Hiphop has become such a huge part of pop that it’s hard to imagine music without it. Street art, too, is all over the art world, from Banksy’s activism to Shepherd Fairey murals to the Wynwood Walls.
That both these forms are such a central part of popular culture owes a great deal to Fab 5 Freddy, one of those pivotal personalities with a genius for sensing trends and connecting people. Back in the 70’s, the graffiti murals blooming on New York’s trains and walls weren’t seen as art, but vandalism, and almost nobody but kids in the hood had heard of guys rhyme-slinging to records. Fab (real name Fred Brathwaite), who’s featured in a National YoungArts Foundation Salon , may have been the first to figure out that the downtown scene was hiphop’s route out of the Bronx and into the world. He opened people’s eyes and a cultural floodgate; over 35 years later, hiphop is everywhere.
An “art nerd” from Brooklyn whose godfather was jazz drummer Max Roach, Braithwaite made a connection between the kids bombing train yards and pop art, Andy Warhol, and 20th century art movements. At the end of the 70’s Braithwaite hooked up with Glenn O’Brien, a writer and host of an underground TV show, who introduced him to Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of new wave idols Blondie, and others. From there it was down to the Mudd Club, the anti-glamour, uber hip club that was the center of a nexus of artists, musicians, night people, writers, and original characters with no other place to go. Braithwaite hooked up with filmmaker Charlie Ahearn for Wild Style, which put the early writers, rappers, DJ’s and dancers on film. Harry (the blonde in Blondie) namechecked him “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly” in 1981’s Rapture, a pop-rap song whose arty video ménage: Jean Michel Basquiat on the turntables, artists spray painting walls, looks and sounds naïve and self-conscious now but was the height of cool back then. In the 90’s, Braithwaite hosted Yo! MTV Raps, a hugely influential show on a channel that had been almost exclusively white, putting hiphop music and artists like Tupac, Snoop and Dr. Dre in the center of pop culture.
As was the strange union of downtown hipsters and artists with uptown music and mural makers, all poor and free to invent culture in the rundown, semi-abandoned edges of the city. Early rap groups like Funky 4 Plus One More and Sugarhill Gang played downtown clubs. Braithwaite helped curate, along with Keith Haring, a show at Mudd that included Basquiat and producer/cultural advocate Afrika Bambaataa. Brit promotors Ruza Blue and Mole turned hiphop nights at the Roxy, a former disco roller skating rink, into a breathtaking circus of hitherto unimagined funk, DJ’s ripping records, B-Boys spinning in cyclone clumps on the seething dancefloor. The Roxy was jawdropping because nobody had ever seen any of this before – you had to go back every to convince yourself that the head-spinning 14 year old, or the music being rhythmically deconstructed by massive, impassive Bambaataa, were real. The Roxy was where the rest of the city, and the world, discovered hiphop. And it might never have happened without Fab 5. (His appearance at YoungArts is thanks to vp of artistic programs Lisa Leone, a photographer and veteran of the downtown scene who’s brought a number of the era’s artists to the group.)
So how did you get the idea to bring the uptown hiphop scene to downtown?
It was really just me trying to create a bigger platform for what I was trying to do, letting hip people know about it and getting people to take me seriously. Nothing in graffitti was considered art. I wanted to show the creativity and what I felt was a real movement going on. I knew people in the new wave world were open-minded, I had read about punk in the papers, the Sex Pistols and the Clash and I thought it was really radical [stuff], it was cool. It felt like a remix, and the graffitti and paintings were the equivalent of pop art. I met with Glenn [O’Brien] and Chris [Stein] and Debbie [Harry] and felt a connection to the new wave and punk sensibility musically and culturally. They were fantastic, they got it, they saw those connections, and began to help me make other connections to bring it to the public. Out of those discussions that led to Rapture, to the idea to make a film to show the links to breaking and graffitti, because nothing along those lines was in anyone’s mind. I met Charlie and he had seen graffiti, and that became the movie Wild Style.
I was an art nerd, I would cut school and go to museums and nerd out on all this stuff, a lot of it I couldn’t talk to people in the hood about. When I met Jean Michel [Basquiat] he was an art nerd like me, that was the genesis of our friendship. He spent time in museums but he was into the street stuff as well. It was like oh my god, finally someone I can talk to about this [stuff] who doesn’t think I’m crazy. Glenn was the first person to write about me and Jean Michel and Lee [Quiñones] and that was how the fuse really got lit. The first show at Mudd, that was when I became friends with Keith Haring, he literally swept the floors at Mudd. There was nothing in the mix like this, guys were writing on walls to get notoriety so chicks would recognize them, this adolescent thing. I’m like wait, we’re inspired by the same stuff as Lichtenstein and telling people this, and they agreed.
The late 70’s was the first time I saw a subway car covered in a graffiti mural. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen, but I had no idea what it was.
That time frame was the peak of what we call whole cars, paint the entire car top to bottom. So I was seeing those murals and big things, and knowing this was inspired by the same stuff as pop art, popular culture. I was trying to be a painter like the painters that were my heroes. I was consumed with plotting out a way to have an impact like Dada and Futurism and cool European art movements that mirrored what we did at the Mudd Club, artists who could talk about Dada, doing murals on trains, agit prop, getting the message out – all this seemed connected to what we did organically citywide. My swan song subway mural was a tribute to Andy [Warhol.] I did a car covered in Campbells soup cans – it was a message about our history, to get people thinking about it as art, not just teen vandalism.
Do you think that hiphop would have gotten as big as it did without you?
I can’t say what would have happened. But the chain of things I initiated, that opened doors, that I helped set off, turned into a monster bigger than anything I could have perceived. Wild Style opened the door for kids who wanted to be painters. A lot of kids they didn’t have a clue, just trying to see if someone would give them a few hundred bucks. It was crazy, people treating them like they were some savage tribal artists. I was like you’re never going to treat me like that. Jean Michel was the main person I could talk to, we could talk about being black, and having a sense of how the art world worked, we would talk about how we were going to insert ourselves in that space, work in all these different mediums.
Tell me how you came to host Yo! MTV Raps
I was on the scene, and Peter Daugherty, we had friends in common, he saw what I was doing. He became a producer at MTV early on, and when they decided to let this show happen he said here’s the guy. I had started directing, and I wanted to expand creatively – I had just directed my first music video, KRS1 My Philosophy. Next thing I know the show is on the air with the highest ratings. I came up with the idea that I didn’t want to be cooped up in the studio like the VJ’s they had then, that was so corny. I like to be on the street running around where people are. It was the first show they did that was what they called a remote, I ran around with a crew. I’d fly around the country and then the world, find cool stuff in other places, Compton, Brazil and Japan. I also directed Snoop’s first video. I became good friends with Dr. Dre, still am. YO! Was the first window on rap, before hiphop radio anywhere.
What kind of influence do you think the original graffiti artists still have on the street art scene, which is so huge now?
It’s amazing. I was part of a big show that Jeffrey Deitch curated at MOCA LA, “Art in the Streets.” I had just started painting again. Jeffrey was telling me stories of street artists, these guys had studied our playbook. I met Banksy and Shepherd Fairey, and they all knew everything me and my crew did. I had no idea. They found other ways of taking it to the streets. It was perfect timing to see what happened around the world, with people now getting this whole story.
It’s amazing how much has happened.
I don’t take anything for granted. I used to go around with $5 in my pocket. Me and Jean Michel would chip in at these places where we could get a big plate of food to share. I remember Chase had this big event in the early 80’s at their headquarters on Wall Street, and they invited all these artists. We all had name tags. I went to the Bowery and got a $10 jacket. I was still sneaking on trains. Calvin Tompkins had just written in the New Yorker about [us.] All these rich people are coming up to us, and this older gentleman comes up and he’s like “Fred Braithwaite, what kind of work do you do?” And I was like ‘how do you know who I am?’ Let me see who you are. And I look at his name tag and it was David Rockefeller. I was like this is surreal.