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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.



First of all, sorry for the late post. I got in late Saturday from Chicago, barely wrote a word of anything while I was there, and then worked and hated life all Sunday. So, you get a super late post, then we resume a normal Saturday schedule. And now, one of my favorite things:


I found Clarkesworld as a writer trying to place a story. That didn’t really work out, but as a reader I have never looked back. There are many good magazines out there for science fiction and fantasy – Shimmer, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons – in addition to the venerable Asimov’sAnalog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, but Clarkesworld is my favorite, consistently publishing some of the most excellent speculative fiction – or fiction in general – currently floating around on the Internet.

Neil Clarke, the founder and editor of Clarkesworld and no direct relation to Arthur C., publishes the kind of fiction that I aspire to write. It is strange and beautiful, full of spaceships, death, robots, heartache, alien worlds, interstellar empires, moments of defining character, poetic language, and experimental humanoid and literary forms. I’m wary of drawing some distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, so let’s just say that whatever limiting genre expectations you may have, Clarkesworld stories tend to transcend them. There is no formula, exactly, but most of them do what I most want science fiction to do: take me to other worlds. “Mantis Wives”, for example, posits an entire mantis culture based around the death of the male during mating, while “Aquatica” presents the short life of a male anglerfish pursuing a legend of his people in a quest for his life to have some meaning beyond breeding and dying. There are stories that explore the ruined world after some Event (“Fade to White”), or set in an age of great interstellar empires and interplanetary rebels (“Scattered Along the River of Heaven”), hidden worlds not far removed from our own (“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”) or our own world gone strange in unexpected ways (“Melt With You”). They don’t tend to explain themselves in so many words; they expect you to splash in and immerse yourself, and let the strangeness and wonder take over for a little while. And they do this effectively, making you feel like you’ve just visited a strange, lovely, sometimes terrible place.

While not as deliberately dark as, say, Apex Magazine,  the quality of the writing is such that when they choose to be so, the effect can be pretty devastating. The three combined stories of the August 2012 issue pack a hell of a punch: “Mantis Wives” is morbidly beautiful, “Honey Bear” is sweet, sad speculative horror, and “Fade to White” just rips straight into your core and keeps on going through and through. The editors aren’t afraid of experimental or weird fiction, either: “Spar” is as deeply upsetting as it is powerful (trigger warning for graphic nonconsensual alien sex); “Everything Must Go” and “All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions” are so strange that it’s almost surprising how moving they are, and how well they capture a particular kind of sadness.

I think part of what makes Clarkesworld’s voice, insofar as a magazine can have a voice, unique is the diversity of authors that it publishes. The volume of women and people of color published in Clarkesworld is pretty astonishing, and although Neil Clarke insists it isn’t a deliberate editorial choice, if it was it would be a welcome antidote to what so often appears to be a very white male dominated field. Through Clarkesworld, I’ve learned the names of many writers I might not otherwise have discovered, such as Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Kij Johnson, Yoon Ha Lee, and these are now names that I look for when I search for new fiction. I haunt the blogs of N.K. Jemisin, Jay Lake, and Carrie Vaughn. I find inspiration, as a writer, in interviews with old masters like Gene Wolfe and Lois McMaster Bujold, and with newer writers like Nnedi Okorafor or Myke Cole. The depth of voice in Clarkesworld makes it fresh and engaging every month. I probably wouldn’t say that Neil Clarke publishes optimistic stories, but I think his magazine does the work of optimistic science fiction: not only showing us how the future of the genre could look, but actively works to make that future a reality. Clarke publishes the magazine he always wanted to read, and it turns out that’s the kind of magazine I want to read too.

I hate to relegate illustration to an afterthought, but I can’t leave the subject of Clarkesworld without mentioning the cover art. I know I’m a sucker for judging books by their covers, but the effort taken to select such gorgeous artwork for each issue of the magazine is part of what makes this a top quality read, and has even inspired me to purchase hard copies of a few issues. I’m just going to leave you with a few links to my favorite covers; see if they aren’t just what you’ve always hoped would be on the cover of a magazine of speculative fiction.

“The Remains Which Live” by Keisuke Asaba

“Soulhunter” by Andrey Lazarev

“Winding Down” by Alex Ries

“Nautilii” by Julie Dillon

“Retro Robots” by Georgi Markov

Read it online, and consider buying a subscription for your ereader. You can also buy the first three Clarkesworld anthologies or selected chapbooks through Neil Clarke’s publishing house, Wyrm Publishing.