AJ Ampadu is Building His Earth Tone Kingdom

Comic books and music, “A Venn diagram where those two intersect is where I want to land,” says NYC-based writer and hip-hop artist AJ Ampadu.

Ampadu has been telling stories in some way, shape, or form his entire adult life, and while many are used to hearing those stories from him as P.SO the Earth Tone King, with his career in hip-hop spanning over 15 years, some of his stories are about to jump off the page, as he’s launching an imprint, Earth Tone Kingdom, with a Kickstarter focusing on three of his comic creations.

There’s the R rated horror mystery DragonFace, the PG-13 sci-fi thriller DroneSlayerX, and rounding things out is his family friendly science fantasy epic Kimi Kosmic.

I caught up with Ampadu – who’s been featured here a bevy of times, and under a few different names, since his original Artist of the Week feature nearly 14 years ago – to find out more about his growing Kingdom, his lifelong love of comics, and how a conversation he had in a comic book store may influenced the creation of a little TV show named The Walking Dead.

Let’s start by talking about your new imprint, Earth Tone Kingdom, which has been five years in the making. What initially sparked the dream in your mind? 

My favorite two things in the world are hip-hop and comic books. Ever since I was around 12 years old these were the two things that I found the most interesting. Music was the thing that I got into first, and I always enjoyed making music. I still love making music, but the music industry was one that I always found challenging to navigate, and being that as a musician I’ve always been very transparent – I pour my soul into music – there’s a lot of things that I would say a modern day hip-hop artist would have to do that I was not willing to do. I felt a little bit compromised.

I never had the courage to make comic books. I was always a writer, however. Even before I started getting into music I was a creative writer. I worked a little bit in television. I did a little bit of advertising. I’m also involved with Sotheby’s Institute of Art, where I teach creative writing as a summer class to high school students. So I had a lot of background with writing, and interest in comics, but I never thought that I could make a comic book.

One of my albums, The Gateway to Greatness, came out about ten year ago now, I created a graphic novel to promote that particular album. That was my first foray into comic book creation. That particular graphic novel was a digital-only release, (but) there were pages of it within the physical booklet of the CD that came out with that album. I got a great response from that.

People have done it before. There are different hip-hop and comic book collaborations out there from a lot of different artists, from Murs, to DMC, to will.i.am.

OutKast with the ATLiens album. 

That’s a great (example). That’s one of the legendary ones.

So it’s not anything new, but it was also something that for me was, like I said, loving these two worlds so equally I kinda felt like I’m the guy who can really drive it home, who can really bring in some comic book and hip-hop content. So when I say that this has been five years in the making, five years ago I just had the idea – well, let me just start making some comics.

I created some interesting worlds. I started creating what some writers call a bible, where you start creating all your characters, you start creating your worlds, you start building everything. I told myself that I’m not gonna think about anything else, I’m just gonna finish the book.

Finish the book is kind of my mantra, because so many creatives don’t finish whatever they’re working on. Whether it’s a piece of music, a clothing line, a design for a house, a lot of these arduous tasks a lot of creatives do not complete. I have heard that so much, especially when it comes to writing, so many people start a book, and they never finish. So I was like let me just finish writing something, not even knowing what it’s going to be, not even knowing where it’s gonna go, let me just write something cool.

I started with two different ideas, I had one that was a horror concept, and I had another that was kind of like a science fantasy concept. At the time I was dealing with a lot of darkness and depression, so that’s where the horror concept came from, and as I was writing that I was like wait a minute, I can’t write only crazy dark stuff, so I wrote something that was a little bit more lighthearted, something that could be used for all ages. I didn’t want to write something that was only for men in their 40s, I wanted something that children could read, and that young adults could read.

The depression couldn’t have been too bad if you could also still do that. 

Yeah, I think that’s a good observation.

It’s like I went so dark that I was able to then shove the pendulum the other way, and make something light.

There’s darkness in even the all-ages fantasy, very much in the way that Harry Potter can still go dark, and Star Wars can still go dark, but it was still more about something that everyone could read.

So I created these two (comics) – I wrote seven issues of one, and I did about five issues of the other.

At the time I was doing a lot of television stuff, so really my aspiration was to try to break into television and film. I was doing a lot of screenplays, I was doing a lot of teleplays, I actually did sell one screenplay, which was pretty cool, but then it all came back to comics for me, where I was like – man, I like the TV world, I like the film world, but right now all the TV shows and movies, they’re just mining comic book ideas.

I remember I went to a Screen Writers Guild (event), I got invited to one of their happy hours. I’m sitting in there, I’m rubbing elbows with people who are writing on Lovecraft Country, and writing on this TV show, and writing on this movie, and I’m mixing in that world. I introduce myself as a comic book writer, and every single time I told somebody I was a comic book writer I saw their eyebrows raise, because in that world they’re like – oh, you’re the idea guy! They know in Hollywood right now that all the really cool ideas are in the comic book world, and we’re not just talking about superheroes, we’re talking about fantasy, we’re talking about sci-fi, we’re talking about crime, we’re talking about romance, we’re talking about everything. There are so many cool comics right now, independent comics especially, that are being mined for television and Hollywood.

When I saw that being a comic book creator was very valuable to Hollywood I was like let me shift gears to comic books because I can control it.

One of my favorite comic book writers, Brian K. Vaughan, he kinda did this thing where he started off in comic books, thought that television was the next step, realized that TV was crazy, and came back to comic books. What he compared it to was – making a TV show is like being the general of an army, and writing a comic book is like being in a band, because the comic book is just you and a couple other people, whereas in television there’s so much more.

That’s exactly what happened to me when I was trying to work in TV. I’m meeting this producer, I’m meeting that producer, I’m working with this screenwriter, I’m working this agent, and it’s just convoluted, and it’s just so big, and you just get washed up in that world as a writer.

You really don’t have that much control over what you create in the television and film world, unless you’re like an Aaron Sorkin, or Shonda Rhimes. Most TV writers, if you get put on a TV show you’ll be lucky if you write an episode or two, and it’s not gonna be your original idea, it’s going to be somebody else’s idea that you’re just fortunate enough to be able to write a couple scripts for.

With The Walking Dead, didn’t that guy end up gone from the show after season one? 

That was the showrunner. I guess he had a different vision of what AMC wanted to do with that show.

The original creator, the comic book writer, Robert Kirkman, he’s a huge inspiration to me because I read all of his comics long before they were made into a show. I remember when I was reading The Walking Dead, and it was just this black and white indie horror comic. In fact, I was in a comic book store when I met this guy who was looking at a volume of The Walking Dead, and I was like, “Oh, you should read that comic, it’s really good.” He’s like, “I work for AMC, we’re making this into a TV show, can you tell me about it?” I was like oh shoot! But once it became a TV show it became something else.

Robert Kirkman, he’s an inspiration for me because he, like Brian K. Vaughan, is like – let me just focus on the comics, let me just make these comic books as amazing as I can. If they get made into a TV show, nice, but you can’t really focus on what it can become, it has to be what it is now. That’s the problem with comics now, too many people are trying to jump the gun.

But to answer your question, I felt that I had more control over making a comic book than I could working in television and film, or even working in the music industry. Those worlds are so big, and so convoluted, there are so many moving parts, it’s so much about marketing, and social media. It’s just difficult to get all of those things right, and you have to have a really good team if you’re gonna blow up as a rapper, or if you’re gonna have a TV show, or a movie, that works. With a comic book it’s just me and the artist, we figure out our vision, we put the book out, we make it as cool as we want to make it, and then the world decides if they like it or not. I like the control aspect, this is how I can get my vision out most directly.

Also, the community is awesome. The comic book community is just a bunch of nerds who just want to do nerdy stuff.

Just like everything, it’s becoming toxic, the trolls have infiltrated it, and now there’s all types of things. Because the comic book world has become bigger over the last couple years, and more lucrative, it now has attracted a lot of people who don’t understand comics, and don’t really care about comics, but want to profit from comics, so you have a lot of new comic book companies, and comic book creators, that are not really down for the true essence of comic books.

If you didn’t get beat up reading a Spiderman when you were 13 years old, I don’t want to hear you talking about making comics now. We bled for this. {laughs}

Your initial launch will be with three titles, each aimed at a different audience. Is this a way of attempting to make sure Earth Tone Kingdom won’t be pigeonholed? 

I think that’s part of it.

Part of it is because I like everything. When it comes to television and film I’ll watch a documentary, I’ll watch an animated show, I’ll watch a horror movie, I’ll watch a rom-com. When it comes to music it’s the same way, I love all different genres, so as a writer I create the genres, and these are pretty distinct.

I was just reading back my horror comic and I’m like – I might get in trouble for this, this is kind of extreme. Then I’m reading my all-ages science fantasy adventures, and I would be surprised that the same person wrote both. They’re that different from each other.

I think part of it is yes, I don’t want to be pigeonholed. The other part of it is I don’t know what the universe wants from me. I don’t know if people want more horror from me. I don’t know if people want more science fantasy. I’m kind of using this to create some analytics, and some metrics to see what people like most.

What kind of connection, if any, will your graphic novels have with your music? Will there be a soundtrack, or specific songs for each? 

That is already in the works. In fact, that would’ve happened right now if it wasn’t for the fact that I had some music that I hadn’t released yet, so I paired that with this particular Kickstarter.

My vision is for Earth Tone Kingdom to not only publish comic books, but also publish music.

So yes, you are going to see a lot of musical accompaniments with a lot of my comics and graphic novels as time goes by.

To find out more about AJ Ampadu, and Earth Tone Kingdom check out earthtoneking.com, and to show support, consider backing his Kickstarter.


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