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How Basquiat, Who Used Music as Inspiration for His Art, Inspired Generations of Hip Hop Artists


In the late 1970s and early 80s, Jean-Michael Basquiat (1960-1988) became a fixture in New York’s flourishing music scene. He frequently attended venues where punk, no wave, avant garde experimental music, and hip-hop, were mixing to create new hybrid forms. As such, it’s important to examine his music influences when analyzing his art.

No wave — an abrasive, confrontational genre, whose musicians had little in common except their rejection of the status quo — was purposefully inaccessible for mainstream audiences. Inspired by Gray’s Anatomy, Basquiat formed his own no wave band called Gray in 1979, which may explain why “Basquiat’s art looks the way no wave sounds: an untrained raw expression.”

But Basquiat’s work also mobilized and referenced emergent sonic techniques in DJ, house and hip-hop culture as they arose in New York. His interest in novel sounds and techniques was notable. “Critics have often compared Basquiat to a DJ, writing on the ways in which the visuality of his works resonates with early hip-hop culture.” And there are good reasons for this.

There was the fact that his early graffiti collabs with Al Diaz, operating under the name SAMO, was getting him some street credit and recognition, which translated to opportunities in music, like when he designed the sleeve for and produced the 1983 single “Beat Bop” by fellow artists and musicians Rammellzee and K-Rob.

And then there was his friendship with Fab 5 Freddy. Some may recall that he is directly mentioned on Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture,” the first music video with a rap to appear on MTV, which also features Basquiat as a DJ. Fab 5 Freddy — born Fred Brathwaite — credited his teenage years spent wandering museums with Basquiat for their break into the art world.

Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, and Rammellzee masterfully navigated not only the art industry but also indie film, music, and television. “I developed this relationship with the idea of art in a museum context,” Brathwaite said. “There was a whole underground world,” he added, that people in the art establishment “knew nothing about. I felt like we could make strategic moves.”

By 1984, 24-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat had broken into the mainstream art world. Some have argued that, at the time, there were no other Black painters considered worthy of blue-chip gallery recognition. Regardless, the rapid rise of Basquiat required an extraordinary set of preconditions, even for someone as adept at the art-game hustle as he was.

The seismic impact of punk (like Blondie’s “Raputure”) and hip-hop on the downtown cultural scene begat those remarkable conditions. “They cannot be overstated as the primary cultural forces that paved the way and opened Soho gallery doors, enabling Basquiat to perform an end-run around art-world resistance and hostility toward guys who looked like him.”

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Basquiat
Hollywood Africans (1983) by Basquiat

In his 1983 work “Hollywood Africans,” Basquiat painted himself, Rammellzee and Toxic, with their heads floating between the words “gangsterism” and “hero.ism,” likely representing the ways that Black artists and celebrities were pigeonholed in pop culture. So, Basquiat looked to other Black creatives who had forged their own paths in similar circumstances.

The recurring image of the crown in Basquiat’s paintings is a nod to the jazz and hip-hop artists who gave themselves royal aliases; from Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Run-DMC’s King of Rock. And taking note from Afrofuturism, he incorporated mutant-robot hybrid creatures, space gods, as well as the militant pyrotechnic sound-suits crafted by his colleagues into his work.

It’s also clear that being a Brooklynite of Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage also majorly informed his style. In a distinct Afrofurusim style, he recycled his mixed background into his art. Basquiat’s mother frequently took her son to city museums. “The resonance between JMB’s visual sensibility and Brooklyn’s Santeria and Vodou botanicas and altars expands on this.”

Basquiat had a ravenous hunger for art-world fame and was ferociously clear about his intention to produce paintings that could go toe-to-toe with his favorites among the modernist icons — Picasso, Kline, De Kooning, Twombly, Rauschenberg, Warhol. His later interviews, however, display considerable anger towards the art world’s exploitation of his fame and his work.

All of those copyright symbols and crowns in Basquiat’s work point to that commodified transactional hip-hop future. Ironically, members of the hip-hop generation became the first Black musicians in history to become billionaires by lending their charisma and coveted cool to consumer leisure product brands.

“Even though hip-hop was still clawing for such recognition when Basquiat left the world, his own success turns out to have been the harbinger for hip-hop’s success and for the trickle-to-a-flood arrival of the Black visual art stars who would follow in Basquiat’s wake in the 1990s and early 2000s”: Lorna Simpson, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, etc.


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