Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on Dec. 22, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. He died Aug. 12, 1988, in his art studio across the bridge in Manhattan. That night, he was supposed to go to a Run-D.M.C. concert but overdosed on heroin, found unconscious on the floor by his friends. He was only 27 but already one of the most famous artists of his generation, leaving behind an influential span of work that included 1,000 canvases and 1,000 sketches showcasing his distinct style of mixing neo-expressionism, primitivism, abstraction and graffiti.
For the first time in Canada, the artist is getting a major retrospective, Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time, which is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 10, and the timing couldn’t be better. Basquiat — both his art and the artist as a cultural icon — is enjoying a resurgence of popularity of late, especially in the hip-hop world. In fact, you could even say it’s because of hip-hop. As rappers have embraced the late artist’s work, both by collecting it and referencing him by name in song, Basquiat’s stature has soared.
Just last year, a work of his depicting two figures stoned on PCP sold at auction for $48.8 million US (in his lifetime, his paintings sold for upwards of $50,000 apiece, which was still considerable). To highlight how valuable Basquiat has become, a painting was discovered on a drug dealer’s steel door in 2011, which may or may not belong to Basquiat; if it’s authenticated, it would be worth millions.
Most notably, both Kanye West and Jay Z have name-dropped him in their music, the latter claiming “I’m the new Jean-Michel!” on 2013’s “Picasso Baby.” That same year, he also purchased Basquiat’s Mecca for $4.5 million US. It’s not the first time Jay has name-dropped Basquiat (2006’s “Grammy Family Freestyle” begins with the line “inspired by Basquiat”), nor are he and Kanye the only rappers to claim the artist as inspiration. A cursory search of Genius.com — formerly called Rap Genius, which allows you to search words in rap songs — reports more than 200 uses of “Basquiat.” Producer Swizz Beatz is arguably his biggest fan: he purchased his first Basquiat in 1998 and today owns six, has released a Basquiat-inspired Reebok sneaker, has two Basquiat tattoos and has referenced the artist’s influence ad-infinitum in his music and interviews. The New York Times has credited Swizz Beatz’s early enthusiasm in the artist for Basquiat’s increase in presence.
“When I started talking about Basquiat, everybody looked at me like I was crazy,” he told the Times in another interview. “Now you can’t hear a rap song without it.”
But how did Basquiat become the rapper’s painter? Why have rappers from A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne to Rick Ross and Wale, to name a few more, felt inspired by Basquiat enough to immortalize him in verse?
Part of it has to do with Basquiat’s beginnings in graffiti, one of the key elements of hip-hop. As one-half of the SAMO collaboration, Basquiat and fellow graffiti artist Al Diaz were behind the infamous tag that appeared on the streets of New York in the late ‘70s, always followed by thought-provoking aphorisms.
“He really respected the power of words from early on,” says Shiralee Hudson, the AGO’s interpretive planner. “He started out as the conceptual graffiti artist, putting out these phrases that are poignant, like ’origin of cotton.’ In three words, he’s dealing with the history of the slave trade, African-American identity and criticizing capitalism. Just three words.”
Basquiat continued to use powerful language and manipulate text well into his career. In fact, it became one of the defining features of his work.
The rise of rap
As an avant-garde artist, Basquiat was also a fixture in the emerging downtown arts scene in NYC, which included the likes of Andy Warhol and Blondie, but also hip-hop pioneers Fab Five Freddie and Kool Herc.
“The time of Jean-Michel’s production, from 1980 to his untimely death in 1988, runs parallel to the emergence of hip hop,” Hudson says.
Michael Holman, a musician and filmmaker, best known as the screenwriter for the 1996 film Basquiat, remembers first meeting the artist at a party in 1979. It was after that meeting that they started the art-noise band Gray, with Basquiat as frontman.
“From '79 to '81, you had all this trans-pollination between the downtown arts scene and these uptown hip-hop artists,” he says. “They were trying to get graffiti into the fine art world, trying to break hip-hop into the music business, and there were a lot of parallels in ambition. So naturally, it was inevitable that we would all meet…. We were bringing these artists downtown to perform at the Mudd Club, as well as my club, Negril, which was the first hip-hop club downtown. People like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Rammellzee.”
If you look closely at the 1980 music video for Blondie’s “Rapture,” the first video to appear on MTV that featured rap, you can see a young, skinny kid at the turntables. It’s Basquiat. Grandmaster Flash, who was name-dropped in the song, didn’t show up for the shoot so Basquiat filled in.
Fab 5 Freddy, a hip-hop impresario and friend of the artist’s, says the connection between Basquiat and hip-hop, highlighted in the 2010 Basquiat documentary The Radiant Child, helped to further establish the connection. “It made people in the hip-hop community realize we were tight,” he told The New York Times.
Freddy not only shared a studio space with Basquiat, but he also introduced the artist to early rap recordings and versions of sampling. Basquiat would use that knowledge to release his own rap record in 1983, producing the beat and designing the artwork on the cover. Called “Beat-Bop,” the 10-minute, chorus-free track features MCs K-Rob and Rammellzee, and has been cited as an influence on groups like the Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill and El-P. An original pressing featuring Basquiat’s artwork on the cover is extremely rare (only 500 copies were printed), and today it’s considered one of the holy grails of rap records.
There’s a longer, interesting backstory to “Beat Bop” (including a beef between Rammellzee and Basquiat, which could possibly be the reason the former’s name is misspelled on the cover, says Hudson), but more importantly, it serves to highlight how involved the painter was in hip-hop’s nascent years. What better artist for rappers to draw inspiration from than someone who is actually part of the history of the movement?
The hip-hop sampling that Fab 5 Freddy taught Basquiat — the act of taking loops from older songs and creating something new — also draws parallels to the collage style of Basquiat’s visual work. In an instance of the influence going full circle, Kanye West even cites Basquiat’s style as an influence on his production methods.
“You just do a Basquiat painting over the whole test. And sure, every answer is wrong, but look, it makes a beautiful picture,” he’s said of his music.
“The styles of Basquiat’s work, where he takes influence from everything from art history to jazz to sports figures to his own personal stories to the great history of America and African-Americans, he brings it all together and literally samples it and collages it,” says Hudson. “He uses that to create artworks that are a whole new artistic style, similar to how DJs were mining and curating history, taking bits from here and there and making a whole new art form.”
It’s the reason she chose to use rap lyrics to annotate some of the pieces on display at the AGO, including the 1981 piece, Irony of the Negro Policeman, Basquiat’s damning criticism that black officers are controlled by white America. Hudson includes a line from the N.W.A. protest song "F–k tha Police” to explain the context of the piece: “But don’t let it be a black and a white one, cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top, black police showing out for the white cop.”
“Hip-hop is part of this conversation,” she says. “Basquiat’s message correlated to the message in rap, especially '80s rap, which was very political, dealing with things like police brutality and what it’s like to be young black men judged by their exteriors instead of their complex interiors. Hip-hop artists were dealing with those same issues.”
Which could perhaps explain why, more than anything, rappers continue to be inspired and influenced by Basquiat. Jay Z explained it best when he wrote about his connection to Basquiat in his book Decoded:
“One Basquiat print I own is called Charles the First — it’s about Charlie Parker, the jazz pioneer who died young of a heroin overdose, like Basquiat. In the corner of the painting are the words, MOST YOUNG KINGS GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF…. One critic said about Basquiat that the boys in his paintings didn’t grow up to be men, they grew up to be corpses, skeletons and ghosts. Maybe that’s the curse of being young, black and gifted in America…. I’m trying to rewrite the old script, but Basquiat’s painting sits on my wall like a warning.”