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 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.
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.
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.
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.