I have been getting a crash course in hip hop culture lately, and it has been fantastic. A major initial draw to my AmeriCorps host site was the “Hip Hopera” that the high school puts on every year – a student produced, written, and performed show. That environment of creative learning sounded amazing and I wanted to be a part of it.
When I had my interview with the site supervisor, she asked me if I was into hip hop…and I had to admit that I wasn’t – not yet! My go-to answer when facing questions like that is, “I grew up listening to the 3 C’s – Celtic, Christian, and Classical – and I’ve been trying to recover ever since.”
Fortunately, my ignorance of hip hop culture didn’t prevent me from being placed there, and I’ve enjoyed several months of relentless inspiration, creation, and hard work. The raw talent buried in these kids is incredible. They will goof off for days, then suddenly drop a killer beat, startle me with a powerful spoken word piece, or draw a comic that blows my mind.
The kids are writing rap songs and learning to DJ, and their beats are almost impossible to keep still around. As I stood in the doorway of the recording studio a few weeks ago, covertly shuffling my feet (I walk down the hallway and kids are krumping, so I don’t dance in public!) I realized that I was being irresistibly drawn into the mysterious world of hip hop.
Conveniently, a friend had left the first two volumes of Ed Piskor‘s Hip Hop Family Tree at my house, so I was able to start educating myself in style. As I mentioned recently, I mostly read comic books/graphic novels these days, so Piskor’s books were perfect.
An ‘encyclopedic cultural chronicle‘, the series digs into the history of hip hop with gusto. I was soon surrounded by the world of the Bronx in the mid-70’s, meeting Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Sugerhill Gang. What a party! They were making new kinds of music while other folks were forming dance crews, and turning graffiti into an art form.
The first two volumes of Piskor’s history of hip hop take you as far as 1983, and the second volume covers only 3 years – so to claim that the books are packed with information is an understatement. They are dripping with detail, each panel (never-mind the whole page!) practically a story in itself.
The amount of research that went into the books is astronomical. Piskor (a Pittsburgh native, incidentally) charts the managers and recording labels that set the cornerstones for the industry, follows the making of the Wild Style movie, and brings you into the childhood bedroom of famous hip hop personalities.
Piskor’s ability to capture sound and movement in a silent 2-D format is mind boggling. The story is action-packed, and Piskor frames it with a cinematic eye, capturing the riot and romp of parties and epic rap battles between MC/DJ crews. The colors mimic classic comic books (I think I read somewhere that Piskor created a pallet straight from the pages of old comics) which make a powerful visual statement.
In short, I loved these books and can’t wait for the next volume (coming out next year! and currently serialized online at Boing Boing!).
Of course I couldn’t just read Hip Hop Family Tree - I had to listen to the music as well. Thank goodness for YouTube! I’ve been obsessed with old school hip hop for weeks now, letting it become the soundtrack for my life.
The culture is infiltrating my life in other ways too. I watched the excellent Wild Style, and have since been looking at the graffiti around Pittsburgh with new eyes – and drawing it. I am learning how to make beats, and wouldn’t be surprised if my secret dance parties led to an attempt to pick up some break-dancing moves…!
I knew when I started serving as an AmeriCorps KEYS member at a high school in Munhall, PA, that it would be a life-changing experience (after all, it would be part of the answer to, “Do I want to become a teacher?”). I didn’t realize that it would be the final kick against the door into the hip hop world, causing me to tumble through.
Now that this little white girl from coastal Maine is here, I’m not coming back. There’s way, way, too much to see and hear and do. I don’t mind lending my ears and hands to tracking down the perfect beat…!