Wild Styles: Jean-Michel Basquiat & Jacob Lawrence Make History in The New York Times

The worlds of fine art and Hip-Hop have collided ever since Fab 5 Freddy served as the cultural liaison between the two in the ’80s. More recent forays like Wu-Tang Clan’s decision to sell the only copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin (which, by the way, is adorned in handmade nickel-silver boxes) for $5 million and Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film” exemplify the fascination the two seemingly distant worlds have with one another. Similarly, MCs like Jay Z and Kanye West can often be heard referencing the names of artists in their lyrics, some of whom have developed a considerable following in the Hip-Hop community.

Setting a historic precedent, the venerated New York Times’ Sunday Book Review chose to devote its spread last week to only art-themed literature, marking the first time in its 119 years in print to opt for such a narrow focus. Featuring illustrated books, art-themed fiction, artist biography, nonfiction about the art world, original photography and original artwork, the first ever Art Issue includes references to works by American artists including Jacob Lawrence and Jean-Michel Basquiat, both of whom have influenced the Hip-Hop generation and have thereby bridged the worlds of art and music. The newspaper also featured a digital version, which includes links to all of the content in the traditional print version, but with the added benefit of vibrant imagery and the Book Review Podcast. Debuted on October 10, 1986, the Times’ Book Review has become one of the world’s most respected columns in the world of literature criticism, and the paper’s weekly Best Seller List has become the benchmark by which all books are measured.


Jacob Lawrence is most recognized for his collection of works in The Migration Series, a 60-panel a visual compendium depicting the Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural South to the industrialized North, many of whom were the great- and grandparents of the Hip-Hop Generation. Being reviewed in the Art Issue was a book by Leah Dickerman called Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, a hefty volume called “lushly illustrated and deeply archival in approach” by reviewer Isabel Wilkerson.

Heads may be more familiar with Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Haitian-American painter whose posthumous cultural cache has soared in the years since his 1988 death. His name has been dropped by J. Cole (“It’s like Sony signed Basquiat, he gave it all he got, now the nigga don’t paint the same, damn”), Jay Z (“When I say it then you see, it ain’t only in the music/Basquiats, Warhols serving as my muses”), and Rick Ross (“The bigger the bullet the more that bitch gon’ bang/Red on the wall, Basquiat when I paint”). Two books on his work are included in the Book Review; Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time by Dieter Buchart and Basquiat and the Bayou by Franklin Sirmans.

once upon a time in shaolin

As Hip-Hop and its stars begin to rise through social strata, many of them have begun to rub elbows with high-brow artists, something which will inevitable cause the two cultures to continue influencing one another, creating a metaphorical Venn diagram where the earmarks of one begin to bleed into the characteristics of the other. Just as the Art Issue published reviews on books covering the world of art, certainly the ever-growing library of books on Hip-Hop demand analysis. Is it possible that one day, readers will open their copies of the Times Book Review and see the first ever Hip-Hop Issue?

Related: The World Might Not Hear the Final Wu-Tang Clan Album for 88 Years. RZA Explains (News)