When hip-hop moved into the diverse fray of Downtown 1980s New York, one man stood as the primary connector. Fab 5 Freddy, born Fred Brathwaite in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, joined Glenn O'Brien's famous public access show, TV Party in 1979—years before his groundbreaking work on Yo! MTV Raps. On TV Party he met Debbie Harry, and brought Blondie’s lead vocalist as well as Glenn O'Brien uptown to expose her to hip-hop. Artistically, he was also mixing uptown and downtown references, blending Warhol's pop vision with his own graffiti stylings and making art both on the streets and in the studio. He became, for lack of a grander term, a connector.
Fred Brathwaite connected styles. He also connected people. One of those was Futura, a young artist at the time fresh from a stint in the Merchant Marines. With a sense for the art world, Brathwaite saw Futura's talents as an artist and his charisma and brought him into a fold that included Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and a bright cast of young artists with the aim of expanding graffiti beyond its demonized public image.
For Futura Week, Complex Senor Editor Rob Kenner spoke with Fab 5 Freddy about his early experiences with the graffiti legend and how the two helped bring hip-hop to Europe.
Introduction by Nick Schonberger (@nschon). Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots).
Futura’s doing his Hennessy collabo right now and he talked about meeting you back in the day, after you had just done the Warhol-esque soup cans subway car.
Freddy: Yeah it was around that time, exactly.
You were working with Lee [Quinones] at the time and he talked about how you really helped connect him to the downtown club scene and stuff like that.
What are your memories of meeting Futura and just his work overall?
Yeah basically Lee and I had teamed up, and we were the first graffiti artists to really take it to the art world on our own. We had an exhibit of our work at a really prestigious gallery in Rome. By that time I had done my homage to Andy Warhol, which is a whole subway car covered in Campbell’s soup cans. The show that we had in Rome started a buzz amongst the guys that were plugged into the media like Futura, Zephyr, Revolt, Ali and other members of the Soul Artists. We met up on the Upper West Side at the Soul Artists headquarters and that’s when I kind of connected with them in the 1980s.
This was in Rome, Italy?
Yes, the exhibit Lee and I had was in Rome at a very prestigious Italian gallery, Galleria la Medusa. If you go on my website, there’s something that I wrote about it there. There was a little piece I did about me getting back to making art which started a few years ago right before the Art in the Streets exhibition and all of this other excitement began to stir up again around street art. The exhibition in LA brought me and Futura together again and we reviewed a lot of our history, a lot of which I hadn’t thought that deeply about. I wrote a little essay on all of this stuff that we did for the catalog.
That was at MOCA in Los Angeles?
Yes, Art in the Streets. That was Jeffrey Deitch’s first mega blockbuster show at MOCA in Los Angeles. It was one of the most attended shows in America—second to the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan—and it just brought the whole culture, story, everything into perspective and really showed how we influence all these street art people—Shepard, Banksy, etc. They all studied our playbooks so to speak—and was a great way of understanding that we played a big part in all that.
When we initially became buddies I saw right away that Lee was very much like his character Zorro in Wild Style. He didn’t mess with too many other people; he just painted. When I connected with Lee we came up with this idea that we should take this thing to the art world and represent this culture properly. Everybody who had anything to do with graffiti was painted with a broad brush as the worst criminals in New York City. But I felt like among us, there were real artists. That was a part of what motivated me because I felt like I saw that I was an artist and, Lee, obviously, was the master of the graffiti genre. When I met with Futura I saw right away that he had a very cool unique style and a great personality. We became friends and I kind of plugged him in with my downtown friends that I had, you know, people like Blondie, Glenn O’Brien, Keith Haring, and Diego Cortez. Since I was already making moves in the art world and good friends with Jean-Michel [Basquiat], we were concerned with expanding the whole team of people representing this culture.
Just so I’m clear, did Futura show up at the Rome exhibition?
No, not at all. That was just me and Lee. It was kind of my initiative to just get some media exposure so that people would see our work and think of us as artists. This big Italian art dealer [Claudio Bruni] gave us a show and then that sparked these guys. Futura was a part of the Soul Artists and hanging with them were people like ZEPHYR—a whole bunch of people that were smart but also doing graffiti. They saw what was going on and wanted to explore the possibilities of moving into the art world and finding a new audience for the work. That was about when we connected and we became friends. We shared our first studio space together in the far Lower East Side, on 2nd St. and Avenue B. This was all in 1980. Lee and I showed in fall of ‘79 and by ‘80, people were hearing and we were connecting the dots. Futura became a significant part of that.
He also mentioned doing some paintings in clubs? Was that The Roxy or what club would that have been?
Yeah the Roxy kind of popped up as well and I guess, it was kind of—I guess you could call it a mural now—but everybody had tagged and painted on it. But then, the significant thing, obviously I had made the connection with Blondie and “Rapture” happened, became a No. 1 song, and that was a big spark on the scene. We were hanging in clubs and connecting with some cool heads on the scene who were open to art and hip-hop culture. Most of all they were seeing us as artists. Soon after that Futura connected with the Clash, who were very aware of the connection I had made with Blondie. They took it a step further by bringing him on tour to make live paintings on stage and that was a dope thing. He went on tour for a month or so with them and painted while they played.
Around that same time, right on the heels of that, Kool Lady Blue had the idea to extend the hip-hop night that she put together at Negril, took it to the Roxy—which was a fading roller disco—and then soon after that, this mega idea came together that waskind of inspired by me making this record, a French and English rap record.
That was “Change The Beat."
Right, “Change The Beat.” Futura had the chance to make some music also. Futura had wrote this little rap. It was a statement, not trying to be a rapper like just to make a creative statement about the idea of doing graffiti because of course I had turned everybody on to this beginning of the new hip-hop sound that was developing. Futura got inspired by that and made this rap about graffiti, “The Escapades of Futura 2000.” The Clash made this funky track that he rapped on I did adlibs on. There was even a video shot for the song—this was before music videos were even a thing—that's a great document of that era.
A French-owned record label got the idea to release my record, Futura's, and three others, which led to a tour [the New York City Rap Tour] that introduced hip-hop culture in France, which is still the second biggest market for hip-hop in the world. When we went on this massive tour it was about 50 of us including Afrika Bambaataa, the Rock Steady Crew, including other graffiti writers like Dondi, Rammellzee, who was a protege of mine at the time, and different rappers. We had this wild, freestyle, anything-goes jam session in all these different French cities. That was the beginning of a lot of cool shit that would spread across Europe.
It was a heavy duty multi-media thing going on back then as me and Charlie Ahearn were finishing up Wild Style, Henry Chalfant was shooting Style Wars, and Glenn O’Brien was making Downtown 81, which I was also in.
Was Futura also a part of that big tour you just mentioned?
Yeah. He was on the tour because he had gotten back from touring with The Clash. It’s all on YouTube, you can see that whole thing. Like a lot of very early rap songs they went on forever. The songs structure hadn't developed so we would just rap with no breaks. Like me, Futura wasn’t trying to be a rapper but there were a few opportunities that popped up that we jumped all over them. It's a pretty strong historical statement when you look back at all this.
What did you notice that was unique about Futura’s style?
Initially it really was his tag—his Futura2000 tag. It was just something that other graffiti writers weren’t using. I mean graffiti is all about style—I mean, it’s about a lot of things, how much you do it, where you do it—but at the core, it’s about style. About how you write your name and Futura had a really cool unique way of writing his name. He had a couple different ways of doing it, both were really cool. He really stood out from the thousands of others who did it at the time. As he began to move into making paintings his style would really blossom. I actually own one of the first canvases he ever made, which is called Infra-Red. It’s on a very black background, covered with these perfect red oval ellipses, as if they were floating space, with his 2000 tag at the lower right corner. It was so different from what a lot of other people were doing, which I thought was really cool. He was really carving out his own way and that was what we all were trying to do.
And kind of elevate and expand.
Yeah, that too, but really to represent because keep in mind, there were no positive words for what we were doing anywhere in the media. Even in the underground, it was just nothing. Aside from being a cool head in the streets, from a creative standpoint, there was no other positive enforcement with a few exceptions. Futura was somebody who could hold an intelligent conversation with people and articulate what were doing as artists. All that I saw in him immediately and all the other guys in the Soul Artists were like that too. They had interesting views on this culture so they saw what I saw. They were like, "We heard about what you and Lee did in Rome and it was incredible."
We’re very grateful to hear a few words from someone who was at the heart of it.
Yeah, no doubt, anything for Futura, I’m also godfather to his son, who is really an amazing photographer and filmmaker himself now. He goes by the name 13th Witness.
Oh really? I didn’t know.
Yeah just Google 13th Witness. He’s been doing crazy global stuff for Nike, like shooting BMX riders, U.S. basketball players in China. He’s a real international kid with a street photographer eye. When he was a little boy, I put him in a Kool G Rap and DJ Polo video, “Erase Racism.” It was G-Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie. It was so funny, last summer we were all together in the Williamsburg studio that Futura and I shared—Futura, me, 13th Witness—and I pulled up the video on YouTube. We hadn’t seen it in years, and 13th Witness was just a little 4-year-old kid sitting on Biz Markie’s lap with a little black kid, who was a really good friend of his. When I showed it to his mom a few weeks ago she was like, ‘Oh my God that was his best friend.’ And Biz is singing the hook “The ink is black, the page is white/Together we learn how to read and write.” The video was about me bringing different ethnic groups together in New York in light of recent racial violence in the early 90s, like the death of Yusef Hawkins. If you pull up the video and watch it, it was cool because Kane comes in and they’re rapping about it and then I made it look like we were in Bensonhurst with these tough white guys, mean-mugging the camera and then I bring everyone together on some racial harmony shit.
And there’s little 13th Witness on Biz’s lap as a 4-year-old kid. [Laughs.]