Beats Bubble Up In The Latest Volume Of 'Hip Hop Family Tree'
There are waves and there are bubbles. In previous installations of Hip Hop Family Tree, his history of hip hop culture told through comics, Ed Piskor charted waves and the eddies that would build into waves. He depicted Grandmaster Flash's discovery of a beat box, Fab Five Freddy's epochal ad-lib on "Change the Beat," and the earliest roots of the L.A. scene. He told the story behind such key works as Whodini's Whodini, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and Run DMC's "Rock Box" video. Virtually every story he told swelled and spread, ripe with implications for the future of music — like a wave.
This most recent volume of the series, on the other hand, is flooded with bubbles: phenomena that inexorably head skyward, pop suddenly and create a roiling surface. Volume 4 covers 1984-1985, a time when hip hop was becoming truly ubiquitous. It was easier than ever for artists to get backing, and the result was scores of one-hit wonders. Piskor briefly mentions a huge number of artists, who surely deserve the shout-out though they didn't transform the genre so much as buoy it in small ways. And countless minor cuts bubble through the brew: Piskor even has a section called "Odd classics of 1984."
"Two of hip hop's earliest pioneers made interesting records in 1984," he notes of Lovebug Starski's "Live at the Fever Part 2" and DJ Hollywood's "Hollywood's Message." "These releases hold an influential place in history, but massive sales were certainly not a result."
Artists who would become huge, though not necessarily advance the form, also make appearances. Madonna has a couple of pages because she invited the Beastie Boys along on her Virgin tour (and made out with Adam Yauch backstage). Piskor has a lot of fun depicting the Boys' frosty reception by the bleach-blond "Virgin" army. More on point is Will Smith's emergence on the Philadelphia scene. That was back when he was known as the Fresh Prince, providing rhymes to accompany local DJ Jazzy Jeff — and for some reason Piskor's drawn Smith with particularly beautiful eyelashes.
Piskor's sketch of a typical Philly gig is imbued with frothy energy, showing writhing silhouettes amid music notes; one of the dancers is even upside down. His depiction of Salt-n-Pepa's success is similarly bouncy. He shows the moment when Cheryl "Salt" James and Sandra "Pepa" Denton graduate from Sears employees to radio artists (they worked at the same store at the same time as Kid 'n' Play, while Martin Lawrence pumped gas across the street). The ladies are so excited to hear themselves on the air, they jump out of their car and dance on top of it.
The effervescent quality prevails even when Piskor's discussing such decade-spanners as Dr. Dre, Ice-T and Russell Simmons. That's partly because Hollywood keeps entering the picture with its glossy visions and promises of big money — these were the years of Breakin' (1984), Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984), Beat Street (1984), and Krush Groove (1985).
Piskor's innovative use of color also makes things crackle and sputter. He sampled old comic-book pages for most of his color fills, but when he draws an event that took place after 1984-85, he dumps in flat color in bright inks. These panels seem to bounce off the page and emphasize the hazy nostalgia of the rest of the art. Piskor also lays in hits of ice white when he wants to highlight something, such as Dre's T-shirt at a crowded barbeque or New Edition's sparkly suits in their Krush Groove appearance. The whole effect is of constant little carbonated pops.
Those touches of white also effectively punctuate two grim events — the dawn of the crack epidemic and the fatal war between the Philadelphia police and the black activist organization MOVE. The icy white color causes a tiny hit of crack to stand out ominously against a pixelated palm and makes the May 13, 1985, explosion at MOVE headquarters glare.
Piskor also includes a couple of black-and-white photos elsewhere in the book, to less impressive effect. But it's only natural that, after four books, he would be looking for new ways to draw turntables, emcees and dancing crowds. If his ingenuity here is any indication, the twists — and the hits — will just keep coming.
has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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