Ed Piskor has made a name for himself in comics with a “Wizzywig” — which he both wrote and illustrated — as well as a series of collaborations with the late Harvey Pekar, including “The Beats” and “Macedonia.” Since 2012, “Hip Hop Family Tree,” Piskor’s nonfiction look at the emergence of hip hop music and culture beginning in the South Bronx in the late seventies, has been featured on the internet zine Boing Boing.
Fantagraphics has collected the strips into two volumes, the latest of which covers hip hop’s history from 1981 to 1983. As he winds down the comic book portion of the forthcoming third volume of “Hip Hop Family Tree,” Piskor spoke with Comic Book Resources about the project’s origins, working with influential cartoonist Harvey Pekar and his game plan for merging the comic and hip hop worlds.
CBR News: I’m sure a lot of people have been reading “Hip Hop Family Tree” on Boing Boing, where you’ve been posting pages for a few years. Where did the idea originally come from?
Ed Piskor: It was something that was germinating for a very, very long time. I’ve been wanting to tell a story in the hip hop landscape for decades, basically, and I didn’t know what the story would be, but I knew I wanted the fashion of hip hop. I wanted graffiti, I wanted gritty New York. I started this project on January 1, 2012. The idea came to me on New Year’s Day, and I just resigned myself to not putting so much imagination into the project and just do a linear story of hip hop. I did the one strip on Boing Boing and with all the work I had to do to put that one strip together, I couldn’t foresee myself doing another one for a couple months. I put a little tagline on the strip, a semi-regular feature meaning I’ll do one every couple of months. The more I researched it, the more I found visually interesting stuff to talk about — and I haven’t stopped.
One aspect that really comes through reading the book is the amount of research you have done.
I’m a fan already so I have a pretty great knowledge of the records, but I wanted to fill in the gaps of my knowledge and figure out how these records were able to be willed into existence. This couldn’t have just happened out of thin air. A lot of necessary things were required to make hip hop take place and become a monolithic culture in the way that it did. I wanted to explore that. The first book gained some legitimacy in hip hop, so now I have some rappers giving me their number saying, “Whenever my part comes, get in touch, because I want to look cool and I want you to get things right.” I imagine that the content is just going to get richer and richer as I proceed.
Beyond the songs, which were incredible, there was also everything going on around the music as well as all these other people who played roles in the formation of hip hop. Surprisingly, Blondie front-woman Debbie Harry has a small — but key — role in the history of hip hop.
That’s actually one of the most interesting things that I realized while constructing the first and second book, was the importance of downtown Manhattan hipster art culture on the proliferation and growth of hip hop and rap music. When I talk about hip hop, I am speaking about every element — including graffiti [and] breakdance. In the early ’80s, those rap records were not making much money. The most valuable and monetizable component to hip hop was graffiti. Guys were painting graffiti on canvas. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring come from this tradition. That’s the most valuable piece of the puzzle at this early stage in the very early ’80s. When this material is discovered, when Debbie Harry gets invited by Fab Five Freddy to go to the Bronx and see a hip hop jam, she’s amazed by it. Michael Holman brings Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager, to the Bronx to see a party and he’s blown away. These connectors, these impresarios, bring the guys from the Bronx down to Manhattan so the other hipster white people don’t have to trek to the scary Bronx to see one of these parties, and it just snowballs from there.
Reading the two books, I couldn’t help but think that in many ways, this is the story of every art form or art movement.
It is. It’s called “Hip Hop Family Tree,” so it has plenty to do with rap music, but it’s really the story of world building, community building, culture building. It follows the template laid out by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Tipping Point,” the idea of you have to have all of these elements to create a phenomenon. You need connectors, which in this case are guys like Fab Five Freddy. They’re not all-stars in any specific discipline, but they’re there and they know people and they hustle and they marry this person with this person and they go on to put something together. Then you have your mavens, like the radio DJ’s, who are the gatekeepers of getting this music out to the masses over the airwaves. Then you have salesmen and persuasive people who figure out how to make a business out of this. You need all of those components.
Throughout my research, I’m going to be going through these other musical cultures that came and went, or just came and hit a plateau, and didn’t reach the success of rap music. I’m talking about musical traditions like go-go music, which comes from [Washington] D.C., and has its following; the same with house music, which comes from Chicago. There are things that happened for rap that got it to the position that it achieved. Word of mouth is interesting to me. It’s very simple to have a viral hit now that the barrier of distribution has been taken care of with the invention of the internet. You can get kicked in the nuts on a youtube video and 14 million people can see it tomorrow, but to grow a culture when there is no internet, that’s the exercise of “Hip Hop Family Tree” for me.
Just calling it “family tree” makes it clear that it’s about the relationships and connections between individuals and groups.
Yeah the culture comes from such a congested small area in the South Bronx — not even really the whole borough. So by virtue of that, you have this tight nucleus. Everybody who’s involved with this culture is involved with each other. The way I describe the book to younger people who ask me if Kendrick Lamar is going to be in here soon, I always say, “Your favorite rapper is probably not in my book, but the rappers who influenced your favorite rapper are most certainly in this project.” There is so much connective tissue between everybody. It’s very easy to play the six degrees of separation game with rap from 2014 going back to 1978.
How much time do you spend researching and writing the book versus drawing?
The exercise for me is to get two pages of comics online per week. I write in two page installments. It takes me two days to write the strip, and that includes all of the research. Then I spend the rest of the week drawing and coloring and lettering the thing. It is a seven day a week operation. With the release of “Book 2,” I spent a couple of months traveling and didn’t really work on new strips, but I’m right back in it.
Do you spend a lot of time figuring out people’s likenesses?
That is not the most important thing to me. I have no interest in being [legendary caricaturist] Mort Drucker. I’m not going to sit around with photo reference for every panel like an Al Williamson “Star Wars” strip. My approach is to use comics language because I’m interested in cartooning. Because I have an ensemble cast of hundreds right now — approaching thousands over the years — I have to, with very simple cartoon language, come up with different faces for hundreds of characters using simple lines and shapes, and each of those faces is different and distinct. That’s sort of fun for me. I’m glad people are on board, because that was a thought in my mind, but not one person in two years has said anything negative about that. When I introduce you to Russell Simmons, and I show you this guy with the bucket hat and a lisp and a gap in his teeth — that’s Russell Simmons to you. What happens is your brain fills in any gaps and as you read, that is Russell Simmons. You accept it.
You worked with Harvey Pekar on a few different projects and, reading this, it felt like he was a big influence on this and how you have approached it.
Absolutely. The narrative structure of “Hip Hop Family Tree” is indicative of the work that I did with Harvey drawing the graphic novel “The Beats,” which is about the beat generation. What I mean by that is you can look at the pages and see the structure is similar. In a lot of comics each panel to panel transition is a moment to moment transition where a matter of seconds passes between each drawing. In “The Beats” we were telling this sprawling story. The time between each panel could be days, weeks, months, years. You have to chose the right moment and concisely put down information. When you tell a story that way there can be no chaff — there can be no garbage at all. It all has to be on point. That’s something I learned from Harvey.
Because this is a text heavy book, it must be a challenge to make it visually interesting and more than just talking heads.
The structure is akin to Marvel superhero comics where, yes, there’s exposition and soap opera parts and the fight scenes. Then these guys are on the stage belting out lyrics so you can draw poses that are insane, and you can pull from Jack Kirby and have giant hands coming at the reader and guys shouting and their mouths are agape farther than the human jaw would allow in the real world — but hey, man, it’s comics.
I think the superheroic aspect is something people respond to. You don’t sugarcoat or mythologize anything, but you do give the hip hop artists their moment in those scenes.
The overall story is meant to be a positive one. Bad things will happen. Certainly as the story moves forward into the eighties and crack cocaine is introduced, I’m never going to linger on that stuff. I’m not going to exploit people, but if necessary, I’m going to talk about this rapper or that rapper smoking crack. It’s one of those ugly truths you can’t deny. I think a comic like this should be done by somebody who doesn’t have much hero worship. I love rap and I love hip hop and I have encyclopedic knowledge of the records, but I don’t operate in this world in terms of favorites or, “What are your top ten?” I literally do not think like that, so I can be objective about the story material. Also I’m 32 years old, where if I was 20 years old and amazing rappers were calling me, I would probably be like, “Yes sir, whatever you say.” I would totally listen to anything they say as gospel without vetting the material. It would be an untruthful work skewing to the sides of the people who talked to me the most.
There seem to be relatively few objective tellings of what happened in the early days of hip hop.
More than a cartoonist I consider myself a curator on this project. I’m trying to create something pretty comprehensive, something that is requiring me to go all over god’s creation to find this material and put it under one roof, which is “Hip Hop Family Tree.”
I’ve enjoyed the short, personal comics that have appeared on Boing Boing recently.
Thanks. That is in service of traveling like a maniac with “Hip Hop Family Tree.” Like I said, it takes seven days to put together a two page strip. If my schedule is upset in any form or fashion, I refuse to let the work lag, but I do other stuff. I have a 200 page story I’ve drawn that nobody’s ever seen. Some of it becomes these sketchbook comics I’ve been putting online.
What are you working on now?
I signed up for six “Hip Hop Family Trees” with Fantagraphics. I’m on page 65 or 66 of book three. Each book has 90 pages of comics, 10 pages of pinups, so I’m winding down the comic part of the book. It takes two or three months to design the thing. I think the cover takes me a whole month in and of itself. That’s my main thought right now, constructing book three.
Also I need to make sure that these books reach the audience that they need to reach. My scheme for the book is two fold. I want to make a good comic that comic book people latch onto and maybe you learn a little bit about hip hop. I want to do a comic that might be the only comic that people who are interested in hip hop check out and they get a taste of comic language. I spend a lot of time in both camps promoting the work. Do a comic thing here, get “Rolling Stone” to share stuff on their website and tweet it out to their three million followers. I have music magazines on several continents calling me up to promote it or get a couple of pages exclusive. I think it’s the subject matter that carries the bulk of the traction on this, no doubt, but also I think there is something to say for the way it’s constructed. There is a way to do this wrong. I’ve seen it done wrong many a time.
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