Page Two: "Fab 5 Freddy Told Me Everybody's Fly"
Out of nothing, street art achieved velocity
Driving in a cab across Tel Aviv, I thought about it – as I did early one morning walking through Athens and later in Lisbon driving by some of Europe's oldest surviving neighborhoods. In ways we now usually don't notice, many of the world's cities are accentuated by endless colors, lines, and swirls, often so bad as to be more an idea of graffiti, than art, in the way the Shaggs' first album sounds like it was made by people who had had music described to them but never actually heard it. Again and again, I wondered what Fab 5 Freddy, legendary pioneering graffiti artist and a driving force behind hip-hop culture, thinks of all this.
"It is mind boggling in a way, exciting in so many others. Yes, what we started as kids in New York City is everywhere."
FFF and I are walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown, during his first time on Cape Cod. "So what's it like," I ask him, "these ideas you guys hatched not quite a half-century ago, now decorating the world?"
He's quick to downplay the birthing part, pointing out it was Taki 183 who pioneered tagging in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Once begun, there was no stopping; defiant and rebellious, street kids pushed ever more elaborate and ambitious renderings of names and numbers.
In the late Seventies, with Lee Quiñones and the others in the Fabulous 5, they created subway-train-long artworks. Yet, he narrows his contribution from innovating an aesthetic to introducing what's now known as street art to New York galleries. Freddy ran with Jean-Michel Basquiat, but – haranguing gallery owners – he championed Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Rammellzee among others. FFF personally had already consummated that marriage when he tagged the whole side of a subway with graffiti-rendered Andy Warhol soup cans.
Meeting Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie, he suggested she write a song about him. "Rapture" was the first single with rap in it to top the charts and be featured on MTV. Grandmaster Flash would sample it for "Adventures on the Wheels of Steel," the 12-inch single on Sugarhill Records. That would be trumped when FFF released "Change the Beat," his own chart-topping rap single, in 1982. During a break on the flip side featuring a French version by female rapper Beside, Freddy says, "Ahhhhh, this stuff is really fresh," among the most sampled and scratched lines in rap.
Freddy and I met as extras on the set of Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate. Dressed in tuxes, we descended an escalator and crossed an enormous ballroom; by the fifth take we were tight. The scene ended up on the cutting room floor, though it can be seen as a DVD extra. Meeting him was to be one of six blind men encountering an elephant. Each part of his story is so extraordinary it is hard to imagine that it is only a single jigsaw piece of a much larger picture. A Brooklyn kid from Bed-Stuy, as we rode the escalator down and then walked across the floor, I was the one remembering Harlem.
When I was 12, living in the New Jersey suburbs, I began working Saturdays at my uncle's drugstore around Lenox and 135th Street. The first time he dropped me off, he barely mumbled an intro to the druggist before leaving. Seeming ancient but probably not yet 40, much of his time was spent filling "prescriptions" regularly brought in by his girlfriend from the neighborhood several times throughout the day.
Immediately, my main job was making deliveries. I was usually the only white face for blocks, and despite some empty lots and burned out buildings, it was never threatening. My mother's family had long established businesses in the area including the drugstore founded by a grandfather I never met. When I was delivering prescriptions, older women would walk up to me on the street saying, "We know you and your family."
Every Saturday throughout Harlem, stoops and stairways were packed by late afternoon, the whole community visiting. Women with rollers in their hair, men conking theirs, all getting ready for the night. Everyone played the numbers, where you bet some small amounts on three numbers, the winning combination derived in different ways at different times (U.S. Financial reports, race track results, etc.). My uncles would point out the numbers runners, usually a number of them working the streets. There were also always men in richly colored pastel suits hanging about as well, but no one ever mentioned their profession.
In my first encounter with small presses, every retail establishment sold dream books, cheaply locally printed paper pamphlets that translated your dreams into the numbers you should play. A cat would mean one thing, a black cat another, a black cat on a roof another – real street poetry.
One Saturday my uncle showed up while I was out making a delivery, which ended that aspect of my job.
Now it seems an organic whole, but rapping, mixing, graffiti, Double Dutch, and breakdancing each emerged separate unto themselves out of the harsh NYC ghetto streets. FFF teamed with Charlie Ahearn to try to capture and define what was going on. Wild Style was not just a pioneering effort but a crafting together of what they decided to call "hip-hop," a whole that consciously exceeded the sum of its parts. An architect of the European New York City Rap tour, after Ahearn and Freddy couldn't find money at home, the film's initial funding came from German and English TV. This impressed the legendary Irwin Young, head of the DuArt processing labs, enough to extend them credit.
Wild Style brought it all together but it was FFF, as the first video hip-hop VJ of Yo! MTV Raps, who brought it home, introducing rap to the greater American TV audience and on MTV channels around the world, as he had introduced the graffiti artists and galleries, punks and rappers.
In a way that seems so obvious now, Freddy, driven by aesthetics and ideology, deliberately midwifed a genuine street movement, the evidence of which doesn't just decorate the walls of the world's cities but provides much of its soundtrack. This was art out of the streets, created by the hungry, driven by the disenfranchised, designed by the rebellious.
We ate and talked, walked, sat, sailed, and talked. It took some time but finally I realized the question I really wanted to ask was how did he feel about so much of the world's graffiti being so ugly. Freddy laughed, gently ignoring the question, he began noting all the exciting work being done – still mostly by street kids, cultural renegades – by artists like Os Gemeos, Brazilian brothers Otavio and Gustavo Gandolfo.
I realize that at best I barely notice what is right in front of me while FFF has never just appreciated the plainly obvious, but also has always savored its greater resonance. Where many only see ugly, others hear just noise and most go by missing most everything entirely, FFF has long deeply breathed in the rich world-changing and ever-evolving yearnings of street kids toward the sun. Their talent matched to such a driving need to create they don't just transform the tools at hand but use them to achieve transcendence – wires run from public street light poles, lacking instruments vinyl records played to create new music, dances done on cardboard, gray and dirty subway cars as canvasses and jumpers impossibly dancing through two rapidly moving ropes. All to FFF are shared triumphant acts of aesthetic defiance by which an absolute but improbable people's art achieves a lasting grace.