This Hip-Hop Producer’s Basquiat Could Be a Hit at Phillips in May
In his 1988 Vanity Fair story about death, the writer Anthony Haden-Guest recounted an encounter with a harrowing work that, after the fact, seemed to be a harbinger of the artist’s untimely demise at 27. It was a 1983 self-portrait with a skeletal figure whose teeth were missing, its right leg represented by a licked-clean bone, the left leg simply a red line. In late June or early July of 1988, the frail, drink- and drug-ravaged artist saw it at the Los Angeles home of its owner, his friend Matt Dike, and made a chilling comment.
“He looked at the bones,” Dike recalled. “He said, ‘I hope that doesn’t come true, too.’”
Two months later, Jean-Michel Basquiat was dead.
Dike—a hugely influential L.A. hip-hop producer who made hits for Tone Loc and Young MC as well as the masterful Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique (1989)—kept it in his Echo Park house until he died in March 2018. Now, the large diptych painted on a pair of doors, Self Portrait (1983), and five other smaller Basquiat works from his collection, will be sold at Phillips in May. The self-portrait is estimated to sell for between $9 million and $12 million.
The provenance could not be more appealing, as Dike knew Basquiat for a decade, through the entirety of his unfathomably short career. The producer first met Basquiat when he was still tagging “SAMO” on Downtown Manhattan streets, at the first party Dike ever DJed, in the notorious New York University dorm Weinstein Hall. A teenage Basquiat kept demanding Dike play Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” over and over again.
They reconnected a few years later in Los Angeles, where Dike was working as a gallery assistant at Gagosian during the day and DJing at clubs at night. In 1982, Larry Gagosian brought Basquiat to town for his first-ever L.A. show, and Dike was so involved in helping stretch paintings and install work for the exhibition that he became Basquiat’s de facto assistant. When the show opened in April, Gagosian pulled out all the stops, even flying Basquiat and his entourage out from New York, first class.
“I’ve never seen anything like it on a plane,” Gagosian told the writer Phoebe Hoban, for her book Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998). “It was like these four kind of rough-looking black kids hunched over a big pile of coke, and then they just switched over to these huge joints, and sat up there and smoked them. It was wild. They had their big, hooded ski-glasses on, and big overcoats. The stewardess freaked. I was terrified. I thought, ‘Oh God, we’re going to jail.’”
According to Gagosian, when the flight attendant asked the artist and his friends to stop doing drugs in the open on a commercial flight, Basquiat replied: “I thought this was first class.”
At the end of 1982, Basquiat returned to L.A. for a six-month stint to make work for his next show, and moved into Gagosian’s modernist home in Venice Beach, steps from the boardwalk. (He was joined often by his girlfriend at the time, an aspiring singer who went by Madonna.) But it was astonishing he got any work done at all given the intensity of his antics.
“Jean made a total mess of Larry’s place, just destroyed it,” Dike told Hoban. “He was the biggest slob I’ve ever seen. The first day, he flooded the place. He was like a three-year-old kid, but huge. It was nuts trying to deal with him. Larry had him in the house so he could keep tabs on him, and I was supposed to keep my eye on him, because Jean would do things like disappear.”
There was also the issue of his budding substance abuse problem.
“Getting drugs was no problem,” Dike said. “I mean you could buy massive amounts of drugs: coke, heroin, pot, quaaludes, everything.”
Gagosian acknowledged that “Matt used to run these kamikaze raids for Basquiat,” but claimed to have refrained from indulging in the parties that were happening at his house. “I was already too old,” he told Hoban.
And yet Basquiat was extremely productive, and in 1983, he had a breakthrough. He realized he could rid himself of the tyranny of the canvas and paint on other surfaces, thus leading to his groundbreaking use of wooden slats, starting with some fences that Dike found out back behind Gagosian’s house.
“Jean-Michel was feeling sort of uninspired,” Dike told Hoban. “He was really bummed out by the generic canvases they were rushing him to paint, so I started dragging in all these wooden fences and saying, ‘Dude, paint on these. These look really cool.’”
From that breakthrough emerged Self-Portrait, painted on two reclaimed doors. On one is an uncanny likeness of Basquiat, which is surprising since many of his self-portraits are distorted and don’t actually resemble him—as a Phillips press release notes, “Self-Portrait firmly takes a prime position in the pantheon of self-portraits in Basquiat’s oeuvre, one that perhaps like none other is filled with self-reflection.” On the other door, which includes an additional wood panel, is a series of images and forms along with a phrase he would come back to often: “To Repel Ghosts.”
Basquiat’s next solo show opened at Gagosian’s West Hollywood space in March 1983, and was an immediate success. Works were bought on the spot by collectors such as Eli Broad, who purchased the wood-support-mounted Horn Players (1983) as well as Eyes and Eggs (1983), a haunting work Dike had watched Basquiat make.
Basquiat was quickly becoming one of the most famous young artists in the world, and in February 1985, he appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. But his fall from grace was just as swift, and by 1988 he was in the throes of full-on heroin addiction, trying to quit but never succeeding.
“One day he would tell me he was giving it up,” Vincent Gallo, the filmmaker who was in a punk band called Gray with Basquiat, told Haden-Guest. “The next he’d be boasting he was doing a hundred bags a day—more than Keith Richards.”
Dike saw him one last time, when Basquiat stopped in Los Angeles on the way back from Hawaii, where he had gone to kick heroin but had been drinking heavily.
“He was drinking any kind of hard booze,” Dike said in the Vanity Fair story. “He could drink a quart of tequila. It was to kill the cold turkey, I guess.”
During that trip, Basquiat saw his self-portrait for the last time, and saw in it his own demise. And just as the artist’s drug abuse was coming back with devastating and ultimately deadly force, Dike saw his own career beginning to take off.
For years, Dike had been a DJ in the L.A. club scene that helped launch bands at the intersection of the rock and hip-hop scenes, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction. In 1987, he founded the independent hip-hop record label Delicious Vinyl with Mike Ross, and in January 1989, they produced their first hit, Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” which was one of the first major hits to take the rap-rock template pioneered by Run-DMC and their producer, Rick Rubin, and incorporate sampling—the beat takes a chopped-up guitar snarl pinched from Van Halen’s “Jamie’s Cryin’” and nestles a funky drum loop in it, while a heavy breathing sample floats above it all. Tone Loc’s follow-up single, “Funky Cold Medina,” was built on samples of Kiss and Foreigner—and it was also a hit.
Around that time, Dike started working with the Beastie Boys, who wanted to break away from the big-riff frat rap they had perfected on their first album, Licensed to Ill (1986). Beastie Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz recalled being at a party and hearing what sounded like “four breakbeat records playing at the same time.”
“I was talking to this guy I just met that was friends of friends of mine, Matt Dike,” he recalled in the liner notes for Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science (1999). “I asked him what the music was, and he said that he had made it. Him and these two other guys, the Dust Brothers had been making these hip-hop tracks with all these ill loops.”
They set up shop in Dike’s home studio and started making what would become Paul’s Boutique, a mind-bending record built on hundreds of disparate samples, the psychedelic blending of one song fragment into another masterminded by Dike and the production team known as the Dust Brothers. On top of that complex tapestry, the Beasties spit quick rhymes incorporating a constellation of references including Dr. Seuss, Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh, Isaac Newton, “Dragnet,” former New York Knick Harthorne Wingo, the Ramones, and more. While the album flopped when it was released, it has since been reclaimed as a classic, an early example of postmodern, hyper-referential sampling.
Paul’s Boutique would be Dike’s last production credit on a major release. He sold his part of Delicious to his partner in 1992. By all accounts, he spent the last of his years as a recluse, holed up in an Echo Park home once owned by the silent film star Fatty Arbuckle. And all that time, the Basquiat self-portrait stayed on his wall. As Phillips notes in its consignment announcement, he never loaned it for exhibition and never considered selling it.
Nate Freeman is Artsy’s Senior Reporter.
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