Rob Kirby Reviews Hip Hop Family Tree Vol 1 by Ed Piskor

Written and Illustrated by Ed Piskor
Published by Fantagraphics

The comics gathered in Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree, the first of several planned volumes, were originally created for the popular pop culture website Boing Boing. Volume One traces the history of hip hop music from its nascent stages at house parties in the south Bronx in 1975 to its growing popularity and penetration into the mainstream in 1981. Any knee-jerk questions or qualms about this white boy Piskor chronicling the history of an art form firmly rooted in the African American experience are immediately dispelled by the great love and respect for the music and artists evident in each painstakingly detailed panel on every skillfully wrought page. It’s a story well-suited to the comics form (in more ways than one, as it happens), and the accomplished Piskor makes the most of it. The thumbs up/high-five back cover blurbs from hip hop legends like Biz Markie and Fab 5 Freddy are well earned.

The story of the ascension of hip hop into the popular culture is, like any organic art form, dauntingly intricate. Piskor himself joked in an interview with Marc Sobel on that he’s “like ‘Rain Man’ when it comes to this hip hop shit.” Nevertheless, he keeps the narrative on a smooth trajectory, never bogging down in tedious minutiae, leading any hip hop novices through the story with ease. He expertly juggles the large (and larger-than-life) cast of characters, everyone from influential break-beat DJs like DJ Kool Herc, Kool DJ Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, to early breakout stars like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Kurtis Blow, to important behind the scenes movers and shakers like Sugar Hill Records producer Sylvia Robinson and show promoter Russell Simmons. 

All the great moments from that era in rap history are here. Nerd-like, I especially looked forward to the appearance of “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. When this amazing record first exploded on the radio back in 1979 in all its 15-minute glory, none of us kids in Detroit had ever heard anything like it, and it became quite the feat to memorize the lyrics to rap along the Gang. Widely considered to be the first record to popularize hip hop for the masses, Piskor notes here that its sound was so revolutionary, record stores had a hard time keeping it in stock. Hip hop was on its way.

In the narrative of any important new artistic/cultural movement, there are certain inevitabilities, not the least of which is that some in the field are chosen over others, either by exceptional talent, luck of the draw, the right connections, or some combination of these factors. Piskor relates the quick ascension of Fab 5 Freddy, befriended by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of the then-hugely popular band Blondie. Through their advocacy he was embraced by the NYC downtown art world, which for better and for worse is ever ready to absorb the newest of the new, the cuttingest of the cutting edge. We also witness the sometimes uncomfortable changing of the guard: at a live performance at the Apollo Theater, old-school R&B acts The Ohio Players, Millie Jackson, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes hear the crowd yelling for rising hip hop star DJ Hollywood in the middle of their acts, a sudden slap-in-the-face reality that young upstarts were supplanting them with a newer, hipper sound.

In form as well as content, Hip Hop Family Tree is steeped in a groovy pop culture retro nostalgia. The book is printed on paper that evokes the funky yellowed newsprint of Marvel comic books bought in drugstores way back when; Piskor employs a faded ink color schema that expertly recalls that era as well. I assume the book’s roughly 13 x 19 dimensions pay homage to the giant-sized collector’s edition comic books like the ones that DC used to issue back in the early 70’s. Those big comics, like this one, tended to be collections of older comics with extra material compiled into one big treasury edition (I had an outsized issue of House of Mystery as a kid in 1973 that was quite dear to me).

Piskor also explores the pop cultural links between the comic book and rap music with extra features in the back of the book, including “The Hip Hop/Comic Book Connection,” as well as a series of pinups of hip hop giants by alt-comics guest stars like Nate Beaty, John Porcellino, Tom Scioli, and Dan Zettwoch. As Piskor related in the aforementioned interview “…they have always felt synonymous to me. Comics, hip hop, and pro wrestling, for some reason, all seem like sister pieces of trash pop culture. You’re dealing with a lot of the same elements. Maybe it’s the ephemeral cheapness of the way it used to be back in the day. You know, comics were cheap, and ‘anybody can rap.’ That kind of lo-fi aspect.” He makes a good point. 

Extending this comics and hip hop sisterhood thesis one step further, Piskor notes the ambitions of several young aspiring rappers in the early days, notably a Queens resident who went by the name of Spyder D, who found lightning in a bottle success by forgoing record companies and self-producing/self-distributing (with the help of his mother!) his own record called “Big Apple Rappin’.” Any alt cartoonist or zinester worth their salt will relate to this scrappy DIY ethos; alt-comics creators continue to fund their own artistic ambitions themselves, whenever and however necessary.  With this book Piskor offers up not only the history of hip hop but a celebration of a uniquely American art form created organically from the ground up, honoring both the subject and his chosen art form. Hip hop fans and comics fans alike, take note.