By Mike Appelstein
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From Flavor Flav's oversize alarm clock to the diamond-encrusted chains of the crunk era, bling has long been a part of hip-hop culture. Comic books, on the other hand, are a relatively new addition, with rap-influenced illustrations from Public Enemy and Madvillain among the only noteworthy examples. Now, thanks to Age of Illumination, an ambitious new project from a trio of St. Louis artists, the two elements will be united with a comic book about a mythical piece of bling.
Age of Illumination consists of a comic book and a concept album. The creators are local rapper Tef Poe (given name: Kareem Jackson), Nicholas "DJ Champ" Randall and comic-book artist Benjamin Sawyer. The first issue of the comic book, a release party for which will be held at Star Clipper Comics on September 16, is an odd mix of historical fantasy, spiritual mumbo jumbo and glorification of the St. Louis underground hip-hop scene, starring Tef Poe and DJ Champ as the leading men.
The tale begins in ancient Egypt with an ankh pendant being buried in the desert. Things abruptly flash forward to the present day, where a character modeled after Randall is busy planning a music festival called "Hoodstock" in north St. Louis' Marie Fowler Park. Headlining the show is Tef Poe, who discovers just before performing that the heirloom ankh he carries affords him rap superpowers — the heavens open, crowds flock to his merch table — when he wears it around his neck. To be continued.
Hoodstock is a real event held each July for the past three years at the intersection of Page and Union boulevards. Randall plans the festival, which he says promotes socially conscious hip-hop, community building and activities such as martial arts and yoga.
Inspiration for the Egypt aspect of the book, Randall says, comes from his belief that today's society has much to learn from the ancient civilization, a theme that will be hashed out in subsequent editions of Age of Illumination. "It's more high-thinking, but simple, living," he explains. "Being guided by the spirit versus materialistic things."
Meanwhile, the star of the comic book, Tef Poe (short for Teflon Poetix), says he was attracted to the project for a different reason. "I grew up listening to Wu-Tang," Tef says. "They had comic books and video games. This is me doing my own version of Wu-Tang, just carrying on that legacy."
Tef has an impressive pedigree in the St. Louis hip-hop scene. He is the half-brother of local hip-hop luminary Black Spade and came up as part of his sibling's Soul Tyde clique. He earned a reputation as a talented lyricist during open-mic sessions at the Hi-Pointe Café.
Now he is falling back on his Hi-Pointe connections and enlisting talented comrades from that era (including Rockwell Knuckles) to appear on the Age of Illumination EP. The first issue of the comic book relies on his lyrics as dialogue, and Tef says the record will expand on the mystical Egyptian story.
In the meantime, he is busy promoting his latest album, The Redeemer, with events including a release party September 19 at the Upstairs Lounge. The record marks the first time Tef has rapped over beats produced by his brother Black Spade (a.k.a. Stoney Rock).
"People had been waiting for me to work with my brother," he says, adding that roughly half of the tracks are produced by his longtime collaborator Tech Supreme. "It works perfect, it's a night-and-day contrast between their [Tech Supreme- and Black Spade-produced] songs."
Tef adds he was further drawn to Age of Illumination because he believes African Americans owe a portion of their heritage to ancient Egypt. "We don't know much about our history," he explains. "The Egyptians aren't direct ancestors, but they come from the same region and had a huge influence on neighboring cultures. That's documented history that we can latch onto and hold as our own."
Sawyer, the comic book's artist, helps develop this theme with his illustrations. Particularly impressive are his subtle connections between the sets of characters, which he achieves by using an earth-toned palette, dangling dreadlocks and almond-shaped eyes. The replication of Tef Poe's likeness is also stellar, capturing the rapper's rail-thin build, dark skin, pencil beard and colorful sense of fashion. (He's pictured in the book wearing suspenders and a red bow tie.)
"I didn't want it to look clean and sharp like regular comics like Captain America," Sawyer says. "I wanted it to be a little gritty, more vibrant and colorful. No line is clean, it's a painterly, watercolor style — something a little more artistic than the typical comic book to reel people in who don't usually read comics."
As for the symbolism behind Age of Illumination's primary plot device — that mystical piece of bling, the ankh — Tef Poe elaborates: "It combines all elements of what we [are] doing, from fashion to music. It's more than just a comic — it's like a brochure to our lifestyle."