Is the world of rap finally entering the twenty-first century?

With Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, Angel Haze and the recent emergence of “queer rap”, we could finally be seeing some progress in a musical genre that's long been dominated by straight men and macho self-aggrandisement.

Singer-songwriter and former Everything But The Girl frontwoman, Tracey Thorn, was recently asked in an interview whether her “not being an extremely hot girl” has held her back in her career. Long-running international music monthly Rolling Stone has just announced the winner of a contest called "Women Who Rock". American lifestyle magazine, Complex, last month ran a feature on the ten “hottest women” at a New York music festival, fitting in nicely with other articles they’ve published this year, including "Ten Sexy Indie Artists You Should Know" and "The 15 Hottest Frontwomen In Rock History".

These are all examples of the sexism female artists face in the music industry, and they’re all from media that covers genres where women have long been successful. So what about a style of music where women are, historically, less likely to make a go of things, such as hip-hop?

Hip-hop has long been known for its negative attitude towards women, its commodification of them, and its view of females as being useful for little more than sex. The average rap video will tell you that, with its legion of semi-naked, booty-shaking dancers. This is a culture where behemoths Jay-Z and Kanye West have both come under fire for their use of the term “bitch” in their lyrics, yet have decided to continue to use it. The closest West came to a one-eighty was when he tweeted: “Is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” which brings into question Kanye’s understanding of “endearing”. We’re talking about a genre where the opening line to one of its best-known and much-loved songs reads: “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks”.

All these negative stereotypes in a world of macho self-aggrandisement makes the recent success of a breakthrough band of female MCs, or "femcees", all the more heartening. Nicki Minaj is now a household name, but hot on her heels are Azealia Banks, Angel Haze, Iggy Azalea, Kreayshawn and more.

What all these rappers have in common is that they’re defiantly solo artists and are unaffiliated to a wider group or crew. Perhaps as a result of this, the music press have been keen to play up any potential rivalries, with a brief Twitter spat between Azealia Banks and Kreayshawn generating far more column inches than it should have done.

But in a man’s world, are these women able to succeed on their own terms? Minaj has sold over a million copies of both her studio albums thus far and has been vocal in speaking out against the sexism she’s faced. Yet her most recent LP, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, contains a track called "Stupid Hoe" and a duet with Chris Brown, notorious for his assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna. Critics’ darling Azealia Banks has showcased her frenetic and explicit lyrics, most notably on the song that propelled her to fame, "212", and often refers to herself as a “bad bitch”.

Banks has challenged the status quo and critics alike with her openness about her sexuality and those lyrics. Despite this seemingly anti-commercial stance, she’s received frequent radio play and has been extremely successful in 2012, so much so that she’s likely to be found on a magazine cover near you. This may have contributed to the fact that her debut album, Broke With Expensive Taste, originally due to be released in August of this year, has been put back to February 2013. Banks’ confrontational, no-holds-barred approach have given her a huge following and made her arguably the most famous female rapper behind Nicki Minaj.

Perhaps more interesting though is Angel Haze. The Michigan MC was largely unknown before the release of her debut single, New York, but had soon sold out her show at the Hoxton Bar & Grill. What’s particularly striking about Haze is her range of lyrical themes, most clearly evidenced on her mixtape, Classick, which she put online in October. She’s about as far away from the hip-hop video dancing female stereotype as it’s possible to be, as she takes on matters of confidence and self-image, and contemplates the effects domestic violence have on the wider family. Classick also features a cover of Eminem’s confessional Cleaning Out My Closet, with the lyrics rewritten into a jaw-dropping autobiographical account of childhood abuse. While it may not be a comfortable listen, it handles a near-impossible subject to cover in an unflinchingly honest but mature way.

Of the rest, Kreayshawn has followed online hit, "Gucci Gucci" (over 39 million YouTube views at the time of writing), with an underperforming album, and Iggy Azealia is expected to sign with a major label before her debut full-length LP comes out next year.

All this seems a far cry from the time when to hear of a female rapper was genuinely rare, with Missy Elliott being the main exception to that rule. Whether the new breed of MCs trade in raw, gritty rhymes or conform to a more mainstream view of what a woman in rap “should” be, their very presence can only be a positive thing. Add to this the recent emergence of a strain of hip-hop made my predominantly gay males, known as “queer rap”, and it seems the world of rap may finally be ready to enter the twenty-first century.

Nicki Minaj is now a household name. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.