- Craig Graziano
"Stepping in a rhythm to a Kurtis Blow.
Who needs to think when your feet just go?"
Tom Tom Club - The Genius of Love
Ed Piskor cannot rap or dance. He is no good with turntables or sampling. What Piskor can do is draw, which is why Hip Hop Family Tree is such an important testament to honoring the innovators and pioneers of the culture.
Through Piskor's drawings, we are invited to the South Bronx in the mid-Seventies, where several DJs—disc jockeys—are gaining notoriety for their choices of music at clubs and parties. These include DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa. They use their record collections to reappropriate their favorite parts of songs into energetic compositions.
The musical selections are combined with boasts and rhymes from the most talented emcees, or masters of ceremonies—and dancing. An entirely whole new art form begins to emerge.
Piskor is all over the map with this most thorough account. He features the entrepeneurs who had the lucrative foresight to record the music. Graffiti artists, such as Fab Five Freddy, use the urban landscape as their canvas. Freddy finds himself embraced by the New York art and pop music scene, making friends with the likes of Andy Warhol and Deborah Harry.
The book shows that early Hip-Hop was not just a man's game. MC Sha Rock holds her own among the Funky Four Plus One. Even more impressive are the business dealings of Sylvia Robinson. Founding Sugar Hill Records and assembling the Sugar Hill Gang proved to be two of the most important moments in the scene. When the Sugar Hill Gang released the single "Rapper's Delight," it astounded fans of the genre and infuriated artists who had not yet considered capitalizing on recording their rhymes.
The book culminates with one of the first rap battles. Busy Bee Starski had been on the Hip Hop scene for a long time and he was great at getting the crowd fired up with his chants, but his rhyming abilities could not hold a candle to Kool Moe Dee, who took the stage and managed to berate Busy Bee with a master stroke of rhyme and flow. The exchange was recorded and Piskor includes both participants' words in full, adding to the magic of the moment.
Ed Piskor's project began as a serialized comic on the fantastic culture and tech blog Boing Boing. Once he had developed enough strips, the publisher Fantagraphics adapted the work into a gorgeous, full-color graphic novel.
You sometimes hear people talk about preferring the feeling of holding a book to reading electronically. Well, Hip Hop Family Tree was made to be read in book form. Piskor's drawing style is gloriously detailed and reappropriates Robert Crumb's visuals in the same way that his subjects mix and match different drumbeats from artists such as James Brown to create something wholly new. Even the paper's look and feel seems to suggest that the volume is some lost gem from the Seventies. Take time to watch the short video below to see how beautiful this book truly is.
The amount of information packed into these 112 pages is simply staggering. There is so much to look at and there are so many music suggestions. Fans have even gone on to create a couple of playlists from the book's selected discography, allowing for an immersive experience of sound and vision.
What I like most about Piskor's work is the commitment to showing that Hip-Hop is a vital part of 20th-century history, offering culture and identity to a struggling population. This book takes their stories and turns them into the stuff of legend.
Readers looking for more information should check out Can't Stop, Won't Stop, by Jeff Chang, which offers many of the same observations and information in prose form. Also, many of the DJs mentioned are interviewed in The Record Players by Bill Brewster.
Those looking for a less textbook account of the early scene might want to seek out The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem, a coming-of-age novel set at the forefront of this musical movement. There is even a new children's book, When the Beat Was Born, which follows the story of DJ Kool Herc, the first person mentioned in Piskor's book.
Volume 1 of Hip Hop Family Tree ends in 1981. Of course, there's much more of the story to be told, which is why Volume 2 is slated to be released later this year. Piskor is still working, and I hope he continues this project for a long time.