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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.


Feminist Perspectives on Culture and Media

So yesterday was a travel day, and today is a wedding (not mine), so there’s no regular review for today. Instead, have some links to various feminist perspectives on popular culture that I’ve found helpful.

To start with, here’s how to be a fan of problematic things.

Feminist Frequency is a project by Anita Sarkeesian in which she analyzes the portrayal of women in movies and popular culture, which often employs sexist tropes and stereotypes, such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or The Mystical Pregnancy. Recently, she’s also embarked on an analysis of similar tropes in video games, which you might have heard about because the virulent wave of sexist attacks against her before the first video even went up.

Maureen Johnson challenged her Twitter followers to flip the gender of various books to illustrate how differently books are marketed based on the gender of their authors. Related: John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines have a pose off. See also: Escher Girls for the way women are portrayed in comics and illustration.

Miri at Freethought Blogs doesn’t focus on pop culture, but she does have a good article on the role of feminist criticism, and how to write a better love story.

N.K. Jemisin writes about how there’s no such thing as a good stereotype, with particular emphasis on Strong Female Characters.

Speaking of which, the Mary Sue has a great review of the new Tomb Raider game, and how it manages to portray a strong female character without her being a Strong Female Character.

Lastly, as a writer, I loved this article by Kameron Hurley about the pervasiveness of sexist portrayals of women, how they are based on false historical narratives that erase the stories of women who didn’t conform to patriarchal notions of what women could do or be, and how, as writers, we need to change that.

Why is this even a thing?

Well, I think the problem is that I can’t leave a thing alone. It’s not enough for me to just enjoy something and kill some time; if I read a book, watch a movie, or play a game, I have to think about it afterward, talk about it with friends, even write something about it. Otherwise, I feel like those hours were just lost. I feel guilty, in other words, if I’m not thoughtful about my interactions with culture and the media I consume.

When I was really small, single digits, my teacher assigned book reports. I’m not  sure how many book reports I actually had to do, because I started to write about every book, every last one I read. At that age, the “about” of a book was pretty much just a summary of the plot, but I was driven to acknowledge the accomplishment, to say, “I read this!” I want to do that again, although hopefully my thoughts and analysis are a little more mature and in depth than they were at 9 years old. No promises though.

Pop Culture Pillow Talk is about the conversation I have with culture, and with others, after I’ve immersed myself in it. Topics will include whatever I happen to read, watch, or play, from Skyfall to Hagakure, from the Pathfinder RPG to The Wire. My purpose is to think the thing through, explore not just how I’m feeling, but why I’m feeling it. Often when reading or watching something, I let myself get caught up in the world of the story. I get surprised by entirely predictable plot twists, let myself be caught up and sucker punched by funeral scenes, homecomings, and other easy emotional payoffs. Only afterward do I start to really think about what I’ve experienced. This blog will be about what happens after. It will, obviously, be highly subjective. If you have a different take on a thing, I encourage you to offer it in the comments. These posts aren’t intended to be the Final Thought on a subject, and I reserve the right to revisit my opinion of something later in a future post.

This is not about ratings, and I’m not going to give anything a thumbs up, thumbs down. I’m not doing this to shit on the things you like, or to tell you you’re wrong for not liking something. If those things do happen, you should feel free to call me out. This is about my enthusiasms, and I hope yours too.

The plan is to update once a week on Friday. We’ll see how that goes!

Update: the plan didn’t go very well, so we’re updating on Saturdays now. Hurray!