Beats, Bops & Basquiat
by Michael A. Gonzales
On the Saturday morning of August 13, 1988, my then-girlfriend Initia Durley and I were asleep when the telephone awoke us both from a deep slumber. Sleepily, Initia turned over and answered. “Oh my God, for real?” she screamed, sitting-up in the bed. “Damn, that’s a shame. All right, all right, I’ll call you later.” After she hung-up the phone, she took a deep breath as I stared at her wondering what the hell was going on. For a minute, Initia said nothing, but, after deep sigh later she blurted, “Basquiat died last night.”
“What?” I asked, though I’d heard her clearly I thought the side effects of lost sleep had affected my hearing. “What did you say?” I too sat up. “Jean-Michel Basquiat. He died last night of a heroin overdose.” Although me and B weren’t friends, I felt as though there was a death in the family, as though someone who shared my blood, was suddenly gone.
Only 27-years-old, Basquiat was scheduled to attend a Run-DMC concert with friends that evening. however, at 5:30 that afternoon, his girlfriend found him unconscious on the bedroom floor; he was pronounced dead on arrival at Cabrini Medical Center.
Run-DMC – You Be Illin’
For a moment after hearing the news, I felt an emptiness one feels when reality becomes too real and your heroes die senseless deaths. Just a few years before, when I still lived uptown in Harlem, Basquiat became my hero the moment I saw him on the cover of the New York Times magazine in 1985. Shot by Lizzie Himmel, the picture represented everything that I wanted to be: a cool Black bohemian doing daring art, hanging tough with Andy Warhol and being celebrated for his avant-garde Blackness by the whitest motherfuckers on the planet, the suits at the New York Times.
Today marks the 28th year of his passing and, rarely does a week go by when I don’t think about his genius and how much he continues to inspire. Basquiat’s art was filled with pop culture references, musical tributes, African imaginary, strange poetry and allusions to death. Looking at his expressionistic pieces, one can also see (or feel) the musical influence in his work ranging from be-bop to hip-hop, free jazz to soul. Not only did he create with music blaring, but occasionally painted portraits of his musicians as well (with my favorite being one of Max Roach), but he also played and produced.
Freedom Suite Now/Max Roach
Indeed, music was an important element in both Basquiat’s life and work. Rock guitarist Monk Washington, who worked at the trendy club Area in the eighties, remembers Basquiat’s love for music well. In 1985, when Monk was forced to move quickly, Basquiat offered to let him rent the basement of his house; Monk lived there for a year and a half. “Basquiat painted in the middle of the night and he would be blaring records. He bought a lot of records and he liked to DJ. He would go from classical to the English Beat; he was open to all kinds of music.”
Writer and musician Michael Holman was a young transplant from the west coast when he was introduced to Jean-Michel in 1979. Together they formed the noise band Gray, becoming close friends in the process; other Gray members included Wayne Clifford, Shannon Dawson, Nick Taylor and Vincent Gallo. “We were just determined to be our own thing, and we were trying to think of how best to do that,” Holman told Red Bull Music Academy Daily in 2015. “The first rule was that you couldn’t be a musician. You had to approach music from some other way, whether it was a painterly direction or a noise direction. You had to be inspired by something other than what most bands were doing.
The music Gray made was free as Albert Ayler blowing his saxophone at Slug’s, free William Burroughs popping bennies on the Bowery, free as Charlie Barnett telling jokes in Washing Square Park. “Eventually,” Holman concluded, “we created an aesthetic that we were sort of like aliens coming from another planet who would be handed a guitar and have no idea what the guitar was or how it worked, and we tried to intuitively figure out a way to make something beautiful out of it.”
In 1983, the painter produced and released on his own (fake) label Tartown Records what would become his most famous musical excretion with the “Beat Bop” single featuring rappers Rammellzee (who was also a dope artist) and K-Rob. In Flyboy 2 (Duke University Press) author and essayist Greg Tate reflects back on the bugged song in the piece “Iknonoklast Samuari,” writing that “Beat Bop” was: “a one-off that immediately enter the canon of hip-hop masterpieces. The song went on to become the unofficial theme song for the documentary Style Wars.”
Although for years Rammellzee fronted like Basquiat didn’t do much on the project, artist Al Diaz shot down that that lie in Spin’s 2013 feature Basquiat’s ‘Beat Bop’: An Oral History of One of the Most Valuable Hip-Hop Records of All Time: Basquiat had his hand on it; he was very present. In some account that I read, it made it sound like he just took a back seat, which is absolutely not true… Most of the instruments were actual instruments that were played with a lot of heavy processing like chorus and digital delay… the percussion was mostly cowbells, woodblocks, timbales, and some congas, but there was a lot of effects on [them], such heavy effects so they didn’t sound anything like [what they were]. The woodblock sounded absolutely synthetic.”
Decades after Basquiat’s death, rappers began mentioning him in various songs. “You say I care more about them basquions, Basquiats,” Kayne West boasts on “That’s My Bitch,” from Watch the Throne. “Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint,” declared Rick Ross on the Lil Wayne track “If I Die Today.” Queensbridge native Nas describes the “Promised Land” as, “I picture Porsches, Basquiat portraits.” Meanwhile, high rollers like Jay-Z (“I’m the new Jean-Michel,” he rapped on “”Picasso Baby”) and Swizz Beatz own a few of the actual paintings.
Artist Cey Adams, a former graphic designer at Def Jam, was friends with Basquiat, says. “Basquiat’s came from nothing and built an amazing career. He was mild-mannered and soft-spoken, but he would call bullshit when he saw it. He was very prolific and had an amazing body of work. It was almost as though he sensed he wasn’t going to be around long.”
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.