Book of the Month: “Hip Hop Family Tree”

“Fab Five Freddy,” says Debbie Harry, “meet the Clash.”

If scenes like that are apocryphal in the annals of pop culture, then Hip Hop Family Tree is a full-color Bible. Written and illustrated by Pittsburgh comics artist Ed Piskor, Family Tree is a serial anthology that began as a weekly online comic in early 2012. With each installment, Piskor recounted the evolution of one of the great cultural movements of the 20th century. It became a phenomenon online; rap royalty like Chuck D, Biz Markie and Grandmaster Flash (all of whom Piskor depicted) cosigned via Twitter. Now Fantagraphics offers Family Tree as it was meant to be: an extra-large trade paperback graphic novel. In this format, it assumes its proper weight, physically and psychically.

The book begins at hip-hop’s Year Zero: Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc’s rec-room parties at the Sedgwick projects in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s. From there the culture spreads, assimilating militant black gangs and converting them to community guardians, moving from playgrounds to nightclubs, from the Bronx to Manhattan, from street cyphers onto the radio and into the recording studio. Along the way, Piskor delves into historical footnotes from an era of unprecedented originality: The 1977 blackout that threw all of New York into turmoil provided cover for kids to loot expensive mixing gear, exponentially expanding hip-hop’s creative class. Kurtis Blow earned hip-hop’s first gold record in 1980 with “The Breaks.” In 1981 the Clash played 17 concerts in a row at a Manhattan casino, with hip-hop openers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and the Treacherous Three, perhaps the first rock-rap crossover. Later that year, 20/20 took the first mainstream look at “the new sound of the ’80s.”

That original 20/20 segment is available on YouTube, where Piskor pulled much of his historical data from archived TV programs and interviews—a luxury afforded by the video boom of the ’80s plus today’s easy online access to it. But the book is less about Wikipedia-entry history nodes than genealogy. Coming at the story as a family tree, Piskor emphasizes the intertwined lives and mercurial relationships that loomed over hip-hop’s early days. He includes players major and minor, youngsters forging a new medium, old guard exploiting their talents, everyone looking to make a buck. He does so with period details in vintage comic style; Family Tree looks like it might’ve been written during the time it takes place.

After four decades, hip-hop has traveled so far from its roots that it’s hardly recognizable as what it once was, making the story of its origins more important than ever. With Family Tree, Piskor stops short of romanticizing and instead—and more appropriately—opts for mythologizing. Word is this is volume one of 10 he’s planning. So let it be written, so let it be done.