Until now, it's been a lifetime of meetings where 'I’m looked at like I have three heads'
When a hip-hop musician describes his work as “Duchampian” there is, in the space his breath leaves between the end of that sentence and the start of the next, part of your mind that thinks, “Hang on. What?” Such reactions are familiar to New York rapper SHIRT, whose approach to making music is influenced by conceptual visual artists who use found and pre-existing objects in their practice. Artists including Marcel Duchamp – who famously displayed a urinal at an exhibition for the Society of Independent artists in 1917 – and John Baldessari, whose text-on-canvas piece ‘Pure Beauty’ (1968) is the inspiration for SHIRT’s album of the same name, released on Third Man Records in February this year.
“I find a lot that I’m looked at like I have three heads,” SHIRT tells me. “Every time I’ve gone into meetings along the years – or just any kind of situation where I can progress my music – I’ve been talking about it as an art practice. A conceptual art practice. Especially the last couple of years, I’ve been approaching writing songs in a specific way, where I might have, like, a sentence and I’ll go off that sentence. And it’ll start with that sentence, and the song will go off, and it’ll expand. And I’ve been trying to talk about this in terms of an art practice, because I realised a couple of years ago that the way I’ve been writing songs was more conceptual artist than your average rapper. And every time I try to talk to that I’ve been looked at like I have three heads.”
The three heads response was certainly discernable in the reactions to SHIRT’s break out work to date – not a music release, but a fake New York Times article that he wrote about himself in 2014. Using text from articles about other rappers, Shirt put together a profile of himself and published it on a website he had designed as a copy of the New York Times site, posted at a remarkably believable URL (nytimes.la, which has since been taken down) under the by-line of the Times’ go-to hip-hop critic, Jon Caramanica.
The press reported this project as a publicity stunt, describing it variously as either a ‘desperate’ attempt for mainstream attention or a ‘genius’ marketing ploy, mostly overlooking that it was in fact a formal experiment with ideas of appropriation and authorship that have long inflected contemporary art practice, and that continue to shape SHIRT’s own work. For example, in another experiment with appropriation, SHIRT erected a 10-foot high replica of artist Damien Hirst’s ‘Mickey’ in the Queensbridge Housing projects.