Cross Cultures

Bam! Pow! Bling! Hip-Hop’s History Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment

A skinny white kid from Pittsburgh has created one of the defining histories of hip-hop in the form of a graphic novel that brings together rappers and comic nerds.

Ed Piskor

The disgraceful show America was putting on for the world in Ferguson, Missouri, put a slight damper on the international meeting of rap enthusiasts and comic art lovers on Aug 18. The second volume of Ed Piskor’s “The Hip-Hop Family Tree” was being released, covering the years 1981-1983, and fans from around the globe had crammed into a comic book shop on Bergen Street to meet the author and listen to him be interviewed by Reggie Osse, also known as Combat Jack.

Bedos Mavambu, by far the largest man in the small room, was visiting from Manchester, UK, and made sure to make this event. He wanted his copies signed, because this was exactly how he understood hip-hop, even though Ed Piskor was born in 1982, is white, and comes from Pittsburgh, which is far from the Bronx’s urban culture. Bedos felt that Piskor’s obsessive research for these books was similar to his own as a youth in Benin devouring The Source.

Hip-hop’s first magazine of note, The Source is poorly distributed in small African countries, so every copy that Bedos and his crew got from friends with parents who traveled internationally was studied down to the ads and typefaces. Ed Piskor has the same extraordinary attention to detail fans of the music recognize.

For example, Ed explained to me that while a sampling a beat is a well-known device in rap music, he samples colors. He would find old fliers and comics with urban themes and when he noticed something that just looked right, he scanned it in and added the hue to his palette. Perhaps that is why the books look so authentic; they could be artifacts from the era. Bedos cradled them in his enormous hands as if they were precious relics.

I knew that at the release party everyone would be a fan, so the day before I took the books out to the gang of old-timers who hang out in front of the Gowanus Projects. I live across the street, so they know me and don’t mind me pestering them with comic books. Rose Porché, who is 54, lived through the birth of hip-hop intimately, dancing at the very block parties that Piskor had drawn. She was amazed by how well the artist had captured the moment, and so were her friends sipping on beers in paper bags. They were equally amazed to learn that Ed Piskor was white, but not a word was said about cultural exploitation or appropriation. Piskor’s work was taken at face value, not an attempt to cash in on a fad for subculture or the meddling of an outsider. In fact, Rose said, “Reading this, you would think he was there, he was listening, and he was black. The fact that he’s a white boy who is only 32 is impressive.”

The first two book in the series could be considered the “prequel” in hip-hop’s history, following the evolution of music that led to rap from 1970-1980. From now on each volume would be devoted to a single year.

At the launch party, I asked Ed the question of whether he felt he was the right person to tell this story. He understood what I meant immediately; it was not first time he’d heard it.

“If there is another cartoonist willing to explore the depths of hip-hop that I have, I encourage them to give me some competition,” he said. “But my enthusiasm and excitement can be felt right on the page.”

I’ve read both volumes, and I agree. But I also know what’s coming. The volumes he will be drawing next have to include NWA and Public Enemy, talk about songs like “Fuck tha Police” and “Cop Killer.” More controversial during Tipper Gore’s crusade against rap in the 1990s, it is still a story that seems a poor fit for skinny, white Ed to tell.

Up until this point, Piskor had been chronicling a period of hip-hop’s history that had little controversy. Perhaps the only difficult thing that Ed mentioned was the looting during the 1977 blackout that helped hip-hop get going. Every aspiring DJ could smash and grab himself a mixer and some turntables. This reminded me of the street battles going on in Missouri and looting accusations. After all, in Ferguson the black community had gone to the streets when an unarmed 18-year-old kid was shot by a white cop, while the white community closed ranks around the officer. More than $235,000 had been collected for the officer’s family. But in this room far from Missouri, Ed Piskor was wearing a Public Enemy shirt and telling black people their own history without issue.

Reggie Osse, the MC of the event, was the perfect person to tell Ed Piskor’s story. In the past, Ed had wound up on stage with Buzz Aldrin and the guy who drove President Kennedy’s car when he was shot, but Reggie runs the Combat Jack show, and has interviewed just about everyone of importance in the hip-hop business. An Ivy League-educated attorney, Reggie was Jay Z’s first lawyer and continues to play a role in shaping hip-hop culture. Being on his show adds credibility to any up and coming hip-hop artist. Ed was asked by an audience member about his “street cred,” and stuttered through a vague story about meeting Fab Five Freddy and donning his famous clock. But in fact, he gained credibility by sitting on a stage and talking to Combat Jack.

“When I first met Ed, I thought he was a peculiar guy, but when I got my hands on the book, it was masterful,” Osse said. “He captured the era and was willing to do his homework.”

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Reggie had Ed explain the connection between hip-hop and comics, so graffiti, bubble letters and the work of Jack Kirby was invoked. But it was Reggie’s thoughts on the subject that interested me, as he said the real link between the mediums is alter-egos. Every rapper plays a superhero on stage or in the studio, just like Bruce Wayne turns into Batman. And when rappers battle one another with their wits and words, it is similar to the bam-pow! superhero fights on the page.

However, I thought about the actual violence present in the hip-hop world, the guns just another form of bling in the entourage of a superhero rapper. But with Ferguson blowing up, I kept it to myself. I didn’t think I was the right one to tell that story.

There are gargantuan histories of the birth of hip-hop, many of which Ed used for his research. But they likely won’t have the influence of “The Hip-Hop Family Tree.” Ed’s graphic novel is particularly well-suited to introducing the urban culture of hip-hop to comic nerds. While many graphic readers probably already listen to hip-hop, the extensive detail that Piskor depicts is familiar only to the most serious enthusiast. And he makes it interesting.

Graphic novels introduce one world to another. Masters of the genre like Alan Moore take this to the logical extreme by inventing alternative worlds to make his point, but less fantastical uses for the format simply combine text and drawing to open an existence to the reader. Ed created a portal into the beginning of hip-hop, and just saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is a poor way of explaining why its impact is greater than that of a detailed book. We are visual creatures, and seeing with the actual eye rather than the mind’s eye is a different path into our memories. Especially when the subject matter is one of over-sized personalities (and egos), fantastic costumes, cartoonish violence, rivalries between entire teams of players over issues of honor, and women with unnatural proportions. The worlds of hip-hop and graphic novels encompass all of these things, as well as an audience prepared for both universes; the genre has, in the last 30 years, grown sophisticated enough to handle subtleties. And that evening it created the scene of hardcore hip-hop heads mingling with comic nerds. The free champagne helped.

I asked Reggie to ask the audience if there was anyone who had never been in a comic book store. No one raised their hand, and there were plenty of visitors who read some of the more outré comics, such as the erotic adventures of 19th-century heroines; Alice in Wonderland grew up to be quite the swinger! Everybody at the event enjoyed themselves and the books were big hits. Ferguson was very far away.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. Walking home from the event, we encountered 20 people singing in front of the Gowanus Projects with candles in their hands. I couldn’t resist asking and learned it was a vigil for Ferguson by the members of St. Lydia’s church. The church was praying for justice. Looking at the all-white congregation, I could tell that none of the members lived in the projects. But the pastor, Emily Scott, had only the best of intentions. I just wondered if is she was the right person to tell that story.