Though he’s now primarily known as an artist, writer and filmmaker, Michael Holman was an early hip-hop evangelist who played a crucial role in connecting New York City’s uptown graffiti culture with its downtown art scene.
Holman first moved to New York to work on Wall Street, but after discovering the Fab Five graffiti group and befriending its leader, Fab Five Freddy, his life took a distinctly different turn. Holman helped put together the infamous Canal Zone party in 1979, which showcased the talents of the Fab Five graffiti crew for a downtown audience, and it was there that he met painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom he would go on to form the experimental noise band Gray.
In the years that followed, he also began working as a journalist, and allegedly was the first writer to use the term “hip-hop” in print while working at the East Village Eye. Holman also managed the legendary New York City Breakers b-boy crew and produced a multitude of live hip-hop shows in the early 80s, many of them at famed downtown nightspot Negril.
In 1984, he created, produced, and hosted Graffiti Rock, a short-lived but groundbreaking Soul Train-style hip hop dance and music show for television. Holman helped produce seminal hip hop film Beat Street, penned the b-boy primer Breaking and later wrote the screenplay for (and appeared in) Basquiat, the feature film depicting the life of his late friend and bandmate. He’s also taught courses at Howard University and a variety of other institutions, developed children’s programming for Nickelodeon, written art criticism for Art Monthly and had his own artwork showcased around the world. Simply put, he’s a man of many talents, and a key piece of the hip hop and ’80s arts scene puzzle.
In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, Holman recounts just a fraction of his fascinating life in music.
Touring with The Tubes
I went to University of San Francisco around 1973 and graduated in ‘78. During that time in Northern California I was spotted at a disco and seen as a really good freestyle dancer, and got recruited into a theatrical rock band called The Tubes. People who were around in the ‘70s know very well who The Tubes were. They’re still around, but back then, in spite of the fact they really didn’t have huge record sales, they were really important in live performance. I would equate them to Ziggy Stardust or Alice Cooper, theatrical rock where there’s costuming and staging and props and a narrative for each song.
The Tubes took it way beyond anybody else. There was an incredible amount of narrative and attention to lyrics and playing out lyrics with theater and acting and dance. Because I was a really good pop dancer, I was drafted in and happily dropped out of college for a year to go on the road and do a world tour with them. After getting involved with the Tubes I knew my life’s path would be in the arts on some level. Performance, fine art, music – it was The Tubes in particular that opened that door for me.
Moving to New York
Having experienced the clubs and the discos in the ’70s in New York with The Tubes and going back to San Francisco, I realized I couldn’t live there anymore. It was too slow, too small, too provincial and I knew that once I graduated I would have to go to New York. There was nowhere else for me to be. In May of ’78 when I graduated, I packed my bags, came to New York and never left. A lot of people were coming in from California, the Midwest, the South, Europe, Canada. I really think that in a lot of ways, it was that clarion call of Warhol. We wanted to be in New York, somehow. We were all those disenfranchised people, these people who were picked on for being nerds and geeks and being into things that the jocks and popular kids didn’t understand. We ran from them and we came to New York. We finally found a place where we belonged.
I stood up, put on my Brooks Brothers jacket, walked to my boss, told him “I have to resign,” and I never looked back.
Through some friends of The Tubes I got a job as a entry level junior banker. One day, about a year into working there, I was doing a loan analysis and this drop of water hit the page. I looked up at the ceiling, which wasn’t finished. There were exposed pipes and everything. I thought, “Wow, that’s weird.” I kept working and another drop of water hit. I touched my face and I realized I was crying. I was crying out of boredom and didn’t even know it. I wasn’t even cognizant of it. I stood up, put on my Brooks Brothers jacket, walked to my boss, told him “I have to resign,” and I never looked back.
That was like a demarcation in my life, and from then on, it was just 100% full blast in making my work, making my art, making paintings, making music, putting on parties, putting on shows, doing whatever I could to be a part of New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, being part of that growing scene.
One of the first things I did in New York as a performance artist was creating events at the Mudd Club, installations. We would create these theme worlds that would be up for a couple of months, that would have music and fashion and props and sets. I did one of the more infamous parties called “The Soul Party.” Even though the DJs at the Mudd Club were spinning a lot of soul and funk and all that, they really didn’t know the obscure soul tracks like Tower of Power “You’re Still A Young Man” or “Sparkling in the Sand,” slow jammies like that, all these things that I knew very well coming from an urban West Coast aesthetic.
Fab Five Freddy, the Canal Zone and meeting Basquiat
The Canal Zone party that happened on April 29th, 1979 was a seminal moment, a turning point in the downtown art scene. I had been hanging out with a good friend of mine, Stan Peskett, who was an older artist that I knew through The Tubes back in California. He was an English artist, studied at the Royal College of Art, was in New York since ’74 and like a lot of other expats was there to be part of the scene. We’d hang on the weekends, twist a joint, talk about stuff, create ideas, have a good time. One day – this would have been in late ’78 – I’m reading a little notice in The Village Voice and it’s a blurb about this group called the Fabulous Five, a graffiti aerosol confederacy, sort of a mob outfit. It was an interview with Fab Five Freddy, who joined the group later, adopted that name, made it part of his name, and he became the spokesperson, the hustler, the point man for that group.
“Let’s have a party that will bring these two worlds together.”
It was rather prescient, because what Freddy was saying in the article was pretty simply, “Hey, if you’d like to have the Fabulous Five come to either your home or your place of business and do giant graffiti burners on the walls, we’re available for that for a fee.” The reason why I say it’s prescient and rather forward-thinking is because this was a time, 1978, when aerosol artists are not working inside or not working in galleries. They’re not working on canvas. It’s on trains, it’s on the street and it’s not even really yet on handball courts, so thinking about bringing it inside and giving it a different patina, a different kind of cache, a certain respectability, was kind of radical. I said to Stan Peskett, “Let’s call this guy up and invite him to come down to this salon that we have.”
The salon of two became a salon of three, and we’d sit around on the weekends and talk about things. Freddy being born and raised in Brooklyn, and me born and raised in California and living around the world as an army brat, and Stan Peskett born and raised in London, we were coming from three really eclectic places. We decided very quickly that this thing that was happening in the outskirts of everyone’s imaginations and peripheral vision, this thing that would later become hip hop culture, this thing that was bubbling up, was also very much in the crosshairs of the downtown art scene. This was an opportunity for that downtown art scene to start to rub shoulders in a more official but informal way with these other cats who were like vandals and throwing up aerosol art, just really taking chances. Freddy obviously was connected to that world, and so we decided, “Let’s have a party that will bring these two worlds together, we’ll have great music, we’ll videotape it.”
Jean was brilliant. He was a clever, realized being, like a Buddha.
Before everyone showed up, as we were setting up the party, this young black kid shows up who’s clearly in command of himself and his vision and what he wants to do and be, and younger than all of us. He just says, “I want to be part of this. I want to be down, I want to do a piece.” It turned out to be Jean-Michel Basquiat. We didn’t know who he was, but we all knew who SAMO was. He was so insistent and so charismatic and so confident that we just couldn’t say no. We were like, “Okay, sure,” and so we threw up a big piece of gray photo paper. Right away, with probably a can of paint from the Fabulous Five’s arsenal, he starts to do one of his SAMO multiple choices.
“Which of the following are omnipresent? A. Lee Harvey Oswald. B. Coca Cola. C. General Melonry, D. SAMO copyright,” and you can check them off. We were like, “Oh my god. This is SAMO.” At the time we didn’t know that SAMO was also Al Diaz, and what’s important is that SAMO had been around for some time. We had all seen his tags or their tags in the Soho. One of my favorites was “Pin Drops Like a Pungent Odor, copyright SAMO.” They would give you chills. Obviously young, motivated poets who were also vandals, who were also graffiti artists.
Anyway, I interviewed him. I must have been bitter that there was all this art up and everyone was getting up and I wasn’t. I was just interviewing people and subconsciously, I was pissed about that, and so I started interviewing people by asking them a question, putting the mic in their face, and then before they could answer I pull it back and ask another question. It was silly, it was stupid, it was very West Coast.
Jean realized I wasn’t going to let him answer a question. He just shut down and he did something to me that a lot of other old friends of Basquiat say he did to them, too. He lost all expression in his face. All expression just melted away from his face, and he had this neutral, non-committal look. Just stared at me. Wasn’t hostile, wasn’t angry, it was just dead, and what that did, fascinatingly enough, is it created in his face a mirror, and I’m looking at myself acting the fool, and I started stammering. Jean was brilliant. He was a clever, realized being, like a Buddha. Maybe five, ten minutes later, after we put the camera away, I went up to him and humbly and awkwardly apologized. He cut me off and he said, “That’s okay, man. You want to start a band?”
Being in a band downtown in the art scene was de rigueur, that was what you did. We were inspired by Warhol. He was a filmmaker, he was the manager of Velvet Underground, he made silk screens, he made paintings, he made films, he did everything and he gave us license to behave in the same way. So even though Jean was doing his graffiti work and really wasn’t painting yet at the time, he had to have a band, and I think he heard at the party that I had been part of The Tubes.
We were just determined to be our own thing, and we were trying to think of how best to do that. The first rule was that you couldn’t be a musician. You had to approach music from some other way, whether it was a painterly direction or a noise direction. You had to be inspired by something other than what most bands were doing. Eventually, we created an aesthetic that we were sort of like aliens coming from another planet who would be handed a guitar and have no idea what the guitar was or how it worked, and we tried to intuitively figure out a way to make something beautiful out of it.
We brought in a friend of Jean’s, Wayne Clifford. He was really an incredibly creative spirit who just could do everything and anything really brilliantly and, like the rest of us, wasn’t a musician but knew how to find unconventional and unexpected sounds from different instruments. I think he was on bass and keyboards for a while, so at a certain point not long after we’ve started the band, it was myself, Jean-Michel, Wayne Clifford and Shannon Dawson. Then one night at the Mudd Club Jean met one of the coolest people ever, and he became one of my best friends in the world, Nicholas Taylor.
Nick Taylor was a photographer and a painter and illustrator who started helping us out in the band, and we started rehearsing at his apartment on the Upper West Side. He became more and more an important part of the band and his guitar sound became more important to us and Shannon’s horn playing became less and less the direction which we wanted to go. It felt a little more conventional, felt a little more jazz, too identifiable and we wanted to go somewhere else. It was a sad, tragic, dramatic moment where Jean asked Shannon to leave the band. That was dramatic, but then Shannon went on to create Konk, which was even probably more better known on the downtown scene than we ever were. With him leaving and Nick Taylor on guitar taking his place, Gray then became Nicholas Taylor, Michael Holman, Wayne Clifford, Jean-Michel Basquiat. For a while, it was that configuration and that’s when we were at our peak and did some of our best work.
Near the end of the run of the band, when Jean was starting to blow up as a painter, Wayne Clifford introduced us to a friend of his, young kid from Buffalo, Vincent Gallo, and he and I hit it off right away because we both loved easy listening music. So he joined the band, and was there for one of the most exciting performances that we did, which is our second show at the Mudd Club. Then, of course, Jean realized that he wasn’t going to be Tony Bennett, painting on the side and making music, and so he quit the band and, of course, things really changed after that.
Basquiat, through his singular efforts, almost single-handedly became a superstar in the art world. He kicked open doors.
On Basquiat’s Legacy
Jean-Michel Basquiat over the years has been lionized by the next young generation who were looking for a model, a hero and perhaps see Warhol and everyone before Warhol as part of another generation. They’re looking for their own hero, their own model. Jean-Michel Basquiat is to them what Warhol was to us in our generation. Someone who did it their way, someone who broke all the rules, who established a new aesthetic, a new language, a new style, and set the stage in a new way that reset everything and allowed young artists to say “Okay, I’m part of this new chapter.”
Also, Basquiat, being a young black man who died young, plays another role. He became probably the first real art hero for a new generation of young artists of color who had been kept out of the fine art world. Basquiat, through his singular efforts, almost single-handedly became a superstar in the art world. He kicked open doors.
I was doing a lot of different things through late ’80 to ’82 in terms of bringing the hip hop movement downtown. Stan Peskett introduced me to Malcolm McLaren, who was an impresario of his own in terms of punk and, at that stage, New Romantic music. I met McLaren and had this incredible opportunity to invite him up to the Bronx to see Bambaataa and that whole Zulu Nation thing happen at an outdoor gym. McLaren was really inspired and asked me to put together an opening act that captured hip hop culture to open up for Bow Wow Wow. They performed September 15th, 1981 at what’s now called Webster Hall.
I had Bambaataa spinning records, Jazzy Jay as a turntablist, Ikey C on the mic, Rock Steady Crew dancing, Brim doing graffiti art, and then showed my film Catch a Beat. It was truly the first time that hip hop culture as we would understand it in the ‘80s, with all of its elements, would ever be performed in front of a live audience, even before it was happening in the Bronx.
My goal was to find ways to take this culture and share it with the rest of the city, the rest of the country, the rest of the world. I was just obsessed by this idea. I look back and marvel at my confidence that I believed I could do this. I was lucky enough to apply for and receive permission to air on the public access networks here in Manhattan, which was the weirdest gerrymandered map – little obscure parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan and Queens and Bronx. It just made no sense, but that was how it was mapped out, and back then those stations were letters, so there was channel J, channel M, channel this and that. I had a show and my half hour was on channel J.
I had different hip hop TV show configurations, all airing in or around 1982. One was called The 9:30 Show, one was called On B-TV and the other one’s called TV New York. Some of them were strictly performance shows of different artists and graffiti artists. DJs, rappers, dancers, B-boys, B-girls – some of them had studio audiences that were dancing, like TV New York. It was the first hip hop TV shows anywhere in the world. Before anyone was doing it uptown, before anyone was doing it downtown, before anyone was doing it in Europe.
Then we got a lot of mom and pop investors who put in $10,000 each and we raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars to create Graffiti Rock. I got Bambaataa to help me with different talent and artists who were part of the Zulu Nation. Vincent Gallo, who was my best friend at the time, was helping me find dancers and talent. Russell Simmons was really kind in allowing me to use Run-D.M.C. for free on the show. I forgot who got Shannon, but I guess we wanted to round it out.
It wasn’t going to be all strictly hip hop. If you see the show now, you can see that I really wanted to do something different. I’d always known, being a hip hop impresario going uptown, going to the park jams, that hip hop really started as a outdoor park jam event produced by people like Bambaataa and Kool Herc creating parties for the kids who couldn’t go downtown to the discos in the ’70s because they were too young or didn’t have the money.
I got a lot of flak when Graffiti Rock came out, people saying “Oh, that wasn’t gangster enough.”
I wanted to pay homage to those middle school kids and I wanted to make Graffiti Rock a vehicle that would speak to that age group not only in New York but all over the country. I felt that if I could capture the imagination of that age group that I would create a whole new generation of hip hop fans and artists that would last another 20 years. I was right, because I had people coming up to me years later, like Q-Tip, who said to me, “I got into hip hop and started rapping and all that because of watching Graffiti Rock at 12 years old.” I got a lot of flak at the time when Graffiti Rock came out, people saying “Oh, that wasn’t gangster enough.” It took me years to really realize, “Oh, I see. I was trying to explain this culture to young kids in middle school so that they could grow this culture,” and I think I was right. I think I did it the right way.
In order for your program to be a success, you had to create a pilot and take it to NAPTE (National Association Producers of Television Entertainment) to sell to a number of local station managers. Advertisers wanted to make sure that you had enough of a reach to enough markets, and we had a hard time with that because a lot of the station managers felt that rap was a passing fad in 1984. They were like, “This is not going to last. It’s not different than Soul Train, because you have a lot of people of color on the show. Why should we buy this?” All the station managers who would come around looking to buy were, for the most part, middle class, middle aged white men, and they just had no idea what they were looking at and had no way of understanding where this was going to go. We went two years in a row and it just never caught on. I have Trendtimer’s disease. It means that whatever I want to do or want to create, I’ve got to figure out a way to wait five years and then release it. Anyway, that’s the story of my life.
Even though New York is not what it was back in the day, I still couldn’t live anywhere else. I need that energy.
The Eternal ’80s
The ’80s came back about three different times in the ’90s, and then it came back again in the 2000s. Why do we keep coming back to that time? It’s fascinating. The ’80s was a seminal art epoch in human history as it played out in New York City specifically, going from the mid-’70s into the mid-’80s. You had the creation of punk rock music. A lot of people think erroneously that it came from London. It didn’t. It came from New York City. You had this post-hippie music movement going on in New York in which people wanted to really deconstruct music and recreate it in a new way, in an ignorant way, in a raw way, and in an innocent way as well.
It was a new, glamorous, high art, expressive, sophisticated kind of scene that welcomed a lot of people. You had a lot of people coming and an epoch started to build, and that epoch eventually became as powerful and influential in terms of human history and human evolution as Paris in the ’20s, London in the ’60s, the Italian Renaissance, you name it. In New York City, what we built was so powerful, so DIY: “We can do this because there’s no one stopping us.” The city didn’t have the money to police us. There was a lot of crime and violence and danger, but that only added to the excitement.
If we survive for the next 200 years, we’ll look back to the ’70s and ’80s in New York City from punk to turntablism, from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Phase 2, to Julian Schnabel, to Kool Moe Dee and Run DMC, and just be in shock at how much talent came out of this city or was presented by the city to the rest of the world. I don’t think that there’ll be another time in human history that we’ll see another epoch like this. I think that a big part of why it happened in New York is New York itself. I think of New York as like a living creature that’s made up of all these parts. Some of them indigenous, some of them from the outside that come to build it. I think that even if there were no people in the city, there’d be some kind of weird energy coming up from the ground. Perhaps there’s some quartz vein underneath the island that helps inform our city. Even though New York is not what it was back in the day, I still couldn’t live anywhere else. I need that energy. It’s like the Empire State Building with its little tower on the top is a giant hypodermic needle and I inject the city into my veins.
As told to RBMA Radio’s Chairman Mao.