In “First Weapon Drawn,” debuting Saturday for Record Store Day, rap and comics fans finally learn the secret origin of the dastardly hip-hop heel Czarface in an immersive audio-visual experience that resurrects a nearly forgotten storytelling format, to impressive effect.
It’s a scheme as visionary as any a mad scientist might concoct. In the real world, Czarface is the name of the hip-hop supergroup comprised of legendary Wu-Tang Clan rapper Inspectah Deck and veteran underground DJ/MC duo 7L & Esoteric, whose music blends vivid lyrical sparring with equally lavish head-nodding beats. On the page, Czarface is a nefarious antihero akin to the colorful archenemies of comic book and wrestling good guys.
DJ 7L compares the Czarface character to Eddie, Iron Maiden’s mascot, inspiration and avatar. Plainly inspired by classic Jack Kirby heavies like Doctor Doom and Darkseid, artist L’Amour Supreme’s depictions of Czarface have adorned the covers of all of the group’s albums and singles. Czarface’s metallic visage, signature red glove and cape primarily function as conceptual and thematic unifying elements to the music, but the character has been realized in action figures, tie-in comics and even a real-life armor set.
Until now, however, no one has truly known the character’s canonical beginning. And to tell that secret origin, the group wanted to find a way to not only share the tale but bask in its influences.
Instead of Inspectah Deck and Esoteric trading barbs over 7L beats, their newest project sees Czarface taking a run at multimedia storytelling. Specially offered as part of the national vinyl-appreciation retail initiative Record Store Day, Czarface’s “First Weapon Drawn” is a throwback-style book and record set that packages a treasury comic detailing the character’s rise (or fall) from a career as a professional wrestler to an energy-crackling supervillain along with a vinyl album that dramatizes and scores the adventure.
CBR has an exclusive preview of the first six pages of the comic, written by Esoteric and illustrated by Gilberto Aguirre Mata, along with a preview of Side A of the Record Store Day release.
The project was modeled after the Power Records albums of the 1970s, which adapted Marvel and DC comics into bombastic read-along stories, with radio-style effects and voice actors. Long before fans could expect to regularly see their favorite super-powered titans in theaters, these albums were what brought characters to life in many readers’ imaginations. To achieve the intended effect, listen to the “First Weapon Drawn” audio while reading the pages, and feel the Czar-force wash over you.
Almost every supervillain’s origin begins with a slight — or at least a perceived one — and Czarface is no different. 7L & Esoteric had collaborated with Inspectah Deck in the past, but it was 7L who initially suggested they formalize the partnership. Esoteric was skeptical that he and his creative partner of 20 years would be able to land the famed Wu-Tang rapper for an album-length project, but given the chemistry they had all enjoyed on previous tracks, Deck agreed. Then, after Esoteric pitched the Shaolin rhymer on his idea for the group’s potential name and didn’t hear back, he got spooked.
“I remember just talking to him about these different names. I had ‘Czarhead,’ I just wanted to go with something ‘Czar,'” Esoteric told CBR. He grew concerned that he might have offended the rapper he’d admired since hearing the iconic lyric “Swinging through your town like the neighborhood Spider-Man” on Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” by suggesting a name too close to a contemporary.
“[Czarface] was the one that we thought best fit, and I was like, ‘It kind of sounds like ‘Ghostface,'” Esoteric said, referring to Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah. “And I’m thinking, [if] it kind of sounds like Ghostface and he’s not hitting me back … Is he mad?”
But Deck loved it. “It never even crossed his mind,” Esoteric laughed. Ghostface would even go on to be featured on the group’s eponymous first album.
The Physical Challenge
Now, three studio albums later, and Czarface is a phenomenon. After releasing the “A Fistful of Peril” LP in November, the group set sights on their creation’s next chapter. For guidance, 7L & Esoteric looked back to the roots of their friendship. “One of the first things that we connected on, when we first started making records in the early ’90s, was [7L’s] collection of Power Records,” Esoteric said.
They decided to recreate the Power Records sonics-meet-sequential-art experience that they had mutually dug in their youths. “We kind of always toyed with the idea that it would be a cool idea to do one of those,” 7L told CBR. When they began work on what would become “First Weapon Draw,” they had their model. “We tried to craft it, pattern it, model it after the things that inspired us back then.”
As with the action figures and limited-edition CDs they’ve made in the past, the project’s physical element held particular appeal. “We come from that,” 7L explained. “Collecting things and having things, you know — the latest issue comes out, the newest release, or just finding back issues or finding old records. That’s like in our fabric.”
While they understand the realities and conveniences of digital media and delivery, the Czarface guys are decidedly the types to appreciate a good dig in the crates, and the rare treasures that can turn up.
“Me, personally,” Esoteric said, “I don’t want to do anything if it doesn’t come with the physical copy.” Both his music and his comics have their places. “I want to have it and put it in the vault next to the other ones.”
A limited release aimed at drawing people’s focus off their digital devices and toward something decidedly more analogue held special appeal to the group, who had considered limiting their early music to underground, unofficial releases. 7L, the team’s resident vinyl-head, realized Record Store Day would present a unique opportunity to release something their diehards would truly appreciate.
“When we talked about the idea, [we realized] it’d be cool to do something that’s so limited that’s kind of different and specific that it’ll be this collector’s item,” he explained. To craft something worthy of the attention, they split the duties. Esoteric would pen the comic and radio script that told Czarface’s backstory (and lend his voice to the cast), 7L would compose the accompaniment, including a signature “Czarface Theme,” and all three would executive produce the effort.
If any musicians’ work lent itself to such play, it’s Czarface. Their songs are not only littered with shout-outs to the Spandex set, they’re punctuated with audio clips from old records and cartoons and otherwise. 7L cites De La Soul producer Prince Paul as an influence, noting an appreciation for his use of interesting vocal samples. “I think the humor of it with the seriousness of it is a little bit of, not a template, but an inspiration for me as far as approaching certain things,” he explained.
They committed to capturing an authentic feel for the story. “Musically, we really wanted to nail that element of it sounding like it was from back then,” 7L said. “And not being your typical rap beat — more like the source of what people would sample in hip-hop.”
A Hero’s Return
Already at work on their next album, the members of Czarface were given reason to reflect recently when they were included among Marvel’s Black Panther Nation initiative, which saw them profiled in the pages of Ta-Nahesi Coates’ “Black Panther,” and released an accordingly themed song, “All In Together Now.” Not long after, Marvel paid homage to the cover to their second album, “Every Hero Needs A Villain,” with Mike Del Mundo’s hip-hop variant to “Thanos” #1. For a group who grew up loving Marvel comics, it was a significant recognition. Marvel Assistant Editor Chris Robinson even told Esoteric that with the exception of a possible Kid ‘n Play interview in the ’90s, theirs was the first hip-hop artist interview in a Marvel comic.
Appearing in a Marvel comic, and especially having the opportunity to see his son find his father among the the pages, struck a resonant chord with Esoteric. Long before his musical success, the lifelong comics fan had parted with portions of his prized collection to further his creative dreams. “I sold ‘X-Men’ #94, #95, #96 and #97 to pay for studio time,” he shared, referring to the first four issues of writer Chris Claremont’s seminal run on the title.
Then last week, following a European tour, Esoteric returned home to find a box from Marvel containing “X-Men: Blue” #1, “X-Men: Gold” #1 and “Weapon X” #1. The MC said it felt like his creative life had come full circle. Maybe the new issues weren’t worth quite as much as the ones the he sold all those years ago, but it’s difficult to imagine anything more mint and valuable than the way they got there. Better still, his super co-creation could take on those puny X-Men, any day.
Czarface’s “First Weapon Drawn” Book and Record Set can be found through participating Record Store Day retailers.