious Cherchez La Ghost, managed to break through the underground into popular fame. This isn’t an attempt to sugarcoat things–Ghost is not for family listening. His tales of drugs, violence and sex ain’t winning him any anti-misogyny or moral values awards. But his complexity also allows him to make heartfelt ballads to his mother, and a song on domestic violence. As I once heard a Hip Hop writer say at a forum, “Ghost is my favorite emcee because he’s the only rapper I know who’s man enough to cry through a whole song.” And nobody minds.
All of this has made Ghostface one of the most recognizable members of Wu. And for fans, it has linked him with his most prominent alter-ego Tony Starks, and thus Iron Man. Of course the actual Tony Stark of Marvel fame is a white guy. And he remains that way, in both cartoons and recent blockbusters. But, for many, Ghost’s appropriation of the identity Tony Starks has forever altered the mental association of one of Marvel’s most famous heroes. Tony Stark is still Iron Man. But now, so is Tony Starks. The relationship was so strong, that when the first Iron Man film was created, an entire scene was shot featuring Ghost at a party talking to Robert Downey Jr. about (of all things) borrowing Bentleys. Stark would meet Starks. Worlds colliding! Much to many a Wu fan’s regret however, the cameo ended up on the editing room floor–though making it onto the DVD’s cut scenes.
Ghost’s appropriation seems quite fitting for our recent continuing discussions of white heroes with black skins–as Hollywood, in an attempt to reaching an increasingly diverse demographic, has toyed with the idea of altering the ethnic/racial make-up of some of its popular characters–Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury, Idris Elba as an Asgardian god and (now) rumors of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch. This has sent some sectors of the white fan base into spasms–crying foul at an alleged loss of “purity” by these inclusions of color. The whining ranges from the blatantly racist to the “I-don’t-realize-I’m-being-a-racist.” Much the same has happened in the world of cos play, where non-white characters are given the side-eye (or pure racial vitriol) when they don the costumes of white heroes and heroines.
It strikes me that Ghostface serves as a useful instruction. In Hip Hop’s ability to bend and cross cultural boundaries, the notion of a black emcee appropriating the name, identity and persona of a white fictitious character is almost mundane. Yes, this may be shocking to white fan boys and girls, but young black kids like Dennis Coles watched the same cartoons and read the same comics growing up. And we wanted to be those people. Even when we didn’t look like them, we imagined ourselves in their roles. No contradictions. No racial/ethnic confusions. We were both aware of their white skins (or green or blue), but also looked past it. They were fictitious after all, and could be molded to fit our imaginations. We saw them first and foremost as heroes, and we wanted to be heroic too.
Tony Starks doesn’t appear to strike his multicultural fan base as odd either. White fans seem to accept quite easily that Ghost has taken on the persona of their Marvel hero, and revel in it like everyone else. Some fans have even created video mash-ups, managing to seamlessly blend the old 1960s Iron Man cartoon with a Tony Starks track. Ghost’s bit of Hip Hop cosplay was years ahead of Hollywood’s latest attempts at boundary crossing and adaptable identities. Tony Starks was Iron Man, and so was that white guy in the comic book.
Not everyone however cares for the pluralism. I can recall bringing up Ghostface lyrics in a geek forum on Iron Man. At least several members who were, shall we say, “non-typically-urban,” were confused by the association. When I explained it, most were dismissive or even openly hostile. “What does some rapper have to do with Marvel?” I heard. Or, “Doesn’t he know Tony Stark is WHITE?” My favorite of course, “Stupid! Can’t he even spell? It’s STARK not STARKS!”
Ah. The usual condescending tones of geekdom. The notion that these “rappers” and “outsiders” were appropriating and intruding upon their walled-off (and mightily white) geek space was interesting to behold. “You’re welcome inside our hallowed halls–just don’t touch nothing, and don’t dare reinterpret our sacred idols in your own image!” It was almost as if knowing that certain people/groups/cultures they looked down upon could also find worth and inspiration in what they held dear, cheapened or diminished it in some way. Can’t wait to find that perfect moment to freak them out with Last Emp’s ode to Marvel’s and Hip Hop’s icons, Secret Wars, or MF Doom.
There were similar flare-ups when Ghost fans, who were also comic book heads, brought up his axed cameo in the Iron Man film. Many out-of-touch geeks had no idea who Ghost was and were perplexed that Marvel studios had even considered his addition. Ghost’s most vocal detractor however has turned out not to be Marvel, but veteran music composer Jack Urbont. In a 2011 lawsuit, Urbont is suing Ghostface not only for “illegal sampling” of his Iron Man theme song (from the 2000 album Supreme Clientele), but also for the nickname Tony Starks.
It may be that the dismissive culturally-landlocked geeks and octogenarian songwriter are missing the point. As one writer suggested: By naming his first album Ironman and obsessively referring to himself as “Tony Starks” in song for the following decade, he single-handedly made a second-string Marvel character cool again.” Now we can debate the exact extent of Ghost’s influence on the modern popularity of Iron Man. But for some new fans, he undoubtedly helped introduce them to the Marvel character. And for those of us already in the know, he helped keep Iron Man in our thoughts–as much as the old cartoons did. Marvel certainly seemed to recognize there was more advantage to having Ghostface on their side, and wisely attempted to incorporate him into the fold–even if never following through.
I don’t know what the outcome of the lawsuit will be. Or whether Ghost will ever make it into any Iron Man films. The fact that he has never at least been on a soundtrack has struck a sour note with fans, who believe it’s the least Marvel could do. And Ghost has grumbled about it more than once–saying that Marvel should at least credit him for some part of keeping the Iron Man brand alive. He even claims that upon meeting Robert Downey Jr., the actor told him in confidence, “Yo, I know you the real Tony Stark.” As I said, a storyteller.
I got the chance to see Ghost in concert recently, where he managed to pull off a full Wu “Hip Hopera” (complete with vampirish women who roamed the crowd) in alliance with eclectic musician Adrian Younge and his new band Venice Dawn. It was interesting to see the large number of Iron Man t-shirts along the dusted-off nostalgic bits of Wu wear. One dude even had an Iron Man mask. As usual, during his performance, the 43-yr old veteran emcee made allusions to his many personas, and shouts of the Marvel character went up often from the crowd.
Because for many of us, “Tony Starks is Iron Man.”