If you’re looking to witness the influence of neo-expressionist Black painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s influence on hip-hop, you could start with Beyoncé and Jay-Z propped against a never-before-seen painting by the late New York artist in their recent Tiffany & Co. ad campaign. If that, however, is too much of an excessive capitalist display that would rouse the painter from his grave, perhaps consider the 360 degrees of his influence on hip-hop found in the currently running Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© installation at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in New York City.
“Basquiat’s art—like the best hip-hop—takes apart and reassembles the work that came before it,” wrote art critic Franklin Sirmans in his 2005 essay “In the Cipher: Basquiat and Hip-Hop Culture,” a rough-cut look at how Basquiat’s emergence at the tail of the 1970s through the mid-’80s coincided with the genesis of hip-hop.
The deconstructionism that made Basquiat fresh in his time still makes him pertinent at present. “Jean-Michel is always relevant, but whether there’s political unrest or social justice issues in the news, any creative vision or new rap that comes about seem to touch on who he was,” says his sister Lisane Basquiat.
Listening to Jean-Michel’s sisters, Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat—who co-curated the Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© exhibition in dedication to their brother’s legacy with rare works unseen for decades, or never-before displayed—the pair has a close, if cloudy, vision of where JMB stood in relation to early rap and even his excursions in experimental noise punk with his band Gray.
Jeanine Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat are adamant in their definition of the Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© exhibition as an expression of the painter’s close familial ties, with New York playing a dynamic character in the script of his life, and the wealth of diverse music in the Basquiat household as its soundtrack.
“Music was a huge part of all our lives and our upbringing in the house growing up,” says Lisane of their Brooklyn-born youth. “Our father was a Haitian immigrant, our mother was Puerto Rican, and between the two of their diverse cultures, alone, made for a great wealth of sound. My father also listened to many different genres of music—jazz and disco in particular. Plus, he liked Neil Diamond, Chicago, and Santana. Jean-Michel, Jeanine, and I were influenced by all that our parents played. But Jean-Michel specifically took to the jazz my dad played. Plus, our maternal grandfather played bongos in the basement with his band. Certainly, that musicianship inspired our brother.”
The experience that is Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© (the latter part of the title named for the painter’s rhythm-and-jazz vocalese favorite, King Pleasure of “Red Top” fame) is, from Jeanine’s POV, a further exploration of their brother’s family ties. “It’s us playing together. It’s us playing with our parents and the love they had for us. For their son. That Jean-Michel had a vision for, and of himself as he entered the world—one you can see in his Self-Portrait 1960 and No Summer Hot Water Ossning. These speak to Jean-Michel’s vision of a family tree, a vision I don’t think ever left him if you look at his sketchbooks on display.”
The fact that music was such a core element of Basquiat’s life—whether at home, crafting installations for the Michael Todd VIP Room at the Palladium nightclub, gigging as part of the noise band Gray, or producing rap records—is the axis upon which Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure© spins.
“His work was his life, and that meant so much music in the mix,” says Lisane.
Hungarian American singer, songwriter, violinist, and actress Eszter Balint can be currently found blocks away from the Basquiat exhibit at the Public Theater at Joe’s Pub, starring in her co-creation with playwright-musician Stew, I Hate Memory!, an “anti-musical” co-starring “the Streets of New York.” Balint—who starred beside John Lurie and Richard Edson in Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 filme Stranger Than Paradise—has her own vision of the musical Basquiat, as she played strings on his production of 1983’s “Beat Bop” by Rammellzee and K-Rob.
“Jean-Michel was an avid consumer of music, and almost always worked with some sort of music playing in his studio,” says Eszter Balint. “As far as producing goes, however, I don’t believe that Jean-Michel had some concrete ambition of steering those sessions. I don’t think that he wanted to be a producer. It was more like hip-hop was happening. It was very exciting for all of us—something new, fresh, and amazing. And this amazing, brilliant character—the artist and wordsmith Rammellzee—was in our circle, looking to do something.”
Featuring guitar, bass, and Prophet-5 synth work from Sekou Bunch, percussion by Albert Diaz, and the human beatboxing of Jay “M,” the Tartown label 12-inch was yet another way for Basquiat and Balint to express the freeform vibe of the moment—“one where we could do anything, use disco claps, be playful,” says Balint.
Jeanine remembers her brother coming home to Brooklyn to show his family a copy of the “Beat Bop” 12-inch, and states how overjoyed he was with his accomplishment. “He was as blown away as I was,” she laughs. “We would talk about music, or we would go [to] parties with him that he was DJing back in the day, so for him to be a part of the hip-hop records of the time was thrilling.”
Jeanine also mentions, quietly, that the night her brother passed away, August 12, 1988, at age twenty-seven, Jean-Michel was on his way to a Run-DMC concert. “He loved that life, the music, hung out with Fab 5 Freddie, along with other rappers, dancers, and graffiti artists. He was proud of making that happen, and being part of hip-hop.”
That the late 1970s into mid-’80s also happens to be the era of New York that Balint and Stew deal with in their I Hate Memory anti-musical at Joe’s Pub means that much of this moment is on the actor’s mind, not nostalgically (sentimentalism is no strong suit of Balint), but rather with caustic gentle humor and expressionist rhapsody. Which brings us to Gray, Basquiat’s famously odd noise ensemble. “I recall Gray,” Balint says, stifling a laugh. “Gray was an experiment…one lacking in any discernible entertainment value. It was like, wow, really. It was more of an art statement, a fun experiment.”
Going back to Basquiat’s brand of hip-hop and his impact on rap’s currency, Balint and I agree that hip-hop in the present day has more of an agenda, commercial or otherwise, than “Beat Bop” did.
“There was no agenda as to making a hip-hop record for us, for Jean-Michel,” says Balint. “It was more about just seeing what happens when we’re in a studio together. That was that era in New York. As for how his hip-hop—our hip-hop—inspired what hip-hop is now, I don’t know. Our vision was freer, from the style of music and the handclaps to Rammellzee’s improvisations. We laughed and had a lot of fun doing that track the whole time. If I’m nostalgic about anything at all from that time period, it was that freedom. Jean-Michel listened to reggae, punk, bebop, and classical while he painted. I remember him asking me to play violin along to Bernard Herrmann soundtrack scores to Hitchcock movies in his studio—the theme from Psycho. That was his inspiration. I don’t know if hip-hop is so much like that now, so free.”