The moment is now for Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Last month, the second volume of the graphic novel series earned Piskor an Eisner Award for “Best Reality-Based Work,” and earlier this week, the artist announced that the comic is being adapted into an animated series. This Wednesday, the release of Hip Hop Family Tree #1 marks the beginning of Fantagraphics’ first-ever monthly series. All of acclaim and awards are well-deserved- Hip Hop Family Tree is a painstakingly researched and lovingly rendered history of hip-hop music and culture.
Issue one begins in the Bronx in the mid-70s, when the experimental record mixing of DJ Kool Herc and a borough-spanning gang truce inspired (covered in detail in the graphic novel Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker) Afrika Bambaataa to reform his gang the Black Spades as the hip hop crew the Zulu Nation. As the movement grows, we meet a variety of contributors to its development, from innovators like Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizard Theodore (originator of record scratching) to future superstars (including Kurtis Blow, producer Russell Simmons and his younger brother Joseph, who would go on to form Run DMC with Darryl McDaniels, here identified by his early moniker, Grandmaster Get High) as well as lesser known, but still significant figures like Casanova Fly, DJ Breakout, early female MC Sha-Rock and Coke La Rock (considered by many to be the first hip hop MC).
Hip Hop Family Tree not only has a terrific story to tell, but it tells it with great style. The pages of the book are textured to look like an old, three color print comic, which has the visual effect of the pops and crackles on a vinyl record. Piskor draws in a classically cartoony style, somewhat reminiscent of early Bill Wray, which adds a sense of fun playfulness to his serious historical research. Best of all is the overall tone of Hip Hop Family Tree. This is not a book that feels the need to convince you of the importance of hip-hop, nor is exclusively geared towards those who are already in the know about the movement’s origins. It’s accessible and enthusiastic without ever being pedantic or condescending, to the reader or to the book’s subjects, coming off ultimately as exactly what it should be- a labor of love documenting an important and underrepresented portion of history in a way that almost any reader can get something out of.
Harris Smith is a Brooklyn-based comics and media professional. In addition to his role as a Senior Production Coordinator at comiXology, he edits several comics anthologies, including Jeans and Felony Comics, under the banner of Negative Pleasure Publications. He’s also the host of the weekly radio show Neagtive Pleasure on Newtown Radio.
Afrika Bambaataa, former member of The Black Spades, and leader of The Mighty Zulu Nation.
How many people who participate in Hip Hop culture are Graffiti Artists? How many are B-Boys? How many heads nowadays know who Afrika Bambaataa is? If the majority of the disciples of Hip Hop don’t practice a discipline, one of the four (or five) elements, then how can the culture still exist?
It is time to redefine our paradigm of Hip Hop. The culture itself has changed because society has changed. Hip Hop ain’t on the streets no more, it’s on the internet. And oldheads are getting left behind.
There is an increasing divide in the subcultures of Hip Hop’s modern milieu, which is leading to an identity crisis: no one is defining what Hip Hop is. The purists are ignoring the freshmen - and the freshmen have no knowledge of Hip Hop’s traditions. Both sides are equally to blame for Hip Hop’s decline. Both sides are driven by ego, and neither side will see the other’s point of view. Neither side is bringing any originality and both are subject to clichés. Everyone in Hip Hop has fallen victim to hedonistic desires: pussy, money, weed. Nobody pursues Hip Hop as a artform to express ideas.
The Universal Zulu Nation stands to acknowledge wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice, and equality, peace, unity, love, and having fun, work, overcoming the negative through the positive, science, mathematics, faith, facts, and the wonders of God, whether we call him Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, or Jah.