Exclusive: Marvel Unveils 'Illmatic,' 'Illadelph Halflife,' and 'Mecca and the Soul Brother' Variant Covers
When Marvel unveiled the first wave of their Classic Hip-Hop Album Cover Variants last week, it almost broke the Internet. Everybody wanted to be the first to tell their friends about it. Well, the mastermind behind this buzzing project is Marvel Comic Group’s Editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso. A born and raised hip hop head from the Bay, Alonso has long fostered ties with hip hop culture at Marvel. We got Axel on the phone this morning to pick his brain about these amazing covers.
Mass Appeal: What was the impetus for this project?
Axel Alonso: Well, the Run The Jewels variants we did a few months ago confirmed what I already knew – that there is a massive overlap between comics culture and hip hop culture. We’ve been engaged in a dialogue for a while. A lot of people know that rappers like the Wu-Tang and what have you pepper their rhymes with references to Marvel characters, but few people know how many of our artists, creators and editors are deeply influenced by hip hop music and its culture…and our readers as well. So, these covers are an attempt to show that; to demonstrate how these two communities, comic heads and hip hop heads, overlap. And maybe even create more overlap. I see this as being part of an ongoing dialogue.
And obviously I wanted to give a shout out to this art form I love. I grew up with hip hop. I was probably about 11 years old, and I was at the Doggie Diner on 23rd Street in San Francisco when I first heard “Rapper’s Delight.” You know how in movies, when they do that quick zoom-in on someone’s face and the background pans out? That’s what it was like for me. It was a transformative moment. I hunted down that EP, I memorized every lyric… At that point I had been listening to mostly rhythm & blues like Ohio Players, Slave, Earth, Wind & Fire, and this new music was incredible, it was everything I’d hoped for. It became the soundtrack to my life. hip hop, basketball and comics are my three great loves.
How did you guys pick the hip hop covers to use? I mean, there’s apparently 50+, right?
I had absolutely no doubt that there would be so many covers to choose from that I’d end up having to make hard decisions about which covers I could or couldn’t use. So, one of the self-imposed rules that I had for me and my crew - I work with two people, Rickey Purdin, our talent manager, and Chris Robinson, a hip hop head in editorial – was that each artist, no matter how much we loved them, would be allowed only one cover. Now, we could have done three or four A Tribe Called Quest covers, but we decided on Midnight Marauders, you follow me? We wanted to shine the spotlight on as many artists as possible: old school, new school, gangsta, trap lords, household names, and forgotten pioneers like Eric B. & Rakim and Schooly D. The goal was to just try and make sure we shone the spotlight on as many facets of hip hop culture across the decades as possible.
Some of the covers are rather new and I’ve seen comments questioning if albums like Tyler’s Wolf, A$AP’s Live.Long.A$AP, and the 100s’ IVRY are classics.
The goal was to shine a spotlight on as many artists as possible, but also we were looking for fantastic album covers, covers that really stood out from the pack. Tyler, the Creator’s “Wolf” is a brilliant cover. Odd Future and that crew, they’re relevant, and that cover says a lot about them. And of course, we married it to an equally quirky character in Squirrel Girl. A$AP Rocky is about as relevant a rapper as you’ll find today. For me, it was a no brainer to draw a parallel between “Long.Live.A$AP” and our modern Captain America, Sam Wilson…wrapped in the red, white, and blue. For me, it was about a blend. Hip hop is so diverse. It unites people around the world. One love. It’s an art form that was pioneered by African-American and Hispanics but it spans the world. It’s about bringing people together, across decades. Don’t be surprised if you see a Vanilla Ice cover in the mix. Doesn’t mean we’re paying respect to him, but he is a part of the history of this art form.
Well, I have to say the combo of hero and rapper on those covers really worked.
People sure seem to think so, and that’s great. I was showing my 12-year-old son – who is all about Vince Staples and A$AP – some of these variants and he was, like, who’s Eric B. & Rakim? Who’s Schooly D? He wanted to know. Hell, he didn’t know who ODB was! That’s a beautiful thing to be able to expose young ones to the history of this thing we love.
I know you guys are revealing these covers very calculatedly, but we haven’t seen one from Skottie Young yet. He’s kind of like the variant king and a noted hip hop head.
There’s a deep cut cover that I’m thinking of him for and it’s his to do if his schedule permits it. One of things that people don’t understand is scheduling with artists and what they’ve got on their plate. Luckily, this initiative allowed me to tap artists not only that we work with, but also artists we’ve worked with in the past that I’m excited to welcome back, like Keron Grant who did the “All-New Wolverine,” Brian Stelfreeze who did the “Iron Man,” Jason Pearson who did the “Uncanny Avengers.” And we’ve got lots more coming. We’ve even got new artists who are going to making their Marvel debuts with these covers. They are going to be seen for the first time.
That’s very cool. Is there a couple of those names you want to throw out there?
Theotis Jones, Khary Randolph, and Ricardo Lopez Ortiz.
Some big name comics artist have even done hip hop album covers. Joe Mad doing the Ghost, Raekwon and Method Man collabo cover and Todd McFarlane doing a Swollen Members cover both come to mind. So, what’s the possibility of an illustrated hip hop cover getting redone?
One of our announced artists is Denys Cowan – I wonder what homage he’ll do... I’m aware of all the comic artists who’ve done hip hop album covers in the past, like Bill Sienkiewicz; let’s just say that I have them on my rolodex. People who have been observing the dialogue between comics and hip hop will be rewarded for that knowledge. Let’s put it that way.
The rappers, DJs and producers who’s covers were included must be blowing up your Facebook and Twitter accounts.
It’s been fantastic. These covers have been embraced by the hip hop community. Already on social media we have seen endorsements from DMC, Pete Rock, Posdnuos (De La Soul), The Pharcyde, and Killer Mike came out with perhaps the biggest of all endorsements. He’s a massive comic head and he was one of the first people to weigh in on this with his excitement.
How many covers is there going to be in total?
Every single #1 that is tied to our current campaign, All-New Marvel Now!, will have one. So there will be about 55-60 covers. All-New Marvel Now! is a campaign where there are new #1s across the board – from Spider-Man to Squirrel Girl to stuff we haven’t announced yet, like Black Panther. What’s been released so far is just the head of the spear.
And let me say, I love it when people come up with suggestions about what cover we should use and what artist. Anybody who wants to tweet me suggestions, send it my way. I love it!
So, the big question is, how are people going to get these? Usually, even local comic shops have trouble getting variant covers.
These variants are going to be available in a different manner from the Run The Jewels variants, which were extremely hard to come across. Retailers will need to order a usual quantity of the regular covers and once they do that they may order as many of the hip hop covers as they want. This method has been pretty successful recently. The simplest thing to tell fans is, if you want that Squadron Supreme/Wu-Tang variant, you should go to your local comic book store and say, I really want that cover. I think that what they’ll do is factor that into their orders because they’ll know there’s a demand for it. If you don’t want to be paying additional money on eBay down the road, let your retailer know you want them. And I want to emphasize that these will be more readily available than the Run The Jewels variants were. We had no idea what the demand would be for those.
After speaking with Axel, we reached out to Nas to get his thoughts on the Illmatic variant cover:
"I grew up on Marvel Comics. They helped open my imagination, expanded my love for illustrated art, and even helped me with my writing. This is a dream in real life. Now my 6-year-old son is a huge Spider Man fan. He's going to love this!"
Updated: Check out the brand new covers below.
Spider-Man #1 by Adi Granov based on Nas' 'Illmatic'
All-New All-Different Avengers #1 by Jim Cheung based on The Roots' 'Illadelph Halflife'
All-New Hawkeye #1 by Sanford Greene based on Pete Rock & CL Smooth's 'Mecca and the Soul Brother'
Spidey #1 by Gyimah Gariba based on Lil' Wayne's 'Tha Carter IV'
Spider-Woman #1 by Natacha Bustos based on Big Pun's 'Capital Punishment'
Drax #1 by Mike Choi based on Kid Cudi's 'Man On The Moon II'
Spider-Man 2099 #1 by Afu Chan based on Kanye West's 'Cruel Summer'
Contest of Champions #1 by Denys Cowan & Bill Sienkiewicz based on GZA's 'Liquid Swords'
Guardians of the Galaxy #1 by Shawn Crystal based on Pharcyde's 'Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde'
Hercules #1 by Theotis Jones based on Lil B's 'Black Flame'
The Mighty Thor #1 by Mike Deodato, Jr. based on Madvillain's 'Madvillainy'
Nova #1 by Eric Canete based on J. Cole's 'Born Sinner'
Uncanny Avengers #1 by Jason Pearson based on Public Enemy's 'Yo! Bum Rush The Show'
Uncanny Inhumans #1 by Damion Scott based on Outkast's 'Aquemini'
Karnak #1 by Kaare Andrews based on Schooly D's 'Saturday Night! - The Album'