Bridging the gap: how 50 years of hip-hop has changed the artworld

Bridging the gap: how 50 years of hip-hop has changed the artworld

This is the story all about how hip-hop and art have propelled each other to global domination. From graffiti on the streets of the Bronx to record breaking auction results, hip-hop giants continue to make waves in the artworld.

Tracy Kawalik

8 min read

Fab 5 Freddy Photo by Laura Levine/Getty Images

Hip-hop exploded onto Bronx blocks in 1973. Breaking, DJing, MCing, and graffiti made up the four elements of the culture and formed a way of life for disenfranchised Black and Latino communities. All four mediums united and empowered marginalised groups to express themselves and deliver powerful sociopolitical messages with their craft.

MCs like Grandmaster Flash spit bars out of boomboxes, B-Boys and B-Girls flexed fly moves, pioneers of turntablism, like DJ Kool Herc, mixed records and looped rhythmic breaks for the very first time, that pumped out the soundtrack of the streets. Hip-hop was born. Lack of cash was no barrier to creativity or DIY spirit. Each element cut its hip hop chops at block parties, clubs, park jams and freestyle sessions in skating rinks. Rap and breaking battles were a way to hone skills and an alternative for rival crews to settle their differences. It was rare to see any hip-hop function without a street art backdrop.

Whether graffiti covered the DJ booth or was plastered on nearby buildings, it became the aesthetic that  linked between the quartet.

In those early days, seminal graffiti writers tried their hand at rapping – like Futura and Lee Quiñones. And rappers like Fab 5 Freddy and his Brooklyn-based graffiti group, the 'Fabulous 5', painted the entire side of New York City Subway cars. Freddy famously emblazoned his own cartoon depiction of Andy Warhol's Cambell's soup cans.

Charlie Ahearn & Fred Brathwaite at Wild Style Mural, 1983. Photo by Martha Cooper.

Fab 5 Freddy, Campbell’s Soup, 1981. Photo by Martha Cooper.

By 1979 the underground hip-hop movement was gaining traction with the mainstream masses. Fab 5 Freddy was hell-bent on cross-pollinating graffiti and hip-hop from the street into the fine art world and illustrious spaces no one deemed possible.

One of the most significant moments in the merging of hip-hop and art was when Fab 5 Freddy got his and Lee Quinoñes’s work into an Italian exhibition in 1979. That move opened the doors for more urban artists to get their artwork seen in the burgeoning ‘No Wave’ scene and places other than the street.

In 1980, a landmark exhibition took place in a shuttered massage parlour entitled ‘The Times Square Show’. It showcased the works of over 100 street artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer. This was the first time many members of the Bronx hip-hop scene had appeared in the downtown New York City art world.

Dozens more national and international shows followed in the mid-1980s. Through film, TV, and exhibition, hip-hop culture’s fame transcended the streets to become a global phenomenon and flipped the negative depiction of New York’s City’s marginalised creatives.  But it was met with fierce resistance from President Reagan whose agenda was locked on the crack epidemic, increasing class divide and criminalising urban youth.

In response, records and art got angrier and more politically charged to help articulate the situation for a raucous spectrum of punters under pressure and looking to release. Police brutality was bubbling to a boiling point, off the back of authorities who had their hackles up that rap lyrics and graffiti had to be stopped.

The tension was depicted in works like Keith Haring’s ‘Crack Is Wack’ mural in Harlem and Basquiat's (also known by his graffiti moniker SAMO) 1983 piece ‘The Death of Michael Stewart’  a memorial to a young artist, arrested and killed by police for writing graffiti. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983

By the 90s rappers like the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Eminem and Nas began ruling the airwaves. Not only were they creating some of the most iconic albums in the history of the genre but they began teaming up with artists to design the greatest covers of the golden age of hip-hop.

Doggystyle the debut studio album by American rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg was designed by an incarcerated cartoonist called Joe Cool and former crack addict. Snoop promised that he and Dr. Dre would put Joe’s work on the cover if he got clean – Joe’s been sober and renowned for that cover ever since. In 1988, Tommy Boy Records contracted British art collective the Grey Organization and Toby Mott to create a visual graphic identity for the hip-hop group, De La Soul, and their debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising. The Grey Organization developed a visual concept that incorporated the now iconic dayglo flower motifs associated with the group's early period as a way to show the sunnier side of rap.

De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising, 1989

At the end of the 90s, hip-hop was the biggest-selling genre commercially. Rappers with newfound fame found common ground with the ethos of the art industry and were ready to splash cash and become collectors.

Producer Swizz Beatz kicked things off, after being introduced to Peter Max’s work during a boat cruise in 1999. From there Swizz played a crucial role in bridging hip-hop and contemporary art by DJing at art events, joining the board of the Brooklyn Museum, and launching his own fair. He's since gone on to amass a jaw-dropping collection alongside wife Alicia Key that includes a 19-foot tall wooden KAWS colossi titled ‘AT THIS TIME’ (2013).

In 2018, hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs made headlines after spending $21.1 million on Kerry James Marshall’s painting 'Past Times' – the most expensive artwork ever sold by a living African-American artist.

It isn’t just about big price tags, the dialogue and collaboration between hip-hop musicians and the mainstream artworld has only grown through the decades – transcending media and genre.

Pharrell interviewed Jeff Koons among others on his YouTube series ARTST TLK and collaborated with Murakami on a $2 million sculpture. Andre 3000 worked with SCAD Museum of Art on an exhibition of his slogan boiler suits at Art Basel Miami. Kendrick Lamar commissioned visual artist Kahlil Joseph to direct a film for his album good kid m.A.A.d city. But no two rappers have name-checked or hyped more contemporary artists than Jay-Z and Ye.

Mr. & Pharrell Williams, A Call to Action, Perrotin, 2019

First and foremost Jay-Z regularly raps about Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Pablo Picasso, and Jeff Koons. In fact, he filmed the music video for his track ‘Picasso Baby’ at Pace Gallery in New York City as part of a six-hour performance with Marina Abramovič. Together with Beyoncé, he filmed the ‘Apeshit’ video in the Louvre, showing Black and brown dancers taking over the hallowed museum.

The Carters, Apeshit, 2018

Jay-Z & Marina Abramovic, Picasso Baby, 2013

Contemporary art has been central to Ye’s albums since his third album Graduation, when he commissioned Murakami for the cover. The artwork for 808s and Heartbreak was designed by Virgil Abloh, and the deluxe edition was made by pop artist KAWS. For My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy he commissioned George Condo to design five covers, and Peter De Potter designed the album artwork for The Life of Pablo. Ye’s own high school sketches also racked up thousands on an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

These album covers are in themselves works of art, and rare editions are sold for thousands. None are as impressive and definitive of the cultural power of hip-hop on art as Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the group’s seventh studio album. Only one physical copy of the album was ever created, with no ability to download or stream it. It is encased in a silver jewel-encrusted box with a wax Wu-Tang Clan seal, leather-bound liner notes and gold leaf certificate of authenticity. Wu-Tang Clan “exhibited” the album only once, to a crowd of about 150 art collectors, dealers, and critics in Queens, New York. Attendees were searched for recording devices and only 13 minutes of the album were played. The album was previously owned by Martin Shkreli, a "Pharma Bro" who raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000 percent, was convicted of securities fraud, sentenced to seven years in prison and thankfully forced to hand over Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to the FBI.

It was then purchased as an NFT by an anonymous buyer for an estimated $4 million, leading to the The Guinness Book of Records certifying Once Upon a Time in Shaolin as the most valuable album in the world, surpassing records by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It has the artworld seal of approval, and became a work of art in itself.

KAWS X Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak, 2008

Wu-Tang Clan, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, 2015

Art and hip-hop have criss-crossed into each other's worlds in a multitude of ways that range from visual and performance art, staging, music videos, costuming, artists who rap, rappers who make art, curation, composition, collecting, mutual love and appreciation. A 50-year hustle and incalculable bond have propelled both mediums from Bronx blocks to illustrious spaces across the globe to rake in lucrative, cold, hard, cash!

Hip-hop made art more accessible (for example being able to buy your fave artist's works on an album cover) while street art and graffiti, as one of the four elements of hip-hop, transformed mainstream art tastes. Still, the most powerful influence hip hop has had on contemporary art can be seen in the work of cutting-edge artists like Rashaad Newsome, Jordan Casteel, Kerry James Marshall, Hank Willis Thomas and Awol Erizku… the list goes on! If in the past Black artists were forced to confront issues of invisibility, this new wave of artists use painting, dance, performance, fashion and object-making to spark questions about the visibility that hip-hop bestows on young African Americans and Black creatives across the globe today.

Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012

Jordan Casteel, Miles and Jojo, 2015

Go Deeper

Music journalist Kiana Fitzgerald has released a book on the hip-hop canon: Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums That Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music.

The 1983 film Wild Style documents the early hip-hop scene in New York City, it encompasses all four elements including graffiti and rap.

Want to find out what sounds are inspiring your favourite Avant Artists? Check out our studio playlists on Spotify.

Have thoughts?

Avant Essays are short(ish) opinions on art, written by anyone with an opinion on art. Have something to say? Get in touch.



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