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How New York’s downtown scene set the stage for Jean-Michel Basquiat

Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat at a party in 1986.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, you hear the “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Writing the Future” exhibition before you see it — a sonic collage of the clack and thrum of subway trains, rap verse, staccato guitar, jazzy flow. It’s your first clue that this is less an art exhibition than immersive cultural anthropology, weaving together art, music, and the vibrant rhythms of the city that spawned it all.

New York in the early 1980s was recovering from going dead broke — the city barely evaded municipal bankruptcy in 1975 — but the place was never more alive, thanks to blocks and blocks of tumbledown lofts and tenements offering cheap rent. That allowed cultural scenes to converge in rough-and-tumble clubs and ad hoc galleries where music spilled out at all hours. Greg Tate, co-curator of “Writing the Future,” was there as a young music journalist covering the crossovers of an everyone-in-the-pool downtown scene, giving him a front-row seat to a shining moment of experimental open-mindedness. He created a playlist for the MFA show that covers everything from Grandmaster Flash to Roxy Music to Dizzy Gillespie to Madonna to Grace Jones to the Clash. We reached him via phone in New York to talk about that fertile moment where lines crossed to make a gorgeous cacophony all its own.


Q. I think people might be surprised to walk into a group show about the hip-hop generation and hear the Clash, or the Slits, or Roxy Music.

A. It’s just kind of testament to how porous those worlds were in that particular moment. And I think the punk scene really opened it up, because it opened up the stage for young galleries, young curators downtown, to do their thing: that whole mingling of the music scene, the performance art scene, the hip-hop/graffiti scene. People who were painting on trains were suddenly having gallery shows in SoHo and it kind of set the stage for Jean-Michel [Basquiat] to come in and do what he did.


In the early ’80s, there weren’t a whole lot of rap records, so a lot of these kids would come up listening to rock and roll. [Artist and MTV personality Fab 5 Freddy] always talks about Interview magazine and how important Glenn O’Brien’s column was as a taste-making thing for him. He followed that column religiously — whatever Glenn said check out, whether it was music or art or fashion or style, he checked it out. So there’s that cultural exchange going on, a kind of call and response, between these hip, savvy kids coming up in Brooklyn and the Bronx who were paying attention to the downtown scene.

Q. There’s a moment where you put “Beat Bop,” the rap record that Basquiat recorded with his friends Rammellzee and K-Rob, in a glass case in the same space where you’ve got Madonna performing “Dress You Up” at Keith Haring’s 26th birthday party. It just struck me how many things were happening all at the same time in such a small space.

The cover for "Beat Bop: Rammellzee Versus K‑Rob," released in 1983.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A. Well yeah — I mean, they were all friends. Jean-Michel and Madonna dated! It was such a small world. You had guys like Rammellzee and Fab 5 Freddy, who could have had rap careers on their own. And then there was all the British new wave — that was in the club playlists — the Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria, all these places people hung out. It all kind of ran into each other in these powerful and interesting ways. [Basquiat] did all those paintings honoring iconic jazz figures — Max Roach and Charlie Parker and Dizzy [Gillespie], Miles [Davis], and [Thelonious] Monk. That was music he listened to when he was working. And then he had his own band, Gray, where he was doing some real abstract kind of experimental electronic noise. You can see it in the film “Downtown 81” that Jean-Michel’s in. He’s in there with Gray, but then there’s Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks, who had that serious Ornette Coleman influence. All these artists helped create a sound that would become the hip-hop generation. So it wasn’t any one thing. It was a lot of things, coming together. Music was just so central to the scene.


Q. I feel like Basquiat’s connection to music, and specifically hip-hop culture, has been underplayed in the years since his death in 1988, as he’s been slotted into a narrow version of the New York art world. This feels almost like a recovery effort.

A. Jean-Michel and Rammellzee, they ended up collaborating on one of the most important early rap records ever made. [Rammellzee], man, he was one of the most incredible freestyle rappers you’d ever hear. They influenced everyone from the Beastie Boys, Cypress Hill, Eminem. I think it’s only later, when hip-hop became the dominant voice, that things got put in boxes. A lot of these stories got lost. We want to bring them back.



Through May 21, 2021. At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.