As Sotheby’s prepares the first major international auction ever to focus on Hip Hop, Greg Tate explains how a movement born in America’s most impoverished communities has become a powerhouse of cultural influence.
Hip Hop was destined to cast long shadows over the 21st-century cultural landscape. Like the Black popular artforms which had preceded and inspired it – blues, jazz, rock and roll, soul, funk and disco – Hip Hop fast-tracked itself from the extreme racial and social margins of the nation to the commercial mainstream. As a multi-disciplinary artistic phenomenon, Hip Hop also accomplished something unprecedented in Black cultural history: the visual art of the movement – variously known as “subway graffiti” or, more formally, “writing” within the Hip Hop community – achieved international gallery acclaim and reward before the musical aspect did. Contemporarily celebrated painters of Hip Hop’s insurgency, such as Fab 5 Freddy, Lee Quiñones, Lady Pink, Kool Koor, Rammellzee, Futura 2000 and Blade, transitioned from the city’s trainlines to SoHo, Bronx and Lower East Side galleries to significant recognition. Most have sustained art world careers and patronage in the decades since.