“Hip Hop Family Tree” #1 creates an in-depth and incredibly satisfying look at the history of hip hop as a narrative. Ed Piskor, sole creator of both this series as well as the previous volumes, takes readers on a journey from the basketball courts of the Bronx and Queens into nightclubs as the indelible American artform goes from teenage groundswell to viable commercial commodity. The book is wordy, packing a lot of text onto every page, but Piskor’s script breezes by, dropping readers in and out of key moments in the evolution of the culture, stitching together moments across the ’70s as the major players begin to evolve party hosting into a higher art — some by accident, and others through calculated planning.
Piskor’s love of hip hop sizzles off of the page. There are so many ideas and so much content packed into this issue the staples could pop. He begins the journey by focusing on DJ Kool Herc’s South Bronx dance parties as one of the birthplaces of the culture, expanding out quickly to cover Afrika Bambataa’s evolution from feared gang leader to adored turntable stylist and leader of Zulu Nation. Piskor’s narrative is a ripple effect across New York City, a needle dropping and creating grooves that sweep up others in its wake.
The dialogue and script drive the narrative, allowing the panel and perspective choices to be drop-in moments in many places, be it profile pictures of a major artist in their element, a party in media res or some combination of both. His characters and cartooning are steeped in street culture, somehow both incredibly flexible yet possessing sharp angles, much like the music. Some depictions are exaggerated for comic effect, like Russell Simmons in his early days, described by Piskor in the backmatter as an “angel dust using, cocaine blowing knucklehead.” There are also stopovers and teases along the way that will pay off down the line, like dropping in momentarily on the future Fab Five Freddy and his legendary street art crew.
The story breaks as Big Bank Hank, who has found himself in dire financial straits after investing his father’s money in equipment, studies the emcees on radio and begins appropriating their lyrics as his own. This will be a key moment later in the series but it’s impressive that Piskor gets to this moment after he started out at Kool Herc’s apartment window.
The painstaking attention to detail rewards those who appreciate comics as a multi-sensory medium as Piskor dips back in comic book culture as well to create weathered-looking pages, using a limited four-color palette that would have been the only color options available to artists at that time. His lettering, also reminiscent of graffiti artists, draws the readers’ attention to important dialogue and rhymes, emphasizing key words and syllables in an emcee battle to let readers in on the rhythm of the page. Even the back of the issue is an homage to both: an illustration of MC Hammer in the style of Marvel Comics’ Series 2 trading cards from the early ’90s.
“Hip Hop Family Tree” #1 is an exhaustively researched, fascinatingly educational and beautifully composed piece of comic art. Readers will be rewarded by a journey through an American cultural landmark led by the talents of a wildly confident artist who has taken on a tremendous responsibility. This is can’t-miss comics.