Jean-Michel Basquiat famously dated Madonna, painted poetic slogans across Lower Manhattan, and befriended Andy Warhol; fleeting moments in a life wrought with beauty and tragedy.
Only two things remained constant in Basquiat's turbulent existence, his love affair with music and art.
Today we rediscover Basquiat's life through sound: from the tracks that journeyed with him from unknown street artist to famous neo-expressionist painter, the songs he crafted, and the music inspired by his short time on Earth.
"Art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time," goes a famous quote attributed to Basquiat.
BASQUIAT IN NEW YORK CITY: THE EARLY YEARS
In spring 1978, a troubled 17-year-old and his schoolmate took to the streets of Lower Manhattan.
Equipped with marker pens, spray paints, and a shared alias based on a private joke, Basquiat and Al Diaz began to share satirical commentary about modern life, religion and philosophy.
THE BIRTH OF SAMO
Their alias SAMO was shorthand for "same old shit", and their canvases of choice were the buildings of Lower Manhattan. A month after the graffiti began, Basquiat dropped out of school, and his father kicked him out.
Still, under cover of darkness, SAMO's work continued.
By fall, New Yorkers who had "pretty much stopped looking at the walls" due to the stale graffiti they'd expected from the predictable Big City scene began to look up again. The cryptic and poetic SAMO (sometimes penned with a satirical copyright symbol) had caught their eye.
In December 1978, notable NYC news and culture paper, The Village Voice, published an article about the "hundreds of pithy SAMO© aphorisms splashed on choice spots in Soho, Noho, and the Village, East and West", revealing the "two sharp, personable teenagers" behind the work.
Basquiat and Diaz revealed their identities and spoke openly about SAMO for the first time.
According to Diaz, SAMO wasn't "just ego graffiti ". In retrospect, that's what attracted people's interest.
Instead of randomly tagging buildings with inane phrases, Basquiat and Diaz had something to say. And the conscious placement of the work in the art district was also a statement: the work of SAMO wasn't just 'graffiti'; it was street art.
BASQUIAT VS NEW YORK CITY’S CULTURAL MELTING POT
#FightForStreetArt Kobra's Graffiti Warhol-Basquiat, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Credit: Chalo Gallardo/Unsplash
Aside from his ties to the post-graffiti street art synonymous with New York, Basquiat immersed himself in the melting pot that was the late 1970s and early 80s Downtown NYC nightlife.
Where Downtown NYC was a macrocosm of the dance between art and music, Basquiat's life would be the microcosm.
Take for example, the Mudd Club – a harbinger of Lower Manhattan's underground DIY art and music scene. Notably, it was the first nightclub in New York that doubled up as an art gallery and quickly became not just a social haunt but a second home to Basquiat.
The club showcased anything from new wave and punk to hip-hop, reggae and power pop resulting in a cross-pollination of musical genres. At the same time, the venue featured an ensemble of visual works curated by Keith Haring.
This creatively broad environment where subcultures freely mixed was a catalyst for Basquiat's eclectic music taste and experimentation approach to art.
Spotify's curated playlist "Listen Like Basquiat: Nightlife" honours the artist and indicates the music associated with 1980s New York nightlife.
Then came Basquiat’s band.
During a time when musicians and artists coexisted while moving seamlessly between genres and mediums, Basquiat (alongside filmmaker and musician Michael Holman) formed the experimental band, Gray.
Outside of street art and music, Basquiat also explored other creative endeavours, including decorating his shared apartment's walls, floors and doors, designing postcards and hand painting T-shirts.
THE DEATH OF SAMO
By 1980, Basquiat and SAMO collaborator Al Diaz had parted ways.
According to Basquiat, in response to their falling out, he wrote “SAMO IS DEAD all over the place" and subsequently "started painting".
During this transitional phase from street artist to painter, Basquiat had a piece featured in the Times Square Show.
Citibank art consultant Jeffrey Deitch called the "patch of wall painted by SAMO…a knockout combination of (William) De Kooning and subway paint scribbles".
The death of SAMO, and his increasing notoriety among the art critic class, brought Basquiat to a fork in the road: pursuing the arts or continuing with his band Gray. As the art world continued to mark The Radiant Child as one to watch, it seemed like his fate was sealed.
DECORATING SPACE: BASQUIAT’S ARTWORK
Artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Broad, South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Credit: Mike Von/Unsplash
In the early 1980s, Basquiat was on the precipice of his meteoric rise towards superstardom. Although he left Gray to pursue his art career, music remained a continual inspiration as his work moved from the streets into gallery spaces.
We revisit the pieces most notably influenced by music and ultimately set him on a path to become one of the most significant painters of the 1980s neo-expressionist movement.
‘CADILLAC MOON’ (1981)
Basquiat sold his first painting to Blondie's front-woman, Debbie Harry, for US$200 after working together on the indie film Downtown 81.
Cadillac Moon is an early example of how he transitioned from city to gallery walls without losing his raw street energy.
The painting features a crossed-out SAMO signature alongside childlike features synonymous with his subsequent works.
Listening to Downtown 81's soundtrack indicates the wide range of music Basquiat was immersed in while creating this piece's frenetic punk and hip-hop aesthetic.
‘CHARLES THE FIRST’ (1982)
The year 1982 marked the neo-expressionist boom, amid which Basquiat's career took flight. Bruno Bischofberger became his global art dealer, and the mainstream art world was introduced to the artist's life-long fascination with music.
"Since I was seventeen, I thought I might be a star. I'd think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix... I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous," he said.
With Charles The First, Basquiat – a fervent bebop fan – portrayed jazz musician Charlie Parker as a personal hero and king of culture.
Like Parker's approach to music, the painting is an improvised dance of styles and references, infusing graffiti and jazz culture to create a bold new expressive blend.
‘HORN PLAYERS’ (1983)
In 1983, Basquiat continued to pay homage to the bebop and jazz musicians that inspired his creative process.
According to art historian Dr Jordana Moore Saggese: "Basquiat looked to jazz music for inspiration and for instruction, much in the same way that he looked to the modern masters of painting."
His triptych Horn Players once again celebrated Parker with the addition of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Aside from the figurative drawings, the word-play-loving artist includes repeated written references to his heroes.
"ORNITHOLOGY" is a homage to Parker's "Bird" moniker, and "DOH SHOO DE OBEE" references Gillespie's improvised scat singing.
The crossed-out words simulate the scratching and remixing associated with 1980's hip-hop (another cultural benefactor of jazz).
PALLADIUM NIGHTCLUB MURAL (1985)
By the mid-1980s, Basquiat was an established figure in the art sphere and once again proved ahead of the curve when it came to affecting broader culture.
Basquiat was among the first artists commissioned to decorate the space when the Palladium transformed from a concert hall to a nightclub in 1985. He returned to his street art roots by painting a mural featured in the Mike Todd room bar.
Aside from the Palladium, the Area nightclub was another feature in the ever-changing yet consciously unpretentious underground scene.
No one better personified that attitude than Basquiat, who would don his paint-splattered Armani suits and DJ at Area for kicks.
‘KING PLEASURE’ (1987)
King Pleasure was another reference to Basquiat's love of jazz. The piece paid tribute to the jazz singer of the same name.
Similar to his work under the guise of SAMO, his bold lettering is the focal point of the composition.
He also adorns the words "KING PLEASURE" with one of his signature crown motifs, which he often used to symbolise
"kings and queens within modern society, far away from their traditional use within historical monarchies".
Basquiat blessed anyone he deemed worthy of being crowned a hero or a saint from across pop culture with this motif, with masters of jazz being the most common recipients. Basquiat referenced jazz musicians and music in more than 30 of his paintings.
Check out Spotify's curated playlist "Listen Like Basquiat: Studio Life" to get an idea of the sounds The Radiant Child listened to while painting.
THE BASQUIAT AND WARHOL FRIENDSHIP
Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger and Fransesco Clemente, New York (1984). Credit: Galerie Bruno Bischofberge/Wikimedia Commons
Aside from music, one of the most significant influences on Basquiat's work was his famous friendship with Andy Warhol.
In the early 1980s, Basquiat (a then unknown artist) and his friend, Jennifer Stein, made and sold postcards. During this time, he encountered Warhol after spotting him in a restaurant in the SoHo area and sold him a postcard entitled Stupid Games, Bad Ideas.
"We were walking past this restaurant and Andy Warhol is sitting there and Henry Geldzahler, who was the head of the Metropolitan Museum, and he said, 'I'm going in!'” Basquiat was quoted as saying in an interview.
“And I said, 'Ok.' I'm waiting outside a really long time, so I'm like, 'What the hell?' And he comes out and I said, 'What took you so long?' He goes, 'They had to get change from a five.'"
At age 21, Basquiat was formally introduced to his idol, Warhol. After a successful one-man show at Bischofberger's Zurich gallery in September, Basquiat sat down to lunch with pop-art renegade the following month.
According to Warhol, he took a polaroid and after lunch, Basquiat "went home and within two hours a painting was back, still wet, of him and me together".
The painting in question, Dos Cabezas, was their only joint portrait.
The Warhol-Basquiat friendship blossomed into a creative partnership, with notable collaborations between 1984 and 1985.
However, their ill-received joint exhibition Paintings (whereby critics denigrated Basquiat as nothing more than Warhol's mascot) put an end to their increasingly turbulent friendship.
Despite having barely spoken for the best part of two years, Warhol's death in 1987 deeply troubled Basquiat, who increasingly turned to heroin to cope with his personal issues.
DECORATING TIME: BASQUIAT’S MUSIC
Although he experienced his most significant success in the art world, Basquiat's music also stands the test of time.
We revisit how Basquiat encapsulated the 1980s NYC music scene and helped to produce a hip-hop anthem.
BASQUIAT AND GRAY
In the spring of 1979, amid the cultural cross-pollination of Downtown New York, Basquiat and Michael Holman formed an experimental no-wave band, Test Pattern, that would later evolve into Gray.
Other original members included Shannon Dawson, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford, and Vincent Gallo.
None of the members were trained and aimed to deconstruct rather than make well-structured music.
In Basquiat's words: "[Gray] was a noise band. I played a guitar with a file, and a synthesiser.
“I was inspired by John Cage at the time – music that isn't really music. We were trying to be incomplete, abrasive, oddly beautiful."
The original Gray was a relatively short-lived experiment, with Basquiat leaving in 1981 to pursue his art career.
It was in 1980 that Glenn O'Brien featured Basquiat's graffiti in an article entitled "Graffiti '80: The State of the Outlaw Art". After which, Basquiat was asked to star in Downtown 81, (an indie film written and produced by O'Brien).
The film was completed in early 1981 and later released in 2000.
Gray's track "Drum Mode" was featured in the movie Downtown 81 and its varied soundtrack (with Gray and solo Basquiat inclusions) captures the essence of downtown New York during the early 80s.
BASQUIAT AND HIP-HOP
Basquiat was crucial in reinvigorating the street art world in the early 1980s with his fresh post-graffiti approach.
He also had a hand in evolving hip-hop. Aside from his SAMO graffiti (a landmark of hip-hop culture), he starred as a DJ in "Rapture" (1981) by Blondie, marking the first music video with a rap to air on MTV.
Basquiat wasn't just a pivotal force in the visual representation of hip-hop culture. He also produced and arranged fellow street artists Rammellzee and K-Rob's 1983 track "Beat Bop" (though in true Basquiat style, he did design the record artwork).
The song is archetypal of the Downtown experimental music scene, taking inspiration anywhere from the loose structure of bebop to disco and funk.
"Beat Bop" is also representative of 80s New York hip-hop.
Gray was also well ahead of their time in predicting the use of the avant-garde in hip-hop, as demonstrated in Shades Of. Although released in 2011, the album is reminiscent of Gray's '80s sound and includes reworks of their original music.
BASQUIAT’S LASTING INFLUENCE IN MUSIC
Meet the musicians directly influenced by Basquiat's approach to life, music and art.
One example of a famous fan is David Bowie, who said: "He seemed to digest the frenetic flow of passing image and experience, put them through some kind of internal reorganisation and dress the canvas with this resultant network of chance."
Madonna's Taipei concert. Credit: jonlo168/Wikimedia Commons
In 1983, Basquiat had a brief relationship with a then unknown singer, prophesying to art dealer Larry Gagosian that "her name is Madonna and she's going to be huge”.
As Gagosian was among the first to recognise Basquiat's talent, The Radiant Child was among the first to do the same for Madonna.
The "Queen of Pop" later reflected that Basquiat's creative process inspired her: "I remember getting up in the middle of the night and he wouldn't be in bed lying next to me; he'd be standing, painting, at four in the morning, this close to the canvas, in a trance.
“I was blown away by that, that he worked when he felt moved."
Basquiat, known to rail against elitism and commercialism despite his mainstream success, would also remind Madonna about "the importance of your art being accessible to people…it should be available to everyone".
With over 300 million global record sales to her name, not only is Madonna's music accessible, Basquiat's prophecy came true.
Jay-Z. Credit: Mikamote/Wikimedia Commons
New York rapper Jay-Z is another famous musician-come Basquiat collector.
Basquiat's 1982 triptych Charles The First (specifically the phrase "Most young kings get their heads cut off”) directly inspired Jay-Z's song "Most Kingz".
In his memoir, Decoded, Jay-Z noted that it was a "statement about what happens when you achieve a certain position”.
“You become a target. People want to take your head, your crown, your title. They want to emasculate you, make you compromise or sacrifice in a way that no man, or woman should," he said.
MORE TRIBUTES TO BASQUIAT
Living Colour's guitarist Vernon Reid wrote "Desperate People" about New York's catastrophic drug scene during the late 1980s.
The song was inspired after Reid received a phone call from respected music critic, Greg Tate, informing him of Basquiat's death by heroin overdose in August, 1988.
In 2014 artist, actor, and producer Revelation 13:18 released a hip-hop track called "Old School" that featured a sample of Jean-Michel. The release date also marked the anniversary of the artist's passing.
According to Revelation's website: "Basquiat used social commentary in his paintings to create a conversation that will last for ages. This purpose is carried on by Revelation, who tries to convey the same messages in his music."
One of the most recent tributes to Basquiat was from the Strokes.
The indie rock band's 2020 album The New Abnormal featured Basquiat's 1981 painting Bird On Money on the cover. Other rappers to honour Basquiat in their music include Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and J. Cole.
Cover Credit: Patrick McMullan / Contributor / Getty Images
Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.