May 20, 2021

Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit Music Playlist

—Brittany Mosier

To Keith Haring, visual art and music shared a seamless connection. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, he was a super-fan of pop and rock and roll, which offered him an escape into a more vibrant world. As he grew, so did his record collection, with new wave, disco, R&B, punk and experimental music making their way into the lineup. In the early 80s he became enamored with the emerging hip-hop and breakdancing scene, which inspired drawings of dancing figures and DJs in bright colors that complemented the movement’s aesthetic. He spent his time in New York City working and playing alongside notable DJs, producers, dancers and musical artists–together, they shaped the iconic look and feel of 80s pop culture.

In honor of the exhibition Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit, we at the World Chess Hall of Fame have created a Spotify playlist featuring over 6 hours of the music Haring loved. Each song is directly connected to Haring; including songs he listened to as a child, the soundtrack to his NYC nightlife, and works by his close friends. Here are a few of the featured songs:


The Monkees: “Daydream Believer,” 1968

Haring grew up in the small conservative town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where he spun pop records and daydreamed about a more romantic and exciting existence. The Monkees were all the rage in 1968, fittingly Haring’s favorite at age 10. "I was in the fourth grade and I would buy these teen magazines, which were really for girls, about the Monkees and Herman's Hermits. I would cut out pictures of the Monkees, especially Davy Jones, who was the cute, young one. ... I started a local fanclub and I had a little clubhouse." - Keith Haring: the Authorized Biography.


Grateful Dead: “Brokedown Palace,” 1970

As a teen, Haring started branching out to more alternative music thanks to his cool uncles. This included the Grateful Dead, which appealed to Haring’s interest in the psychedelic and experimental. "I had two uncles living with my grandmother, and they had a record collection. It was my first exposure to the music of the period, like Iron Butterfly and the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. I didn't hear anything like that in my own home." In his 1977 journal entry he writes “We’re going to see the Grateful Dead!” followed by the lyrics to their song “Brokedown Palace”: “In a bed, in a bed by the waterside I will lay my head Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul."


B52s, “Rock Lobster,” 1978 

Haring moved to New York City in 1978, more free to express himself than ever before. “Keith played “Rock Lobster” 20 hours in a row while he would be drawing in the apartment… he did a penis wallpaper for our kitchen. It looks like butterflies but it was actually penises,” - Keith Haring’s East Village roommate, Drew B. Straub.


Bad Brains, “How Low Can a Punk Get,” 1981

Before fully making a name for himself in New York City, Haring worked as a busboy at Danceteria, a vibrant club and venue in Soho. He was exposed to many up and coming artists, including REM, Blondie, Run DMC, Talking Heads, and DEVO. Haring was also able to show some experimental videos he was making at the time. He was particularly a fan of Bad Brains, a hardcore punk band.


Fab 5 Freddy, “Change the Beat,” 1982

Haring befriended Fred Brathwaite, a hip-hop pioneer, visual artist, and filmmaker, through the NYC underground creative scene. They frequented the same clubs and Haring would often paint while Brathwaite performed as DJ. In 1981, Freddy and artist Futura 2000 co-hosted a successful graffiti exhibit featuring the work of Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, Haring, and more called Beyond Words. Freddy said about the exhibit, “The point of the show was to make people realize that graffiti went beyond words – that graffiti artists were also trying to develop as painters.”


Prince, “International Lover,” 1982

Haring reflects on attending a Prince concert in his 1983 journal entry, "Prince was incredible. I was really impressed. It was a big change since I saw him at the Palladium in 1981 or '82. The whole show (lights, set, costumes, etc.) was really tight, really sexy, and really good."


Indeep: “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life,” 1983

“Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” was the first song played at Haring’s own New Year’s Eve party at his studio in 1984. This home-video footage of the party shows Haring as host to club kids, musicians and artists enjoying his wonderfully curated playlist of pop, new wave, disco, and hip-hop hits.


Madonna: “Dress You Up,” 1984

Madonna performed “Dress You Up” for one of Keith’s birthday parties at the Paradise Garage called “Party of Life”, wearing an outfit painted by Haring himself. Haring and Madonna became good friends while working together at the Danceteria, and they continued to make their mark in New York City together throughout the 1980s. Madonna paid homage to Haring in 2008, using his art as a backdrop during her “Sticky and Sweet” tour.


Grace Jones: “I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You),” 1986

Keith Haring and Grace Jones were friends and collaborators who shared the ability to communicate their activism to the mainstream through their powerful artistic languages. They met in 1984 when Haring painted Jones' body for an iconic photoshoot by Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol for Interview Mag. Haring called Jones, “the ultimate body to paint.” In the music video for "I'm Not Perfect (but I'm Perfect For You)", Haring paints a 60-foot gown for Jones.


Run DMC, “Christmas in Hollis,” 1987

A Very Special Christmas is a 1987 compilation album featuring pop-holiday hits by Haring’s friends, Run DMC and Madonna, as well as Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Pointer Sisters, and more. Keith Haring’s illustration of a mother and child is the iconic album cover. The album sold quadruple platinum with a portion of the proceeds going to the Special Olympics, raising millions of dollars for the organization. It is still a best-selling Christmas album today.


Gwen Guthrie, “Can’t Love You Tonight,” 1988

Haring was a fan of Guthrie's club hits for years. As an LGBTQ+ ally, she released this song that addressed the AIDS crisis in 1988. Much like Haring's work at the time, this song boldly addresses AIDS in a context that made it palatable to people at a time when the disease was considered taboo. All proceeds from this single went to the AIDS coalition.


We hope you enjoy these songs as much as Keith Haring did! Please visit Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit, on view November 19, 2020-May 16, 2021 at the World Chess Hall of Fame, and dive into the playlist to hear more great tracks he loved.

A virtual tour of the exhibition is available on the World Chess Hall of Fame’s YouTube channel.


Brittany Mosier is the Program Coordinator and Curatorial assistant at the World Chess Hall of Fame. She is also an artist, illustrator, and music video historian in her spare time. You can find her work at