I grew up on a small, almost entirely white, island in the middle of the Irish Sea. If you ever want to find it, just wait for a TV weather forecast. The place the forecast is usually standing in front of? That’s us.
The Isle of Man taught me a lot. It taught me to view rain and win as the default, it taught me how to survive cross country runs around the coast, to love my local video store and to embrace the cheerful individualism of a small, overlooked island with nothing to prove. Most importantly, it taught me to love other places and other cultures.
And that brings us to rap music. A couple of close friends were massively into it and that, combined with it being about as far from the sort of thing that would fit in on a small island in the middle of nowhere, attracted me to it. It’s also why I enjoyed Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor so much.
Well, it’s one of the reasons. The reason I share with Piskor in fact who runs headlong at the complex inter-relations and history of rap with the glee of a geneology scholar on a sugar rush. In a series of volumes, of which this is the first, he traces the birth of a musical genre and the people who created it. Rap is a perfect subject for this sort of approach, having been solidified as a genre in the recent past. That powers the book and Piskor’s enthusiasm is both infectious and wide ranging. He doesn’t just love the music he loves the shape it makes as it pushes through history.
He’s also got a fantastic eye for presentation. The entire thing is presented like a 1970s Marvel comic and the muted colours and exuberant design really help. The common DIY ethos that comics, graffiti, rap and punk share is in full effect here and the style meshes perfectly with some of the fantastic stories Piskor gives you. My favourites involves the never ending arms race of speaker systems, with everyone struggling to get a bigger system to show up their rivals. Although the fact that Afrika Bambataa used to switch the labels on records to mess with people trying to copy him is almost as good. Everything from misadventures overseas to the genesis of Blondie’s fascination with rap and the nascent record labels that sprung up to exploit artists are here and all of them rendered in Piskor’s exuberant style. This though is my favourite panel.
To round things off, Piskor’s research is second to none. Obscure mix tapes get as much page time as classic artists, every performance has context and the whole thing is incredibly well researched. There’s a discography and bibliography that are ridiculously comprehensive and if you don’t leave the book with a shopping list then I’ll be amazed. I did, and at the top of that list are the next two volumes. An exuberant, joyful celebration of the early days of rap, a textbook example of how versatile comics are and a fascinating piece of musical history, this is essential reading for anyone who’s wondered what the breaks really are, or just wants to know more about the genre they love. Brilliant stuff.