Melamid and the museum hope the exhibition sparks discussion of the global impact of hip hop and how the culture influences ideas about wealth and power. Meanwhile, the National Portrait Gallery is showing "RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture."
"It's a chance to open the door to the hip-hop community, bring them into the museum as an audience and to reach quite broadly into the world of young people and begin dialogue about the whole idea of hip-hop music," said Marsha Miro, the Detroit museum's acting director.
Melamid, a former dissident whose work was demolished by the Soviet government in the 1970s, learned of the hip-hop world through his son, Dan, a music video director who collaborated with 50 Cent on videos from the rapper's 2005 hit album "Massacre." The 62-year-old artist listens to hip hop in his car, but paints in silence.
Among those depicted in the paintings are performers 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Common, Lil Jon and Reverend Run, entrepreneur Russell Simmons and clothing designer Marc Ecko.
In most cases, Melamid took photographs of his subjects and then painted them later, but 50 Cent sat for his painting. The subjects are presented in relatively low-key poses: Snoop Dogg at a desk, 50 Cent in a chair and Kanye West hunched over wearing his signature backpack, a gold chain dangling from his neck.
Melamid relied on the oil-on-canvas method and Old Master style used centuries ago to depict royalty and noblemen.
Miro says there's a connection between the wealth and influence of kings of the past and today's hip-hop stars, who are seen as royalty in urban areas. And she sees Detroit, with its diverse population and strong musical heritage, as an ideal location for "Holy Hip-Hop!"
"They're very important conceptual paintings dealing with the whole idea of hip-hop royalty," Miro said.
Ecko, who was painted when he was 75 pounds heavier, says he was pleased with the painting, although he sometimes teases Melamid to paint a "skinnier me." He appreciates Melamid's work and says he was inspired to start painting again.
"There is this great ironic tension that this old half-crazy, all-genius Russian painter would see the value of the narrative of hip hop," Ecko said in an e-mail interview. "He validates its legacy and further emphasizes its impact on all popular culture - not just America."
For Melamid, the paintings represented the opportunity to work on something that was personal to him and related to his son. And he'd love to do more.
"If I could get my hands on Jay-Z, I'm all over it," Melamid said.