Interview | Hip Hop Historian Ed Piskor Waxes Poetic
Photo: Garret Jones
As a kid who grew up in the ‘80s hip hop is modern mythology to me and so many others. From the fantastical names to their larger than life personas, to their “started from the bottom now we here” back stories, hip hop artists poetically distill stories of modern gods, goddesses and Cristal into three-minute club songs.
Like all myths, these urban legends need to be preserved and passed onto younger generations. At first glance, Ed Piskor doesn’t seem like the right man for that job, but (literally) on paper there is no one who does it better.
The white as Wonderbread, Pittsburgh native and protege of the legendary Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) is an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist by trade, whose three-volume comic opus, The Hip Hop Family Tree, is a New York Times bestseller. More importantly the comic has been embraced by the very hip-hop pioneers inside its oversized pages. I had a chance to wax poetic with Piskor over the phone about his newest project, a Public Enemy action figure set (which you can pre-order at Aggronautix, Rap Central Station or Presspop), and get his thoughts about the past and present of hip hop.
Crave: How did you get involved with this project?
Ed Piskor: I get approached by super popular rappers to do like album covers or whatever, but to be honest I don’t give a shit about a lot of those guys. Public Enemy is my favorite group ever so when they (Presspop) approached me I couldn’t let anyone else do it.
What was it like working with Presspop. They do some amazing stuff.
Presspop is the Japanese publisher of Hip Hop Family Tree. They work with the best American cartoonists working today like Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Jim Woodring, and they’re super faithful to the artist. It was a match made in heaven. I always bristle at work for hire, especially when there’s a celebrity involved because there’s so much vanity and shit. There were no editorial notes. The toys and the box turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.
What was your earliest memory of Public Enemy?
My dad was always away working. Pittsburgh is a mill town so he was in other countries teaching dudes to do the jobs he used to do. So, a lot of the messages in the Public Enemy songs were like fatherly wisdoms to me. Chuck D promotes the straight-edge lifestyle. I took his messages to heart. It was really important for me during my formative years to not be a knucklehead.
A lot of people wrongly pigeonhole Public Enemy as being just about black power, but they were one of the first African-American hip-hop groups to crossover with their rap-metal collaboration with Anthrax on “Bring The Noise. They didn’t just speak to an urban fanbase.
That’s for sure. I went to every show when they came to Pittsburgh. Everybody knew to get out of the way because Eddie P had to be at the front of the stage. The audience was 50-50 which translated to the mixture of the fans for sure.
It’s ironic that in this current state of the world, Public Enemy is the hip hop group we need right now.
I think so.
Chuck D now is part of Prophets of Rage. He’s being reintroduced to a whole new generation and the action figures will help that.
That’s cool of you to say and it crosses my mind on a daily basis that thank god we still have Chuck D here to drop some science because we don’t have a lot of people who can give us a harsh message in a delivery mechanism that is pleasurable. That’s how Public Enemy works for me. They’re going to drop some words to live by, but the way they deliver it doesn’t sound like you’re dad trying to preach to you
See: New Music | Prophets of Rage Debut 1st Single
As a cartoonist, what’s the process with designing the actual action figure?
I drew multiple views of each guy. With a character like Flav there are million different possibilities of what he could look like. Then, I draw the character in 360 degrees. I had ideas of what their scale should be. I wanted Terminator X to be like Lurch from The Addams Family. I remember Professor Griffith coming up to the front and putting the microphone in front of my mouth and I remember him being super tiny so I made him smaller even though he’s about the same size as Chuck D.
Is this Public Enemy collection going to be the first in a series of hip hop action figures?
This is such a huge investment that we got to sell a couple thousand of these things to make it viable. We could make it like GI Joe.
Who would be your ultimate hip hop action figure to design?
This ain’t hyperbole, but I just did it (meaning Public Enemy). If I could do a second, an NWA five-pack would be sick. The Fat Boys, but make them real huge and fat. LL Cool, J, Slick Rick…
What do you think is the fascination with old school hip-hop?
Personally, it’s something I’ve always been into. It isn’t nostalgia for me. Nostalgia is like a 45-year-old square dude who gets into things to remember his childhood and I’ve never put this (hip-hop) stuff down.
How would you compare this current hip-hop era with the Golden Age acts that you draw?
The unfortunate thing is that lawyers, copyright law, publishing rights killed the rap music that I love. They made it virtually impossible to put out a record like Paul’s Boutique (Beastie Boys’ second album) or Three Feet High and Rising (De La Soul’s debut album). Now, only people who can build old records in that way are like the 1% of rappers like Jay-Z or Kanye. I like postmodern stuff that uses old stuff to make something new. Produced beats are kinda corny to me. There’s so much flash in the pan one hit wonder stuff. There’s like a lyrical virtuosity that’s mastubatory to me. It doesn’t impress me that you know how to rhyme words with ‘medulla oblongata.’
What did you think of the Get Down trailer (upcoming Netflix show about the birth of hip-hop)?
Thanks for reminding me. There were photographers on the set of that who sent me photos of my comics in their wardrobe department pasted on the walls.
They were using your drawings as mood boards.
I got to guilt them into dropping me some props. I site my sources in all of my books. If my comics are all posted on your wall just drop some props to Eddie P.
Speaking of, what’s next for Hip Hop Family Tree?
Could be my life’s work, but I’m putting it down for a year. Recharge my batteries. I was drawing it for four and half years straight without a break. I’ll work on some other stuff —
But, you gotta give the people what they want.
(Haha) Don’t be surprised if you see 20 volumes of this before I kick the bucket.
Did you ever picture it becoming as big as it has become?
I knew it would be cool as hell. There’s no other cartoonist who could make this comic.
Or these action figures. Has Public Enemy seen them?
They keep posting it on Facebook and stuff so I’m sure they have. I would like to see a picture of them holding them. That would be cool!