17 April 2017

When Jay Z met Damien Hirst

Where money is no object, art remains the ultimate status symbol, and the Hip-Hop world buys big time. In the second of my inconsistent favourite interviews ever series, Jay Z discussed this trend with contemporary art luminary Damien Hirst for Purple Magazine's S/S08 issue. In the video for “Blue Magic,” Jay Z’s first single off his album American Gangster, the rapper momentarily performs in front of a large Damien Hirst spin painting and it's no secret that he has a serious interest in contemporary art. From popping up at Richard Prince dinners and attending the Art Basel Fair in Miami to his Picasso Baby collaboration with Marina Abramović (which came long after this particular interview), the man adds artsy strings to his weighty bow like there's no tomorrow. Both men grew up in fatherless homes, share a deep love of music, dabble in fashion, and are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and Bill Powers managed to uncover further similarities between the two moguls in the most unlikely of places.

Bill Powers: Rock and roll has enjoyed a long-standing affair with contemporary art, but now it seems that hip-hop is taking this relationship a step further. Takashi Murakami doing Kanye West’s last album cover, for example, and now Jay becoming an emerging force on the art scene. What do you make of these developments?
Jay Z: The art world embraced hip-hop early on. It brought graffiti off the street and into people’s homes. The new generation of hip-hop performers is really the first with real wealth. People want to participate, and the taste level has escalated. Before it was more of a hangout thing, like Madonna hanging out with Basquiat. That’s changing.

Bill: How did contemporary art make its way into your “Blue Magic” video?
Jay Z:  Well, I own the Tim Noble/Sue Webster YE$ light sculpture. There’s been a whole rocker trend the last two or three years in hip-hop, with the skulls and everything, and Damien’s work marries nicely to this.

Bill: Did you know Jay was going to use some of your spin paintings in his video, Damien?
Damien Hirst: Larry Gagosian wanted to do it. He said Jay was a good guy, so I said, “Yeah, alright.” What I like about the video is that it’s subtle. They didn’t go overboard and load it up with tonnes of art. There are just two pieces, which keeps it special.
Jay Z: Plus one quick shot of a Murakami Buddha head.

Bill: Both of you collect art. Damien, you had a major show of your holdings in London last year.
Damien: We’re talking about two things here. One is art. The other is buying art, which is completely different. I get excited when I hear that Jay Z loves art, because a lot of people don’t. People like Richard Branson just come out and say, “I don’t like art.” I just can’t imagine feeling that way.

Bill: It’s like saying you don’t like comedy.
Damien: I always thought it was funny that everybody went to art school—The Beatles, The Stones, Malcom McClaren. But musicians all veer off into their music, and the art is silenced.
Jay Z: It’s all part of the same community even if we’re speaking another language. I’m most interested in the thought process behind artwork. It’s incredible to me. It’s like sitting in the studio at a console and listening to a track with nothing on it. The music is playing real loud and you paint words on it. But it’s all so subjective. Some people are going to say it sucks, and some people just don’t like rap. I’m sure Richard Branson doesn’t like rap—we have that in common, Damien.
Damien: I used to be glad I wasn’t in the music business, because it seemed like the people with the most control were the furthest away from the creativity. But I think that because the music industry is so fucked-up now, it’s probably more exciting than the art world. It’s at the point where it has to reinvent itself entirely. Look at Tower Records: it’s fucking dead.

Bill:  In the last issue of Purple I asked Jeff Koons what motivates him now, and he said that life is the struggle to stay engaged. Our bodies and minds are constantly trying to detach us from the world.
Damien: I took loads of drugs and drank a lot and ended up in a state where I wasn’t enjoying myself. I used to wake up in the morning and think, “I fucking love life!” Then that stopped. I thought maybe it was because I was getting older and you just change. But I stopped drinking and got back to the place where I love to get up in the morning. All art and music is childish, or childlike—all kids can sing and draw. Only some of them stop and become fucking bank managers. I guess we’re the lucky ones. We didn’t stop.
Jay Z: I like that.

"All art and music is childish, or childlike – all kids can sing and draw. Only some of them stop and become fucking bank managers. I guess we’re the lucky ones. We didn’t stop."
- Damien Hirst

Bill: I guess “childlike” is a compliment, and “childish” is a term people use when they diss other people.
Damien: It can be a criticism, but I don’t get art criticism. Someone described my dot paintings as visual candy, and I thought, “What the fuck’s wrong with that? Sounds great!” But they meant it in a bad way.

Bill: What if someone called one of your tracks ear candy, Jay?
Jay Z: That’s happened to me many times—people saying that I’m trying to be commercial. But art is subjective. It evokes conversation and strong opinions.

Bill: To quote American Gangster, “success has enemies.”
Damien: There are a lot of miserable people out there. In a way, you make art for people who haven’t been born yet. For every person that comes up and claims to be a fan of your work, there are a hundred others who hate it. Once this guy said to me, “Your work is shit!” And I said, “Oh, yeah? What did you see?” And he said, “Nothing. I read about it.” That’s mad!
Jay Z: You can’t control people’s reactions. You sell a lot of records, and they say you’ve gone too commercial. If you do it for art’s sake, they say you didn’t sell enough records. It’s always going to be like that.
Damien: You have to be excellent on your own terms, not other people’s. I mean, it all starts with your parents, doesn’t it? I remember I wanted to be the best drawer in my class. Luckily for me there was a kid who was better, so I had to find another reason to draw — one more about communication. At the end of the day, the class just keeps getting bigger.
Jay Z: My motivations change on each album. You’ve added a layer to who you are as a person. But there are always people who say they liked the first album better.
Damien: Yeah. You used to be good. Loved your early work!
Jay Z: If someone tells me, “Your first album was the best,” I say go listen to it again. I’ve done that, and moved on.

Bill: How does it feel to you, looking back?
Damien: You can’t escape your past, and it can become something around your neck. Really, you’re building history, aren’t you? Any kind of art or music is a map of a person’s life, dead ends and all. The only unsexy thing is when someone’s trying to be something they’re not—lying about or embarrassed about what they are. There are no rules. I always thought Warhol was a crazy maniac, but ultimately he embraced who he was.
Jay Z: You know, my tenth album came out last week. In hip-hop you’re lucky if you make it past two or three. People ask me how I maintain my career and stay consistent. I tell them it’s not about right or wrong, or chasing a trend. It’s about the truth of the moment. The truth can transcend everything.
Damien: I’ll buy that.

Bill: Let’s talk about fashion. Damien, you doing a limited edition line for Levi’s, which will be in stores this spring.
Damien: I was doing this thing featuring my girlfriend as a surfer. I started making surfboards as gifts for friends. They ended up putting them on their walls—wouldn’t surf on them, which seemed a real shame. People buy your paintings for boatloads of money and then treat them like religious icons. You can’t touch them. It actually becomes quite frightening. So I liked the idea of making clothes people can wear and go out in. It brings it back down to earth.

Bill: Jay, how did you get started with Rocawear?
Jay Z: My experience was a little different. I was wearing these shirts from Iceberg that had cartoon characters on the front of them. They were expensive, but silly, playful shirts. At my concerts everybody would have them on. So I went to Iceberg to make a deal: “I’m wearing your clothes for myself, but every time I do a concert there’s like three thousands kids in the crowd wearing Iceberg.” But we never made a deal, because we asked for ridiculously huge things. “We want to use the private jet.” They just looked at us sideways, like, “Could you leave now.” Because we hadn’t sold any records yet. So right after that we started our own clothing company.
Damien: Good thinking.

Bill: Do you ever think about doing a scent, Damien?
Damien: Yeah. Formaldehyde by Damien Hirst. If you want to fuck women, wear Formaldehyde. I did get asked to do one once, but I passed. It’s not for me.

Bill: Is your hundred million dollar skull going on the road soon?
Damien: Yes, we’re taking For the Love of God on a world tour, starting at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in April, then to Korea and China. That’s all we know so far, but it will probably come to New York after that. It’s a four-year tour. You know, a lot of people got fucked up about the price tag, but the way the market is now, it’s looking cheap. It’s definitely one of those things you couldn’t make again. We had to corner the market on diamonds and be super-secretive so we could get the perfect quality. I think they were onto us by the end of it. I’d love for you to see it the next time you’re in London, Jay. It’s in a vault there at the moment. You know, when I made it, I was worried that it might look tacky or bling. I mean, it’s a lot of money to be playing around with. But I’m telling you, it’s a motherfucker. It takes your breath away.

Bill: I wish you’d brought it with you.
Jay Z: Put it on a necklace and bring it over.
Damien: You’d think it might come off as morbid, but for me it goes the other way. It’s like a victory over death — kind of a spiritual thing.

Bill: Speaking of which, what’s your perspective on your own mortality, Jay?
Damien: Can I answer this one for you, Jay? He’s against it!

Bill: So, you’re both anti-mortality.
Jay Z: Actually, I have a line on the latest album that goes, “This is why I be so fresh/I’m trying to beat life cause I can’t cheat death.”

Bill:  It reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem which begins with the lines, “Being brave/Lets no one off the grave.” Damien, you had a Larkin poem in one of your catalogues, no?
Damien: Yeah. There’s another great one that goes, “They fuck you up, your mom and dad/ They don’t mean to, but they do/ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra just for you.”

Bill: Jay, do you ever come up with a title and then write songs to fit it?
Jay Z: Not really. The title of a track pretty much derives from the hook.
Damien: It’s probably better that way — it’s almost like the song names itself. A great title I liked early on was, “Nothing Is a Problem for Me.” I love all those things that say something, and then in the same breath deny it.