Hip Hop at 50
This is the sixth in a series of posts that celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Birth of Hip Hop. Our exploration takes us to the seminal places of Hip Hop’s early days in our neighborhoods and introduces some of the instrumental figures in the downtown world of Hip Hop. You can also explore our Hip-Hop’s 2nd Birthplace map.
Fab 5 Freddy (born Fred Brathwaite on August 31, 1959) is a legend in the hip-hop world. One of the original architects of the culture, Fab, and his friend and partner in crime, Jean-Michel Basquiat, were instrumental in bringing the Graffiti Art movement from the subway cars and other boroughs of New York to the bubbling downtown art and club scenes. Fab 5 Freddy saw the vision of what the nascent hip-hop culture truly was – graffiti, breakdancing, DJing, MCing – and was instrumental in pulling these elements together to create hip-hop culture as we know it today. Many people know Fab 5 Freddy from the lyrics in the song “Rapture” by Blondie: “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly…” But his career remains long and varied. Some call him hip-hop’s true Renaissance man. His life and career started out in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but it flourished in the streets and clubs of the East Village.
Born and raised in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Freddy’s mother was a nurse and his father an accountant. He describes his home as always bursting with music and musicians. Max Roach, the drummer and composer, was his godfather and very close friends with Freddy’s father. They were part of the black intellectual set that circulated with the musicians and other intellectuals who also lived in Brooklyn, such as Bud Powell, Cecil Payne, Thelonious Monk, and Clifford Brown. These friends would hang out at the Brathwaite home—which everyone called “The Chess Club.”
Freddy dropped out of high school and landed at the City-as-School, a refuge for gifted New York children who didn’t respond well to traditional learning; it was also the school where Basquiat and Al Diaz had landed. He began to tag his name around town in an attempt to become recognized; a common occurrence during the mid-1970s. His tags were Bull 99, Showdown 177, and Fred Fab Five.
Freddy ended up skipping school regularly to go to the Met to look at armor, paintings, and jewelry; some of his favorite subjects. He devoured art history books and books about Pop art and eventually decided that he wanted to become famous as a fine artist.
In the late 1970s, Freddy became a member of the Brooklyn-based graffiti group the Fabulous 5, known for painting the entire side of New York City Subway cars. Along with fellow Fabulous 5 member Lee Quinones, they began to shift from street graffiti into the art world, and in 1979 they both exhibited at Galleria LaMedusaa, a prestigious gallery in Rome, becoming the first graffiti artists to show their work overseas. In 1980, Freddy painted a subway train with cartoon-style depictions of giant Campbell’s Soup cans, after Andy Warhol.
Adopting the name Fab 5 Freddy, he became an important early link between the uptown hip-hop and graffiti scenes and downtown punk and art worlds, as well as an accessible, media-friendly spokesman. In 1980, Fab 5 Freddy, LEE, and Jean-Michel Basquiat starred in Edo Bertoglio’s film New York Beat, released in 2000 as Downtown 81. He later pitched, helped develop, and starred in Charlie Ahearn’s film Wild Style, widely recognized as the first hip-hop film. The film was championed by the East Village Eye which contributed enormously to its ultimate success.
In early 1981, Fab 5 Freddy curated, together with FUTURA, the Mudd Club show Beyond Words, an essential early exhibition that brought together graffiti-based artists and downtown artists. Freddy functioned as a boundary crosser and spokesman for the hip-hop movement, able to position its art and music in new and unfamiliar contexts.
Freddy has had his hands in all aspects of the hip-hop culture as well as the dissemination of the hip-hop movement. He has been, at one time or another, a graffiti artist, a rapper, an internationally exhibited painter, a video and TV-commercial director, a screenwriter, a film scorer, an actor, a lecturer, and a television personality. He is also known to millions of viewers as the host of MTV’s erstwhile popular Saturday-night rap-music show, “Yo! MTV Raps.”
Visit our newly released story map, Hip-Hop’s 2nd Birthplace, to take a virtual tour of the seminal places in hip-hop history in our neighborhoods, including several which feature Fab 5 Freddy.