The worlds of art and music have always coexisted and complimented one another. Each draws inspiration from the next, whether literally or in its essence. Street art is no different, having deep roots not only in hip-hop, but in the spirit of any music that pushes the boundaries of the conventional.
In the 1970’s, New York graffiti artists overran the subways within the city, transporting their art and expression throughout the 5 boroughs. Artists like Fab 5 Freddy of Fabulous 5 crew and Futura 2000 painted the sides of these cars and became recognized names within the city, their art gaining traction over the years by gallery owners and musicians alike. Freddy had ties within the Bronx hip-hop and rap culture as well as graffiti, so when he began showing at downtown art galleries, both crowds showed up to his shows. The worlds of street art and hip-hip became synonymous. In 1979, Freddy and other Fabulous 5 crew member, Lee Quinones, showed their art in Rome, Italy at the prestigious Galleria LaMedusa. This is credited as one of the first major occurrences of hip-hop going international. Freddy dabbled in music as well, releasing “Change the Beat” in 1982. His line, “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresh.” is one of the most sampled lines in the history of hip-hop, being used on over 750 tracks to date.
NEW YORK, NY – CIRCA 1983: Fab Five Freddy – portrait session circa 1983 in New York City. (Photo by Laura Levine/IMAGES/Getty Images)
Films like “Style Wars”,”Downtown 81”, and the iconic “Wild Style” showcased hip-hop and street art as being culturally connected, with roots in the urban youth’s need for self-expression. Inner-city kids were creative and talented, and a lack of resources wasn’t going to stop them from expressing themselves. Street art also lended hand to other types of music that ran against the grain, such as rock and its sub-genres. Futura 2000, a subway graffiti artist known for pioneering abstract graffiti art, went on tour with English rock band The Clash in 1982, live painting behind the band as they played their shows. He then created their album art for multiple records and EP’s, including “Combat Rock” and “This is Radio Clash 7.” Futura went on to release his own single with The Clash (his cover art, of course) and in the 1990’s created the now cult-followed album art for Mo’ Wax Records and the band UNKLE.
The stories of Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 are significant to understanding the ties between graffiti and music, but are far from the peak of what the two cultures have meant to one another. Other internationally recognized artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey have created album art for dozens of iconic musicians and bands. Banksy created an iconic cover for UK alternative rock band Blur, where Shepard Fairy created an entire Obey record label, doing album covers for Led Zeppelin, Billy Idol, and Flogging Molly to name a few. In 2008, KAWS did the album art for Kanye West’s “808’s and Heartbreaks” and in 2011 Ron English designed the album cover for Chris Brown’s “Fame.”
The list of street artist and musician collaborations has grown exponentially over the years. Though it’s possible that musicians simply want great album artwork to accompany their tunes, history would argue that the relationship is rooted in something much deeper. Art is expressed through sight and sound and the two are often synchronized. Music accompanied by compelling visuals is as valuable as unfiltered art seen by a bustling city of millions.