Throughout Keith Haring’s private and public life, he played and worked to the accompaniment of music. His personal relationship with DJ Juan Dubose, his friendships with people in the club scene and the recording industry, and his insatiable desire for new music guaranteed him a perpetual source of inspiration. At all hours of the day and night, his studio resonated with the sounds of an infinite variety of music; hip-hop, house, reggae, rap, disco, rock, classical, Caribbean, Brazilian, African, and Top 40. In his travels, he would always carry a selection of tape compilations made for him by various friends and DJs, which he would blast while painting murals as well as at the openings of his exhibitions.

The following interviews were conducted with Fred Brathwaite, Fred Schneider, Jellybean Benitez, and Junior Vasquez. Each man and his music and art informed the work and lifestyle of Keith Haring. The interviews were conducted in January 1997 at the Keith Haring studio by Elisabeth Sussman, exhibition curator, Julia Gruen, executive director, the Keith Haring Foundation; and David Stark, creative director, the Estate of Keith Haring.


Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) is one of the few people in the entertainment industry who can lay claim to accomplishments as a film producer, TV personality, published author, and creative artist. Perhaps best known as the former host of Yo! MTV Raps, he recently left the network after 7 _ years. He is now co- “head honcho” for Pallas Records, the newly created independent label in New York City.

Q: When did you first meet Keith?
FB: The first time we met was at the “Times Square Show” organized by Colab in 1980. Lee Quiñones and I had the first serious exhibitions of graffiti art. We were represented by an Italian gallery, and we had had a big show in Rome, and we had gotten written up a couple of times. So Keith was aware of who we were and what we were doing. Keith organized the Downtown Invitational Drawing Show at the Mudd Club, and then he put in a lot of the graffiti artists that he met through me, like Crash and Daze. Futura 2000 and I curated the next show. We put in mostly graffiti artists, but we included Keith, Kenny [Scharf], I think maybe Kwong Chi, and Jean-Michel.
Q: Keith was really interested in graffiti. He found importance in everything. He could get right to the essence and absorb the energy.
FB: True. And Keith did it effortlessly, and the key reason is that he was completely honest. Which is a foundation for making culture and being a part of culture. When you have grounded in your bones that type of honesty, that is the key. You negate a lot of the negativity and cynicism and ignorance.
Q: One of the things that people point to, in terms of graffiti coming into the gallery, is the train that you painted with the Campbell’s soup cans… which was obviously a reference to the Warhol paintings that you saw.
FB: Right. That was right around the same period of time. Graffiti was at a kind of high point then, the early eighties. Every train, every subway car was completely blitzed… just completely covered with an explosion of calligraphic expression.
Q: How did you stand out among the other graffiti artists?
FB: I was looked at as a kind of pioneer for being involved in the making of the first hip-hop film, Wild Style, and for having exhibited my paintings along with Lee Quiñones at major galleries in Italy. I was representing the subway school but was aware of the art world, how it worked, and why. That’s what drew me and Keith and then Jean-Michel Basquait together as friends. We were into the same artists- people like Warhol, Rauschenberg. Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, and Franz Kline. These people were heroes to me. I looked at their paintings all the time, thought about their lives and work.
Q: I think people would be surprised to know that Keith Haring and Fab 5 Freddy knew about art, that they were interested in art, that they weren’t sort of naïve street kids.
FB: I used to feel kind of like an egghead around some of the other graffiti guys from the subway school, because I knew that what they did was a purer thing… it was a natural thing. To me, what was going on in the subways at that time fit chronologically into the whole history of art going back to the classical periods, coming into all the movements, Dada, Futurism, going into Abstract Expressionism, going into Pop Art… I saw graffiti fitting in historically. And that’s what gave me a lot of energy. And Keith had a similar understanding and so did Jean-Michel.
Q: But I recall talking to some graffiti writers in the past, and there was a feeling that Keith wasn’t legitimate. That he was taking off on something that they did, and because he was white, and because he had access…
FB: That’s bullshit. You know, it’s really easy to say that, but that’s why I wanted to start off talking about Keith’s honesty. It was almost like he saw me as a sounding board, an arbiter, to make sure I approved and said, “Yo, that’s cool.” But if I said, “No, money, you shouldn’t be fucking with that,” he would have definitely backed off. But because he approached it that way, it was very conceptual and we were kind of setting parameters. And so I remember we would have these conversations about graffiti- he would love it, he understood what it was, he felt the energy, he wanted to be a part of it, but he wanted to do his own individual thing… which was so cool. He knew that the lines he was making were inspired by people like Paul Klee, Dubuffet, and Alechinsky, and he would talk about these guys. He could see that there was a correlation there, and he wanted to be a part of that correlation.I’ll never forget the day when he called me and said, “Yo, I did this little thing.” I think he had just started doing crawling babies. Because he would find these little places almost by the corner, on the curb low to the ground, and he would do these little babies.
Q: What about the Garage? How does that fit in?
FB: Well, it all kind of merged and meshed. In looking back, things were happening really quickly then. I remember Keith would say, “Yo, let’s go to the Paradise Garage.” And I said, “Yeah, I was there a couple of years ago when it first opened.” I remember him going in there… he was in total, total awe. I mean, the Garage was the club of life. There’ll never be anything close to that. I mean, the sound system was stat-of-the-art. The whole environment, the drama, the lighting, it was all amazing. Keith had that boyish glee. And then he had this whole plan: “I want to meet the people that own it. I want to do some art for this place.”There was another thing about Keith that was interesting. One day Futura and I gave a party at our studio and the Rock Steady Crew came. We had no music. And Keith came, and I think Kenny was there, and we all just clapped our hands, and the Rock Steady Crew started dancing- which inspired a lot of his early work… the moves from the break dances. And I remember it was guys spinning on their heads and stuff. Keith would see that and he would go home and make these works. So he would look at dance and see things, and he would freeze moments in his mind, and go into the studio and paint them. You could feel the movement and rhythm in his work.
Q: Keith didn’t think that art was just for the gallery, he thought it was for everybody.
FB: Exactly, which came from graffiti. I remember when we were discussing what we were going to paint on. The first big paintings he made were on these tarps. I remember him going somewhere and finding this guy who could make these big things, and put these grommets in them. And he said, “That’s what I want to work on.” You could get cheap canvas at Pearl Paint, but for Keith it was, “No, I gotta find something else.”Then it was the whole way the work was presented. We had so many things that we agreed on. We didn’t like the way the typical gallery experience was. For us it was, “No, fuck all that. Let’s have some music, let’s have a party, let’s create the kind of environment for the work that we see, that we think it should have.” So all our openings would be like wild parties. And Keith, because he had so much success, was able to take that to other levels.
Q: What about his relationship with children?
FB: Yeah, he always wanted to have kids. He just always had this thing for babies. Little babies, man he used to always be like, oh, man…. so great…
Q: Do you think that maybe the thing about kids is that they have that same sort of “honesty”?
FB: I think that’s a good point. Because he definitely had that sensibility, you know, and I think it was also something that he learned watching Jean-Michel work. I remember Jean deciding he was going to paint and telling me, “I’m gonna make paintings like I did when I was a child.” I didn’t see how that related to anything major in art until I saw the work. There’s a line we used to think about, from Grandmaster Flash- “A child is born with no sate of mind, blind to the ways of mankind,” which was so true. We gotta be in touch with that because it’s really important, especially with work. I think it was also a big thrill to Keith that children responded to his work. He knew his work made kids happy.
Q: There is a very primal immediacy to Keith’s work. It engenders an incredibly pure response, a visceral thing. His talent was in this spontaneous ability to communicate, on a very profound level.
FB: Yes and we know that that response is still there. To see Keith work, and to know that he’d figured out something, was really great. Because he knew what it was, and would just do it. You know, artists must always lead. They must never follow. And so most people would have never thought that anything that he has done would be possible. So those people are supposed to sit and learn. Because it’s really history and the test of time that will suss it all out.


Schneider is a founding member and vocalist with the rock group the B-52s. Known mainly for his work with the band, he has also published a book of poetry and writings illustrated by artist Kenny Scharf and has released two solo albums. He is currently working on a new solo album and exploring and exhibiting his photographs.

Q: Where does all the fun in the B-52s come from?
FS: We started playing parties. We had gotten together in October 1976, just for fun, and we didn’t have anything else to do because back then Athens [Georgia] was dullsville- I mean, a lot of great people, but there was nothing to do. So we just went to a friend’s house and jammed, and then some friends of mine were having a Valentine’s Day party and I said, “Oh, I’m in a band,” which I guess I could say, because we had gotten together twice. So basically we would just play people’s parties. We played three parties and then someone said, “You know, you sound as good as most bands that play on Mondays at Max’s Kansas City, so why don’t you go up?” We said sure. I was a waiter at the time, and Kate [Pierson] worked at the local rag, and Keith [Strickland] and Ricky [Wilson] worked at the bus station, and Cindy [Wilson} worked at the Whirly-Q Luncheonette at Kress’s. We had a sort of vision, because we had written songs and we had enough for a short set. we just did it, you know, we’re dancing away and then we finished. I don’t know if the Max’s crowd was in shock or if they were saying, “Hmm… this is definitely interesting.” We never thought, “Oh, this is gonna sell” or “This is gonna be commercial”; it was more like, “This is a good idea, let’s do this!” I think that’s the same way Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf were: they loved what they did, and they did it, and people liked it.
Q: Actually, I think Keith was dead serious about having a career as an artist early on.
FS: Yes, but he still had the sense that “I’m going to do what I want to do, I’m not going to compromise, and I’m going to enjoy it. If I make money, great; if I don’t, I’ll still keep doing it.”
Q: So how did you hook up with Kenny and that whole group?
FS: I think we first met in 1978. We were playing Hurrah, and they came to see us. So when we moved to New York, I started meeting Kenny and Keith socially.
Q: Were you aware of the smallish art scene that was going on in the East Village, like the Mudd Club, Club 57?
FS: We played the opening night at the Mudd Club, Halloween night. We knew all those people but we had our own scene, because the band still lived in Georgia.
Q: Was there an aesthetic that was shared by, say, Kenny and Keith?
FS: Well, it was very upbeat, very colorful, it was a reaction to the “Let’s wear black all the time” sort of thing. There was a sense of fun and a sense of purpose to what they did. It wasn’t mindless; everyone knew what they were doing. It was basically having a good sense of color, rhythm, and a lot of showmanship in the art, too. I mean, the canvases are larger than life. They are exciting, they’re bright, they’re funny, they’re serious, too.
Q: A lot of people say Keith’s subway work was the best work he ever did.
FS: Well, people always like the beginning. They think the beginning is when you are pure and untainted by commercialism.
Q: When you talk about the early days, there seems to have been this incredible sense of community and family and fun.
FS: It wasn’t competitive, it was supportive. When we moved here, the other New Wave bands were supportive of us and we were fans of theirs. And the same with the artists. It was like, “Wow, you’re having a show, great!” And then later on someone else would have a show. Everyone was really supportive of everyone else.
Q: One of the unusual things about late seventies and early eighties New York was that music and art started to be thought of as parallel and intermixed, whereas in the art world of the earlier seventies, Robert Smithson didn’t hang out with rock bands, as far as we know. They were artists and if they went to listen to music it was just recreation time. Do you feel that shift?
FS: Andy Warhol did it with his Incredible Exploding Inevitable in the sixties. That did bring music and effects together in an interesting way, and I think there wasn’t very much of that again until the late seventies.
Q: Many people say that the music took the lead then, that the art world was pretty stale and dry.
FS: I think it was Minimalism. Then all of a sudden it exploded with color and wild shapes. A lot of the older artists didn’t want to accept it, the same way they didn’t want to accept Pop at first. There is always resistance.
Q: Skipping ahead, some people feel that all the fun disappeared with the advent of AIDS.
FS: In the early eighties, it was still a mystery, no one really knew anything and you just heard about this horrible disease and you sort of knew you got it sexually. Nothing was clear because people wouldn’t talk about it.
Q: Did the scene change dramatically?
FS: There was sort of a gloom that filtered in and stayed for a while because suddenly all these people you knew had AIDS. But Keith did so many good things. As I recall, whenever I saw him on TV it was because he was doing some really good benefit, donating something; I think he achieved a fame that only Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol attained. And still today, people know him, his legacy lives on. He donated what time he had left to what he believed in, in addition to making art to sell, but so much of it was for good causes.


Benitez has produced/remixed more than thirty number-one hits and more than ninety top-ten records. In addition, many critics and industry insiders credit his remixes and dance tracks as largely responsible for the resurgence of dance music in the eighties. Currently, he is working in all forms of multimedia: television, movies, videogames, and radio.

Q: When did your friendship with Keith Haring start?
JB: 1981 or 1982 I’d say, somewhere around there. It was while I was DJ-ing at the Fun House. And some nights at the Roxy and then out and about at parties- socially.
Q: How did Keith end up at the Fun House? He was an art student from Pennsylvania.
JB: He would come with Madonna. The Fun House had lots of Latinos, Italians, sort of eighties West Side Story. It was all just being part of the downtown scene. They would come to the Fun House. It opened at ten pm on Saturday, and closed at ten Sunday morning, so it was just one long party, people drifted in and out…. It was a time when the musicians first started really playing with drum machines and synthesizers and some records and some acoustic instruments. But most of the stuff that I was playing had both. It was the beginning of rap.
Q: Where did you find the artists?
JB: A lot of them were regulars at the Fun House. A lot of the artists who went on to make records used to go there: LL Cool J, Run DMC, Madonna, Lisa Lisa, Noel; it was a lot of Latin hip-hop artists. Popular mainstream artists. Rap artists who became Pop stars. At that point, clubs had a much stronger influence on what was being played on the radio, and that helped to change what you call Top 40. I mean you would have all different kinds of people, but it was really a place where kids went to dance and sweat, and they’d stay at their spot on the dance floor for three or four hours. But it wasn’t like they were dancing to one song. It was like a train. Some people would get on, stop, continue, but most people were there for the whole trek.
Q: What was the difference between the Fun House and the Paradise Garage?
JB: Well, the audience was different. The Fun House responded more to the groove, whereas the gay audience responded more to the lyrics or the performance. They played more soul and R&B records at the Garage, and my thing was that I played everything. I even played some New Wave, B-52s, and Talking Heads, and I would play reggae records, electric boogie and “Planet Rock,” Kraftwerk. It was definitely a time when music was changing.
Q: Can you talk about DJ Larry Levan at the Garage?
JB: Larry was a very special person. He was constantly taking his audience beyond their boundaries; he experimented all the time. He took so many risks as a DJ, from stopping the music to playing it really loud to playing a song over and over and over until the audience was humming it, not knowing what it was and he was always talking to his audience. As a person, he was just so in touch with himself and the audience, and he would always find a way to introduce you to new music, but at the same time you’d have a fun time dancing and listening to older songs that you knew. The audience really appreciated the songs, and knew what you were doing to the records, and they would scream and bring whistles and instruments with them to play along, and a change of clothes, and some brought baby powder to put on the floor because sometimes sweat would drip from the ceiling.


Vasquez’s notoriety as a DJ began at the legendary Sound Factory in New York, which was closed down at the peak of its popularity amid a fanfare of media drama. In the past year, he has continued to create club mayhem, first at the Tunnel and now at ARENA. His production and remix credits list like a Who’s Who, from Madonna to Janet Jackson to his most recent coproduction with veteran rocker John Mellencamp.

Q: Let’s start with going to the Paradise Garage- what it was and what drew people there and kept them there.
JV: I remember that it was probably my awakening in New York. The whole Garage scene. It was only one room, Larry [Levin] was there and a lot of white gay men, but it was an event and the beginning of a lot of events. The speakers were huge. People used to make fun of me because I was this tiny little thing and I would go and live inside that bass speaker. I come from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I wasn’t born or raised in New York, so everything that I was I left behind as Donald Mattern, and then in New York I became Junior Vasquez and that’s when I was born.
Q: Do you think you lived sort of a parallel life to Keith Haring? He came from a small town in Pennsylvania and wanted to leave it all behind.
JV: Yeah, I think so. Two white guys doing the same thing. And we lived and grew up in the same place and our values were the same.
Q: Did you ever discuss that with Keith?
JV: I didn’t think we had to put it in words, I think we knew that kind of thing but we had to go over a bridge to become two professionals. If we had been friends earlier there would have been way too much competition. He liked the same boys and he liked the same things and I’m glad that we came together when we did. But I think for me, and I’m sure for him, it all began with where we were from.
Q: We talked specifically about the Garage’s clientele- white and gay. What changed?
JV: That’s what [manager] Michael Brody wanted it to be. Then he put Larry in, and Larry wasn’t cutting it musically for those white queens, so they got rid of Larry for a minute, and tried bringing T. Scott in, and it didn’t work. Larry had his following so they got him back and then it became a melting pot of people and that’s what made it work. The melting pot of straight, gay, Japanese, Spanish, black, whatever. Everything would mix into that room by six, seven am. I guess, looking back, it was a place for me to get an education.
Q: What was the education? Can you describe it?
JV: You had that place to go and it was the beginning of a weekend and the end of the week at the same time. You forgot all about your problems. At that time I was on welfare, I was struggling to get through New York, but I was glad that Saturdays were there and I could meet all my friends and everybody was going to be there. I think the education was to subconsciously be aware of what Larry was doing.
Q: Is that the first time the DJ was sort of the MC?
JV: Yes, as far as I’m concerned. DJs didn’t really stand out until Larry.
Q: Larry meant a lot to Keith because he was so intuitive and had this incredible immediacy.
JV: Well, that’s it, it was art and music… I think what happened at the Garage during the ten-year period when Keith made an impact was that everyone, including myself, was trying to find an identity. I got snagged once drawing Keith’s little baby on a pair of jeans and he caught me. We were all trademarking. Keith had a big trademark and everybody wanted to have a piece of Keith and a piece of Larry. Not so much Keith’s drawings, but the energy that comes off them, and the same thing with Larry. You could always tell that he was in the booth. The minute Larry got on the turntables there was a definite signature. As an artist I can duplicate this, but there is something that radiates off the original and that’s how you can tell the difference. I would get pissed when people tried to do things like Keith. Oh please, trying to be Keith, you can’t do Keith’s stuff. We were very possessive then. When the Garage closed in 1987, when everyone was selling things, it got very ugly. Everybody was after stuff.Going back, I think you had a lull period where everybody is creative and everybody is fashiony, and music is changing, and Keith hit right on that five and I hit on the five, Larry hit on the five. I think that it wasn’t just Keith’s art work at that time, it was the entourage, the boys, the girls, the women, that were around him. If you didn’t know Keith, you were always fantasizing about what was going on in his loft and in his apartment. When Keith got his apartment on Sixth Avenue, right next to the movie theater, I went there after the Garage one time, and I remember walking up those stairs, being really impressed that this guy can have friggin’ anything, but he had this walk-up leading into this yellow box. That was the first time I was really, really impressed. It was Keith Haring as an infant. The studio was his business, but maybe after nine o’clock when he was done working…well, I could do a whole book about what went on there, but I think that the apartment was Keith as a baby. This is where he lived and he didn’t need a lot. At that point Keith was like a different person. I can relate to this because I have gone through this in my life. And you sometimes want to run away to this womblike place, which I think is what the Waverly Place apartment was to Keith.
Q: Can you talk about the music?
JV: It was eclectic but danceable. Garage music was everything from Bee Gees to Diana Ross to War to Tramps’ “Disco Inferno.” Back then, Garage was recognized as a place where you broke records, broke artists. Larry had some credibility and young people wanted to come in there and have their record played or perform there. There weren’t a lot of clubs like that in New York.
Q: Some of Keith’s works try to picture homoeroticism, almost like that you would see in a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph in a different form. Was that scene part of the Garage?
JV: Oh, yes it was. It would happen at ten o’clock in the morning at the Garage. Most people would leave by six, seven, or eight am. There was a real after-hours, underground scene at the Garage and Keith was part of that. He was a gentle person but at the same time he was really part of the scene.
Q: Then how do you get your work done? How did he come to work after that?
JV: I think that was part of the whole mechanism. Look at me, I go from Saturday to Saturday, I don’t catch up until Wednesday. I have done this for ten or twelve years now. It’s routine. I do it on the sheer energy of that crowd and I think Keith did it on the sheer energy of his peers and his friends. You know, they’re thinking about closing the Palladium, and that infuriates me. You don’t know what it means to me to go and do what I love to do on a Saturday night. A lot of different people listened to Keith. People paid attention to him and what he did, what he said, and what his art said. He would have somehow gotten to Mayor Giuliani and said, “No, we can’t tear down the Palladium. I’m gonna paint the outside of the Palladium so you can’t tear it down.” Keith was a product of the whole street vibe. Paradise Garage was four walls to put the street in. He was what the street was. What percolated on the street was what Keith was about. I’m sure there is a Paradise Garage on the other side and they are all there. I know they are there. I truly believe that Keith is there painting up a storm and Larry is playing.

© David Stark. With permission for publication on web site.