Hip Hop’s Genesis Drawn in “Family Tree” Comic
Ed Piskor talks his new comic book series, "Hip Hop Family Tree."
It ain’t even a question that hip hop and comic book culture have been influencing each other since day one. The two share sparkling similarities in visual presentation, with many rappers adopting alter-egos, becoming Superman come showtime. To this day, graffiti writers around the world use vivid colors and cartoon-like characters to convey a message of their surroundings and shine light on the underdogs of the city. Your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper probably grew up on X-Men and pictured himself a Wolverine on the mic.
Rap has seen its fair share of comic-pulled influence. MF DOOM got his entire style for his debut solo album, Operation Doomsday, straight from Marvel’s Dr. Doom. Johnny “Juice” Rosado of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad credits his scratching technique to being similar to a comic book fight. Wu-Tang members Ghostface Killah and Method Man have both created their own comics, with Ghostface going even as far as making a six-issue series compiling his latest album, 12 Reasons to Die, into a comic book storyline. El-P once spit on an old Company Flow joint, “You couldn’t hang if you was bit by a radioactive spider,” and no doubt, that shit sounded hard.
Of course, hip hop’s been dipped in comic book ink for a while. In issue #5 of Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” series, a character wears a t-shirt with an iconic Hieroglyphics logo. Comic author Jim Mahfood created a solid Beastie Boys book called “Ask For Janice,” revolving all around their classic album Paul’s Boutique. Mark Millar’s “Wanted” featured a main character that was physically modeled exactly after Eminem’s likeness. The rapper also had a one-shot appearance in a “Punisher” comic in which Frank Castle saves Slim Shady from being murdered by an assassin hired by the Parents Music Council.
No doubt, the cultures collide, but there hasn’t really been a solid serialized comic for hip hop heads. Method Man isn’t really releasing comics that have people anxious for sequels, and I doubt Stan Lee is plotting a Beef comic strip series for 2014. Question is, where’s the solid essential to mash the two cultures together, once and for all?
Ed Piskor has been feverously creating that answer since early 2012 in a comic simply called, “Hip-Hop Family Tree.” Piskor has been writing and illustrating the essential hip hop biography on BoingBoing.net, serializing the comic strip on a weekly basis. The strips begin with the birth of hip hop in the year 1975, and Piskor plans to eventually direct the series near modern day.
Fantagraphics collected and published 112 pages worth of strips in early December of 2013, selling out of all copies within two days of arrival. With plans to re-publish the book in January, there’s no doubt Piskor has seen success with the book. After reading the title, I also don’t second-guess recommending it to anyone who loves hip hop or has a desire to jump into the comic book medium.
The book kicks off with the birth of the party scene in New York in the mid-70s and ends somewhere in the early ’80s, with Fab Five Freddy’s influence in the art world. Between that, Piskor drops knowledge on anyone who chooses to absorb his words, introducing readers to an extremely large array of pioneering musicians. We’ve got Afrika Bambataa, Kool Keith, DJ Kool Herc, Cold Crush Brothers, Funky Four Plus One, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, Eddie Cheba, Russell Simmons, K.K. Rockwell, Rick Rubin, Kid Creole, Sha-Rock, and so many other artists, including a cameo of a very young Dr. Dre.
“Hip-Hop Family Tree” chooses to explain the birth of rap by explaining who did what in the most simplistic, yet informative way possible. On one page, readers see all about DJ Breakout’s influence in the Bronx, while two pages later they’re introduced to Grandmaster Flash and the rearranging crew that led to the Furious Five. Each panel features intriguing narrative on the direction hip hop was heading, and the further the reader gets through the book, the more it becomes apparent that the genre is taking shape. Piskor uses a wide array of rappers, slowly starting to connect them to each other by the end of the book.
The art style is clear in aiding to accomplish its message, with panels parallel to the subject matter on every page. In some areas, the art sticks out as more than impressive. Afrika Bambataa’s soundsystem literally shakes the colors off its panel, while the goofy cock-eyed face of Russell Simmons almost makes him a source of humor every time he’s featured with his signature lisp. The colors Piskor uses are vivid, with the entire comic as a whole giving off an old school vibe; yellow in tint, as if the paper were from the time period it portrays.
The amount of information the 112 pages “Hip Hop Family Tree” boasts is an incredible feat. It’s dense with knowledge, literally to the point of re-reading some pages or panels, but it pushes you through the last page effortlessly. The book is an absolute essential for any hip hop head to read and any comic book fan to gander over.
We spoke with Piskor about his personal connections with hip hop and the culture, and where the series is headed.
Mass Appeal: We’ve talked in the past about your last book, “Wizzywig.” You told me how you found this 20+ year radio show called “Off The Hook” and literally devoured the entire 1,000+ hours of content over a 14 month period. What makes you qualified to take on the birth of hip hop?
Ed Piskor: Who’s qualified to do anything? I’ve been into this culture my entire life so the comic is a culmination of 30 years of immersion.
MA: There’s a ton of information in the first book alone. It’s extremely dense with knowledge and specifics, no doubt. Could you give me a little detail on how you found all these accounts and stories for the strips?
EP: I have a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of the records, so that provides the linear component to the narrative. To fill in the gaps of my knowledge, and to add context, there are tons of books, photos, and interviews out there. Books like “The Big Payback,” and “Yes Yes Y’all.” Photographers like Joe Conzo, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant. This is a project that could not be possible without the existence of the internet to corral all of this information through either online resources to review info or to buy out of print books/records. I consider myself to be a curator of information on this project.
MA: It seems like your book could definitely be added as a definintive guide to hip hop history as well. It’s unique, being a graphic novel, and that could be used as a reference. There’s not many of those out there.
EP: I can tell that lots of people who don’t even read books check out my comic because more than 5 people were like “Hey, that thing in the back that’s like the phonebook with everybody’s names, that’s cool,” when they refer to the index. haha
MA: Have there been any rappers who’ve read your book? I saw Chuck D tweeted about it, which is super awesome.
EP: There have been. I’m not gonna namedrop too many because they’ve been cool enough to be patrons of my work and even buy some original pages, but there are lots of people into it.
Stuff white people ask me: “Who do you think you are to make this comic?” and black folks say “It’s about time someone made a comic like this.”
MA: It’s like you said earlier, “Who’s qualified to do anything?” I don’t see the need to test you — you seem to have all your facts straight. There isn’t much criticism on the spectrum of the elders/hip hop enthusiasts who’ve read your book who have complaints on accuracy.
EP: Naw. The cool thing about putting the work out there on the Internet each week, via boingboing.net, is that bored anonymous people are very happy to let people know they’re wrong, and it hasn’t come up yet, thanks to intense fact checking and stuff like that. Sometimes someone will try to make a point and then I toss a couple sources down their throats to shut them up.
MA: Haha, word. What era would you eventually like to take the comic? Are you aiming for modern day, or maybe ending in the ’90s?
EP: I’m just taking my time and letting things unfold as they will. I had a plan early on, but as I discover deeper and deeper aspects to the culture I realize that I have to keep things liquid and open-minded. So the goal is to simply keep things moving along and to let these big important moments have the necessary shine and dignity they deserve
I’m signed up to do 6 books so far though. Who know’s how far that will take me. I imagine that some books might only contain 1 years worth of history, once things really get cranking.
MA: I saw that little Dr. Dre cameo you placed early on in the first book. Is there any rapper/producer or any era of hip-hop you’re excited to talk about?
EP: It’s really a ball just to act as an archaeologist to uncover these truths about this universe. I think my major strength in telling this story is that I don’t have hero-worship when it comes to anyone in particular. It’s hip hop that I love and all these players just make up the bigger whole.