Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982 (© James Van der Zee Archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art; courtesy King Pleasure exhibition)

A new series of playlists celebrate the music that artist Jean-Michel Basquiat listened to, enjoyed, and influenced during his short-lived yet enormously consequential artistic career. They were put together in partnership with the family of the late artist and Spotify to accompany the recently inaugurated King Pleasure exhibition in New York City’s West Chelsea, organized by the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and uniting over 200 rarely shown works by the artist.

The four playlists mark different stages and domains of Basquiat’s life: “Childhood,” “Studio,” “Nightlife,” and “Legacy.” From jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone to hip hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC to rock bands Tears for Fears and Blondie (whose music video for their 1981 hit “Rapture” Basquiat appeared in and whose frontwoman was on the other end of Basquiat’s first sale), Basquiat’s musical taste was eclectic and wide-ranging. His legacy has been equally unconfined by genre: The artist is name-dropped in songs by the likes of Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, and J. Cole; his art graces The Strokes’s album covers; and a Broadway musical with songs composed by Jon Batiste is in the works.

The title of the recently opened exhibition, King Pleasure, is itself a musical reference taking after the title of a 1987 Basquiat painting commemorating the hit jazz vocalist by that name who recorded the 1952 hit “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

One need not be a detective of art history to uncover Brooklyn-born art star Jean-Michel Basquiat’s multiple musical influences. His 1983 triptych Horn Players, one of his most famous paintings, overtly idolizes jazz greats Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. On the leftmost panel of the painting, Parker’s abstracted bitonal face hovers above the body and bell of his minimalistically rendered saxophone. On the opposite panel, a bespectacled and considered Gillespie stands with a trumpet in hand. Repeated instances of each of their names, as well as keywords associated with them like “ornithology” (referencing Parker’s nickname “Bird”) and “alchemy” (perhaps referencing the magic of improvisation), adorn the canvases.

Parker and Gillespie were closely associated with bebop as practitioners of jazz who deliberately sought not to appeal to mainstream audiences and who demanded to be taken seriously for their musical complexity. Similarly, despite his quick rise to fame, Basquiat sometimes eschewed the commerciality of the art world, legibly scrawling “Not for Sale” on his 1984 painting “Obnoxious Liberals.” 

Basquiat’s art has been focalized through his love of bebop in an exhibition at the Barbican Center in London in 2017 and through the legacy he left on hip-hop at a show at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston in 2020. The relationship between his visual art practice and his musical inclinations were further explored in a three-part documentary series produced by the Broad Museum in 2021.

The abundance of attention focused on his connections to musicians and his place in emergent musical movements like the post-punk No Wave is only appropriate. Basquiat was a prolific collector of records spanning genres like classical, soul, blues, disco, and zydeco, a pop music niche that originated in southern Louisiana. He DJed at the legendary Mudd Club in Tribeca — where experimental, punk, and hip-hop tunes mixed and melded to birth entirely new forms — and he produced the single “Beat Bop” by Rammellzee and K-Rob. He even founded his own experimental art noise quartet called Gray, a reference to the classic 1858 anatomical text Gray’s Anatomy, which he was gifted when hospitalized as a child and undoubtedly influenced his pictorial representation of human bodies.

His paintings “look like this very detailed landscape that is not unlike improvisation in jazz,” University of Southern California Professor of Critical Studies Todd Boyd observed in the Broad’s documentary series.

More curators and institutions are starting to take heed of Basquiat’s adage that “art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.” The playlists created for King Pleasure follow a similar playlist that the MFA Boston curated for its 2020 show, and the creative use of playlists for shows exhibiting the works of Jacob Lawrence, Joan Miró, and Bisa Butler.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.