Art for the Hip-Hop Generation

What better way to pay tribute to your inspirations than to channel your admiration into your art? Artist Justin Bua (professionally and artistically known as “BUA”) has done just that with his 160-page, hardcover book entitled The Legends of Hip-Hop. In it, BUA, famous for his best-selling limited edition print The DJ, extends lavish praise upon his personal list of pioneers and architects of hip-hop culture.

The Legends of Hip-Hop features original works of art by BUA, rendered in a variety of media including graphite and acrylic. Each one is intended as an intimate portrait of a particular hip-hop artist or group, and is accompanied by BUA’s personal statement as to why the specific person was chosen for inclusion. After all, once we’ve perused the artwork, we’re left with a Who’s Who of hip-hop, and while any reader — whether hip-hop aficionado or not — would realize that no such list can be definitive, the idea of the “definitive list” is difficult to escape.

BUA confronts this at the outset, saying, “It is by no means an authoritative list… In short, these cultural pioneers have helped shape the way I see, hear, and think about the world. I witnessed the birth of hip hop and conversely, hip hop birthed my artistic journey.” Indeed, BUA’s brief narratives go to great lengths to explain his intensely personal connection between artist and subject, between hip-hop fan and artist.

That connection is certainly familiar to most hip-hop fans, many of whom can argue passionately about the merits of one rapper’s musical accomplishment over another’s or follow a rapper’s career choices with the attention and scrutiny of a family member. BUA’s connections are wrought from experience, whether the subject of his artwork reminds him of the time he lost his virginity (see Kurtis Blow) or he’s recalling that a glimpse of a “hefty, hippie-looking Santa Claus with big sunglasses” turned out to be the extraordinary Rick Rubin.

In a way, BUA’s anecdotes and recollections act as liner notes, but instead of accompanying an album of music, these liner notes embellish the music already experienced by BUA and the reader. As Chuck D of Public Enemy writes in the book’s foreword, “As you turn the pages, you can’t help but hear the soundtrack spit from the pages of this classic, seminal book.”

If there isn’t a single Rakim track that comes to mind when viewing BUA’s portrait of Rakim, them not only do we need to get you this book, we also need to get you a bunch more plus a gift card for a whole lot of old school rap downloads! What I’m saying is, most of the “legends” here — Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Chuck D and Public Enemy, KRS-one, Rakim, Kool Herc — are unquestionably anointed with iconic status, such that most hip-hop heads would know them without blinking. Those who aren’t so heavy into hip-hop might of course enjoy the book for the art, through which they will then become acquainted with rap’s royalty.

Other “legends” listed here are less well known, and this may be where The Legends of Hip-Hop provides an educational function along with its artistry. Of the 50 “legends” included in the book, the rappers and deejays tend to be more popularly known than graffiti artists (such as Futura 2000 and Lady Pink) and b-boys (like “Crazy Legs” and Ken Swift). Some probably don’t roll off the memory with the ease of say Jay-Z or LL Cool J, but BUA has rightfully and smartly placed them into a context — the context of his life and work. It’s his list, y’all, and it’s hard to argue with that.

No doubt, that’s the bottom line when it comes to the somewhat surprising entries of Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. When you’re thinking, “How are these three guys considered ‘hip-hop’ legends,” the plainest answer is that you can’t argue with BUA’s list and his choice of portrait subjects. One good argument, however, might be that giants like Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Michael Jackson (and perhaps Michael Jordan too) cast such large shadows that their influence is almost boundless, as their ability to inspire defies regular notions of genre, occupation, and categorization.

President Barack Obama’s inclusion is another interesting choice, as BUA finds him to be a unifying figure elected by “the hip-hop generation”. President Obama’s age seems to be an important component to his connection with “hip-hop” since, as BUA points out, he was “in his early twenties during the golden era of hip-hop.” BUA also mentions subtle hip-hop gestures made by the President in his public appearances — the head nods, the “daps”, the way he “brushed his shoulders off” in mid-speech. I don’t know, maybe.

Other than President Obama mentioning once that he listened to Jay-Z’s music and the fact that most rappers seemed to dig Obama, I hadn’t really thought of his presidency as a quintessentially hip-hop cultural artifact. Intriguing notion, though.

What is at once recognizable and sobering is that BUA’s art is unmistakably “hip-hop”. That’s a loaded term, and far from simple to explain, but his pieces have a quality and flair that can be located in hip-hop’s aesthetic, much like Aaron McGruder’s anime-based comic and cartoon The Boondocks fits the hip-hop paradigm to the core. Identifying that paradigm is hardly a matter of following a formula. A few things are clear, at least as far as the function of the art. Rap songs — like BUA’s portraits and short essays — have paid homage to pioneers, namedropped personalities and locales for context, and have used samples in the way that BUA builds on established imagery.

With the exception of the aforementioned oddball choices (again, that’s Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Michael Jackson), you can almost correlate BUA’s portraits to hip-hop’s four elements of emceeing, deejaying, b-boying or breakdancing, and graffiti.

The element of emceeing and deejaying are obvious when the subject of the painting is a rapper or emcee (i.e. there are so many, pick one) or deejay (i.e., Marly Marl, QBert). When that’s not the case, BUA himself could be said to act as the emcee, with the explanations he provides for his paintings. While deejays were originally the focus of the hip-hop party, their presence has long since receded to the background. In this way, then, BUA also acts as a type of deejay, offering his work for display but doing so in a context that pushes his icons to the fore.

The b-boy, or breakdancing component, is more figurative than literal, emanating from the sense of movement that undergirds BUA’s work. I find the style to be, overall, more like illustrations or even graphic novel and videogame imagery (recall the NBA Street franchise) than the work of the art “masters” cited in The Legends of Hip-Hop by BUA and in the foreword penned by Chuck D of Public Enemy. That’s not meant to be a diss, as I think the movement in BUA’s style is what sets it apart.

Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” are well regarded masterpieces — but they aren’t “hip-hop”, and that sort of correlation means a lot for a culture and genre that was originally concerned with forging a singular and unique identity while staking a claim in the world. BUA need not paint like Caravaggio to be the “serious” artist he undoubtedly is. Some though not all of his drawings, I’d say, do show hints of the great draftsman Charles White, however, and that gives the collection an air of social relevance and poignancy.

At the same time, BUA’s lithe and playful artistry is probably a good thing for him. It doesn’t seem feasible to have all of these individuals sit for their portraits, and I’m not convinced doing so would be such a pleasant experience even if it could be done. No doubt, someone would want to have some input on their portrait. Here, BUA has the freedom to build from preexisting imagery, such as MC Lyte’s Eyes on This album cover, or imagine new imagery, such as the portrait of Jay-Z perched atop his futuristic New York throne.

The feeling of movement in the art is evident in the Michael Jackson portrait, as well as in that of the Beastie Boys. BUA is adept at using the subject’s arms, hands, and legs to denote current motions or to connote movement. B-boying and dancing involves motion and rhythm, and BUA’s approach touches on both, despite the difference in artistic media — dancing is real life, physical, and somewhat ephemeral, whereas a painting exists on a flat surface, can be suggestive, and yet gives the impression of permanence.

Further, BUA’s use of movement positions his subjects so that they challenge the viewer’s space, mainly through foreshortening but also through chiaroscuro. In the book’s opening portrait of Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer’s fist promises to escape from the page or, in real time, the canvas. Elements of these compositions, then, break the “fourth wall” in the same way that rappers challenge, cajole, and encourage their audiences, or the way deejays entertain and educate partygoers with the records they spin, or the way breakdancers kinetically confront onlookers for space through their acrobatics and choreography. Rap has been all of these things — entertaining, educational, challenging, cajoling, and confrontational, so it’s refreshing to see these qualities reflected visually.

As for paralleling graffiti, the final hip-hop element, the art in The Legends of Hip-Hop reflects graffiti in the stylized poise and polish of the painting itself. Graffiti is also reinforced by the artist’s fame as “BUA” — his “tag”, so to speak.

BUA’s introductory description of hip-hop’s legends aptly speaks to his own work. In noting the influence of hip-hop’s biggest names over the last 20 years, BUA declares that hip-hop artists not only “chronicled the social and political climate of our age, but they have transformed it.” Likewise, The Legends of Hip Hop chronicles 50 deserving pioneers of the culture. It is as celebratory as it is educational. Viewing these icons through BUA’s artistic lens ultimately transforms them, humanizes them.