BOOK REVIEW: Hip Hop Family Tree Book 1: 1970s -1981 by Ed Piskor

Hip Hop Family Tree Book 1: 1970s -1981

This New York Times best-selling series (completed in 2013) won the hearts and minds of American graphic novel critics. When NPR listed “Hip Hop Family Tree” in their 100 favourite graphic novels (of all genres) they reflected upon what reviewer Etelka Lehoczky said about writer and illustrator Ed Piskor’s work on how he “uses every trick in the comic-book playbook to keep things taut and crackling.

He varies figures’ sizes, adds and subtracts different gradations of colour and moves from realism to cartoony exaggeration.” NPR went even further saying “It’s a long-form history lesson that’s infectiously fun — one that should be taught in schools.” With seldom reviews outside of the USA; XS Noize will measure Piskor’s work in its ability to captivate an international audience.

Piskor takes pride in both hip hop and comics and is proud to say that they are both American (New York Specifically) inventions. Similarly, XS Noize has drawn parallels as to how music and comics complement each and make each other better by working in unison. The story of hip hop is for the most part a story of New York, more specifically the Bronx borough. Whilst overall chronological; Piskor does not festoon the 114 pages with dates, instead, he focuses on the pivotal moments/events and players which led to hip hop being noticed by the mainstream media in 1981.

The first breakthrough according to Ed is when DJ Kool Herc coined the term “Merry-Go-Round” where one mixes one break into the break of another song. “Scratching” was accidentally invented by Grandmaster Flash’s protégé Grand Wizzard Theodore. The concert venues where hip hops MC’s and DJ’s including DJ Disco Wiz and Casanova Fly, DJ Baron and K.K. Rockwell found acclaim were the humble Bronx basketball courts, gyms and parks. Another element critical to DJ crews winning audiences was investing in equipment such as the “Clubman Two” mixer which DJ Hollywood was one of the first to possess.

A key strength of “Hip Hop Family Tree” is that Ed Piskor looks beyond the legendary status afforded to figures such as Grandmaster Flash who was initially so “preoccupied with mixing and scratching that “he did not always know what to say on the mic”. This situation only changed when he teamed up with Cowboy. Piskor also informs the reader that there was another before Will Smith’s collaborator DJ Jazzy Jeff. The original Jazzy Jeff was recruited by K.K. Rockwell who Rockwell went to school with. Ed also introduces the reader to certain slang terms such as the “Alps” which doesn’t refer to Swiss ski slopes.
The main figure of hip hop graffiti art Fred from “The Fabulous Five” later to become “Fred Fab Five” (who would become acquainted with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and become friends with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein) has the most interesting pre-history.

Fred’s grandfather was friends with Marcus Garvey and Fred’s parents frequently entertained famous jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis at their Bedford Stuyvesant Home. The necessity and urgency that this book should be taught in schools are only too profound when Piskor reveals that the first African- American to start a business following World War Two in America was Bobby Robinson who opened a record shop on 125th Street which is located near. The Apollo Theatre would help the likes of DJ Hollywood progress in their careers.

Through Piskor, one can follow the story of the growing importance of hip hop culture through several events: the release of bootleg copies of essential “important break songs” by artists including Bob James and New Birth; radio play of King Tim III’S B-side “Fatback” on the radio and “Rappers Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang constantly selling out at record stores. The fact that rappers from outside New York including Connecticut’s Mr Magic and music publications including Tom Silverman’s “Dance Music Report” began covering hip-hop releases (including the independently produced “Big Apple Rappin” by Spyder D who sold 10,000 copies) were also poignant breakthrough moments. With hip hop artists getting mainstream attention opportunities arrived for the like of Grandmaster Flash to open for artists like The Clash at the Bonds International Casino in New York.

Lehoczky is more than correct in saying how deft Piskor’s illustrations are. The tea-stained pages offer a retro bootleg feel. The anaglyph 3D effects on some of Piskor’s sketches are highly adroit. As well as listing all the pioneers of this period up till 1981; Piskor also lists their forbears who influenced them. Piskor is correct not to also include real names along with stage names as this would have been far too overwhelming and the majority of readers would lose their train of thought. Upon reading “Hip Hop Family Tree”, one will realise how little they really know about hip hop music, artists and culture. “Hip Hop Family Tree” is truly a divine inspiration for all (not just the USA) revealed via the prophet Ed Piskor who is also known for his work on “X-Men: Grand Design”.

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