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A Hip-Hop Lover's Guide to Great Visual Art


It was the night I met Big K.R.I.T, a few years ago when blogging was a new ambition, and attending events had an air of unfamiliar excitement. The prestigious City Of Ink tattoo shop was hosting a gallery at the Apache Café, the intimate space filled with paintings and lovers of exquisite artistry. Miya Bailey, the founder of the renowned Atlanta tattoo staple, was introducing his talented crew. My favorite artist, Paper Frank, stood among the beaming colleagues as Krizzle snuck in. I knew my jaw had dropped far enough to French kiss the ground, my eyes scanned the room in bewilderment, hoping to see a reaction to confirm I wasn’t looking at Big Kris from the Dunkin Dounuts.

Even with K.R.I.T. in the room no one stirred; transfixed on the man with the microphone, Miya Bailey. He was the man who gave K.R.I.T the Mississippi tattoo across his arm, the man K.R.I.T proclaimed a “true artist” at the end of his "1 Train" verse. This was the Return of 4eva era, before that verse was written, but when I did hear it years later, it reminded me of that very night at Apache. Seeing K.R.I.T.'s interest in art, his admiration for Miya, made me want to dig deeper into the artist history. Hip-hop has done this for me time and time again, introducing and educating, opening up my mind to artist who’s canvas isn’t instrumentals.

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The name Jean-Michel Basquiat meant nothing to me before Jay Z. I took two semesters of art senior year, Van Gogh and Picasso was jammed down our throats, never once mentioning the radiant child of the '80s. Maybe he was too wild for our stuffy history books, too free, too alive for what the system wanted us to learn. Then comes along Jay’s "Grammy Family (Hot 97 Freestyle)" that deserved every single Flex bomb dropped that night; there’s quotables in this one verse that will outlive rapper’s entire careers. He has one line though, “Inspired by Basquiat, my chariot’s on fire,” and it made me wonder, who could possibly inspire one of the biggest rappers ever?

Throughout the years, Basquiat’s name has been resurrected in modern rap verses, especially lately. Everyone from J. Cole to Rick Ross has glorified the most successful black painter of our time. It seems like the mainstream over-saturated his name, seeing the value of his rebirth in pop culture, a flood came in the form of clothing collaborations and vast glorification. Look at his life, from absolutely nothing, the rebellious New York graffiti artist turned Neo-Expressionist set the art world on fire by his own merit. There wasn’t a traditional bone in Basquiat’s body, rules weren’t bent, he completely elbow dropped their way of thinking from the highest rope. Isn’t that hip-hop? Who better to keep Jean-Michel’s legacy alive, even if it is occasionally, painfully corny.

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Not every artist embraced by rappers gets a second chance at a modern crossover. A great example is Dash Snow, who I discovered through Kendrick Lamar. Remember the man speaking ominously at the beginning of “The Heart Part II”, how music and bottled water keeps him alive? If you thought MGK was some wild boy, Dash Snow makes him looks like Aubrey Graham; until he rivals the Hampster Cage, he is a model citizen. Dash Polaroids and collages depict a life where hell is just a playground, sex for breakfast, cocaine for lunch, laws are for grandmothers, and the edge is the only place worth living. I always wondered what connection Kendrick had with Dash, was he a fan of the art, the interview quote, or something much deeper? If you go into iTunes, click “Get Info” on “The Heart Part II,” there’s a second artwork added to the song, an interesting photo from Dash’s collection. I also wondered with Kendrick’s rise to fame, why Dash didn’t explode on a larger scale. I know it was before Kendrick’s popularity skyrocketed, but even now, most rap fans don’t search deeper than that quote.

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You can’t discuss art and hip-hop without mentioning Kanye West. I didn’t know who Takashi Murakami was before he brought animated vibrancy to the Graduation album cover. I didn’t know who Kaws was before his signature claws graced the cover of the deluxe version of 808s and Heartbreaks. I didn’t know who George Condo was before making the world cringe with his grotesque imagery for the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album covers. These three artists, renowned in their fields, collaborating with one of hip-hop's most trend-setting visionaries speaks a great deal about how the two worlds can collide. I love a good Jonathan Mannion portrait, his photography is iconic, but he wouldn’t have created the same magic.  

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One of my favorite concept mixtapes is Mickey Factz’s Mause. He raps from the perspective of a 1980s, New York graffiti artist that he created. This is during a time New York’s art scene was booming, cocaine was booming, aids was booming, and he retells these stories as if he lived in the era. He walks through Warhol’s Factory and grieves over Keith Harring’s sad demise. It’s a project rich with history, told from admiring eyes, which transport listeners to the heart of an extravagant and scary time to be alive. The amount of research and imagination to give it the authentic, realistic feeling makes you want to explore these people’s lives outside of the music.

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Every artist I named recieved a nice bit of notoriety before crossing over into hip-hop.  People love to announce how you’re late, that they knew about so and so a million years ago, making it difficult to enjoy the party if you’re late too. Not everyone has a Tumblr where Basquiat crowns and Murakami’s "Sunflower" is a daily reblog. It’s good to have outlets that enlighten you, educating and introducing so that you can expand your own artistic horizons.

For example, I recently discovered an artist named John William Godward. He painted during the 1860s, beautifully detailed, you would swear he had access to Photoshop. This was during an age where being an artist was equivalent to being a bum. His disapproved parents shunned him; all he had was his art. He was a prominent name during the end of the Neoclassicism era, but the rise of Picasso and the cubist movement left no desire for his style. He later committed suicide, saying the world wasn’t big enough for him and Picasso. His ashamed parents burned his birth certificate and all photos. There’s no proof that he ever existed except for the paintings that hang in galleries. Google searching his name in images only will show you his artwork. Funny how we get caught up in branding our lifestyles with selfies, and social media, this will only be temporary. His story reminded me that good art will last, that timelessness isn’t just a pretty word, even if there’s no appreciation in the moment there’s always the future.

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I simply wanted to share art with you, the same way art has been shared with me, through hip-hop. Enjoy. 

[By Yoh, aka Yohquiat, aka @Yoh31]



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