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Peace, Love And Realness In A Hip-Hop History

The problem with an outsider trying to write about street culture — or any form of culture that hasn't yet been munched up and spat out in salable blobs by the behemoth of mass commercialization — is the whole voyeur thing. There's nothing more embarrassing than some bystander's yearning to be "down with" a group of people who have their own organic artistry going on.

Ed Piskor manages to avoid all that in Hip Hop Family Tree. Born in 1982, a white comics nerd who contributed to Harvey Pekar's American Splendor and worked with him on two books, Piskor wades through the convoluted history of early-'80s, mostly black urban culture with a buoyant combination of perspicacity and all-around good cheer. He seems utterly free of any need to flourish his bonafides or supplicate to his sources. He's both matter-of-fact and brimming with love, as if that love could automatically make him one with the story he tells. And maybe it can.

Not that Piskor's labor doesn't show. The amount of research he's done sets a rather terrifying new standard for anyone else inclined to study the birth of hip-hop. In this third volume he captures such moments as the Beastie Boys' transition from hardcore to rap, the rise of the Fat Boys, the creation of Whodini's Escape, and Russell Simmons' and Rick Rubin's forging of the Def Jam label (and discovery of a young rapper calling himself Ladies Love Cool James).

Piskor is less interested in the realities of poverty and drug use many of these artists faced. He generally depicts his sources as they do themselves: rapping triumphantly onstage rather than struggling to keep the electricity on. He does cover KRS-One's stays at various homeless shelters and his arrest, at 19, for smuggling pot. He also touches on the scene's endemic sexism; the book kicks off with Rubin informing the Beasties' then-drummer Kate Schellenbach (who later went on to play with Luscious Jackson), "Sorry, but girls don't sound good rapping." Besides Schellenbach, the highest-profile female performer Piskor features is "The Real Roxanne," Lolita Shanté Gooden, and he has all the details of the famous rap war that surrounded the 14-year-old's reinvention as Roxanne Shanté.

No less brilliant than Piskor's journalism is his graphical skill. He works in a huge format — this book is 9 by 13 inches — but even so, each page barely seems to contain the energy of its subjects. It could get stale flipping through picture after picture of MCs with mikes, but Piskor uses every trick in the comic-book playbook to keep things taut and crackling. He varies figures' sizes, adds and subtracts different gradations of color and moves from realism to cartoony exaggeration. The Fearless Four, rapping "Problems of the World Today," are four heads bobbing in space. KRS-One's graffiti bounces off the page. The Fat Boys alternately lumber, loom and swell. (Piskor clearly has a soft spot for the Boys. Flying to Switzerland under the aegis of promoter Charlie Stettler, one asks, "These peanuts is free?" Later, carnage ensues when they discover room service.)

Piskor falls short in one area: drawing break dancers. He gets the poses and musculature right, but the dancers seem motionless. It's a common problem among graphic artists who pay a lot of attention to anatomy: To really evoke movement, you need to have a solid enough sense of the human form that you can forget about perfect accuracy. Piskor isn't there yet.

On the other hand, he deserves a special star for his depiction of everyone's style. Clearly, his subjects remembered well their favorite hats, shoes and shades. In one great moment, Simmons and Rubin make the young LL Cool J discard his chosen costume, which Piskor, pleading "artistic license," depicts with epaulettes, a cape and a Davy Crockett cap. Outfitting LL in the simple threads that would become his signature, Simmons pronounces his verdict. (Simmons has a slight lisp, which Piskor exaggerates throughout.) "Thee, thith ith what I'm talkin' 'bout," Simmons says. "It'th more realer. Nigga'th want rappah'th to be legit."

"Legit." Hip-hop was only a couple of years old, but already Simmons recognized a difference between what was "legit" and what was actually true — and knew which he wanted to see. Hip-hop has struggled with that tension ever since. For all his artistry, Piskor's greatest achievement has been to comment on the scene without getting bogged down in whether he himself is legit or not. He's more realer without even trying.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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Etelka Lehoczky