Published on October 13th, 2016 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Hip Hop Family Tree
Ed Piskor lays down both brilliance and history with Hip Hop Family Tree, a series of engrossing graphic novels detailing the rise of hip hop.
The idea of taking the history of hip hop and turning it into a series of graphic novels, chronologically laying it out, sounds impossible to most and boring to some.
Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree is one of the most brilliant passion projects ever put to print.
If you’re not familiar with Piskor’s work, he is an alternative comics creator living in Pittsburgh. He’s known for working with American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar on projects like The Beats: A Graphic History, Macedonia, and American Splendour: Our Movie Year. He’s also got quite a following for his series, Wizzywig. But Hip Hop Family Tree is the series he is best known for at this point. Or at least should be.
So far, Hip Hop Family Tree contains four volumes with each one chronicling a period in the history of hip hop. The first volume covers the late 1970s up to 1981, the next 1981 to 1983. After that, it’s year over year covering every pertinent detail.
And that’s a lot of ground to cover once it gets rolling.
First and foremost, Piskor is an outstanding storyteller. He expertly blends his art with the narrative, simultaneously conveying fact while making it entertaining and engaging. The reality of the history he’s conveying to the reader is that it has the potential to be exceedingly dry, despite the subject matter. Hip Hop Family Tree is anything but dry. In fact, once you start reading it’s nearly impossible to put down.
One of the great joys of this series is finding out more about the people you’re familiar with. The earliest volume has plenty of recognizable names like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa but it also layers in a lot of people many readers might not be as familiar with. As the volumes go on, it’s amazing seeing how people you do know like LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, or RUN DMC start to become part of the equation. Or how early people like Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin start to factor in. And it’s equally interesting to see how quickly the first generation of hip hop stars fall off the map, some due to the evolution of the game and others due to their own bad choices.
Piskor also does an amazing job of bringing in other key cultural components of the era, like the birth of Punk Rock, the graffiti arts scene starting to transfer to the mainstream, and the realities of the political climate. Many of these factors are still pertinent to modern culture.
Another big challenge is reflecting the regional aspects of hip hop. The story starts in New York but there is quickly a presence in Los Angeles that needs to be discussed. And Philadelphia becomes another important city in the mix early on. Tensions have been created in the hip hop community over the years based on geography so reflecting what’s going on across the country is important to telling the story right.
Ultimately, Piskor’s biggest success is finding balance between all of these moving parts. History. Time. Culture. Geography. So many big elements play roles in telling the story of hip hop that it feels like an almost impossible task going in. But Piskor successfully finds that balance, in part due to the high calibre of his art but also his storytelling acumen. Beyond that, he has the one element absolutely needed to pull off a huge project like this.
Every panel you read is a clear demonstration of his passion for hip hop and how strong his desire was, and is, to tell this story. And there is no sense of that diminishing as you read through each volume. This doesn’t read like work for hire that he was brought in to do. He wasn’t paid to rehash the same superhero for the thousandth time, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hip Hop Family Tree is the perfect embodiment of a passion project and what can happen when you chase that dream with clear, defined goals supported by skill and talent.
The comic book industry always needs more projects like this. And there are definitely more passion project out in the world of comic books. But there is only one Hip Hop Family Tree series. Get on board. Now.