Basquiat Revisted: Aaron Rose & Sam Spiegel on MOCAtv's "SAMO©"

October 31, 2012

Yesterday we caught up with curator Aaron Rose and talked about his new video for MOCAtv, a project, which focuses on the late New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Made in collaboration with Los Angeles based musician Sam Spiegel (AKA DJ Squeak E Clean, one half of DJ duo N.A.S.A.), Aaron and Sam decided they would not pay direct homage to Basquiat and his work. Rather, they would look to those who knew him best in order to gain a better understanding of the man himself.  Recruiting Legendary New York impresario Fab Five Freddy to do a spoken word track for the bridge was one of those connections.


Coinciding with the music and spoken work, Rose compiled archival footage of New York from the years around 1977—1980, an era when Basquiat and Al Diaz were collaborating on their famed, “SAMO©" tag. The film is then coupled with organic elements to add a sense of hand-made to the film. Animator Maya Erdelyi painstakingly painted and scratched hundreds of feet of vintage 16mm stock, which has been used as a visual bed for the film.


After watching the video, I have to say Basquiat would be proud. Aaron and Sam truly tapped into a time where eccentrism and cultural individualism were at its highest point. There’s this genuine feeling of romping the streets and subways of the Big Apple. You can’t help but feel encapsulated by it. -James Pawlish


How did you guys get involved in this project together?


Aaron: When MOCAtv was in the preliminary stage of commissioning ideas, I was on a bender watching Keith Haring and Debbie Harry videos. I was kind of obsessed with this idea of lyric videos. I felt like they were more popular in some way. They were kind of like a glorified Karaoke video. I just thought it would be something fun to do. SAMO just seemed like a logical one to start with. I called up Sam and talked with him about the idea and asked if he would be interested in doing it, At the time, he just seemed like he wanted to do it.


Why do you think two decades after his passing and three decades after his works have gained international recognition, he continues to conjure up so many influential and impactful memories?


Aaron: Well, I think in terms of the street work that was being done during that period when Basquiat and Al Diaz where doing the SAMO stuff. It was really that work and the work of Keith Haring that stood out as being something different then the standard wild style graffiti that was incredibly popular at the time. Artists like Futura had their own things, but they were speaking a certain vernacular.


The SAMO graffiti was speaking a different language then the graffiti that was out there. I think that obviously resonated with people, specifically the art world. I believe thats why both Keith Haring and Jean Michael have gone on to become the most famous and successful in terms of all the artists that came out of the scene at that time. I also think it was because the SAMO graffiti was speaking directly to people. It was political and critiqued society. It wasn’t just ego based. I think that resonates with people, especially in this day and age.


One of the reasons I was so interested in working on this film with Sam is because I think there is a lot of things that Basquiat was writing on walls in 77-82 that still resonate with whats happening in the world today.


Sam: I agree with Aaron. For me, he embodied the spirit of what was happening in New York City at that moment in time. It was a period that was really eclectic. You saw all these cultural forces coming together at the same time. From hip-hop to punk rock, people were into different things. When you look at Basquiat, he embodied that ethos. He was a painter, a musician, and admire of fashion.


Why does Basquiat's message still resonate and hold true today?


Aaron: Well, I think there are certain elements of our society that are reminiscent of the Reagan era. There is this gross consumerism and commercialism thats still previlant. This idea of a fake rich that is so trendy. Everyone wants to look rich; driving Bentleys and looking fly. Its a really strange message. I feel like theres this dichotomy in our society that focuses on identity crisis. I think the things that SAMO was writing was this commentary on the overstating of ones position in society, instead of just being cool.


Can you tell us a little bit about the music for the video?


Sam: When Aaron reached out about doing the music, I got super excited about it. I’m really into that era. The early hip-hop and electronic stuff is something I’ve always been into. I felt like we could totally dive into that era. I brought in my friend Kojack and we made this track together which was very kind of electro and vocoder based. After that, I gave it to Aaron and they created a whole video for that.


I’d been thinking about wanting to collaborate and meet with Fab Five Freddy for awhile. When I learned he was really close with Jean Michael, I immediately knew this would be a great chance to work with him and get a better insight on the scene at that time.


Money Mark came over who is another friend and collaborator of both mine and Aaron's and we all agreed about wanting to create this disco break kind of style that Fred would have been DJing to back in the day.


Aaron: It just added a whole other level to the project. Having Fred on there was just an honor.


Sam: Yeah, plus, hearing Fred talk about Jean-Michel really brought some heart and soul to the creation of the song.


What are your personal thoughts on Basquiat, has he influenced either of you in a deep way?


Aaron: For me, the first time I saw Basquiat's work, was one of the first times I really understood art. Before that, the art that I was into was more commercial based; art flyers and record covers. I appreciated art through products. My parents didn’t bring me to art galleries or anything like that. So when I saw that, I totally understood it. I kind of owe my art career in this strange way to being turned onto Basquiat's work really early in my life.


After making the video, I feel a very personal connection to him as a person. Even if its a surrogate connection. When we were in the edit I felt like I was trying to speak for him since he’s not around anymore. There’s definitely been some major change since the making of this film.


Sam: It was like we were collaborating with him throughout the process. I think if he was around today, he’d like what we’ve done.

Thank you to MOCA and everyone involved in the project.