Justin Bua is a hip-hop painter; you may have seen the print of his painting “The DJ” (see below), at Target, of all places. It's been out for over a decade, and has been selling ridiculous amounts of copies for years.
He's done portraits of everyone from Nas to Kool Herc to Queen Latifah. How to recognize a Bua? His characters' arms tend to be stretched like they're made of Silly Putty, as you can see in the portraits collected in his new book, The Legends of Hip Hop. He taps into, and then magnifies, the essence of each artist: “The DJ's” fingers are elegantly elongated, b-boy Ken Swift's Adidas-clad foot seems to belong to a giant, and Jay Z slouches into his throne atop the Brooklyn Bridge.
We met up with him at Silver Lake “wellness bar” Naturewell, where he told us about his evolution. He wasn't always into specific portraits; with works like “The DJ” he intended to create everyman portrayals. “Likeness is great, but it's secondary. I want to capture what's beneath the surface. That's dangerous.”
The 43-year-old New York native — who moved here twenty years ago to attend Pasadena's Art Center College of Design — identifies with John Singer Sargent's quote: “Every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.” That's why he's quick to point out that he exaggerates everything; Snoop's head does not actually look like a Doberman's, for example, as it does in his work, below. “People have fragile egos. They think they're Denzel Washington.”
Could he be talking about Big Daddy Kane's pencil eraser fade? Or how he portrays A Tribe Called Quest as a four-headed beast? He won't name names, but says he's been asked to tweak his portraits.
“This is the Bua vision, ladies and gents,” he says with a laugh. “This is completely subjective, what I believe you look like.”
Out today on HarperCollins Legends features not only paintings of his top 50 most influential hip hop figures, but also his stories on how they affected him growing up. Below are some of our favorites.
The Titan of the Raw (Eazy-E)
“When I moved to California, I befriended a stoner, punk rocker, who later became a great artist and my best friend … I turned him on to artists like Slick Rick and A Tribe Called Quest … he dissed the shit out of these artists, calling them 'soft and corny.' He told me I didn't know what real hip hop was and pulled out a cassette tape with 'Niggaz With Attitude' inked across it … I felt like how Malcolm McDowell's character — Alex Delarge — looked in Kubrick's classic A Clockwork Orange: eyes forced wide open.”
An Iron Voice Resounds (Ice Cube)
“During my childhood in New York, I spent a lot of time hanging out in the projects … they all felt the same — cold and hard. In 1991, I was still new to Los Angeles. I was cruising around with my friend Ruben, blasting Ice Cube … One thing led to another and we were smack dab in the middle of Compton. We had watched Boys in the Hood … But as we drove around more and more in the hood, all I thought about was how beautiful everything was … As we drove off we made jokes about how soft L.A. was.
On our exit out of Compton, I accidentally spilled some coffee, so we pulled over at a gas station to get some paper towels. It was completely empty … [The attendant] was standing behind bulletproof glass with several bullet holes already in it. It was no more than thirty seconds before we were descended upon by a homeless guy in a wheelchair, two balding crack-whores, and a skinny, limping man … It was getting scary and the longer we were there, the more the homeless started to swarm. It was like Dawn of the Dead. Then we saw two grown-ass men riding toward us, on kid-size BMX bikes, hard looks on their faces. Ice Cube was on the real.
Compton had green lawns and flower beds … [but] oppression is a shape-shifting motherfucker … With his powerful voice and his prolific and revealing lyrics, Ice Cube put the story of a small neighborhood called Compton on the world's stage for all to confront.”
The Beloved (Snoop)
“I love Snoop, and not because his namesake is a lovable Charlie Brown character. I love him because he's so forthright with who he is. As he says, 'I have never hidden anything from my kids … They know I am an ex-banger, drug-dealer, wanna-be pimp. They know about how I cheated on their mother and wanted to get a divorce because they heard it from me directly …' If any other celebrity in the world had a fraction of those negative titles on their resume you never would have heard of them again. Yet Snoop's career and reputation remain virtually unscathed: a testimony to the man and his talent.”
Justin Bua will be at Amoeba Music, 6400 W. Sunset Blvd., Thursday, Nov. 17, 6 p.m., to read and sign his new book, The Legends of Hip Hop. DJ Qbert will spin.