Ed Piskor’s “Hip Hop Family Tree” makes innovative use of the comics medium to tell the story of Hip Hop. It’s basically a documentary, but instead of aged talking heads reminiscing over old footage, Piskor narrates the story, with the images showing the main characters and action. This technique takes you back and effectively immerses you into the sights and fashions of the periods covered.
The story starts in the Bronx in the 70s and for a while doesn’t travel very far outside; it’s remarkable how much of the early innovation in Hip Hop happened in such a small, concentrated area. Despite this, the number of characters quickly multiplies, and Piskor has his work cut out managing all the competing crews, DJs, club owners and MCs. Piskor has cited Chris Claremont’s 70s/80s work on the Uncanny X-Men as inspiration for handling an extensive list of characters and it’s there to see in techniques such as introducing characters well before they take centre stage (graphic design student Carlton Ridenhouer is seen listening to early Hip Hop at college, and in a nice touch we see young comics fan Darryl McDaniels reading a copy of the X Men).
Going so far back in time enables Piskor to explain the cultural roots of the genre. The battles between the sound systems at the block parties and the roots in gang culture explain the seam of adversarial braggadocio that still runs through the music.
The comics are well-researched (with endnotes pointing you to further reading and YouTube clips), but the tone isn’t dry, and though the genre is given the respect it merits, there’s a spiky playful tone throughout. This is evident in how Piskor portrays some of the characters: Rick Rubin is shown as a spoilt, slumming rich kid, while Russell Simmon’s lisp (or as the comic would put it “Ruthell Thimmon’th lithp”) is turned up to 11.
If you’re a Hip Hop fan, you’ll find more than enough detail and verisimilitude here to wallow in. If like me, you’re largely a sympathetic observer, you can enjoy the storytelling chops and artwork, plus find a few things to explore beyond those Public Enemy, Wu Tang Clan and Common albums.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Hip Hop and/or comics!
One thing you’ve learned
It makes you realise just how novelHip Hop was; it really can’t be seen as an evolution of Funk, Disco or Electronica, it really was an entirely new way of making music.