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How Dr. Walter Greason and Tim Fielder bring history to life in ‘The Graphic History of Hip Hop’

An interview with the two creators.


“Hip hop isn’t just beats and rhymes…it’s a movement that fought to redefine the times.” And The Graphic History of Hip Hop by interdisciplinary scholar Dr. Walter Greason and Afrofuturist artist Tim Fielder brings that movement to life through text and images, examining a music revolution that unfolded over five decades and continues to unfold today.

The two creators originally met in 2015 at a defense consulting workshop. “We were looking at issue of nuclear weapons,” said Dr. Greason. “And [Tim Fielder] did just spectacular art on reimagining what kind of world we can live in. And, of course, he’s the OG Afrofuturist. So, to see his skill on display was just amazing. So I kept him in mind for whenever I had the next chance to pull an artist in on a project.”

That opportunity arrived in December 2022. “The New York City school system—I’d been working with them for three to four years—they asked me, was I going to be able to put together something on a graphic novel about hip hop history for the 50th anniversary?” explained Dr. Greason. “And I was like, ‘yes.’ And I know exactly the artist I want to work with, reached out to Tim that month, he signed up immediately, and then we start the process of how to draft a script, how to put the content together. I’m so thankful. He loved the vision that I had and improved it immeasurably with the art that he developed.”

The edition for the school district, which incorporated edits required for the students and teachers, was released in November 2023, and an expanded edition is currently available as well.

“It has just been an unending hundred-mile-an-hour rollercoaster ride,” said Dr. Greason. When asked how the graphic novel was received, he replied, “Amazing. Overwhelmingly. Just… people love every page. They get swallowed up in each panel. Yeah, and folks keep demanding more. They can’t get enough, and so I would say, particularly, we’re fortunate that hip hop has such deep resonance around the world, and so we’re tapping into that… All these folks are starving for content about hip hop that’s serious and respectful, that doesn’t treat it like a joke or a sideshow.”

Of course, creating a book around such a beloved subject meant a lot of feedback.

Everybody has an opinion,” said Fielder. “My cousin bought two books the other day, got them in the mail, ‘Hey Tim, so I have to say to you, man, the artwork is boss! But story, the way it was presented…’ And everybody has an opinion on what hip hop is. And it’s never-ending. And this will range from cousins all the way to executives at Fortune 500 companies. Everybody has an opinion.”

Fielder’s own experience with hip hop has been a lifelong one. “So I am a guy who emanates from the Black rock music scene… That was the thing I was into… Fishbone, alternative music, I’d be listening to Jimmy Heath, you know, jazz, that type of thing… but I was always around hip hop… I’d oftentimes have to do editorial illustrations for the publications I was working with that would range from the Village Voice and things like that. But I also did mainstream comics through Marvel Comics. So hip hop was always there. And I did an unpublished 63-page fully painted graphic novel called Dr. Dre, Man with a Cold, Cold Heart. Never published, right? So I’ve been around the form my entire life.”

Dr. Greason grew up with hip hop and considers it a defining feature of his life. “I was born a week after Kool Herc’s first party, grew up in New Jersey, bouncing between farm communities, suburbs, and cities like Camden and Newark. And so my whole life, by the time I was five, with my first exposure to Sugarhill Gang, and then from there… five years later, 10 years old, is ‘Roxanne, Roxanne.’ It’s that first wave of original artists breaking through and getting their initial record contracts. And really identifying with shows like Video Music Box, Fab 5 Freddy, going to parties to interview people… That culture shaped me as a preteen and a teen.”

The Graphic History of Hip Hop aims to bring that culture to life is through the use of lyrics and vivid imagery, including images of a break dancer in the corner of each page, which animate when one flips through them.

“That piece is really the foundation,” said Dr. Greason. “If you don’t have an experience with the music, and you come across the James Brown lyric, you’re not going to have the same sense of what’s happening on that page. Like, you kind of have to hear the sound to go with both the history and the visual. And then beyond that, Tim is absolutely a genius about giving places for the audience to show up in the text… [when] you’re seeing the big crowds dancing at the dance party, when you’re seeing people in different kinds of classrooms, just learning about the topics, these places where we’re seeing… There’s just all these layers of features that allow everyone to bring their own voice, their own perspective to the experience of looking through this text. And so that’s what I feel like is really unique, even in this really popular field now of graphic history, is that it’s layers of interpretive challenges that you can come back to again and again and always learn something new.”

Going beyond music, The Graphic History of Hip Hop also examines the movement’s impacts on history, both past and present.

“By the time I was in college, like, ’90, ’91,” said Dr. Greason, “I remember sitting around all white classmates, watching… Public Enemy has a video, and it debuts on MTV, and those jokers are just shocked that they’ve got to deal with the fact that Black people are not going to accept second-class treatment. They’re going to go about pursuing and enforcing civil rights laws and anti-discrimination clauses. They’re going to defend programs like affirmative action. This whole battle that we’ve now seen culminate with the Trump Administration and the backlash that came out of January 6, this has been going on in Black communities for, at minimum, if you’re conservative, you say two centuries. My colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones, 1619 Project, draws it back over four centuries. And so this work of evolving and bringing a social critique that actually honors and enforces a perspective about the African American experience, and really African diaspora, because we deal with anti-Apartheid, we deal with Pan-Africanism, these are all hugely influential pieces of our global society that hip hop is at the center of. So, for me, this is just who I am.”

The Graphic History of Hip Hop brings these connections to life through a timeline feature that Dr. Greason generated.

“It’s pretty ingenious,” said Fielder. “Initially, it was like, ‘Yo, man, just, like, come up with 10 timeline dates if you could. Just to have it.’ This dude comes back with 45 years’ worth of timeline features! But it’s not all hip hop. Some of it is talking about the death of Martin Luther King. The death of Robert Kennedy. Culminating in the election of Richard Nixon, right? But then when does hip hop start? 1973… Who has to resign from office that same year? Richard Nixon… Hip hop integrates through history because hip hop is essentially human history. Part of history. It is history. And it’s a living document that we’re writing as we go along.”

By integrating music history with political and social history, The Graphic History of Hip Hop puts the movement in the context of the wider world.

“A lot of people are used to the stories about Kool Herc and the street parties, but before we ever get to that, we’re telling the story of civil rights and Black power,” said Dr. Greason. “We’re talking about the actual political and social history that leads up to 1973, and then continually, we’re covering the way the society is changing through the 1980s, through the 1990s, why hip hop grows as a phenomenon and becomes more of an industry by the time you get to between 1994 and 1997. And then we confront, really, something that no one’s ever talked about… this industrial shift that provokes Nas to say ‘hip hop is dead’ in 2006. That the heart of the culture was no longer functioning in the same way at the end of the 20th century and into the early 21st century.”

Fielder and Dr. Greason aim to explore more of that living history—and hip hop’s place in overall history—in the second two volumes of a planned three-volume series. The school edition of the second volume will be done by the end of 2024, with expanded editions out next year.

The Graphic History of Hip Hop, volume one, tells the story through the “hip hop is dead” moment in 2006. Dr. Greason explained, “That lays the foundation for our second and third volumes, where we confront: How does the culture become an industry? And how does the content change? And so even today, we see Nas and DJ Premier drop a new single called ‘Define My Name.’ That’s at the heart of the debate about what hip hop should be going forward. And what is the role for hip hop empowering teenagers and young people the way it was when I was coming up, versus the voice of the people who are my age now? Who are 40, 50, 60 years old? Hip hop is a terrain that has brought the world together in ways that exist outside of our mainstream political and economic institutions. And that’s what we hope to capture, in lots of different layers, in this graphic history.”

While the second volume is still undergoing edits, its planned structure is a reverse timeline that looks back from 2023 to 2006, and a bit into the 1990s as well. “We look at the growth of the industry,” said Dr. Greason, “and we also see the suppression of different independent artists, people who are still in the streets, struggling. And how there’s a disconnect between folks that are producing the art and trying to keep the culture alive, but at the same time can never reach the global audience. They’re not getting the mass marketing through radio and streaming that have become more common. And so there’s a tension that runs throughout Volume Two about commercialization, and how does that affect the way that different cultures evolve in a global marketplace.”

The third volume will expand the scope even further: going back 5,000 years to look at world music history overall, the origins of music as human expression, “and then situating hip hop in that story, and using hip hop as a frame to tell overall music history, while also respecting hip hop,” said Dr. Greason. The volume “is this much more ambitious, long view of what’s happened, and why music is so important to all of us.”

For Fielder—who started in comics in the 1980s, moved into video games and animation around 2000, and returned to comics about 12 years after that—the experience of watching the industry around graphic novels evolve has been an interesting one. “The most prominent aspect of graphic novels is the growth industry in the trade book industry,” he explained. “And then [within] graphic novels itself, you have middle grade and YA, and then you have now graphic history.”

Seeing an opportunity, Fielder and Dr. Greason formed The Graphic History Company, along with Christina Hungspruke, a Managing Partner who also handles Marketing and Communications.

“I was shocked the URL was available… No one created a company called the Graphic History Company?” said Fielder with a laugh. “It’s been a wonderful collaboration because I come from a world of independent comics where you’re doing everything by yourself… I would say this has been one of the most educational experiences for me as an independent operator, Afrofuturist, but also just… Look, I put out two books before: one mainstream, one self-published through my company. And I’ve had all kinds of experiences. I have never experienced anything like The Graphic History of Hip Hop.

Working on The Graphic History of Hip Hop came with unique challenges for the artist, who describes the graphic novel as “easily the biggest project of my career.”

“This is not a story that can be told simply,” said Fielder. “This is a story that has to have a complex layout, complex images, because it’s dealing with people who are still alive, some not with us, from all different walks of life.” It required “an immense amount of portraiture,” and Fielder estimates that he drew at least 200 rappers for the expanded edition.

“[It was driving] the folks at the DOE crazy at one point, that you keep adding and adding and adding more and more detail because the subject demands it,” Fielder said. “The subject demands it, and this guy [Dr. Greason] is one of the preeminent scholars of the form. I wasn’t about to let him go out there without that visual being there. That’s the magic and power of graphic history, and I know there are those out there that try to suggest that, ‘Well, you know, we just write books. We don’t do graphic histories.’ Graphic histories are just as relevant as prose scholarship journals, I submit. I know I’ll be lit on fire for that, but I don’t care! I think graphic histories are just as important and they have the opportunity to have a dramatically greater impact. Because it is a fusion of the written and the visual narrative.”

Finding acceptance for the graphic novel among scholars and academics has been a challenge at times.

Dr. Greason recounted, “Just at this last conference I was at in New Orleans, [scholars and academics] came up to me and were like, ‘Well, we can’t be expected to understand or interpret visual content alongside what’s written.’ Like, ‘that’s all we’re trained to do.’ I was like, ‘No, there are hundreds of scholars out here who can do both the writing and the visual art component to evaluate this work and determine its worth.”

“Hip hop is a crazed onion,” said Fielder. “It’s like layers and layers of crazed onions… And to do it the way we’re doing it, our focus is not necessarily just biographical hip hop—which is important, don’t get me wrong—it’s the geopolitical aspect of things to show how hip hop, as a form, integrates into the deeper American and world culture. How it affects politics.”

While the focus is currently on the three volumes of The Graphic History of Hip Hop, Dr. Greason spoke of further plans for the Graphic History Company.

“One of the fundamental critiques is that history is too often removed from popular criticism, and people call it ‘his story’… it’s not something they see themselves in or a part of,” he said. “And that’s the thing that we’ve really placed at the center of this graphic history, is that it’s a way for everyone to see themselves and be part of it, and we’re open for their voices to continue to grow… The whole point of having the Graphic History Company is we want all of the voices to come forward and share the stories that we don’t typically hear.”

The Graphic History of Hip Hop is now available to order online at https://graphichistoryofhiphop.com/

Dr. Walter Greason and Tim Fielder will be at Schomburg’s 12th Annual Black Comic Book Fest on April 26th and 27th.

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