Last Emperor – Secret Wars (produced by Madsol-Desar)

Last Emperor – Secret Wars (produced by Madsol-Desar)

Hip hop has a long history with comic books.  Ever since Big Bank Hank started hitting on Lois Lane by undermining the Man of Steel’s masculinity (“You need a man who’s got finesse/ And his whole name across his chest”) examples of hip hop’s connection with comic books is ubiquitous.  MF Doom‘s mask and persona; Ghostface and Method Man adopting comic book character aliases (actually that’s a bad example.  Ghost and Meth each have approximately 4,682 aliases apiece.  It would be weird if they didn’t have comic related AKAs.  The short list of groupings neither have tapped for aliases at this point is limited to Mayan warlords, Victorian literary characters and the moons of Saturn.)  There’s been comic inspired cover art like Outkast’s ATLiens or Del’s No Need for Alarm and the favor has recently been returned with Marvel rolling out an onslaught of superhero/classic hip hop album cover mash-ups.  But back in 1997, Philly based MC the Last Emperor took this relationship to a whole other level.

Lyricist Lounge

I first stumbled across Last Emperor when he appeared on Rawkus’s Lyricist Lounge album.  As one of the many unique collaborations on that album, Last Emperor was thrown into the mix on the politically charged “C.I.A. (Criminals In Action)” with the legendary Blastmaster, KRS-ONE and Zack de la Rocha (notably marking the first rap appearance by the overtly political Rage Against the Machine front man), so the odds for Last Emperor holding his own in this class were long.  And laying down the most memorable verse on the song was damn near unthinkable.  But somehow, Last Emperor managed to do the unthinkable (“develop[ing] close ties like Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza.”)  I needed to hear more from him, but options at that time were limited.  The only thing available was a white label 12″.  The songs “Bums” and “Monumental” shared the A-side and were solid offerings showing a talented MC with a unique perspective.  But of course the real gem was on the flipside (“B-Side wins again“)

Secret Wars Pt 1

“Secret Wars Part I” took Marvel’s major crossover event and brought it to the world of hip hop, pitting a heavy hitting lineup of comic book characters against some of the Last Emperor’s favorite MCs.  The beat is solid if innocuous, based on a simple, nonintrusive piano loop.  But Last Emperor rips.  That.  Shit.  Apart.  One verse.  No hook, no break, no chorus.  Just Last Emperor for five straight minutes laying out the battlefield and watching as his team of top notch MCs systematically dismantles every challenge Stan Lee’s collection of super heroes and villains can throw at them.  A diligent student of his art, Last Emperor litters his lyrics with obscure references about his professional peers, citing GZA‘s fabled but little heard pre-36 chambers solo debut (“Another hero down and the score is two to zero/ My words from the Genius and he’s still my rhyming hero“) and Common‘s early allegiance to producer No I.D. and collaborations with Ynot.  Every so often, Last Emperor masterfully matches the cadence and voice of the current MC combatant like when Redman takes down the Thing (“But Reggie Noble dropped him with two Brick City punches!”) or the Boot Camp Clik/GI Joe battle royal when “The military punisher Rock just broke Roadblock’s back.”

Secret Wars Pt 2

Even at 5 and a half minutes long that song always ended too soon and I spent 6 years waiting for the sequel Last Emperor promised in his wrap up at the end.  The fact that when Part 2 finally did show up it was bloated and plodding and didn’t come close to living up to Part 1 doesn’t take away the endless entertainment of the original.  Last Emperor went on the sign with Dr. Dre‘s Aftermath label, a pairing that was both exciting and preposterous at the time.  Dre’s in the business of selling millions of albums while Last Emperor’s distinct and eccentric perspective was never one that could capture a mainstream audience.  A Dr. Dre/Last Emperor album would have been amazing, but there was no way it was ever going to live up to Dre’s high standards for release, so Last Emperor joined the shelves of Dre’s vault alongside Detox demos and Rakim‘s Oh My God.  But Last Emperor is more than just an Aftermath footnote and a story of what might have been.  In 1997, he managed to drop one 5 minute verse and became an underground legend in his own right by celebrating the legends of hip hop and comics.
The-Last-Emperor-Secret-Wars-Part-1

What would your Marvel/Hip-Hop characters be??

Last Emperor – Secret Wars (produced by Madsol-Desar)

by
Tom Janowski

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