Fab Five Freddy—the Artist, Filmmaker, and Host of the MTV Show That Turned Hip-Hop Global—Has a New Groove

Hip-hop’s early ambassador and MTV host is still igniting the culture through his art, films, and a new weed biz.

Fred Brathwaite  in his Harlem home with a velvet print from his series on boxer Jack Johnson. Watch by Omega.

Fred Brathwaite (Fab Five Freddy), in his Harlem home, with a velvet print from his series on boxer Jack Johnson. Watch by Omega.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.

On a Sunday afternoon in June, inside a cavernous warehouse in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, the 40th anniversary of Wild Style, the 1983 film that did more than any other to frame, codify, and promote the culture now known as hip-hop, was celebrated as the climax of the weekend-long Five Points Festival. It felt as if an old-school Bronx block party had been transported to 21st-century Brooklyn. The guy manning the turntables? That would be Grand Wizzard Theodore, the DJ widely credited with inventing scratching, the revolutionary technique that defined early hip-hop; the PA was set to a decibel level somewhere between a jackhammer and a Boeing 787. The director of Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn, a wiry guy with white hair and a friendly pink face dressed head to toe in red, milled around, receiving hugs from an expansive retinue of early hip-hop heroes who had appeared in the movie. There was Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers; Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew, one of the original B-boys; and MC Busy Bee Starski, the Chief Rocker himself, who still somehow looked like a teenager. Members of the Fantastic 5 hammed it up as a phalanx of iPhones flashed in their faces.

Soon enough, all of them were arrayed onstage, seated at a long table. It looked like a hip-hop Last Supper, but in actuality it was something more akin to a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame moment. You couldn’t help but think that here were the Little Richards and Chuck Berrys of rap. They were joined by Patti Astor, the art house Kim Novak of the early ’80s, who starred in Wild Style as a hip downtown reporter fascinated by graffiti, rap, and break dancing. That was the triumvirate of urban pursuits—then coming into their own as art forms—chronicled in Wild Style, a sui generis melding of scripted drama and vérité documentary.

Smack in the middle of this assemblage sat Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab Five Freddy (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy), the artist, rapper, video director, documentary maker, podcaster, cannabis entrepreneur, and former longtime host of Yo! MTV Raps, who happens to be the person who first synergized the aesthetic elements—art, music, dance—that we all call hip-hop. Introducing the movie’s luminaries, Master Gee, of the Sugarhill Gang, declared Brathwaite “the engine of Wild Style,” which he called “the greatest hip-hop movie in the history of hip-hop.” It was Brathwaite who’d proposed to Ahearn the idea of a hip-hop movie; Ahearn, in turn, cast him as Phade, a slick-talking, scene-stealing impresario.

Given his natural gift of gab, Brathwaite couldn’t help but be the center of attention. At 64, he retains much of his familiar mien from the MTV glory days: ball cap, sunglasses, knowing grin, smooth delivery. He’s still tall and rangy, although the well-curated stubble on his cheeks is now silver. His energy level remains engine-like. When he came offstage after being presented with a red satin Wild Style jacket, care of the National Hip-Hop Museum in Washington, DC, he was swarmed. Sharpies were thrust upon him, and he graciously signed records, posters, even somebody’s Nikes. He shrugged apologetically and made a good-natured aside about “the autograph people.” He was perhaps protesting too much. Just then, another well-wisher, a guy with graying hair who looked like he could have been at a hip-hop party or two in the South Bronx back in the day, bounced up to Brathwaite and announced so that everyone around could hear: “This man’s a genius!”

Considering the breadth of Brathwaite’s free-ranging polyglot career and the fact that it’s still in progress, it can be hard to sum up just what that genius is and why it still matters. “He’s some kind of cultural entrepreneur, you know?” Chris Stein, a cofounder of Blondie, put it this way when I asked about the man his band name-checked in their 1980 hit “Rapture,” the first Billboard number one to feature rapping: “Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly!” “He’s a linking figure,” Stein emphasized. “He was able to approach all these different worlds.” Debbie Harry, Blondie’s lead singer, told me, “He’s a facilitator. He makes it easy for people to understand each other.” It was Brathwaite, Harry suggested, who likely first exposed Blondie to rap.

Watch by Omega.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.

The pioneering rap artist Grandmaster Flash put it succinctly: “Fab was the liaison between whites downtown and this Black culture in the Bronx”—a cross-pollinator adept at bringing creative communities together. The art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, whose SoHo gallery will host a Wild Style anniversary exhibition starting November 11, told me that Fab Five Freddy’s impact in the late ’70s and early ’80s was transformative, representing the “meeting of the birth of hip-hop music, break dancing, graffiti, a connection between street culture and art-school culture. And that’s what took over the entire world. This is world culture now. More than anyone else, that’s Fred. He was the guy who put things together.”

Brathwaite grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; his father was an accountant and jazz fan and his mother was a nurse. When I recently met up with him in his old neighborhood, he mentioned that his sister still lives in the family town house, on Hancock Street, where Brathwaite spent his boyhood in a bedroom on the top floor. He also told me that Max Roach, the jazz drummer, was his godfather. “He and my dad grew up together,” Brathwaite said, noting that the two of them were pals at Boys High in Brooklyn and remained lifelong friends. “He was always around.” Conversations at the Brathwaite dinner table were a little out of the ordinary too, as topics might include Charlie Parker, dialectical materialism, or Malcolm X, whose assassination Fred’s father witnessed. Brathwaite inherited a reel-to-reel tape recording of the murder; since 2019, this artifact, among 129 boxes of materials known as the Fab 5 Freddy Papers, has resided in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

We strolled around the old Brooklyn stomping grounds, with Brathwaite pointing out his favorite aunt’s apartment and the house of a kid he knew who kept a pigeonnière on the roof. As Brathwaite spoke, a window opened onto the Bed-Stuy of the ’60s and ’70s, of young people cultivating pigeon flocks and running wild playing Ringolevio and stickball. All of this street life ended, Brathwaite said, when the crack epidemic swept through in the ’80s. As we turned down Stuyvesant Avenue, in tony Stuyvesant Heights, he detailed how, as a boy, he was greatly perplexed that the residents here all seemed to have lighter complexions. It was a hard lesson to absorb about socioeconomics and racism.

At Holy Rosary Elementary, the only trouble he got into stemmed from an incident in which he broke into the communion-wafer cache and gulped down 50 at one sitting, testing a hypothesis that megadosing on the body of Christ might impart superhero-level spiritual effects. The nuns were not amused. Holy Rosary is now a luxury apartment building. Brathwaite paused on the sidewalk, blinking up at the building’s Gothic exterior. “This is a semi out-of-body experience standing here,” he said.

Young Fred was attuned to art and music, and there was plenty of both to feast upon. The family turntable was piled high with bebop records, thanks to his father’s involvement in the jazz scene. His mom was more into Dinah Washington. Brathwaite remembers encountering Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and James Brown at a young age. By the early 1970s, he became a zealot for DJ Frankie Crocker’s pioneering radio show on New York’s WBLS. “Frankie Crocker would play the hottest Black music, soul music, funk music, from Barry White to Parliament,” Brathwaite said. He also recalled how a roving posse of mobile DJs would come to Bed-Stuy, spin the latest funk and disco, and get a party going right there in the street. “This is the thing that also inspired Kool Herc,” he said, citing the DJ credited with sparking, in 1973, the thing that would become hip-hop. “The uptown sound” is what Brathwaite learned to call this nascent beat-heavy genre. (In his companionable podcast, 50 Years of Hip Hop, which debuted in February, Brathwaite dilates upon mobile DJs and related matters.)

Brathwaite on the steps of his Sugar Hill town house, once a hangout for the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Billie Holiday. Sunglasses by Jacques Marie Mage; watch by Omega.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.
Watch by Omega.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.

In the meantime, Brathwaite had been noticing graffiti tags—the writers’ signatures—proliferating around the city. This was the era of TAKI 183, the elusive Greek American tagger who is considered New York’s graffiti godfather. Brathwaite was fascinated. To him, graffiti was a “teenager street activity”—a game not unlike Ringolevio. He wanted to play. One day while he sat in a classroom at John Dewey High School, he looked out the window at the massive Coney Island train yard next door. “We referred to it as the layup—where the trains lay,” he said. “I took some paint out of shop class, found there was a hole under the fence I could slide under, and, in between class periods, I went and did my name on a couple of trains.” It happened that the first trains Brathwaite tagged went along elevated lines. “Guys in my neighborhood went bananas!” he said. Among his early tags were Bull 99 and Showdown 177.

Brathwaite enjoyed the instant recognition. He was now part of a growing subculture of young New Yorkers bringing art to the streets while City Hall went into a moral panic about spray paint. During this time, Brathwaite would bag school and roam around The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He began thinking about graffiti in art historical terms and recognized theoretical links between the unaffected street-level expression of graffiti and the conceptual high-end art world—Russian Constructivism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop.

One graffiti writer seemed a cut above the rest: a Lower East Sider named Lee Quiñones, who worked large-scale, on handball courts, a level that Brathwaite knew he could never reach. Brathwaite decided to befriend him. He figured out what high school Quiñones went to, dropped by his classroom, and asked to speak with him. Quiñones, assuming Brathwaite was a cop, was terrified. An enduring friendship was born. Brathwaite fell in with Quiñones’s Fabulous Five crew, adopting the variable handles Fred Fab Five and Fab Five Freddy. He began working in Quiñones’s ratty studio under the Manhattan Bridge and, in 1979, the two of them pulled off something nearly unimaginable: a gallery show in Rome. It was Brathwaite who’d read the zeitgeist and figured there could be a place for graffiti in contemporary art. As Quiñones later put it, “Fab is a genius at having his finger on the pulse.”

Brathwaite had by then aborted his career at Medgar Evers College in favor of the higher education attained by schlepping into Manhattan on the A train. Through a Quiñones friend, he scored a fifth-generation cassette of a “rapper” from the Bronx called Grandmaster Flash, and, on the Bowery, he became enthralled by upstart punk rockers such as the Cramps and Richard Hell. “CBGB was fucking raging,” he recalled. Punk and new wave were a world away from mobile DJs, but Brathwaite sensed an unlikely synergy. “I remember the first time going into the CB’s bathroom: Graffiti was everywhere, even in the fucking toilet, in the urinal. I had this realization, like, ‘Yes! There is a connection here between the aesthetics of punk and new wave and the energy of graffiti.’ ” Stein and Harry remember first meeting Brathwaite at CBGB. “All of a sudden this very tall Black man was hanging out,” Harry recalled. “He had a magnetic thing about him.”

Around 1979, he cold-called Glenn O’Brien, an editor and music columnist at Warhol’s Interview magazine, who was hosting the after-hours cable-access talk show TV Party, a kind of punk Fernwood 2 Night. In no time, Brathwaite became a guest on the show as well as a cameraman (lack of experience perhaps being a selling point), joining an extended TV Party family that included the likes of Stein (the show’s cohost), Harry, Klaus Nomi, and James Chance, along with a new pal, the graffiti artist SAMO (for “Same Old Shit”), whose given name was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Brathwaite and Basquiat, who’d first encountered each other at an art space called the Canal Zone, made an obvious pairing: both of them young, charismatic, good-looking—Black middle-class Brooklynites with accountant fathers making a splash in a largely white Manhattan scene.

Brathwaite found that O’Brien et al. were receptive to his ideas about graffiti and art. It inspired Brathwaite to step up his game, and in 1979, the same year of the Rome gallery show, he created the statement piece that defined his graffiti career. He racked up a ton of red and white spray paint and, with help from Quiñones, blanketed the entire side of a subway car on the 5 line with an image of Campbell’s soup cans—working large, like his friend. Brathwaite’s mobile homage to Andy Warhol elicited applause from passengers when it rolled into stations. The authorities quickly buffed the original soup cans car, but Brathwaite did a second one the following year. “The fact that Fred painted Campbell’s soup cans on a train cannot be underestimated,” Ahearn said. “By 1980 there’s a growing sense that this thing on the subways is art. So that statement was a perfect signature, because Warhol wasn’t original either.”

Henry Chalfant’s photograph of Fab 5 Freddy’s Campbell’s Soup at the exhibit “Writing the Future: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Oct. 14, 2020.Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Preoccupied, as usual, with the relationship between street art and high art, Brathwaite had discerned a shared visual language between graffiti and 1960s Pop art. “Graffiti artists were looking at comics, looking at soapbox ads with bright colors,” he said, citing influences that propelled both art movements. “We wanted shit to pop off the trains, in the basic primary colors. We fell in, organically inspired by the same thing that Pop art had been inspired by a decade or so earlier. So I was like, ‘Wow.’ ”

A framed photograph of Brathwaite and Warhol, together on the town, hangs on the wall of Brathwaite’s parlor in Harlem, where, since 1999, he’s lived in a 19th-century Sugar Hill town house. The place once belonged to George Edmund Haynes, a founder of the Urban League. W.E.B. Du Bois and Billie Holiday are said to have been visitors. With its dark wainscoting and carved doors, it’s easy to imagine the house as a Harlem Renaissance salon, a spirit that Brathwaite continues by hosting artists and filmmakers, writers and musicians. (In 2017, Columbia University Press published a book about the house called Down the Up Staircase.)

Brathwaite, who is single and the father of a 20-something daughter named Sparkle (she is repped by Wilhelmina Models), has a decorating style that runs toward objets that draw the eye and ignite conversation. The first thing you see when you step inside is a painted portrait of Quiñones. There are outsize photos of Biggie Smalls; assorted piles of memorabilia; posters for Wild Style and Grass Is Greener, his 2019 Netflix documentary about cannabis, of which Brathwaite is a great proponent; and a fleet of remote-control model race cars, which kept him occupied during the pandemic.

Sunglasses by Jacques Marie Mage; watch by Omega.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.

By his own account, Brathwaite gave up outdoor graffiti in 1980. He’d begun to bristle at the perception that he and his cohort were street urchins and juvenile delinquents. In June of that year, he managed to get his work into the era-defining monthlong “Times Square Show,” which was to the 1980s New York art world what the 1913 Armory Show was to an earlier time. There, he met Ahearn, whose twin brother, John, had been instrumental in assembling the exhibition. Brathwaite had seen posters for Ahearn’s art film The Deadly Art of Survival and was obsessed. The meeting felt like cosmic kismet. “They were like two peas in a pod,” Quiñones said during a Q&A after a screening of Wild Style at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. When I asked Ahearn about his first impression of Brathwaite, he told me, “He was like a heat-seeking missile.”

It was at the “Times Square Show” that Brathwaite laid his idea of an art-house movie about graffiti, rap, and break dancing on Ahearn: “Damn, put this all in a movie, it would be dope.” By yoking art, music, and dance together, they wouldn’t be isolated youth phenomena so much as a full-blown, unified culture: a movement. It turned out that Ahearn had been thinking it would be dope to put Quiñones in a movie. The young graffiti artist would, in fact, become the central character of Wild Style—a vulnerable, enigmatic, and uncompromising creator trying to be true to himself, a perfect symbol of the hopes and concerns of many young New Yorkers, often of color.

Brathwaite and Ahearn worked up their ideas for the film over pots of Bustelo at Ahearn’s place downtown and then ventured up to the Bronx to scout out a rap event. Maybe 75 people were there. The locals took them—a tall Black guy and a short white guy—for two of New York’s finest. Brathwaite and Ahearn were astounded by the propulsive music and the entire scene, filled as it was with humor and spontaneity and a spirit of total freedom. Ahearn approached MC Busy Bee Starski, a conspicuous focal point, and said he’d like to put him in a movie. Busy Bee slung an arm around Ahearn’s shoulders, hauled him onstage, and announced to an ecstatic crowd, “This is my producer, Charlie Ahearn! And we’re making a movie about the rap scene!”

For Brathwaite, the early ’80s rolled by in a montage: shooting Wild Style; appearing in Blondie’s “Rapture” video; sharing a studio with Basquiat; shrooming with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf; having his artwork cited by the poet John Ashbery in Newsweek; being photographed for Vanity Fair by an up-and-coming photographer named Nan Goldin; releasing the occasional rap single (including “Change the Beat”); and, night after night, hanging out at the Mudd Club, the Tribeca spot that countered Studio 54’s uptown establishment excess with downtown bohemian cool. There, Brathwaite cocurated, with the artist Futura 2000, a groundbreaking graffiti exhibition called “Beyond Words.” Bronx hip-hop scenesters gravitated toward the show: more uptown-downtown intermingling. “A lot of people got to experience all of this culture for the first time,” Brathwaite observed, “and they became fans.”

Doctor Dre, left, Ed Lover, right, and Fab Five Freddy during a 20th anniversary bash for Yo! MTV Raps, 2008.Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images.

Wild Style finally came out in 1983, an instant cult classic and the most authentic film portrayal of hip-hop’s formative period. It inspired Hollywood knockoffs and raised the profile of Fab Five Freddy: He starred in the movie, was its musical director (with Stein, he created the backing tracks used by the rappers), and received credit, with Ahearn, for the original concept. Given Brathwaite’s stature as a rap Renaissance man, his friend Peter Dougherty, a producer at MTV, floated the idea a few years later that he should host a rap show on the music channel.

Brathwaite was excited but taken aback. He wasn’t a television personality and he didn’t think he could live up to the example of his WBLS hero Frankie Crocker. More to the point, he thought MTV and its hosts were lame. “I didn’t want to be like those typical VJs that would be on for four hours straight,” he said. “You’d be like, ‘I hate this fucking guy. Who are you, motherfucker? Play the shit I wanna hear.’ ”

MTV, which had launched in 1981, was exceedingly white, at least until Michael Jackson and Prince became impossible to ignore. In a famously contentious MTV interview from 1983, David Bowie turned on VJ Mark Goodman, castigating him and the network for neglecting Black artists. (Brathwaite had his own term for it: “television apartheid.”) Then, in 1986, Run-D.M.C. lit a pop-culture bonfire when they teamed with Aerosmith for “Walk This Way.” Suddenly, every suburban kid in America was into this rap stuff, but there was still no MTV programming dedicated to it. Brathwaite noted that even Black radio and television weren’t supporting the genre: Rap was a fad; it wasn’t important; it wasn’t music.

Brathwaite and Jean-Michel Basquiat at Anita Sarko’s Voodoo Party at the Palladium, New York City, 1986.Photo by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.

Dougherty kept at Brathwaite, shooting a demo of him in VJ mode: the difference being that Brathwaite refused to be stuck inside MTV’s studios. He wanted to be out in the street, where hip-hop’s energy came from. He wanted natural light and unscripted accidents à la TV Party. And he wanted to do anything he could to help young rap artists feel relaxed, many of them nervous as hell to be on TV despite the put-on bravado. He channeled the hip-hop flaneur character he’d concocted for Wild Style. “I went into the persona,” he told me. “And keep in mind, it was never my intention to be onscreen and do any of this shit! Charlie talked me into being Phade.” He would now deploy the Phade character—joke-cracking, loose-limbed, streetwise, a total operator—as an amped-up MTV version of himself. And so Fab Five Freddy was reborn as the original rap VJ. “That’s what the show really needed,” Harry said, “and it certainly made MTV look like they were smart.”

Yo! MTV Raps debuted in 1988, the same year Basquiat, at 27, died of a heroin overdose. The response to Brathwaite’s new series was instant—and huge. “The highest ratings that MTV had seen,” is how Brathwaite remembered it. “They literally thought something had happened with the Nielsen system.” The show doubled the normal ratings in its time slot and quickly vied to become MTV’s top program. Brathwaite also began directing rap videos, starting with Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy,” featuring KRS-One.

Brathwaite would go on to host or cohost Yo! MTV Raps until 1995, introducing audiences to the likes of Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Queen Latifah, and Snoop Dogg, and inspiring radio to take up the hip-hop cause. During the show’s seven-year run, Brathwaite helped rap evolve from the underground community depicted in Wild Style to the global cultural juggernaut we know today. Last summer, the music historian Jay Quan bestowed unique status upon Brathwaite, proclaiming him to be “the greatest hip-hop ambassador.”

Throughout: beard products by SheaMoisture; grooming products by Dior Sauvage.Photograph by Eric Johnson; Styled by Miles Pope.

The Yo! MTV Raps period was plush for Brathwaite. He was everywhere. Susan Orlean profiled him in The New Yorker; the piece began: “The coolest person in New York at the moment is a man named Fred Brathwaite.” That, Brathwaite said, “impressed the fuck out of” MTV CEO Tom Freston. Deitch recalled that heady time: “There was no money in any of this in the beginning. Then Fred’s like the most prosperous guy in the scene, with a car and driver, running around. You know, a real rap star.” Back in Bed-Stuy, his parents still didn’t have cable. “I had to send VHS tapes to my family every week so they could see what I’m doing,” Brathwaite said. “Like, ‘I’m on TV for real!’ ”

When the MTV ride was over, Brathwaite kept motoring ahead: founding a record label, hosting a web-based show, and, above all, returning to art. His most recent work, shown at London’s Saatchi Gallery earlier this year, focuses on Black pirates. The effect of these supercharged, large-scale images suggests N.C. Wyeth’s Treasure Island illustrations being sent through a time machine to the edge of tomorrow. They have movie-poster panache along with hip-hop swagger. Brathwaite executed them with digital technology, even a touch of AI. “I’m a romantic about the idea of painting and painters,” he explained, “but I wanted to modernize my methods. So the idea of working digitally was appealing to me—and kind of cool, considering how hip-hop musically disrupted practices and techniques to create something new.” Brathwaite sees his Black pirates as a corrective to Eurocentric history that ignores the racial dynamics of high-seas buccaneering during the era of the sugar trade. He will likely include more of this work in the Wild Style anniversary show at Deitch’s gallery (curated by Carlo McCormick), where he’ll be joined by other artists featured in the movie, such as Quiñones, Lady Pink, and Rammellzee.

Brathwaite’s cannabis activism represents another corrective. His 2019 documentary Grass Is Greener, featuring Chuck D and Snoop Dogg, is a repudiation of the racially tinged paranoia of old scare films such as Reefer Madness. The doc offers a new way of reading the story of cannabis, one focused on Black creativity and social justice. At its heart is the harrowing saga of Bernard Noble, a Louisiana man who served seven years in prison for possessing barely enough marijuana for two joints.

In 2021, Brathwaite partnered with Noble and the cannabis company Curaleaf to launch B Noble, a weed brand aligned with social equity and criminal-justice reform. “People of color have been disproportionately criminalized for this nonviolent cannabis plant,” Brathwaite said. “So we donate 10 percent of our revenue to organizations that are helping fight the harm and fix the harm caused.”

Up at his town house, Brathwaite showed off some B Noble pre-rolls. They have names like Motorbreath and Sour Diesel, which sound like graffiti tags. When I asked what he had in mind to do next, he said, rather airily, “Projects have come and gone, and more are coming”—including more art, more TV and movie pitches, more hip-hop anniversaries to commemorate. “There’s another chapter coming,” Deitch said. “Because there’s always so much that he has going.”

You could say that Fab Five Freddy has always had another chapter coming, right from the beginning. I offered him a précis of the various ways he’s already shaped our cultural reality: defining hip-hop, bringing graffiti into galleries, spreading the rap gospel around the world… I trailed off. Brathwaite adjusted the brim of his baseball cap and considered this for a few seconds. “Yeah,” he said. “It still blows my mind.”

Grooming, Damaris Santana; set design, Jenny Correa. Produced on location by Melissa Louis-Jacques. For details, go to vf.com/credits.

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