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Interview for Urbananoto
Who he is:
Since gaining mainstream exposure in 1988 as the founding host of Yo! MTV Raps, he’s since become hip-hop’s high priest, holy ghost and sacred cow.
What he does:
Evangelizes, proselytizes and merchandises hip-hop. He’s even got his own hip-hop fashion label, MONUMENTAL (go on, ask him about it).
Where he lives:
New York City
Fab 5 Freddy, what’s your biggest secret?
My biggest secret is that although most see me as VERY COOL and hip, which I am, I’m also a nerd very into new technology and gadgets. I’m a hip nerd!
Speaking of secrets, what does the Factory in Shanghai have planned for your residency? What are you going to be doing here?
Well, can you keep a secret? I’m gonna be showing several important hip-hop films and documentaries, talking to people here and answering questions about what true hip-hop street culture is really all about. I’m also going to show Wild Style, a film I produced, starred in and did all the original music for. It’s considered a classic and the first film on hip-hop culture – often referred to as the blueprint. Lately in America most rap music has gotten very bad and boring and many people are forgetting the real meaning of hip-hop music and culture. Since I helped to develop this culture called hip-hop, I want to show the Chinese people, the biggest possible audience for this exciting culture, the real deal.
I’m also gonna launch my new street wear line while there called MONUMENTAL. We will be selling some t-shirts and I will be signing them. Also I’m gonna meet with potential sponsors for a big roots of hip-hop festival featuring American and Chinese, rappers, break dancers, DJ’s and graffiti artist that we plan to bring to China in the fall of 2009 to show the people where the culture comes from and what it’s really all about – [there will also be] a documentary film covering every aspect of this event to show other Americans and people around that hip-hop is alive in China.
So other than this residency at this Warhol-inspired Factory, do you have any other connections to Warhol?
Andy Warhol was a friend and a big inspiration to me. I painted a whole New York City subway car in 1980 covered in Campbells soup cans in tribute to him. Later, we became friends and he was very into what was happening with hip-hop culture back then. He also loved my movie Wild Style and used to tell me he wished he was in it, which always made me laugh! He used to give me and my friend Jean-Michel Basquiat advice back then on pop culture and the art world which was very, very helpful to me.
You’ve been part of a few other art circles – who have been some of the most impressive artists you’ve encountered?
I’ve been close to the arts almost all my life. My godfather was bee-bop jazz drumming legend Max Roach who played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis among many others and was a huge influence on me. In the visual arts, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were friends and amazing artists. Futura 2000 is a close friend and an amazing artist. As for old-school visual artists, there are many I love including Antonio Gaudi, Picasso, Caravagio, William De Kooning and Jack Smith. In rap music, Rakim, Public Enemy, Dre Dre, P.Diddy, Tribe Called Quest, Capone & Noriaga, Wu-Tang Clan and Jay-Z are among the MANY people in rap music I like. There are dozens more people in various other forms of art including architects and filmmakers that I love – I even think some video games and the amazing creative teams involved are making great art.
What was Basquiat like and how did you meet him?
I met Jean-Michel Basquiat at a party in SoHo in 1979. Neither one of us were well known at the time, but we knew about each other from the streets and the graffiti world and we were both fans of each others work, so we became best friends fast. Jean was a very smart, fun, cool guy and very focused on making a big impact on culture with his work. I was trying to do the same thing and that’s what our friendship was based on. Back then we hung out and danced at lots of fun clubs in downtown Manhattan and we chased girls!
Did you guys do anything crazy together?
Crazy? Let me see. One time in the early 80s when we were beginning to become well-known we went to a big 4th of July party at a popular night-club called AREA. Jean had a bunch of firecrackers in his pocket that I’m sure were made here in China. When we walked into the club we lit two packs and through them on the floor and people got very scared because they thought it was gunfire. The owners of the club were very mad and they had the bouncers escort us out of the club! Madonna, who we went to the club to hang out with, heard what happened and came outside with us and told the club owner she would never come back if they didn’t let us both back in. They did!
What’s the story about how you and Basquiat both showed up in Blondie’s Rapture video?
I had met Chris Stein and Debbie Harry from Blondie and they really liked graffiti art and my paintings. They started to buy art from me and Jean-Michel, who had met them as well. We all became good friends. When they decided to do the video for Rapture, they wanted to use Grand Master Flash as a DJ standing by the turntables as she says in the song, “Flash is fast.” I called Flash and told him to come to the shoot but music videos were very new at that time and MTV had not yet started. Later I found out he didn’t believe that I really knew Blondie, so he didn’t show up! When we were getting ready to shoot I suggested to Chris and Debbie that we use Jean-Michel to stand in for Flash and that’s Jean you see standing by the turntables when Debbie starts to rap and say the line, “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly…”
Did you really tell Debbie Harry that everybody’s fly?
Yes I certainly did. I used to explain hip-hop to Debbie and I told her Flash was the fastest DJ and different things like that. When she made the record, I realized she remembered everything I told her, but said it in the song in her own special way.
What were some of your favorite videos shown during your reign as Yo! MTV Raps host?
There are so many music videos I liked from that period. But I directed many videos myself and those are really my favorites. Some of the videos I directed that I love are, ‘My Philosophy’ for KRS One, ‘Ladies First’ for Queen Latifah, ‘One Love’ for Nas, ‘Just To Get A Rep’ for Gang Starr and ‘What’s My Name’ for Snoop Doggy Dog.
Any videos that you really wished you didn’t have to show?
No, not really because I took part in selecting the videos and I rarely played a video I didn’t love. That’s why Yo! was loved by so many people then and to this day – we kept it very real and didn’t play wack music.
What’s your opinion on how rap videos have evolved throughout the years?
During the time of Yo! MTV Raps was also a period where rap music videos were just starting to develop and record companies gave a lot of freedom to directors and would let you do many different creative things because it was all so new and [there were] not many rules. After a few years, the record labels tried to be more involved in the creative process and demand that certain things be done. That was okay if you knew how to fight for your creative vision. When Yo! ended in 1997, rap music videos were still very creative, but the budgets began to go up to $300,000, $500,000, $700,000 and a million dollars not long after. Puffy, Biggie and artists like Will Smith began to make million dollar videos. Then labels began to loose money and release a lot of bad music and the videos began to all look very similar – like one big party with the same type of girls and people drinking lots of liquor, showing off and imitating each other.
Was there anyone famous you were looking forward to meeting who turned out to be a complete idiot?
I honestly can’t think of someone I wanted to meet who was an idiot. But I have met MANY idiots! I’ve seen people under the influence act like fools, but when they recover, they were normal.
Have you ever had any major beef with anyone?
No beef with anyone famous you guys would know about. But on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn when I was growing up, I had a lot of beef. But I made beef stew and that was the end of that.
Back in the days of bombing the 5 train, what the most serious trouble you got yourself into?
Back in the graffiti days I never got caught, but I was chased a lot and I was smart and lucky. But when you did get caught, the judge would sentence you to a certain number of days cleaning graffiti in different subway stations! That was the worst because if someone you knew saw you cleaning, it was embarrassing.
Do you miss the days when NYC’s subways were graffiti-covered?
No, because things change and graffiti has spread around the world. It’s become an established way of making art and that is the most important thing. What happened then happened for a specific reason: Many poor frustrated kids in New York City had a need to be creative and we found a new way and a new technique. The fact that many people in many different countries around the world all express themselves with spray paint in a style started here in New York City makes it all worth while.
What’s the new wild style?
There is no new wild style – just the movie we made called Wild Style starring and produced by me and many other early hip-hop pioneers. Wild Style is one of the films I will show at the Factory when I’m there to show people how honest and pure hip-hop culture was in the beginning. Wild Style is the first film on hip-hop culture that stars many of the real pioneer legends playing themselves.
How important was that movie (to you personally, and also culturally)?
Well, personally it was a great triumph because Wild Style starts with an idea I had to show that all of the elements we now see as hip-hop culture were truly ONE. No one at the time anywhere or in the media before Wild Style was publicly going around saying these things were all one. [Director] Charlie Ahearn believed in my ideas that rap, graffiti, break dancing and DJing were all coming from the same place. Together, we made Wild Style and made those ideas a cultural fact that millions understand. That’s why I’m coming to the Factory in Shanghai, to show and help people understand what this culture called hip-hop is really all about.
Who are some of your favorite hip-hop artists of all time?
Some of my favorite hip-hop artists of all time are Grand Master Caz from the Cold Crush, Miles Davis, Rakim, Jimi Hendrix, Grand Puba, Prince, Nas, James Brown, Jay-Z, Max Roach, Big Pun, John Coltrane, Bob Marley and Biggie.
Are there any hip-hop artists today that you really admire?
Today I like The Cool Kidz, Kanye West, Jay Electronica, MIA, Eminem and Jadakis.
Do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I’m busy working on my street wear line MONUMENTAL which is very exciting and something I’ve wanted to do for a long while. I want this line to be international and I was waiting for the right time to launch – and that time is now, right here in China! China is a MONUMENTAL country with many MONUMENTAL cities and people. There are so many other street wear brands out there trying to be cool using ideas from the streets but they are not REAL and don’t truly understand how to do it right. First are a line of ten hot T’s based on my foundation and history. Following, I have many super hot fashion surprises to come.
I’m also an executive producer for the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors show. It’s a big TV award show spectacular that honors pioneers in hip-hop music and culture. We are putting this year’s show together now, which will honor Def Jam records for its 25th anniversary and for being the strongest brand in hip-hop music history. This will be our sixth year and our biggest show. We tape in September and it airs in early October.
What are the top five projects that you’ve worked on throughout your entire artistic and musical career?
1. Making the movie Wild Style.
2. Hosting Yo! MTV Raps.
3. My first art show in Rome, Italy.
4. Painting the Warhol tribute Soup Can Train.
5. Producing a documentary on Bob Marley directed by Jonathan Demme [coming out in 2010].
Speaking of Jonathan Demme, how did you get involved in his movie Rachel Getting Married?
One of the original producers of Yo! MTV Raps was Ted Demme, the nephew of the Academy-Award winning director Jonathan Demme. So I met Jonathan back in the early days of Yo! through Ted and he was BIG fan of the show and was loving many of the best rappers at that time like KRS One and Public Enemy. Ted left Yo! in the early mid-90s and became a successful Hollywood film director – but sadly, he died in 2002 of a heart attack [see www.yo.mtv.com for more]. In 2003, I was in Jamaica for Christmas vacation and Jonathan was there with his family and we reconnected. It was his first time in Jamaica and he was loving it – my first time going to Jamaica was actually with Ted for Yo! MTV Raps to shoot and interview different reggae artist like Ziggy Marley and Shabba Ranks. Ted told Jonathan about all the things we did and he wanted to go after seeing me in Jamaica on MTV. So Jonathan Demme and I became good friends and when you become a good friend of Jonathan’s he always puts his friends in his movies. So he asked me to be in Rachel Getting Married as a guest at the wedding. Most of the people in the wedding scenes are friends of Jonathan’s.
I also worked as a consultant to Ridley Scott and I have a small cameo scene in American Gangster. Denzel Washington has worked with Jonathan and was telling him he really liked working with me, so Jonathan gave me a big scene in Rachel Getting Married.
Would you want your wedding to be like Rachel’s?
No. I want a quiet wedding on a tropical Island paradise.