Everybody's Fly: Fab 5 Freddy Talks to Author Richard Boch
“Fab 5 Freddy Told Me Everybody’s Fly.” So said Blondie in their groundbreaking crossover 1980 single “Rapture.” The band was disrupting both popular culture and music for the second time in less than a decade and its lead singer, Debbie Harry, had already achieved icon status. Immortalized in song, Fab 5 Freddy was on his way.
An underground film and television personality, Fab’s credits include Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style, and the ultra-hip slice of post-punk subculture Downtown ’81 starring Jean-Michel Basquiat. Along with his celebrated curatorial effort, Beyond Words, at the Mudd Club in April 1981, Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, is an artist, a filmmaker, a hip hop pioneer and the legend behind Yo! MTV Raps. Fab’s not only seen it all, he was a huge part of the creative force that made it all happen. Now let’s hear it from him.
Richard Boch: You grew up in Brooklyn and The Fabulous Five, your old-school Graffiti crew, was Brooklyn-based, but by 1979 and 1980, you were already in deep with TV Party and hanging out in the city below Canal Street at the Mudd Club. I’m wondering, how did a nice kid like you fall in with such a fast and crazy downtown crowd?
Fab 5 Freddy: Several months before Glenn O’Brien’s public access show TV Party aired, I reached out and got him to come to my school, Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, to be interviewed by me on my college radio show. Walking him back to the train after the interview I pitched him some ideas about Graffiti as art and this new music developing in the Upper Manhattan and Bronx ghettos that would soon become known as hip hop. Glenn was into it and encouraged me. When his show was about to air he called and invited me to be a guest; I also became one of the cameramen and a regular guest. After taping we’d all go to the new hotspot way downtown at 77 White Street called the Mudd Club, and I became a regular there. I have to add that you, Richard, were the coolest and best of all downtown doormen. I recall one Saturday night walking down the alley leading to the Mudd with Jean-Michel Basquiat, a long black limo had arrived with some folks who I’m sure were coming from Studio 54. There was a thick crowd outside clamoring for your attention to get let in and when you saw me and Jean-Michelle you yelled, “Hi Freddy and Jean, how many?” The designer Halston was one of the people who’d gotten out of that limo and it was a thrill for Jean and I both to waltz into the club past him as they stood outside waiting. I don’t recall seeing them inside that night.
RB: You found yourself in the middle of a wildly creative scene that was happening in downtown Manhattan. Then within a short time, you’re one of the people changing the way people look at art from the streets—not only through your own work but through other people’s work as well. Tell me about it; where were you headed next?
F5F: TV Party was like a magnet for the coolest and most interesting culture makers on the downtown scene, as well as for those more mainstream like David Bowie, Nile Rodgers from Chic, funk god George Clinton, and, of course, Chris Stein and Debbie Harry from Blondie who were key parts of the underground scene. I was able to discuss my plans and ideas and get great advice on how to execute my assault on pop culture from a lot of these folks. Glenn was like a mentor, and I drew up my plans and executed them: painting, exhibiting my work downtown, collaborating with Charlie Ahearn and getting the film Wild Style made. Our concept to use the actual individual artists and practitioners portraying themselves in the film: Graffiti artists, rappers, DJs and break dancers, helped put all of those real pioneers on the map. Ending up in one of the starring roles was a last minute idea that thrust me to the forefront of the culture.
RB: In 1981, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein said that you said, “Everybody’s fly” and suddenly you’re name-checked in “Rapture,” a No. 1 song. Not only that, but it’s the first No. 1 song to feature a rap vocal—and it’s a song by Blondie. You must have been flipping out!
F5F: Blondie making the song “Rapture” was a huge surprise to me as Debbie’s rap included some of the ideas I’d explained to her and Chris about the scene—like how Flash was the fastest DJ, and how uptown at the parties, guys and girls were “fly girls and fly guys” which is the “Everybody’s Fly” Debbie’s rapping about. Later when they shot the music video a lot of the key members in the TV Party crew are extras in that video, like myself along with Lee Quinones doing graffiti paintings on the wall and Jean-Michel Basquiat standing in for Flash at the turntables. When it became a number No. 1 song nationwide it would prove to be a cultural game-changing moment, and I was proud to have lit that fuse!
RB: Earlier that same year you spent some time on the Downtown ’81 production. Nearly everyone we knew was involved to some degree. Then in 1983, Wild Style came along. Uptown and downtown, they were the sweet dreams of a golden time. Both films told the stories of what was happening as the worlds of art and music were mixing it up. Did you basically play yourself or a version of yourself? What was the experience like to once again be at the forefront of this cultural shift?
F5F: We’d quickly become like a family back then and various people had similar ideas at the same time to get our message out to the world. I had the ideas that became Wild Style early on and meeting Charlie Ahearn at the opening of The Times Square Show exhibit in the spring of 1980, I pitched him the idea and we immediately began planning the film, like, the next day! Glenn O’Brien and director Edo Bertoglio had an idea as well, around that same time, to make a film that became Downtown ’81. The similarities of both films, besides myself being featured in both, is that these films are populated with the real people playing characters close to their lives and doing what they actually did in real life. Both of these films could be seen as the beginnings of a new genre, call it “scripted-docu-underground-reality.” My character in Wild Style was a total creation. In reality, I’m a hip, nerdy, cool cat from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, playing a savvy Bronx guy in the middle of the graffiti and rap scenes in Wild Style, which I wasn’t—so I was really acting. Being at the forefront of it all was organic, I’d say, and when you’re in the eye of the hurricane it’s not easy to gauge the effects it’s having as the strong winds blow. However, over the years [I began to gauge the effects] when I’d see and hear the stories of how Wild Style touched so many people from state to state and around the world and led millions of them to join the culture. This was and still is shocking and very humbling.
RB: What I find so great is that you never stopped pushing forward. Your painting, the television landmark Yo! MTV Raps and different film projects are all vital to the energy and creativity of those working in music today. Inspired by some great people, you took that inspiration and went on to influence and inspire a new generation of artists and musicians. How does that make you feel?
F5F: Yo! MTV Raps, which begins in the fall of 1988 with me as the host, immediately becomes MTV’s highest rated show and surprises myself and the MTV execs as rap music at that time was not on mainstream radio except for a few weekend shows in NYC and a little in LA. Back then very few of our downtown friends had cable TV, nor was the entire city wired for it, so I’d have to find a friend with cable and go visit to watch my show on Saturday night. I was still able to walk the streets unknown, doing my usual, but after a couple of years, I had to move to midtown into a building with a doorman and some extra security.
RB: So Fred, I’ve got two last things to say. First of all, thanks for everything; and second, what did I forget to ask you?
F5F: I’m blessed I’m still able to continue doing all the things I love. Making film, making art, and making trouble in the form of disrupting, flipping the table over and non-conforming. I’ve just finished directing a feature-length doc on the history of people of color, cannabis, music, and criminal justice in America called, Grass Is Greener that will air on Netflix worldwide on 4/20. The paintings are looking good as well with shows and group shows happening here and there. When folks under 30 come up to me with their praise and list of questions, I can tell how much digging they’ve done on the web, as loads of my work from TV Party, to Yo! MTV Raps to my artwork is all there. It’s a constant reminder that Google makes a lot of my life, and yours, all just a few clicks away.
WORDS Richard Boch
PHOTOGRAPHY Bobby Grossman, 1980