In Time Decorated, a new three-part online documentary video series from the Broad Museum centered on the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, producer Terrace Martin, Afro-Punk founder James Spooner, and hip-hop scholar Todd Boyd all reflect on how music steered the work of one of the most successful painters of all time.
“Everyone wants to claim Jean-Michel Basquiat for their own — jazz, hip-hop, and No Wave, but he was all of these things. He was a downtown kid,” says Spooner in part two of the series.
Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Basquiat spent his adolescence between New York and Puerto Rico. By the mid-1970s, after moving back to New York City permanently, he met graffiti artist Al Diaz, and the two began collaborating under the alias SAMO (Same Old Shit).
Before he ever publicly shared his work in a gallery, Basquiat became a fixture of the exciting Downtown New York City club scene at the same time that artists like Keith Haring, Madonna, and Debbie Harry made a name for themselves. In 1980, Basquiat’s work was featured in the groundbreaking Times Square Show, a group show that legitimized the downtown art scene and launched Basquiat’s brief but influential career.
“[The founders of the Broad Museum] knew Basquiat, they visited him in New York, they would go to his studio, they even brought him to Los Angeles at one point,” Ed Patuto, producer of Time Decorated and director of Audience Engagement at the museum, told Hyperallergic. During the early 1980s, Basquiat began visiting Los Angeles. “Mr. Broad tells a funny story about how Basquiat wanted to smoke pot in the house, and they said no. And so he went into the bathroom and tried to sneak it anyway. I believe he might have stayed with the Broads at that time.”
“The 1980s is a very interesting time in terms of American culture, hip-hop culture, Black culture,” Todd Boyd, former DJ and professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California (USC), says in part three of the series. Boyd points out that the 1980s was a transformative decade, when Black entertainers like Whitney Houston, Michael Jordan, and Eddie Murphy became superstars. According to Boyd, Basquiat was on that same level. “It’s one thing to talk about his art, it’s another thing to talk about his art and his overall cultural impact,” Boyd says.
Boyd cites the 1983 Basquiat-produced hip-hop single from Rammelzee and K-Rob titled “Beat Bop” and his “Horn Players” painting as notable examples of this relationship between hip-hop and the improvisational style of jazz known as bebop. “Horn Players” depicts Basquiat’s heroes, Charlie “the Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie — two of the leading developers of bebop that became popular following World War II.
“You can draw a straight line between bebop and hip-hop,” Boyd continues. “Basquiat is really the connection between these two worlds.” The artist’s emergence in the 1980s was consistent with the spread of hip-hop culture. He famously appeared in Blondie’s music video for the song “Rapture” — the first rap music video to appear on MTV.
Bebop musicians were a departure from the norm. “They’re people that are interested in being taken seriously as artists, they’re rejecting the notion of being entertainers,” Boyd notes, adding that Basquiat faced a similar predicament. “There are stories, for instance, of early patrons of Basquiat’s art wanting the paintings to match the colors of their furniture.” In Basquiat’s “Obnoxious Liberals” (1982), “NOT FOR SALE” is written in capital letters, a declaration, according to Boyd, that shows Basquiat’s desire to be taken seriously and not seen merely as a commodity.
In “Horn Players,” both artists’ names appear in text that is crossed out. Boyd compares this to the way that bebop jazz musicians made famous jazz standards unrecognizable. “[Bebop] musicians were often deconstructing the American songbook,” he says. “To me this sort of improvisation, this crossing out, this deconstructing is what you see in the paintings and I think it directly ties into jazz and jazz’s influence.”
The same technique is used on the cover art for the Rammellzee and K-Rob 1983 hip-hop single, “Beat Bop,” which Basquiat produced and released on his own label. Boyd equates the crossed-out text to a hip-hop DJ scratching a record: “Hip-hop is a music, basically, that draws on other music to create new music. It takes something old and finds a way to ‘remix it’ and make something new.”
“When I think of Basquiat, and I’m going around looking at all these different paintings I can’t help but to feel free,” Martin concludes in the first segment of Time Decorated. One of Basquiat’s most well-known paintings was the inspiration behind Martin’s collaborative album Dinner Party with pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, and producer 9th Wonder. “I also can’t help but to feel he left a message for us.”
In the words of Alyssa Lein Smith, co-director of Time Decorated: “We may not be given crowns, but that’s why we paint our own. We may not be given trumpets to sound, but that’s why we make our own.”
Time Decorated: The Musical Influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat is available to stream online via the Broad Museum.
Correction: A previous version of this article attributed a quote to Jean-Michel Basquiat that was in fact a quote from Alyssa Lein Smith. We apologize for the error, which has been amended.