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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor

hip hop family tree cover

I’m not proud. It took an awful lot of white people to get me to recognize the value of rap and hip hop, and that is, I think you’ll agree, kind of fucked up. In high school, DJ Screw was a big deal, but I didn’t know it. I just knew the lockerroom was filled with Chopped and Screwed, and I wanted to listen to Queen. Or Jimi Hendrix. I spent the turn of the 21st century stuck in the 70s, afraid of liking something uncool. It wasn’t until I read somewhere that, in order to be cool, I had to have a favorite member of the Wu Tang Clan that I paid any attention to rap. Shortly after that I saw Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai and realized, with a shameful amount of surprise, that RZA is an exceptionally gifted musician. Much later, I heard “Smells Like Compton“, a mashup of NWA and Nirvana, and found out that Ice Cube is a stone cold badass and gangster rap is more than just noise and violence. And then, much later, when the mainstreaming of rap had me thinking that maybe dismissing an entire genre of music made me kind of an asshole, Ed Piskor started publishing Hip Hop Family Tree on Boing Boing.

hip hop don't stop

Hip Hop Family Tree started almost accidentally as part of Ed Piskor’s regular “Brain Rot” feature on Boing Boing. His comics, with their distinctive newsprint style, influenced by the kind of pulp comics he grew up with, weren’t about anything in particular until he started talking about his love of old school hip hop. It started with a comparison of hip hop to superhero comics, and then went all the way back to DJ Kool Herc and his house parties, often credited as the origin of hip hop 40 years ago. And Piskor is still just getting started, tracing the spread of hip hop and rap from its origin on the streets and in the clubs of New York to its place as a pillar of the American music industry.

grandmaster cas

The way Piskor tells this story feels comprehensive and authoritative. It feels true, and I think that feeling comes from both thoroughly researching his subject and his clear enthusiasm for it. His love for hip hop is apparent in the way he crafts the stories, the way he draws the characters, the way he inserts bits and pieces of rap lyrics wherever he can. He loves it enough to learn everything he can about it, from the definitive moments, like the formation of Sugarhill Records or the production of Wild Style, to obscure bits of hip hop apocrypha, and his enthusiasm for one is equal to his enthusiasm for the other. And yet somehow he also manages to sound like a detached observer. He acts as a historian, not passing judgement on, say, the business decisions of Sylvia Robinson except by implication. That, also, creates a feeling of authenticity to his work that makes me wonder how real world Robinson, if she were still alive, would feel about the Robinson we see on the page.

sylvia lays down the law

The project started with a joke about the way hip hop artists have alter egos just like superheroes, and Piskor takes special delight in crafting unique visual styles for Russell Simmons, Kool Moe Dee, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash, and all the rest. Hats, shades, and hairstyles become a visual shorthand for key players, with more minor figures often wearing shirts with their names on them even as he develops their unique style. Rick Rubin is drawn in such a different style from Afrika Bambaataa that he might as well be in a different comic, but that’s part of what makes it so terrific when they all come together. They are so distinctive that they stick in the brain, and even one panel illustrations of Bad Brains or Henry Rollins are fun. And when these characters come together it often is for something of comicbook-level epicness, such as Kool Moe Dee’s showdown with Busy Bee Starski, or the battle between Grandmaster Flash and the Brothers Disco. Or, and this includes what is probably my single favorite splash panel, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force premiering Planet Rock.


The actual family tree has gotten a bit unwieldy at this point, and difficult to parse. The user interface for the comic is also super unfriendly; each page is simply a tagged post on Boing Boing, so there isn’t really an easy way to navigate and pick up where you left off. However, this is my only complaint about Hip Hop Family Tree as a project. It takes in street corner DJs, night club MCs, Freddie Fab5 and Blondie, the Treacherous Three and the Beastie Boys, drawing lines and making connections. Piskor sets out to document the “viral propagation of a culture”, and does so with incredible style and a great sense of pacing and narrative, managing a sprawling cast of characters with panache. It’s exciting to see the origins of familiar names like Doug E. Fresh or Public Enemy, and watch the culture spread to the west coast, with Ice T and Dr. Dre.

chuck d

It’s embarrassing how long it took, but I’m on board now.  I’m excited about this music. I have a better understanding of where it came from and what it means, and I’ve started exploring what else is out there. Understanding the origins of hip hop gives me a foundation from which to experience Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur, Tyler the Creator and Kanye West, and UGK and the Screwed Up Click. So if you are the sort of person who has ever said “I like all kinds of music except rap”, pick up Hip Hop Family Tree and start relieving your ignorance. I give many thanks to  Jim Jarmusch, Ed Piskor, and especially mixmaster Lindsay Schmitt, for relieving mine.

hip hop afrika bambatta

Read Hip Hop Family Tree online at Boing Boing, starting from the beginning here, or pre-order Volume One at Fantagraphics or Amazon. Check out Piskor’s other work at his site.


The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Sorry about the prolonged hiatus! It turns out that deciding to quit your job and move to Chicago to be a writer takes up a lot of time that could have been spent reviewing Pacific Rim or Luther or something else with Idris Elba in it. July was a panic of goodbyes and packing and discarding the accumulated Stuff of Life, and I’m still settling in, still grappling with the reality of uprooting my life and moving it to another city. A city with winter. But now I’m back, and writing is back, and it’s time to talk about books and movies and other such things.

The Tiger's Wife

When I think of the craft of storytelling, I often compare it to weaving, with characters, plot elements, and recurring imagery as threads bound together to create something intricate and beautiful. Writers weave tapestries out of moments of life, images of violence, the voices of characters, and the reader is drawn inexorably to something whole and emotionally satisfying. There is a special kind of joy that comes from seeing all the threads of narrative converge and the finished image at last revealed.

The Tiger’s Wife is very much a woven story, a tapestry of convergence. Natalia’s story, as she tries to understand her grandfather and why he chose to die in a remote village far from home, intertwines with the stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and those stories are supplemented by still other stories nested within them. It’s not meta, exactly, but Story, it’s importance and relevance, it’s living nature, is a central theme of the book. It is Natalia’s story and it is her grandfather’s. It is present and past, mystery and myth. The deathless man and the tiger’s wife are set against the bombing of Belgrade, glimpses of life under Tito, borders shifting with the collapse of empires. It is a vast story contained in a slim volume of words, and finds space to grapple with profound questions of destiny, death, and truth.

Though the two central characters are both physicians, this novel is about death, or more specifically, how we die. Our protagonists are in the business of fighting death, gaining mastery over it, and the narrative often confronts them with situations that show contempt for that mastery, like the diggers who refuse medical treatment for their illness, or the NATO bombing campaign, or the riddle of a man who simply will not die. Natalia grapples with this in the form of her own grandfather’s death, retracing his steps forward to the foreign village where he died, and backward to the remote mountain village where he grew up. The story is driven by the metaphysical question of why, but the narrative itself is deeply physical. Obreht provides no easy confirmations of magic or evidence of life after death. The most blatantly supernatural element, the deathless man, is experienced second-hand, through the grandfather’s tales, and even then everything is rooted in the material world, so much so that the clear defiance of natural law is frustrating both to the reader and to the characters. Obreht’s imagery gives her story the weight and presence of the real world. I am left with indelible images of the fevered touch of the diggers in the orchard, the profound cold of the mountain village, the sight of blood on snow. Her command of language is poetic, but also visceral; you feel the truth of it in your gut.

My favorite part of the novel on this first read through was, as seems appropriate, the story of the tiger’s wife. Something about a tiger haunting a mountain village during the fierce winter before World War II, the mixture of rational explanation by Natalia and the demon-haunted terror of the villagers creates the best kind of legend, one that even stripped of supernatural explanation is remarkable, thrilling, and beautiful. In the midst of the villagers’ fear of what they do not understand, the boy who would become Natalia’s grandfather learns about beauty and the proximity of death, and that sometimes no amount of effort or love can save those doomed to die. Framed as a historical investigation by the backward looking Natalia, the story also includes brief histories of characters such as the butcher and the apothecary, men integral to the grandfather’s story but about whom he probably knew little in life. They are revealed as heroes of their own tales, tales which lead inevitably to the winter-locked mountains and the tiger. Their stories are their own, but are also intricately woven into the greater story of the novel. There are many threads, but only one tapestry.

The Tiger’s Wife satisfies a deep narrative longing in me. It is rich with history and humanity. Obreht’s stories and substories are keenly crafted and transport me to another time and place, packing multiple layers of detailed narrative into a novel of less than 400 pages. Téa Obreht has created something complex without being complicated, deep without being unfathomable. It’s a story that can be enjoyed once or reread and studied closely for greater rewards. It is a true accomplishment.

Purchase the novel on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound. Visit the author’s website here.