Hip-Hop Finds an Artist to Believe In
By ANDREW BORYGA
HIP-HOP has long given shout-outs to alcoholic beverages, foreign cars and jewelry. But recently, an artist has been added to that list. Jean-Michel Basquiat, who got his start in SAMO, a graffiti collective in Manhattanâ€™s early-â€™80s downtown scene, and became a famed painter before his death at 27, has been name-checked in numerous tracks in the last two years by the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West and Rick Ross, bringing his story and work to the attention of a new generation.
Fred Brathwaite, a k a Fab 5 Freddy, the longtime hip-hop impresario and former friend of the artistâ€™s, said Basquiatâ€™s sudden exposure on hip-hop airwaves coincided directly with the 2010 release of a Basquiat documentary. In addition to exposing the artistâ€™s story to a larger audience, the film established a connection between Basquiat and hip-hop, by way of their friendship. â€œIt made people in the hip-hop community realize we were tight,â€ Mr. Brathwaite said. He met Basquiat at a party in 1979 and soon after shared studio space with him on Canal Street, where he introduced him to recordings of early hip-hop parties that he says Basquiat found interesting, particularly early versions of sampling. In 1983, Basquiat toyed with the process on â€œBeat-Bop,â€ a 10-minute track synthesizing various instruments and rhyming patterns, for which he produced and designed artwork. Coveted by hip-hop collectors because of its limited release, the track is rumored to be a result of a rift between Basquiat and a rapper on the track, Rammellzee, but Mr. Brathwaite contends the rumors are false and the record was nothing more than an experiment. â€œEveryone was doing a little bit of everything then,â€ he said. â€Everyone had their hands in different scenes.â€ â€œBeat-Bopâ€ provided hip-hop aficionados a way to discover Basquiat, but not until the rapper-producer Swizz Beatzâ€™s public embrace of Basquiat did his presence begin to grow. Swizz Beatz, whose birth name is Kasseem Dean, remembers that when he tagged cabs and subway cars as a teenager in the South Bronx under the name Loco, friends often referred to Basquiat, pointing out places in the city where his SAMO tag once rested. At 18, flush with production money from DMXâ€™s 1998 hit â€œRuff Ryderâ€™s Anthemâ€ and seeking to decorate a recently purchased home, Mr. Dean found himself drawn to Basquiatâ€™s prints, flipping through an art book that also contained Warhol, Haring and Lichtenstein. â€œThere was something about his work; it was so simple yet so bold at the same time,â€ said Mr. Dean, 32, in a phone interview. Discovering Basquiatâ€™s Brooklyn roots and humble beginnings, Mr. Dean became fascinated by the artist. By age 25 he had bought his first original piece and now owns six. He also wears two Basquiat-inspired tattoos, one a portrait of the artist on his right arm. Franklin Sirmans, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator and contributor to numerous books on Basquiat, finds the hip-hop connection logical, given the artistâ€™s street origins and his status as a black star in a mostly white, exclusionary art world â€œJean-Michel lived as the only black person in the room,â€ he said. â€œA Jay-Z or Swizz Beatz can relate to that as record executives.â€ On recent hip-hop tracks, Basquiatâ€™s name has been dropped amid verses glorifying pinky rings and Porsches. One song suggests that the splattering style he sometimes painted in was a metaphor for spilled blood. But references like that on the 2010 track â€œMost Kingzâ€ describe a deeper connection. Jay-Z begins a verse in the song with the couplet â€œInspired by Basquiat, my chariotâ€™s on fire /Everybody took shots, hit my body up, Iâ€™m tired,â€ and in later verses makes reference to the pressures of escaping the ghetto but not its stigma, something Mr. Sirmans says Basquiat, whose work was often regarded by critics as â€œprimitive,â€ faced. Underlying meaning aside, Swizz, who is serving as creative director for Reebokâ€™s forthcoming fall Basquiat sneaker and apparel line, believes any mention of Basquiat and exposure to a larger audience is good. â€œSure, it could be a fad,â€ he said. â€œBut letâ€™s make it an educational fad.â€