Hip-Hop Family Tree’s Ed Piskor on The Rake’s wack “Street Justice”
Photo by Garret Jones
Photo by Garret Jones

Hip-Hop Family Tree’s Ed Piskor on The Rake’s wack “Street Justice”

The cartoonist on a musical comedy of errors and mixing hip-hop and comics

In HateSongwe ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.

The hater: An avid lover of hip-hop music and superhero comic books from a young age, Ed Piskor has combined his two passions to create a remarkable reading experience in Hip-Hop Family Tree, his graphic history of the music genre. Serialized weekly on Boing Boing and published in striking oversized collections by Fantagraphics, Hip-Hop Family Tree imagines real-world events through the filter of 1980s Marvel Comics, bringing hip-hop visionaries to the page in a style that exaggerates their energy and style to capture the intensity of the music without having the beats. The series garnered Piskor two Eisner Award nominations this year for “Best Reality-Based Work” and “Best Lettering.” Piskor was kind enough to talk about what hip-hop track really grates his nerves and the creation of Hip-Hop Family Tree.

The hated: The Rake, “Street Justice” (1983)

The A.V. Club: This song is not good.

Ed Piskor: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. And it’s tough, because when you put it out there to me, about the song that you hate and all that stuff—I actually don’t have any songs that I hate or despise or anything. At most, I might just be indifferent about something, and that’s not interesting to talk about. So I confess to actually liking this song, but because it’s just kind of retarded and a big mistake—not necessarily out of ironic reasons, but kind of.

AVC: It’s a bastardization of hip-hop, so I guess that’s a good reason to hate it. But at the same time, you can love it in a trainwreck kind of way. It’s fun to see those kinds of things, especially in music.

EP: It’s very apparent. You can draw clear lines from what it’s trying to be. It’s trying to be Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” But it’s too on the nose or something like that. It’s just too silly.

AVC: There’s so much attitude in hip-hop, and you don’t get any of that from this song. It’s just this downer storyline with a beat behind it, but there’s not really anything to grab you.

EP: And it doesn’t make any sense, either, man. There’s the whole narrative about how these guys rape the family, they rape the mom, beat up the kid, go to court, and they get off scot-free. I don’t know about you, but if I got away with some kind of big crime, I’d be so bank; I would never do another one. But they leave the courtroom and are like, “Okay, we’re gonna fuck you up next.” And that’s ill logic, man.

AVC: What was your introduction to “Street Justice”?

EP: With [Hip-Hop Family Tree], I grab as many important songs from the different eras as I can, and this song would come up as being cited as important for its time. It’s on a lot of lists. So I sought it out that way. It’s considered an important song for ’83, because it had an actual narrative element to it rather than just, “Stand up / say ho” kind of lyrics. So I think that might be a part of why it’s important. I think, also, that the comedy of errors of it has something to do with its importance. Okay, “The Message” is an example of the good, and this is an example of wack.

AVC: Why is “The Message” successful with getting this sort of socially conscious rap across while “Street Justice” fails?

EP: I think “The Message” is really honest. And while it talks about sensational stuff, I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic. Anything, everything within that song is basically ripped from the headlines and has an earnestness about it that you could feel. I think that you could even detect some struggle in the voice of Melle Mel as he’s performing the record. It has some real soul, some heart to it. When you discover The Rake, it’s this monotonous drone. It sounds like a guy trying to be cool. The narrative lifts from a Charles Bronson flick, and then when you dig deeper and you find out that it’s written by a couple of white guys who aren’t part of the rap scene in any way, and that it’s performed by a Dionne Warwick backup singer—then you realize it has no nuts to it.

AVC: What is the search process like when you’re digging and finding the historical context to the songs? Is that all Internet-based at this point?

EP: A lot of it is, and then I could make calls to certain people for certain things. The stuff that I know about this Rake-thing is all Internet-based. And by virtue of “Internet,” I’m even talking about Google or Google [Books] or whatever the heck it is, where they scan in books and you can look through old books and crap. So I pull from actual written material as well. But yeah, a lot of Internet stuff. And some interviews, personal interviews that I conduct. It’s all over the place. It just depends.

AVC: This is an early example of white songwriters trying to cash in on the hip-hop trend without really understanding the fundamentals. Do you know how that impacted work of legitimate hip-hop artists?

EP: This particular song, it was just a blip. It was no big deal. But there were some white songwriters even before then, like some of the guys who wrote things for Kurtis Blow—in fact, his first record, “Christmas Rappin’,” was written by a white guy. And I think that stuff was pretty much invisible to the average listener. The Rake, I don’t think had any big impact on the culture, because there’s nothing that I can point to where they’re trying to replicate The Rake, you know, and trying to make a record like that.

AVC: If you had to make a Hip-Hop Family Tree strip out of this song, what would that process be like?

EP: If I had my druthers, I would just do a full, 32-page comic adapting the narrative. But if I was going to make it a Hip-Hop Family Tree episode, it would take me a day, at least, to research it. I’m digging through as many sources as I can online, I know several record collectors who might have some information for me, I know a couple of hip-hop historians that I could talk to to discover, maybe, just a cool little bit of information here or there about it. And then I’d think about it all day, because each week I’ll spend at least a day or two to write two pages of comics, and then the rest of the week is invested into drawing and coloring the thing. It takes, like, two days to draw a page and ink it. That’s four days there, between the two, then it takes a day to color the comics. That’s about it.

AVC: How much of that time do you spend looking up stuff like clothing and setting or looking at pictures? Everything is very era-appropriate.

EP: It goes hand-in-hand with the amount of time it takes to draw, because I’m constantly looking at stuff, whether it’s some footage from some of those earliest rap documentaries or movies or even ’70s New York flicks like [The Taking Of] Pelham One Two Three and The Warriors and shit like that to just get good background filigree. Anything you see in the comic is basically referenced from something so it’s a constant marriage of referencing stuff and then just kind of doing my own thing.

AVC: Do you have favorite characters or storylines?

EP: Drawing [Afrika] Bambaataa’s fun, because I don’t even think that he’s a very tall guy or anything like that, but his personality is huge to me. So I draw him as, like, a giant. It’s just fun to play with scale in that way, where he’s this huge guy, with—you draw everybody else super tiny. A lot of the best people to draw unfortunately didn’t have that deep of a mark on hip-hop. They didn’t persist with innovation or anything like that. There’s this dude named Davy DMX who I like a lot.

AVC: He’s in the very beginning of volume one, right?

EP: Yeah. He’s done a few popular things here and there, but he really didn’t break out. He’s fun to draw just because, his head—he’s got a head shaped kind of like Arsenio Hall, like a “yield” sign, and a big unibrow. So, he’s an odd-looking dude. One of the fun stories to slowly develop is the story of KRS-One, who appears in each—I’m slowly building up to him becoming a rapper, because he’s got the most American-dream-type story in hip-hop.

The unfortunate thing is that anything you learn about him has to basically come from his mouth, because he has stories of being homeless and stuff. And it’s just like, who do you talk to to corroborate this? He basically created a system where he’s able to build his own legend, and I’m going along with it. No one transcribed it. So he was a homeless kid, didn’t graduate even middle school, bounced around at homeless shelters, had some art ability, was a graffiti writer first, then one of his social workers turned out to be a DJ, and they formed Boogie Down Productions. It’s an amazing story.

AVC: The short story you did comparing your love for comic books with your love of hip-hop and the similarities between the two passions was also great. Were you getting into comic books at the same time you were discovering hip-hop as a child?

EP: Yeah. I was born in ’82, so I already had a ton of comics that were just hand-me-downs from older cousins. And rap music was everywhere, so I was just born into that environment. It was almost, like, not even a choice. It was just what you did.

AVC: What were some of the earliest hip-hop acts you were consciously aware of, that you actively sought out more music from?

EP: The first one that I knew about would be Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks,” because that song was on a compilation of disco records that my parents had, and that was the one song that I played to death. All that other stuff was nothing to me, but I would listen to that like crazy, because it was the only thing like what I heard blasting from cars and people’s radios in the neighborhood. And then, as I got older, it was more about subversive and prurient material, so, like, N.W.A. was everything to me, just because of the perversion of it: swear words and all that kind of stuff. Then you become a more sophisticated person and you discover better material.

AVC: What were some formative comic books for you?

EP: Just thinking about the way I operated with my friends, we would all try to stake our own territory so that we all had different territory and we could read each other’s comics. So I was the Punisher dude, and I was the X-Men guy. I would grab those books. That was around—1990 was the era of those mega-blockbusters, so I got into McFarlane and Rob Liefeld and around that time Art Adams did his three-issue Fantastic Four run.

AVC: With Spider-Man and Wolverine and all that stuff.

EP: That comic was freaking awesome.

AVC: When did you get this inclination to combine comic books and hip-hop? Had you been practicing drawing portraits of hip-hop artists before coming up with the idea for Hip-Hop Family Tree?

EP: I’ve been drawing comics within a hip-hop environment, where hip-hop was the background of the story that was taking place, way back in my early high school days. And I was going back, looking at old interviews where I mention wanting to tell a story within the hip-hop universe, because I like the fashion of it, I love the grimy New York backdrop, I like graffiti, subway trains, all that kind of stuff. At a certain point, I think I was influenced by the work of Tom Neely, with his Henry & Glenn comic and [Benjamin] Marra’s Gangsta Rap Posse comic where I was kind of jealous of those guys. They were making comics about these real-life people—Gangsta Rap Posse is basically N.W.A. going on adventures. Since I couldn’t steal that idea, I figured I’ll at least just draw N.W.A. But now I have to work up to that.

AVC: Your love of X-Men comics works out well in terms of juggling a huge cast of characters, and ’80s X-Men comics were also more urban, going into the city and discovering Morlocks and all that.

EP: Yeah, the Chris Claremont run on X-Men—or, on the X-titles, I should say—might be one of the biggest influences on the narrative structure. I would say that work and Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe comics in terms of world-building and things like that. Those guys handled that part of the job with mastery. It’s a pleasure to just steal from their hard work.

AVC: It’s amazing how many different storylines he packs into one comic book and how long those boil under the surface. You definitely see a lot of that in Hip-Hop Family Tree. Especially, because you have characters starting off as kids. How far along are you in terms of plotting the timeline?

EP: I don’t work in advance in any meaningful way, because, basically, the story is already told. I just have to slowly curate this information and put it down on paper. So, where I’m at right now, I’m in very, very early stages of 1984, and ’84 is a very important, big year in hip-hop. There’s several movies, there’s several huge tours, Def Jam is created, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys come into the fold. I might be focusing on 1984 for the next year.

AVC: The profile of hip-hop music is expanding at such a huge rate at this point in the book, because now it’s on both coasts and getting bigger and bigger.

EP: The MacGuffin of the whole thing is to explore how these people relate to each other, so that’s going to be how the story unfolds and is dictated. When I discover that this guy met this guy, then, okay, now I can introduce Rakim, because Rakim was brought on by Eric B. who was already doing work for Marley Marl, and it’s just that kind of thing, where you have to draw these connections, then lay it out for people.

AVC: How long do you plan on keeping this going? You have these great moments when you jump forward and the art style changes to reflect whatever is in that era. Do you want to go to the ’90s through the ’00s? Would you change your art style as the book progresses?

EP: I think that might happen. I’m letting things play out naturally. It’s a fun, artistic stroke to have those flash-forward panels. And I got an advance copy of the second book, and there are a few panels like that in that volume. It’s jarring and it looks pretty cool.

AVC: Do they have to do anything tricky with the paper to make that happen?

EP: The paper starts out white. All the aged stuff, that’s just Photoshop trickery. You lift the Photoshop trickery and color it digitally or something and it looks way different. I showed it to several friends and I catch them touching those panels to try and figure out what it is, but it’s just—you get so used to the comic looks that when you see those panels, it’s jarring. And it’s supposed to be jarring. I want you to feel taken out of the experience for a minute and placed into this other moment, and then you get back into the story.

AVC: I love the panel of Ice-T drawn in the style of Rob Liefeld. That cracked me up.

EP: I spent a lot of time reverse-engineering Liefeld’s style because, at the end of this year, we’re putting together—it’s a two-book slipcase edition of Hip-Hop Family Tree, like a box set. And to go along with that box set, there’s a—you remember the ashcans of the ’90s They would be these little half-size comics that would come with Wizard Magazine or something?

AVC: Absolutely.

EP: So, Rob Liefeld has a relationship with hip-hop in several aspects. He was in that Levi’s commercial that Spike Lee directed, and Spike Lee is all over hip-hop. Then there’s also this photograph of Rob Liefeld with Eazy-E that was floating around. So to go along with the box set, I created this ashcan comic that I drew in Liefeld’s style, and it’s basically the story of Liefeld and how he interacted with hip-hop over the years and how he took it over into the workplace. So I drew it in his style. The cover that we created, man—it’s like a cardstock cover with an embossed, foil-stamped, gold, shiny cover. It looks like it’s ripped from 1993.

AVC: Are you posting that online, or is it going to be just the slipcase exclusive?

EP: It’s going to be exclusive, but on my Tumblr, I’m sharing little images. My favorite thing to do is to just hold on to that little comic and tilt it in the light and just have the light shine off that gold. Because what the cover is, it’s like a portrait, a big ass head of Rob Liefeld’s face. In the comic, whenever he gets aggravated, he gets that cable-eye, that little zappy—the gold foil is like the zappy cable-eye on his face. When the light catches it, it really looks like his eyeball is glowing, then. It’s the greatest special effect in comics.

AVC: How long is that little ashcan?

EP: It’s 24 pages. And it’s the only one that’s one complete story. So I show people each component piece of the comics-making process: Some pages are just drawn in pencil and some pages are fully colored and some pages are inked. Some pages are blue-colored, some pages are colored like Image Comics-type coloring, but some other pages are colored like Marvel Comics circa 1989. It’s all over the place, and every two-page spread is a different component piece. The left page might be just some pencil, and the right page might be a fully colored Image-style drawing. Because I want that ashcan book to be an introduction to hip-hop people into what goes into making a comic. The regular books are almost for hip-hop people, and then people who like comics can learn about rap. The little ashcan is a story that’s made for comic book people, and the hip-hop people are going to get an education in comics. If that makes sense.

AVC: Absolutely.

EP: Because there are two very distinct audiences that would never intersect if it weren’t for this comic. Thankfully we got some good distribution with record shops and stuff and I get new followers and Facebook people adding me all the time. And they have no relationship with comics and they’re just strictly rap music people.

AVC: Not really related, but I get a big kick out of the way you draw Russell Simmons.

EP: As a kid, he was goofy looking. He had real fucked up teeth. He’s got veneers. He still lisps, but if you listen to him—there’s a movie that they made called “Tougher Than Leather,” and if you see it, Russell plays himself in it, he’s got a severe lisp. At that time, he was very famously on every drug under the sun. He admitted it. Even the Beastie Boys with some of their lines, “Man, our manager’s crazy / he always smokes dust.” That’s who they’re talking about. He was a polluted angel dust-head before he became this pious yogi Buddhist vegan guy. One of the arcs that will manifest over time, but is going to take a long time, is we get to see him become the more centered guy. But he did not start out that way. And he famously does not shy away from that either. He admits to all of his craziness.

AVC: That’s really intense. You have so many great stories waiting to be told, it’s going to be really cool to see everything grow to that point.

EP: I’m excited about it, because I want it to be a simple read so that you could, when they’re all done, read them all in a weekend and get this really epic, expansive story that start off in the ghettos of the Bronx and becomes this worldwide phenomenon.

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