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From the Archive: The Golden Griot (Basquiat and Music) by Worldwide FM

Nothing Concrete text
31 Mar 2021
55 min listen

On this week's archive edition we explore the influence and legacy of artist, poet and musician Jean Michel Basquiat.


From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. On this week's archive edition we explore the influence and legacy of artist, poet and musician Jean Michel Basquiat.

Fab Five Freddy: We were like, you know, outside of the mainstream culture, we were aware of that, which, we were counterculture, we were actively looking to, like, just stir shit up in as many ways as we could.

BE: To coincide with ‘Basquiat Boom For Real’ in the Barbican Gallery, which ran from September 2017 to January 2018, Worldwide FM presents ‘The Golden Griot’, a soundtrack to the life and art of Jean Michel Basquiat. Over to presenter and producer Leanne Wright.

Leanne Wright: Jean Michel Basquiat has become one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Basquiat was a poet, an artist, musician and a visual storyteller. He was like a human synthesiser taking in information from the world around him. From books, TV, film and music, then reprocessing and interpreting it on canvas. He rewrote history, often repositioning many of his African American heroes. Music was something he referenced frequently in his work: many of his paintings depict musicians, primarily musicians of colour, players of jazz and blues, and he himself was in a band. During the next hour, we'll look at how music touched his life and his art.

LW: Basquiat was a music lover and collector. He had a vinyl collection of over 3000 Records, much of it jazz and blues. His tastes were broad and eclectic, from Bach to Bowie, Miles Davis to Public Image Limited, and he listened to music constantly while he painted, sometimes repeating the same song over and over. Music was a major influence in his work as well, often referencing jazz and blues artists, like in the piece ‘Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta.’

LW: Robert Johnson, like Basquiat, died at the age of 27. Basquiat was a restless youth, he left home at the age of 17, drawn to the East Village in New York, where an artistic community was beginning to bubble – rent was cheap and artists could afford to live and work. This scene in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s made for a very fertile creative environment. There were no boundaries for expression, you weren't limited to just being an artist or just being a musician, different art forms and mediums were utilised, experimentation was king. The punk and new wave scene was very open, Basquiat felt accepted and at home here and started to become a regular at parties and meet other key players. In 1979, heavily influenced by the no wave movement and artists such as Steve Reich and John Cage, Basquiat formed a band that would eventually be called Gray. New York DJ and producer Justin Strauss describes the band.

Justin Strauss: Gray was a band that consisted of Jean Michel Basquiat, Michael Holman, and Nick Taylor. Those were the three main guys that I knew. They were, you know, around in the New York scene in the early ‘80s. While Jean Michel was pursuing his art, he also did this and it was like a jazzy kind of funk punk meets… I don’t know, it's hard to describe them. Gray looked amazing they were always very spiffy and dressed up in nice clothes and yeah, it was definitely of that time, where there were again, no rules and it didn't really matter. But yeah, they never –Jean Michel’s art took over and he became so, you know, well known that they kind of, Gray sort of fell apart and didn't really continue, or you know. But it's there and it was definitely a part of what made him and that scene special, I think that he was, you know, able to do that and seriously, it wasn't like a, you know, like a little, you know, he took it very serious.

LW: As his art career famously began to skyrocket, Basquiat left the band shortly after initiating it. Michael Holman and Nick Taylor continue to perform as Gray to this day.

LW: Another artist and cultural provocateur on the downtown scene, and very close friend of Jean Michel was Fred Brathwaite otherwise known as Fab Five Freddy. He was famously name checked in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ and his influence on the genesis of hip hop can still be felt today. Fab describes Jean Michel when they first met at a loft party on Canal Street in 1979.

FFF: Slim, brown skin, black man with a blonde mohawk. Well, he had like a sharp mohawk on the top of his head, in the back had hair, so it was very unique, looked kind of maybe like some tribe that I had never seen before, but it was very like, in the line of punk rock at that time, which was clearly what, you know, he was referencing, but very unusual for a person of colour to be doing that, because there weren't probably any black people that were down with the punk scene or that kind of style. It was, we were like, you know, outside of the mainstream culture, we were aware of that, which, we were counterculture, we were actively looking to, like, just stir shit up in as many ways as we could. On the Downtown scene in Manhattan, which is where I decided to go to find support for what I was doing, we were embraced by kind of people from the punk and new wave scenes that were pretty much outcasts themselves in terms of how they were depicted, if you will, or looked at and so, yeah, it was like an anything goes kind of, you know, let's just create. But nobody was trying to get rich, or famous, if you will, we wanted to be known amongst our artistic creative peers in the Downtown world and Downtown scene. We were just excited to basically both be around people of colour that were both on the same track. And so that was what drew us together: we had similar ideas, we both were trying to be artists, and trying to make things happen, trying to get into a world with, where, there weren't any people of colour really doing it. And so that was the genesis of our connection and friendship, like that's what we did. Like work, make art all day, dance to great music at night and get up and do it all over again!

LW: Justin Strauss, whose career began in the early ‘80s with residencies at most of the influential clubs on the Downtown scene, such as Mudd club, Area and Tunnel; describes the opening of the Mudd Club, one of the first and most influential clubs to open Downtown, and a hub and catalyst for artists during the early ‘80s. It was where, in 1981, Keith Haring invited Futura and Fab Five Freddy to curate a show called ‘Beyond Words’, which included their work as well as Basquiat’s. It was a place where the whole wildly innovative New York scene would converge.

JS: Well, we just had, you know, people like Jean Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring and who were, you know, artists, or becoming artists, but were also interested in music and other things. And there was no rules. There was no one to say, oh, you're an artist, you just do that. But if you wanna, you know, if they felt like making a record or doing a record cover or being in a performance piece, that all went together, there were no rules. It was just a free for all basically, of ideas, and you had – it was an interesting time in the late 1970s, early ‘80s, because you had punk music, you had rap music starting, and you had disco and mutant disco, and these three kind of musical things just kind of, you know, just met sort of at this time and, at Mudd Club, and it was kind of like, where it all just kind of took off. It was the kind of epicentre of the Downtown scene at that time, for music for art for crazy, everything. It was a like, just a ball of inspiration and excitement. There was nothing really going on Downtown, it was like the first kind of thing that happened, kind of as a reaction to a lot of the big discos that were Studio 54, Xenon, all these places, so that seemed to be the meeting place for everyone at night.

LW: The openness and sense of experimentation extended to the music played at the clubs as well.

JS: I mean, the Mudd Club was just a mix of everything from you know, rockabilly to dub to punk to new wave, which was, you know, also emerging. And so you know, you'd hear obviously, there were some, you know, big records in New York, that came from New York that influenced a lot of things such as ESG, Liquid Liquid, Bush Tetras, all, you know, the whole Downtown scene. And the early hip hop stuff was also very important. So we had that, mixed in with whatever, I mean, it didn't really matter, I didn't know anything at that time about mixing records, beat matching, I didn't even have that kind of setup at the Mudd Club, it was really just two turntables, not 1200s, or had pitch control or anything, it was just, it was just kind of telling a story, whatever worked from, you know, a lot of James Brown was very important at that time and so yeah, it was it was a free for all really but, and everyone danced to everything, it wasn't like it was this genre separation, it was everything worked. Which is kind of the idea of the Mudd Club.

LW: One of the next clubs to open was Area, which was more of a creative concept space than a club, a real playground for artists of all kinds.

JS: Area, it was kind of another groundbreaker, as far as nightlife in New York City goes and I don't think there's ever been another club like it. It's more like an art project, there was just an incredible amount of creativity involved in that place. So, it was a very unique experience that I've never kind of seen again, it was just perfect.

LW: Justin and Jean Michel DJed at Area, often on the same night.

JS: He was playing in the back bar, which wasn't like, you know, hardcore, it was more like a lounge thing. And he would be playing a lot of jazz, Miles Davis, abstract stuff, a lot of dub. So it was mostly a mixture of that, some soul stuff, some, you know, early hip hop. And you know, it was just kind of a disjointed but funky and cool and chill and, you know, but a lot of jazz. I remember some of Augustus Pablo, some Miles Davis, a lot of stuff I didn't even know. You know, which is always cool, because you know, I wasn't the biggest jazz person but you know, turned on to a lot of, just listening to a lot of cool free, you know, free jazz and stuff like that. Blues he would play and just, you know, original, kind of rootsy music is what he was channelling, I think.

LW: These downtown clubs were pivotal in helping to support an explosion of creative output and what was to become one of the most influential cultural revolutions in recent history. A ripple effect that can still be felt around the world to this day.

JS: So the clubs were really where everything started. As far as I could see, from you know, it's like where I first got turned on to these people and met them and where they did early work, you know, and the owner like, Steve Mass, just gave them, you know, just do it! It was just an organic thing back then, it was very small. The scene was very small, everyone knew each other. Like when you went into the Mudd Club, it was like going into someone's living room, basically. And Area was just kind of a more blown up version of that. You know, and the celebrities. I mean, although, you know, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, all these people started coming to the Mudd Club, and Andy Warhol, of course. And Andy Warhol was kind of, you know, a huge influence to me and he was very influential in the careers of Jean Michel and Keith, you know, recognising their brilliance early on and bridging those worlds of the established art world and the downtown scene, he could, you know, mingle through both of them, connect people. He was very understated but very cool like that.

LW: Sleeping Bag records was a great example of the merging of some of these genres, like disco and the beginnings of hip hop, Electro and house.

JS: Sleeping Bag Records, again was started by Will Socolov and Arthur Russell. So you had Arthur Russell doing left field, mutant, crazy disco tracks; and then they kind of, Mantronix came into the fold and brought in the hip hop, the you know, kind of a electro hip hop that he was doing that was hugely influential to me as a producer and stuff. And there's a record that Larry Levan remixed called ‘Heartbeat’ by Tanya Gardner, that was huge in the Paradise Garage, and huge in the Mudd Club and Area.

JS: Another thing about the clubs is like, that's where records were broken, like, Sleeping Bag. I mean, Will would bring me acetates of Joyce – like, I'd be the first person to play a lot of these records and I had never even heard it before, but I knew, like if he's bringing me something, it's gonna be great. So I would put it on just unheard. And I remember the first time he brought me Joyce Sims ‘(You Are My) All And All’, I was spinning at Area, and he's like, but we just came the mastering, you should check this out, Kurtis Mantronik produced it. Like Okay. I put it on and the place went nuts, and it just became like an anthem.

LW: Alongside the post punk, new wave and disco scenes, another new sound and in fact an entire culture was also emerging.

LW: Basquiat’s notable art making began on the streets with friend Al Diaz, tagging poetic slogans under the name SAMO. Text remained a big part of his work on canvas, his technique of sampling and scratching out words was very akin to techniques used in hip hop production. He said of this technique, ‘I cross out words so you will see them more, the fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them.’ Fab Five Freddy is undoubtedly one of the forefathers of hip hop, in that he helped germinate this revolutionary and all-encompassing culture, the early DJs, breakbeats, MCs, graffiti, breakdancing and fashion. He brought it all together in 1983 in the first ever hip hop film ‘Wild Style’.

FFF: Going back to the late ‘60s, the beginning of disco happened. There were Black and Latin mobile DJs that took their soundsystems from party to party, house to house, or whatever, and the idea of keeping the music going continuously was this revelation. Like you'd use a mixer, you'd play one record and you'd mix into the next record. And then from that idea of the mobile DJ, guys in the Bronx did something different where they played and like these instrumental records with a certain attitude, they became known as breakbeats. And they began to play these records and then the idea of cutting and scratching developed as a kind of a way to remix the music live and direct, manually, and then guys would rap over that. That later became known as hip hop.

LW: Fab had played Jean Michel tapes recorded at some of the parties where DJs and MCs were beginning to experiment. He was instrumental in introducing Basquiat to hip hop.

FFF: I had examples of this which I shared, explained to Jean to play some of these live party tapes. And he of course got into that. Soon after the first rap records would begin to come out, records by The Sugar Hill Gang, like you know, The Treacherous Three, The Funky 4 + 1. So he became a fan of that as well. Because it was just great music

FFF: That was the idea that I pitched to Charlie Ahern, who was the director and my co-collaborator on what became hip hop's first film, ‘Wild Style’. And my idea for that film, that I took to him was to find a way that showed that these particular different activities were connected: graffiti writers, breakdancing, DJing, rapping. I felt that they were one thing, there was no connection of these things prior. So my idea was, I want to show that these things are one thing, I want to show that people that look like me are making a viable, interesting new culture. And I wanted to showcase it because people that were Black and Latin and from the streets were only portrayed as criminals, and the problems going on in the city at that time in the ‘70s. And my idea was to showcase these activities and to show people that we are artists.

LW: Fab explains why he feels hip hop, and its culture took off and became a worldwide phenomenon.

FFF: I look at hip hop culture, when you get it right, as like an algorithm that when executed will replicate itself in the same way. Like if you have the same kind of intention as a way for people that don't have a voice to speak up and to stand up and say, ‘Well here I am baby, take a look at who I am and what I'm doing,’ you know what I mean? People in other languages were able to pick that up just from the visuals, that they were able without understanding a word of English to be like, ‘Yo, those guys look like us, I understand where they coming from, they from the ghettos, they pretty much poor people, and we could feel like what they’re talking about’. And I'm like, that alone was enough to spark a movement.

LW: Jean Michel vibed off this fresh new sound and energy, so much so that he produced an early rap record called ‘Beat Bop’, he also created the cover art. It's now one of the holy grails of record collectors.

FFF: Jean Michel produced it and that came out of me having introduced him to this music, and like I told you earlier, starting to hear the beginnings of rap records happening, and this was before rap records had a lot of structure. So some of these early records like Sugar Hill Gang’s, ‘Rappers, Delight’, etc, etc would go on for like seven/eight/ten/twelve minutes long, and Jean was like, ‘Shit I can do this’, and he – there was a young protégé of mine, a guy by the name of Rammellzee – I introduced him to Jean Michel, because we were also looking to bring other people under, into this space we had infiltrated, so we didn't want people to think that we were the only two people from the graffiti/street art world. Jean knew that Rammellzee could also rap, so he heard him rapping and he said, ‘Man I’m going to book some studio time and let’s…’ you know, and they put a track together and Rammellzee and this other kid named K-Rob, who was a young kid that used to hang around on the scene and they both you know, he took him into the studio and they made ‘Beat Bop’.

LW: ‘Beat Bop’ is a play on what is undoubtedly Basquiat’s favourite genre of music: bebop.

LW: Despite his wide and eclectic taste in music, jazz was his first love. And if jazz was his religion, then Charlie Parker was the high priest.

Francesco Martinelli: Certainly he was fascinated by Charlie Parker, many times he celebrated him. In one of the collaborations between Basquiat and Andy Warhol, when they redid the logo of the Arm and Hammer baking soda, the transformation of the logo by Basquiat, the logo becomes a kind of coin, dedicated to Charlie Parker with his date of death. And Basquiat still put himself or projected himself not only in for Charlie Parker, but also in other creators of new styles of music.

LW: Francesco Martinelli is a jazz historian and was a consultant and contributor to the ‘Boom For Real’ exhibition at the Barbican.

FM: Bebop, well, you know, the styles were in jazz, so we have a number of phases of styles. The styles were never defined by their creator, so there is no Charlie Parker, no Miles Davis, no Thelonius Monk that jumped up and said now we are going to play bebop from now on. So bebop is a description that applies to a certain style of jazz that emerged in the early ‘40s, which was, in a way, a reaction to the major, wide dominated style of swing. Swing is another style of jazz; mostly played for dance, mostly played by big bands. And bebop emerged as a kind of extreme swing in the other direction of the pendulum. It was played by small bands, by small groups, in small clubs – not in big ballrooms. It was very complex harmonically, it didn’t have a very obvious rhythm, it was not the definition of, the underlying rhythm was not clear to the lay listener. It was a little bit of a closed clique of musicians, playing new compositions or using old compositions in a kind of contrafact way, as we say, in the history of jazz.

LW: Bebop broke away from the restraints of the traditional the cornerstones of Western music: harmony, melody and rhythmic progression. Like the bebop-ers, Basquiat destroyed the rulebooks, remixing and reinventing through his art. He created visual pauses and free space, appropriating standard structure then deconstructing and improvising. Basquiat related to these young, vibrant, iconoclasts who had broken the mould of tradition and used the power of their artform to create a new and unique voice for their people and establish viable artistic and historic references.

FM: I think Basquiat felt himself at odds with the general culture, the general civilisation in the same way that these people were at odds with theirs, their kind. The continuous critique by the bebop musicians of the cultural modern true, for example the employing quotations. Charlie Parker solos employ a lot of, use a lot of quotations from other musical worlds. From other artists , from other songs, from other jazz pieces; in much in the same way that Basquiat uses found material to just expose them and change the meaning of them. So it’s a way of approaching popular culture that resonates a lot with Basquiat. For example, there is one famous quotation by Charlie Parker in a solo, from a composition called ‘Cherokee’ at some point he quotes ‘Popeye’, the song ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’. And Basquiat does the same, using the cartoon characters in his paintings.

LW: Basquiat identified with the levels of celebrity and success these young Black musicians had achieved, only to turn and still face racial discrimination.

FM: Such with jazz musicians since [Louis] Armstrong’s time. Armstrong, Ellington, Miles, all of them had to deal with these – they all had to represent themselves in a way which was not causing some anxiety for the great white audience.

FM: Jazz, the successful artist, there were many artists that could not find a proper strategy to deal with this. I don’t know how much Basquiat did in fact, because his personal, his biography is such that it may be he didn’t find a balance between all these different factors. He wanted to be a star, he became a star. At the same time, he was probably always under pressure from these type of factors.

LW: Jean Michel Basquiat did indeed shoot to superstardom in a few short years between 1980 and the year he died, 1988. He was the first artist of colour to reach such dizzying heights and to this day, he continues to inspire artists and musicians around the world.

LW: Playing us out is London saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings with his homage, ‘A Portrait of Jean Michel Basquiat’.

LW: ‘The Golden Griot’ was produced, presented and written by Leanne Wright and edited by George Haskill. Special thanks to Fred Brathwaite, Justin Strauss, Francesco Martinelli and all the other participants involved in the making of this story.

Ben Eshmade: Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds, such as this, and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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