"Excuse me, Swizz?” a partygoer said to the rap mogul Swizz Beatz at Sotheby’s last night. “I just want to say thank you. Everyone’s dropping Basquiat's name in hip-hop verses these days, but no one’s doing this.”
Those name-droppers include Macklemore, A$AP Rocky, and Rick Ross, who have all rapped the fashionable artist’s praise in recent years. Jay-Z bragged about the Basquiats hanging in his lobby in “Ain’t I” and Kanye West rhymes his name with “yacht” in another song. But Swizz Beatz has been perhaps the most visible supporter of the late artist’s work in hip-hop, and was on hand last night to promote a new selling exhibition of 30 Basquiat paintings at Sotheby's, up though June 9.
After posing for a picture with the fan, Swizz continued his story about growing up around street art, like Keith Haring’s Crack Is Wack mural, as a boy in the South Bronx. He left home at a young age after producing the breakout hit “Ruff Ryders Anthem” for DMX at 17, and went on to produce albums for Def Jam and Elektra records.
“I was getting older and graduating in life,” he recalls. "I got a little success and wanted to start buying art for my house." He approached dealers like Enrico Navarro, Jeffrey Deitch, and Tony Shafrazi and “Basquiat’s name just kept coming up in conversation, so I started doing my homework and saw that the lines with me and him were running parallel," he said. "I was making music like he was painting—just making it out of anything, like ‘give me this broken turntable.’”
At the Sotheby’s preview, Swizz, whose T-shirt bore a black-and-white portrait of the late artist, said he had his eye on a couple of the works on view but needed to “watch my budget.” The artist’s prices, after all, aren’t what they used to be. “I remember when you could get a Basquiat for $600,000. Now you can’t get one for less than $4 million,” he said. Today, Basquiat’s auction record stands north of $26 million.
Just then a woman came over and took his arm. “This is my sweetie,” he said, referring, of course, to his wife, Alicia Keys. When asked about her taste in art, Keys replied, “I’m a Basquiat fan by default. I’m really an Erte fan.”
That’s a good indication of the couple’s sprawling tastes. On their walls hang works from Haring, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Peter Max, Takashi Murakami, Sam Francis, Gordon Parks, and Lyle Owerko.
Then there’s the art by Swizz himself, who has taken up painting in recent years. “He’s really good,” enthused Keys.
“Well, I try,” he said, adding with a gesture to the crowd, “Someday this will all be for me, but I gotta earn it first.”