The Creator of 'Hip Hop Family Tree' Talks Rap History and Comics

Ed Piskor is in the middle of putting out a comic-book history of hip-hop that is pretty much the best history of hip-hop anyone's ever done.

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Oct 30 2014, 11:40am

Images courtesy of Ed Piskor

Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree is an astonishing feat of cultural archaeology, in both ambition and execution. The project somehow doesn’t seem quite real: a comic-book history of hip-hop going back to the very beginning—the late 70s—where lore is thick and documentation scarce. To tell this story in any language would be a challenge; to tell it in the language of comics feels like a magical summoning.

The very first panel takes place at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, believed to be rap’s birthplace, a community center where DJ Kool Herc first got the idea to talk in rhymes over the records he spun. From those beginnings emerged a local culture that became a global empire.

Piskor’s preparation for this historiographical undertaking is limited to his comic history of computer hacking, Whizzywig (2012), as well as the drawings he contributed to Harvey Pekar’s The Beats: A Graphic History (2009). So far, he’s published two volumes of Hip Hop Family Tree—out of the six he’s contracted for—with new pages serialized weekly at Boing Boing.

Piskor manages to make his history live by isolating key moments in the culture’s development—some of them obscure but crucial, others nearly as well-known as they should be—and extracting from these moments a few key anecdotes which are then dramatized and made humorous through illustration. He’s able to employ this methodology in telling about everything from rap’s first appearance on Soul Train to the definitive battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee to hip-hop’s acquisition of a socio-political consciousness, to the making of Wild Style (1983), to the formation of Run DMC. The characters he draws are animated and nuanced, with affectionate attention paid to period detail. The whole concept works, on every single page, and, taken in its totality, the book is allowed to become as epic in its variety and dimensions as the story it tells. 

I spoke with Piskor about the hip-hop community's response to the series, how he finds most nonfiction graphic illustration to be "garbage," and how tall and wide he'd like to grow his rap Family Tree.

VICE: Can you tell me about your earliest memory of rap?
Ed Piskor: By virtue of being born in 1982, it was already in the atmosphere on a routine basis, man. So the area I’m from—the neighborhood I lived in was predominantly black—there were constantly boomboxes walking up and down the sidewalk, all that kind of stuff. I remember the very first rap song that I owned, that we had in the house on wax: It was Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” because it was on a disco compilation that my parents had. I’m from Pittsburgh. It’s not New York City, but at that stage, which would be ‘85, ‘86, ‘87, hip-hop was in a sort of golden age of sorts.

How has the hip-hop community responded to the series?
Really good, man. It’s almost like the book is officially a piece of hip-hop culture at this point, because different rappers will get in touch, and they want to make sure they’re a part of the story when it comes to their time.

What rappers have gotten in touch with you?
De La [Soul]. Biz Markie. DMC is down. Chuck D will retweet my stuff. Grandmaster Flash will retweet my stuff. There’s a bunch, man… Some of these guys will try to [denigrate] other guys, and say, “Ah, man, he didn’t do this. He didn’t do that.” So I have to have a critical ear for the stuff I’m being fed. It’s good that they’re getting in touch, but when it comes to usability of information, I’m suspicious of stuff. I feel like I have a good bullshit detector. If it sounds too wild and I can’t find one other person who says the same shit, it can’t get put in the book, man.

What are you working on today, in specific?
I’m putting together the strip for next week, and it’s gonna be a good one, man. It’s the introduction of L.L. Cool J into the mix. I hope to pencil two pages today; one of the pages is gonna be a splash page of the young L.L., because I think he deserves that.

Nonfiction comics seem to have undergone a flourishing, of sorts. Do you have any opinions about that?
I actually don't think about this too much. I hate biopics and I don't really read many nonfiction comics, to be honest. Thinking about it, the only nonfiction comics that I've really ever read were autobiographical. There's room for everything in comics, though.

Given the ambition of your own nonfiction-comics undertaking, I’m surprised you don’t have more appreciation for people who are doing similar things.
Well you know what it is: I think they all suck, so it’s like, “Let me make a good one.” That’s truthfully the spirit. So it’s like, “I’ll show you mooks how to do this shit.” It’s true, too—you can quote me on that. You have your outliers. You have your work by Joe Sacco. You have [Art] Spiegelman’s Maus. And that stuff is unassailable, untouchable. But now there’s been a graphic novel boom-and-bust kind of thing where people are getting these gigs to make stuff for big New York publishers. So there’s a lot of chaff. But just in general, in every medium, there’s a lot of garbage, and then there are the few outlying pieces of good work out there. I kind of live by this maxim, man, that the enemy of the best is the good. So if it’s passable, then that’s a failing grade to me, man. I’m just trying to digest the best diet I can, so I can make the best comics I can. That goes for film, that goes for prose books—I just have no time for something that is a C average.

It's obvious that you've used sources outside of what's indicated in the bibliographies, particularly when it comes to interviews. Why don’t you give yourself the credit you deserve by better indicating your sources?
All my friends bring that up to me, and I really just don’t give a fuck about creating an academic text or something. I’ve never gone to college; I don’t even know how to write that shit. A lot of my information is from internet interviews and stuff like that. So I don’t even know how to cite that stuff properly. I’m from a position of ignorance, man, when it comes to that part—citations and shit. And I actually don’t care to pass, in academia and stuff like that. I mean, it’s pretty cool that different college courses do use my books, but I just want to make a cool comic. That’s just a different level of work.

I feel it would take me a month or something to corral all my sources, because I didn’t start documenting them from the beginning. I’m just trying to do my thing and have fun, and that doesn’t feel fun to me. I don’t take liberties, man, and if I do, I call it out immediately. There’s that one image in the first book where the Furious Five gets their first advance, and they go out and buy dirt bikes. I just drew a couple of the characters doing weird jumps and stuff, and I call it out: “Artistic license.” ‘Cuz, you know, I have no evidence that they knew how to do dirt-bike jumps or whatever.

Around when does your interest in rap history start to terminate?
I’d say ’93, ’94, maybe. But then it goes beyond that a little bit. I’ve got six books in me right now—that’s my focus. I’m not sure how far that’s gonna take me.

How far are you interested in taking the project?
That’s an impossible thing for me to answer because as I keep writing and putting stuff together, I keep finding things that are visually interesting and need to be put in the book. So the better way I can answer that question whenever it comes up is I can tell people I’m signed up for six books, and I’ve finished two so far, and I’m well over halfway done with book three. So just by gauging the way things are moving and how much information is being put into this stuff, the end of the sixth book probably will not get beyond ‘87.

What makes you believe the origins of rap should be honored in this way?
The narrative is about community and world-building and how word of mouth works. So at the Kool Herc parties at 1520 Sedgwick, the future of hip-hop—the next people in line—were all at those parties. Hip-hop as we know it is from a very congested area in the South Bronx. By virtue of that, everyone involved in it has a relationship with each other. So that was my whole thing. It’s like, OK, we’ve got this pressure cooker right here, man—we have all this energy—and if you play the six-degrees-of-separation game, you can draw clear lines back to any of these people who were at 1520 Sedgwick. So that’s the exercise, is introducing these early characters and showing how they all interconnect.

Follow Lary Wallace on Twitter.

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