How Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball helped rap go Super Saiyan

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Akira Toriyama in 1982. Photo by JIJI Press / AFP) / Japan OUT (Photo by STR/JIJI Press/AFP via Getty Images)


 

Rap Column is a column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.

Even a decade ago, being a rapper who openly enjoyed anime was still a little bit of a novelty, but now it’s almost a required part of the job description. Weebs exist at practically every level of the rap game, from dedicated cosplayers like Megan Thee Stallion to underground artists like Xavier Wulf, who has multiple projects themed after the automotive anime series Initial D. After the recent passing of Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, countless artists expressed their condolences on social media, including Chance the Rapper and producer Popstar Benny. Even as it’s become more acceptable for rappers to admit they like anime, Dragon Ball still towers over the rest as the most quintessentially hip-hop anime franchise.

Part of that is just how ubiquitous the English-language dub of Dragon Ball Z was for kids of a certain age, in the same way that G.I. Joe or ThunderCats might have been for an earlier generation. Cartoon Network’s Toonami block introduced American kids to the likes of Sailor Moon and Gundam — my personal favorite is the wrestling anime Kinnikuman, anglicized as Ultimate Muscle — but Dragon Ball became a bonafide crossover phenomenon in a culture that had mostly treated anime as a fringe interest, if it had even acknowledged it at all.

While Pokemon felt a little more juvenile, better suited to stuffed animal sales, Dragon Ball Z retained a distinct sense of cool, less a children’s cartoon than a mythic hero’s journey. Where most cartoons in the 1990s — and even most shows in general — still told more self-contained stories limited to one or two episodes, Dragon Ball Z told a continuous serialized narrative that unfolded over time. It didn’t just keep you locked in to find out what happened in the next episode, but created a very intense emotional bond between the viewer and Goku. On some level, fans were quite literally growing up alongside their hero.

Though there’s no hard and fast data, I’d be willing to bet that Dragon Ball is probably the most consistently-referenced anime in rap history. Sometimes, the shout-outs are pretty surface level: like Boosie’s “Cartoon,” where Dragon Ball is rattled off alongside the likes of Peter Griffin, Bart Simpson, and Mickey Mouse in a veritable Fortnite party of licensed characters. The concept of “going super saiyan” has become a cultural shorthand that even transcends Dragon BallSicko Mobb’s colorful Super Saiyan mixtapes don’t reference the anime very much at all, but instead channels the feeling of powering your energy up.

Other artists have gotten a little more specific with their references, like the totally out-of-pocket line from Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter,” where he compares his partner’s unmentionables to the villainous Majin Buu. Even rappers you wouldn’t expect to be weebs often reveal themselves as such: on BeatKing’s “Heavy on a Check,” the Houston club rap kingpin spends the song’s intro talking about Trunks and Frieza for some reason. Maybe the most definitive Dragon Ball rap song is, of course, Soulja Boy’s riotous “Goku.” On several levels, Soulja Boy was really the first Internet rapper: not just in becoming an early viral phenomenon, but in how open he was about his love of anime and video games when that was still slightly uncool.

But for some rappers, relating to the trials and tribulations of Goku goes a little bit deeper. Unsurprisingly, RZA was one of the first rappers to go on record for his love of Dragon Ballall the way back in 1998. Given the influence the series took from the same Chinese martial arts films and historical wuxia epics that informed the Wu-Tang Clan, it was a match made in geek heaven.

In his book The Tao of Wu, RZA explains why he sees the story of Goku as a parallel to “the journey of a Black man in America,” as the wandering warrior discovers his superpowers by embracing his heritage and harnessing the strength of his ancestors. That more symbolic meaning resonates with other rappers as well: Denzel Curry posted an extended eulogy to Akira Toriyama on Instagram, breaking down the specific ways Dragon Ball changed his life: not just the constant references you hear on songs like “Ultimate” or “SUPER SAIYAN SUPERMAN,” but even how he wears his hair and his decision to train in Muay Thai.

Akira Toriyama may have never even been aware of his surprising influence on hip-hop, but his characters provided a lens for countless artists to understand and endure their own reality.

From Jesus Christ to Luke Skywalker to Scarface, rappers have often found solace in stories of self-made figures who blazed their own trails against all odds. Part of what made the Wu-Tang Clan so evocative and influential wasn’t just that the RZA was listing his favorite things, but that the pop culture he loved became a lens through which to understand the world around him. Staten Island became the mystical Shaolin Land, and the stories of Black men trying to grind and survive became a hero’s journey, with RZA deep in the bunker churning out beats like a lowly novice studying the blade. Lord Infamous of Three 6 Mafia and other so-called horrorcore rappers used their favorite slasher movies to speak to the paranoia and constant fear that come with being Black in America, while East Coast MCs from Big Pun to Jay-Z saw themselves in the boot-straps stories of mafiosos and mobsters like Michael Corleone and Tony Montana.

In some way, pop culture references in rap can almost be a form of sampling. Just like you might flip an existing record or give a word new meaning, imagining yourself as the protagonist of your favorite anime or comic book is a way of articulating your own experience by repurposing and reinterpreting the objects on hand around you. Akira Toriyama may have never even been aware of his surprising influence on hip-hop, but his characters provided a lens for countless artists to understand and endure their own reality. Sometimes, it might just be fun to say you feel like Goku, but maybe if you say you feel like Goku enough times, you’ll be able to go Super Saiyan too.

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