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'Hip Hop Family Tree': Comic book artist Ed Piskor inks a comprehensive history of rap music

Cover of Ed Piskor's
Cover of Ed Piskor's "The Hip Hop Family Tree" comic book series.
Fantagraphics Books
Cover of Ed Piskor's
Afrika Bambaata as depicted in Ed Piskor's "The Hip Hop Family Tree" comic book series.
Fantagraphics Books
Cover of Ed Piskor's
Page from Ed Piskor's "The Hip Hop Family Tree" comic book series.
Fantagraphics Books
Cover of Ed Piskor's
Covers of the first two volumes of Ed Piskor's "The Hip Hop Family Tree" comic book series.
Fantagraphics Books

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Pittsburgh-based comic book artist Ed Piskor has a deep love of hip hop music, and his obsession isn’t limited to collecting classic albums.

Piskor has devoted countless hours to painstakingly research, write and illustrate a history of the musical genre in his comic book series, “Hip Hop Family Tree.” The first two published volumes span the formative years of 1975-83, and Piskor is on the hook to do a total of six separate volumes for Fantagraphics Books.

Piskor joined The Frame recently to talk with host John Horn about what he learned during his research for the series, how Robert Crumb influenced his project, and what hip-hop heavyweights think about his work 

Interview Highlights: 

What makes hip hop and comic books such a natural marriage?

There are alter egos in hip hop and alter ego in mainstream superhero comics. But the thing I like that is similar between both of them is just how they're both kind of cultural bastard children, and they make parents nervous when their kids are into them too much. 

Did you know this history pretty well or did you have to go out and research it before you had to start illustrating and writing?

I am a fan, for sure, but I'm handling this in a journalistic fashion as much as possible, so I need to corroborate my sources, get this thing to be as accurate as possible. I want to create something that is highly comprehensive so that if a fan or scholar or academic who is interested in learning this history, to get all of this information in one place, they're forced to use a comic book, which is very important to me. I really believe in this art form, so I like the idea of forcing people into having to read a comic whether they like it or not. 

Were you surprised about some of things that you found during your research?

One thing that did really surprise me was the important role that the downtown Manhattan art world played in the proliferation and growth of hip hop culture, because it was very close to dying out and being finished in the early '80s before people like Debbie Harry from Blondie and Fab Five Freddy brought the graffiti artists to downtown Manhattan. By bringing those guys to Manhattan to add ambience to their art gallery shows, they would bring people like Afrika Bambaataa and other DJs, so that artists who lived in the city didn't have to travel to the big scary uptown scene to check out what was going on with this new hip-hop thing. 

What was Deborah Harry's role in all of this? 

Debbie Harry was like an art patron who was indiscriminate in her love of art. And what she heard from Fab Five Freddy about this thing that was happening in the Bronx, I feel that it mirrored a lot of what was going on at [the club] CBGB to her — a lot of the punk rock movement and aesthetic that piqued her interest. She went uptown and caught a couple shows and was completely mesmerized. A lot of people think that Run DMC were the first rap music act on Saturday Night Live, but that's not true. She was a host in the very early '80s and she brought the Funky Four Plus One...She discovered them from going uptown with Fred to check out this hip hop scene that she'd been hearing about. So she played a very very important part. 

(Fast-forward the video below to 11:00 to see Debbie Harry intro the Funky Four)

DEBORAH HARRY, CHRIS STEIN, & THE FUNKY FOUR PLUS-ONE-MORE On SNL, Valentine's Day 1981 from VD Party Films on Vimeo.

What are the influences you cite as an illustrator and an author?

My influences in terms of art and comics are pretty standard, guys like Robert Crumb, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, The Hernandez Brothers. Almost everybody from the Fantagraphics family generation one. I don't say that because they are my publisher, it's just that for a while they were publishing the best comics that existed throughout the '80s and early '90s. Something that they all share is how they were able to have the confidence to allow their id to be showcased within their comics. Which is something I'm struggling with and I have to grow as an artist to be able to accomplish that.

Right now what I'm doing is these kinds of historic comics where I'm able to separate myself from the subject matter. I almost consider the hip hop comic to be kind of a companion piece to some of the stuff that Robert Crumb was doing when he was showcasing and featuring old blues musicians that he liked and adored and loved. Those were probably the most influential comics. 

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