​Photo illustration by Pope Pheonix for Okayplayer.
Photo illustration by Pope Pheonix for Okayplayer.

How Batman Mirrors Hip-Hop's Birthplace and Early Beginnings

The unmistakable parallels between two of the most iconic creations to come out of The Bronx — Batman and hip-hop.

This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative.

In the 1994 film Fresh, the namesake protagonist, Sean Nelson’s character Fresh, and his childhood friend Chuckie, played by Luis Lantigua, navigate the harsh realities of inner city living in Brooklyn.

In the film, Fresh is a 12-year-old chess-playing, drug-dealing prodigy trying to free his sister from the grips of a local drug lord played by the exceptional Giancarlo Esposito. In one classic scene, Fresh and Chuckie have a conversation that every teenage boy has at some point — which superhero would defeat who in a battle? Chuckie, Puerto Rican arms flailing, curse words flung to the faces of their small and tiny crew, exclaims in a flurry that Punisher, the rogue vigilante superhero, would take out the mutant supergroup known as the X-Men with no issue. Four years later, this mini-rant would be resurrected in the intro to “Beware,” the first track off of the Bronx hall of fame emcee Big Pun’s debut album, Capital Punishment. The fact that Big Pun takes his name from The Punisher archetype really comes as no surprise. Growing up, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Marvel inspired generations of latchkey kids in the hood.

From the X-Men to Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four to Thor to the Hulk, our heroes took the shapes and bodies of those that existed on the page in the colorful comic book panes we devoured. They lived on a plane far beyond the worlds I and others grew up in. Comics took me out of the environments that were attempting to swallow me whole, partially because the characters themselves never felt too removed from the world I inhabited, no matter how mystical they seemed to be.

In most cases, both the comic world and the real world consisted of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances that either fortified pre-existing powers or created them. The characters were a case study of nature vs. nurture but on steroids. It’s why I loved Wolverine; he was born different. So were we. Wolverine and the X-Men’s plight, very much by the creator Stan Lee’s design, somewhat resembled the civil rights movement. One could look at the Black Panther Party and see Wolverine as an illustrated version of Eldridge Cleaver; the X-Men modeling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — with Charles Xavier as a white, bald-headed cartoon version of MLK.

On the other hand, in my younger years, nobody really fucked with DC Comics.

Superman was too white, too perfect, too clean. Even Metropolis, with its beautiful streets and local paper, felt unreal. Everything pristine, everything right where it should be. Jor-el’s origin story — being sent to planet Earth prior to the destruction of his home planet, a potential protector of a very white world, never seemed believable. Granted, being bitten by a spider and gaining immense speed and strength was also unreal, but aren’t spidey senses really just a version of the same intuition our grandmamas talked about? Still, Jor-el’s transition from Clark Kent to Superman felt too easy when seen through the lens of the struggle certain marginalized groups faced. However, his story did feel eerily reminiscent of the immigrants who came to America, who would change their last name to something more palatable for the communities they would soon shop, live and survive in.

Like Superman, the heroes of DC all assimilated. Meanwhile, the villains tended to be monstrous, exaggerated versions of evil that could never blend into the cookie-cutter world their enemies, the protagonists in their dreams, so easily inhabited. DC, much like Marvel, is rife with villains who attempt to expose the heroes as frauds, as real people who were flawed just like they were, just like we are. The difference was primarily that DC heroes, once they honed in on their heroism, still wound up being perfect, filtered and clean.

Except for Batman.

I was late to the game. The original Batman series starring Adam West happened years before I was born, and upon watching, felt too campy for a child craving something more closely resembling my cartoon favorites; The Centurions, G.I. Joe, and He-Man. But in 1992, the Fox channel's Batman: The Animated Series changed all of that. It was gritty. And similar to another cartoon that appeared around the same time, Gargoyles. This Batman was as dark as you could get for a cartoon at the time and broke new ground around character development and storyline in a way that animated shows had yet to discover.

Suddenly, I was a Batman fan. Later, the Batman films brought me closer. Michael Keaton’s portrayal still deserves a round two: witty, charming, and exciting. But it was Christian Bale’s take that helped bridge some of the more sincere parts of Bruce Wayne with an unhinged version that resembled the Batman comics. However, it wouldn’t be until I dove into the Batman graphic novels in my adult years, tapping into my post-pandemic inner-child, that I saw how close Batman was to us.

And by us, I mean hip-hop fans. And by hip-hop fans, I mean Black people.

The parallels between Batman and early hip-hop heroes

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five - The Message (Official Video)www.youtube.com

Batman was the original anti-hero, and for my generation, emcees were ours. What inner city child growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s couldn't relate to losing someone they love to street violence? Who couldn’t identify with translating rage and anger into something profound, dangerous, dark and grimacing? Some of us grabbed guns. Some of us slanged rocks or had a wicked jump shot. And some of us picked up a microphone.

Melle Mel’s menacing and playful lyric from "The Message," “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head,” could just as easily have been a line Batman shouted at The Penguin or Riddler or some nameless street thug before pummeling them into oblivion.

The parallels between Bruce and my hip-hop heroes became even clearer after watching the 2017 documentary Batman and Bill. In it, we learn the sad tale of the original Batman creator, Bill Fingers, who would die without his due flowers. Bob Kane, often cited as the sole creator of Batman, created the character with Bill and proceeded to steal it from him. How very record label exec of him. The most interesting part of the origin story for me was not the creation of Batman per se but where it was created. Bill hailed from the Bronx. Bill and Bob collectively devised the character, and Bill handled most of the storylines in the hallowed walls of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, the former home of the American gothic writer and poet. The cottage stands on Kingsbridge Road and the Grand Concourse in the Fordham neighborhood in the Bronx, a 5-minute walk from the apartment building I grew up in where my mother still resides.

Batman and hip-hop were both born in the Bronx. And like hip-hop, Batman wasn’t just about Bruce Wayne’s singular journey of becoming the Dark Knight — it was about the characters both big and large, the city of Gotham, the history created and the legacy it established.

When Bill Fingers created Batman, he could not have possibly predicted a crack epidemic ravaging his stomping grounds to the point that his fictional Gotham could represent Sedgwick Ave., where Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy Campbell, threw a back-to-school party that would change the world. In reality, our hip-hop pioneers were our original anti-heroes, just like the characters spawned from the Batman epics.

Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, Roxanne Shante — these were our leaders fighting for the world to hear their voices. And everyone outside of our communities hated them for it. No one wanted rap music to iconize more than the rappers themselves and the kids who listened to them. Anyone else saw no utility in the sounds, the movements, the art.

Sure, for comparison's sake, The Sugar Hill Gang could be considered our Fantastic Four, a superhero rap group brought together by circumstances beyond their control. But it was Batman, no superpowers, no genetic mutations or green ooze, who mirrored hip-hop most. His skills and penchant for rage would lead him on his journey. And what’s more hip-hop than a dude in a cave (the studio), cooking up shit with his gadgets in tow (the MPC) and his ace Alfred (the manager), his lil’ homie Robin (his artist), alongside the first lady Batgirl (insert the foremothers of hip-hop)?

In spite of Batman’s riches, they meant nothing compared to what he lost to bring the hostility of his vigilante crusades to the forefront. One only needs to listen to Slick Rick’s A Children’s Story to recognize a similar narrative as his lyrics painted a scene that felt familiar to him, a scene that Bill Fingers perhaps saw bubbling below the surface of his borough.

Batman prefaced hip-hop, and surely Fingers could not have predicted that the Caped Crusader would take it this far. Even Bill’s story falls parallel to so many who helped to usher in the beginnings of rap music — Bill would die alone and impoverished, reaping none of the rewards or benefits of the multi-million dollar character and franchise he created. His story is no different from the many legends of our time who never got their just due. Even now, Cormega and Pete Rock are amongst many voices clamoring for the proper commemoration of Heavy D’s contribution, even as we celebrate hip-hop’s 50th year. Not to mention Coke La Rock and countless others who waved the genre's banner but were forced into the shadows, much like Bill Fingers.

Batman may have never been a rapper, and our favorite emcees may not have leaped tall buildings in a single bound, but sometimes I like to imagine that our superheroes didn’t need capes. All they needed were two turntables, a mic… and the Bronx.


Joel Leon is a father, performer, author and story-teller, born and raised in the Bronx who writes and tells stories for Black people.