That hip hop is a key part of pop music and street art a major element of the art world both owe much to Fab 5 Freddy. Fab (real name Fred Brathwaite), was a Brooklyn-raised artist crucial in linking graffiti artists with New York’s downtown art world at the start of the ’80s, helping ignite a boom that planted the seed for today’s global street-mural scene. As host of YO! MTV Raps in the ’90s Braithwaite put hiphop – and artists like Tupac, Snoop and Dr. Dre – at the center of pop culture. The Miami Herald talked to Braithwaite, who speaks at the National YoungArt Foundation’s Salon Series on Wednesday.
So how did you come to bridge the graffiti and downtown art scenes?
Nothing in graffiti was considered art, and I wanted to show the creativity and what I felt was a real movement. I knew people in the new wave world were open-minded, I read about punk and I thought it was really radical and cool. I met [writer and TV host] Glenn [O’Brien], and Debbie [Harry] and Chris [Stein] of Blondie they saw these connections and began to help me bring it to the public. Glenn wrote this piece about me and Lee [Quiñones] and Jean-Michel [Basquiat] and that was how the fuse really got lit. Before that, it was just guys writing on walls trying to get notoriety. I’m the art nerd going, ‘Wait, we’re inspired by the same stuff as Lichtenstein and pop art in the sixties and popular culture.’ I was trying to be a painter like the painters who were my heroes and have an impact. When I met Jean-Michel, who was an art nerd like me, I was like, ‘Finally! Someone I can talk to about this who doesn’t think I’m crazy!’ When I became friends with Keith Haring he literally swept the floors at the Mudd Club.
What about hosting on MTV?
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[Late television executive] Peter Dougherty — we had friends in common — he saw what I was doing on the scene, and when MTV decided to let this show happen he said here’s the guy. Next thing I know the show has the highest ratings on the air. I didn’t want to be cooped up in a studio, I like to be on the street running around where the people are, so it was the first show they did that was a remote. I’d fly around the country and then the world, finding stuff in Compton, [California], Brazil and Japan.
How do you see all this looking back?
I remember going to a big event on Wall Street in the early ’80s they invited all these artists. I was still sneaking onto trains, and I went to the Bowery and got a $10 jacket. So this older gentleman comes up and asks, ‘What do you do?’ I look at his name tag and it’s David Rockefeller, and I was like, ‘This is surreal.’
Info: Fab 5 Freddy at the YoungArts salon at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; tickets $35 at youngarts.org/salonseries or 305-377-1140