Fab 5 Freddy made it fresh and fly
‘Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly,’ rhymed Debbie Harry in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, before namechecking Grandmaster Flash and François Kevorkian in the next line. Graffiti artist, film-maker, MC and TV presenter Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, was early hip hop’s most dedicated ambassador. As downtown Manhattan caught on to the exciting noises brewing in The Bronx, Freddy was the key connector zipping between scenes – bringing DJs downtown and introducing them to the no-wave clubs and galleries, and taking Lower Eastsiders uptown to meet the protagonists on home turf. While most commentators saw rap as a fad, Freddy was determined to gain it critical respect, specifically by unifying the somewhat separate street cultures of graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing, and by staging gallery shows that propelled graffiti into artworld magazines and auction houses. He made the classic movie Wildstyle with director Charlie Ahearn, a film that’s near as dammit a documentary of the early hip hop universe, and which makes up in authenticity and period detail what it lacks in Hollywood polish. In 1988 Fred cemented his role as hip hop’s most vocal champion when he presented the groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, the TV show that took hip hop into living rooms globally. This interview was for the first edition of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and as well as the roots and shoots of hip hop, Freddy was a fount of knowledge on the black mobile DJs who were the scene’s direct antecedents – entrepreneurs who used their sound systems to rock college beach parties and bourgie jams in Manhattan restaurants. He was also great on The Paradise Garage, a club very close to his heart, and on the inevitable connections between disco and hip hop. As he says here, despite the rappers eventually taking centre stage, for him it was always about the power of the DJ.
interviewed by Frank in Manhattan, 5.10.98
Frank Broughton: I guess the first question would be, when did you first hear what was going on in the Bronx?
Fab 5 Freddy: I grew up in Brooklyn, and before I knew about hip hop in the mid ’70s, I grew up with the beginning of DJing. There were people who inspired the guys in the Bronx, DJs who came from Brooklyn, possibly Manhattan. These are the guys who invented disco. Long before disco was borne into the public’s consciousness by way of Saturday Night Fever etc, it existed in black and gay clubs – I didn’t go to the gay clubs I went to the black and Latin clubs – where DJs became the icons of the street.
The DJs were people like the first Grandmaster, who was a guy named Grandmaster Flowers, who died about six or seven years ago, a guy by the name of Pete DJ Jones, a guy by the name of Plumber, guy named Maboya – and there were several other guys – who would give parties and they didn’t do any cutting or scratching, but what they did is mix. They had two turntables and a mixer, and the most incredible thing that they did was the music never stopped – ’cos that was the beginning of seeing that for the first time – and they played records that you didn’t hear on the radio. They played the extended versions of records like ‘Fly Robin Fly’ by Silver Convention, records like ‘Love is The Message’ by MFSB, records like ‘Rock The Boat’ by George McCrae.
And there was a radio DJ at the time in New York who was very influential in black music across the country, a guy by the name of Frankie Crocker, who programmed a station called WBLS. He innovated FM radio programming and sophisticated the presentation of black music on the dial. He was tuned into these DJs and he started to play these records before anybody, and he broke the whole mould of radio station DJs who just followed a playlist. Frankie Crocker broke these records nationally and it became this media thing known as disco.
Those DJs, I went to those parties, I was a young person dressing up trying to be older, going to the parties where these guys were god. What they were doing was incredible. You would ask: who’s DJing? who’s the DJ? That was what made the party hot, and if Flowers or Pete DJ Jones or one of these guys was on the flyer it was a must-go-to event.
They didn’t even play clubs. What you had were these independent party promoters, who would rent restaurants in Manhattan for the weekend, take the chairs out and put up a few lights and you would consider them discos. Coming from Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, a lot of people didn’t realise these places were average restaurants in the daytime, but the whole sense of coming into Manhattan, coming into these pseudo-posh joints gave you this whole air that you were doing something really special and added to the whole excitement of it.
WBLS would advertise these parties heavily on the weekends, so you would know the names of the different clubs. They were places like Nemo’s or Nell Gwynn’s. Sometimes they’d give these big holiday events at a hotel, there was one at the time which was infamous, the Hotel Diplomat, where they’d give these big extravaganzas. Or there was this place on 34th Street, I think it was called The Riverboat. With Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, Plumber, Maboya etc.
So that was the big attraction There were these promoters, you could tune into this radio station that was reflecting what you would get at these parties, this supercool radio DJ who would give credibility to the scene. I can’t describe what you could go to now and have that same feelings that you had as a kid going to one of these places. Like going to Carnegie Hall…
How old were you?
I was a teenager. These parties were promoted as college parties. I was high school age but I was playing like I was already at college. It was a fake bourgie scene as well, they would put on these flyers, ‘NO SNEAKERS’.
So after having my flirtation with that scene, I got this whole thing as the DJ as god, or the club as a shrine – I made all these analogies when I was a kid back then. Because these DJs became icons. Then there started being another kind of DJ. Everyone in the urban areas wanted to be a DJ. So you had guys going out, getting their speakers, getting their two turntables, any how, any way, wiring them up and trying to be DJs. Like these DJs that were gods.
That’s what Flash said: he was inspired by them.
He was completely inspired by them. The first wave of hip hop DJs were all inspired by those guys. That’s where Flash got the name ‘Grandmaster’ from, was from Grandmaster Flowers. He was the first Grandmaster. That’s really important.
I’m sure when you talk to Flash, or when you talk to some of these other guys, they can bring you some of that energy, like, ‘Yo money, this is the real story.’ This is where they got their inspiration. Very few people know about it.
So for me, a kid in Brooklyn, figuring it out, I didn’t have a clue about Flash or anyone at this time. But these local guys in the area started trying to be DJs on their own. Particularly a guy named Frankie D, and Master D, these were our local guys in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, who would play in the parks and the block parties. And they started doing something a little different to what Flowers and Plumber and Pete DJ Jones would do: they started manipulating the records a little bit. Nothing too phenomenal…
When did they start doing that?
I don’t have exact years, I would have to sit down and get with some other heads to really lock into years, but this is mid ’70s now, moving into late ’70s, let’s say from ’74 to ’78, as a rough span. Now these new guys are coming out into the streets and every other guy becomes a DJ. Now I started noticing them playing a different group of records, that you didn’t hear, even from the disco parties, a record that had another kind of a feel than a disco record.
More like funk?
They were basically breakbeats, is what I’m trying to say. You would hear things like ‘Apache’, and you’d be like, ‘what’s that?’, and it made you move a little differently. They had a very crude and early version of scratching: very, very minimally, but it sounded incredible. And they had MCs. Their MCs weren’t great lyricists, at the time it was more the call and response: ‘Wave your hands in the air,’ ‘Somebody say hooo,’ and they’d mostly talk about how dope their DJ was. Which was the emphasis to this whole era for me. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was because the DJ has always been the focus of this whole thing. When rap became rap, the focus moved and a lot of people forgot the DJ. But for me, and closest to my heart, even to this day, is the effect that the DJ had on me.
I was one of the kind of kids when you went to jams I’d have to stand in front. You had your gangster kids… everyone came for the music, but within the party there were different things going on. But at every party you had a group of people that stood at the rope, watching what the DJ did. Those were the guys that wanted to be DJs and MCs.
And you would stand there… watching. That was still the era of chilling at a party in a b-boy stance. You would stand a certain way, because that was about being cool, but it was also about ‘I’m not to be fucked with’, because you were always intimidated that there were some really dangerous guys at these parties. So you wanted to chill in the b-boy stance. [he adopts it: arms crossed tight, shoulders turned inwards]. I was joking with my man, reminiscing: ‘Remember when you used to go to a party and stand like that, with your feet in a certain way?’
This is all in Brooklyn?
For me, yeah. Grandmaster Flowers was also from Brooklyn, so Brooklyn was important in the scheme of things. And he also was a graffiti writer, which was highly influential on me, ’cos that was where I came into the scene, as a painter, a graffiti writer.
So how does it fit in with the scene in the Hevalo and the Bronx in general?
Im’a tell you. Here’s the thing about me. I was mad curious, always, so when I began to go to a lot of jams and began to figure out the science of it, and observe the DJs, the things you would talk about was how much amps he had: ‘Oh money, that muhfucker, he got five-hunnerd amps, he got 500 watts, son.’ ‘Really? Yo, my man got two thousand,’ ‘Worrrd?’ ‘Yo he got 18-inch woofers, he had the piezo tweeters.’ This was the conversation around the DJ and his set. One thing Brooklyn guys were known for was having really strong, clear-sounding sets. ’Cos later, when I began to venture uptown to parties, the guys were much more advanced in terms of turntablin’ and rap but the sets were horrible.
So as I began to go to more parties I asked ‘Yo money, where did this shit start? Like what do you call this?’ And guys would say, ‘Oh it’s the uptown sound,’ or, ‘It’s from uptown,’ and uptown used to be a combination that could either be Manhattan or The Bronx. And then you began to hear a very slight inkling about a guy named Flash. who was supposed to be the fastest DJ, ’cos speed became the thing.
So I asked questions, asked questions, couple of times I even ventured out on the train up to Harlem and just walked around. In Brooklyn in the summers you’d look for a jam. You’d roll up on some heads on the corner, ‘Yo money where they jammin’ at? Anybody jammin’? Just to be out, the energy, just the classic shit, tapped into the street pole [for electricity], 2 o’clock in the morning some hot hazy Saturday night, you’re just bored, literally on the verge of doing some ill shit. It definitely kept me from doing some crazy shit.
I heard there were these tapes you could buy, from these uptown guys. Through some graffiti connections, in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side, this is now about ’78, I met Lee Quinones. That’s when me and him were getting ready to do the whole Fab 5 thing, bringing graffiti out into the mainstream. So I got with this kid, and he had a Flash tape, and that’s how I heard my first Flash tape. I’ll never forget because it was still the Furious Four. It wasn’t even the five of them at the time.
He was tellin’ me that they sometimes play in the community centre in the projects on the Lower East Side. So this was where I saw Flash with the Furious Four, but they were introducing Raheim, as the fifth member. He had just joined the group. I could remember it as if it was yesterday.
An interesting ironic fact, I went up to Melle Mel in between the sets. I was like ‘Yo man, wassup. Are you aware of how big this is? You guys should make a record.’ I remember him going, ‘Yo, who would buy it?’ I said, ‘Well at least all the people comin’ to these parties.’ But it wasn’t about that. It was just about being somebody. I’ll never forget that. So I got to see Flash do his thing. It was amazing, it was state of the art.
This was on the Lower East Side?
Yeah, at the Smith projects. Community Center of the Smith projects.
Do you remember the date or the month?
It was probably September, November ’78. ’Cos it wasn’t freezing. But anyway, boom! And when you went to these parties, there would always be guys giving out flyers, which were a kind of connect the dots for other joints where I needed to go. I can remember all the imagery and shit. Began to get my hands on a few more Flash tapes. So I could hear the differences between what they did and what guys in Brooklyn did. Once I plugged into Flash I started getting a few flyers, I started seeing the other names.
And that was who?
Shit, money, it was Grand Wizard Theodore, and Fantastic Five MCs, it was Flash, it was Bambaataa, it was, ohmygod, other DJs? It was Charlie Chase from Cold Crush…
You haven’t mentioned Kool Herc.
No, I missed Kool Herc. When I asked people where they learnt from I began to hear ‘the legend of Kool Herc.’
Tell us about Wildstyle
Not long after that whole experience I got this idea that a movie should be made. I was serious about trying to be a painter, and I wanted graffiti to be seen as a serious movement like Futurism or Dada, or other great movements in painting. I didn’t want us, through racism and ignorance, to be looked on as folk artists. I was aware of Andy Warhol, who had become an icon for me, and I wanted to let people know that this was a complete culture, which I had read somewhere included dance, painting and music. So I wanted this film to demonstrate that this graffiti thing which was the focus, was a complete culture: that it was related to a form of music and related to a form of dance. Prior to that nobody had seen these things as being connected.
And that was the inspiration for making Wildstyle. I hooked up with Charlie Ahearn, we collaborated on making the film, I ended up starring in it, doing all the music, Charlie wrote and directed, and we basically produced it together. But in the pre-production and research process, I had to take Charlie up to the Bronx. We took a year going up to parties and researching, doing research on the whole hip hop scene.
And you made original music for it.
Well nobody was sampling yet at the time, and the rap records that were being made were just replaying the popular tunes, like what Sugar Hill and Enjoy was doing. But we wanted to capture the energy of these breakbeat records. We’re making this little independent film and Charlie was real scared about being sued. So I said I know what we’ll do. I’ll go into the studio and we’ll make our own breakbeat records. I went in with some musicians, created ten little one-minute pieces of music that would give the feel of different breakbeats, that the DJs would then take and then pick the beats they want, and then that would be our soundtrack.
I remember the day I took them up to the DJs so they could rehearse, they were saying, ‘This is incredible. You made records?’ I was like yeah, and y’all should be able to do this too. You guys are my heroes.’ But they weren’t thinking like that at the time.
Later, the best producers in hip hop were DJs, but this was before they could see the process of making records. Sampling wasn’t even a part of the game yet. That technology wasn’t there. But the ideas were there. Flash actually did it first, if you think about it. ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’ was the precursor to sampling. He just did what he would do at his show. And recorded it all.
The DJ was always the focus in the development of hip hop. His name went first. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, representative of their status. That the DJ used to own the set. And he was giving them a reason as a rapper to have a reason to rhyme.
Was there any Jamaican connection for you? Herc says he was directly inspired by the Jamaican parties of his youth. And you’re coming from Brooklyn where there’s a big Caribbean community.
No inkling. None whatsoever.
None at all?
No. What was dope about it, it was parallel. It was a parallel cultural development. Journalists have liked to imagine that everybody in Brooklyn or everyone in hip hop knew everything that was going on in Kingston, it was totally not the fact.
What’s incredible about Jamaica to me, where I’ve spent a lot of time, Jamaica to me is a combination of Africa and New York. In terms of the sensibilities. There’s this very African vibe, feeling, climate, aesthetic, mixed with this very modern thing.
Herc brought it to a point where he started to play these beats and talk over them in a way that inspired a lot of people. But I’m not sure that Herc predates Plumbers, Pete DJ Jones and Maboya. But Herc was a perfect link, in terms of what he brought to the picture. If he did experience Jamaican dub in its early form: a guy talking over the mic, use of the echo chamber. If he did hear that first it could very well be the case.
And later when Herc and them freaked it with the echo, there was a way they used to rock it: ‘And I’m going all the way-ay-ay-ay down to the last stop-stop-stop.’ That’s how Flash used to rock the echo. And DJ Breakout of the Funky Four. They were known for the echo. ‘And this is the sound-sound-sound, of the Funky Four-four-four. Plus one more-more-more, into the girls Shara-ra-ra.’ It used to be ‘Ohmygod, what are we hearing?’
It used to be so ill, the energy and the vibe. Motherfuckers used to smoke dust [angel dust, PCP] on the scene. Like back then in the hip hop scene it was very weird, it’d be really dark, the DJ would have a couple of light bulbs rigged up on a board. There might be one strobe light, and that was the lighting. And a lot of guys would sell angel dust. At least up in the Bronx, that was a popular drug at the time, and it makes a really fuckin’, sickly ill smell, when guys are smoking that, in a fuckin’ hot funky room. It used to be a really ill vibe. There used to be a lot of heavy dust-heads. That might have inspired a lot of the sound. I don’t know. I’m not saying any DJs were smoking that shit, but the scene was weird. It was cool though.
I just know, for me early on, I can remember looking at a big stack of speakers and going, ‘Money, this shit is like some kind of altar.’ ’Cos that used to be the big thing: How high a DJ could stack his shit up. How big his speakers went up. ‘Oh shit!’ Come to a party and be looking up.
And you heard some of the early MCs?
It’s really before rocking the mic was a big issue. It was just about these DJs, it was just about this energy. But they had heard Kool Herc at the Hevalo and seen his MCs Coke LaRock and Clark Kent rock the mic. They wasn’t rhyming about nothin’, they was just, ‘Yes, yes, y’all-y’all-y’all.’ That’s all they were saying, but it sounded like the coolest shit. And then later that summer everyone went out to try and do it. And the rest is history, man.
When did the battles start?
Battles seemed to start early on. I remember some ill sound system battles. I remember one back in the day in a big-ass armoury in Brooklyn. Four sounds in there. It was Frankie D, Master D, might have been Divine Sounds, and maybe the Disco Twins from Queens. Who actually I’m working with now.
The Disco Twins were real foundation DJs, as important as Frankie D and them. What was fly was they were identical twins with big Afros, They were the foundation of Queens, they’re from those projects called Queensbridge, which later gave birth to Marley Marl, the whole Juice Crew, and then Nas. Identical twins, and they would do this thing called going around the warpath, where they would move around this table cutting one after the other, and go bam, bam, bam, and then the other one would be bam, bam, bam, moving around the table, cutting up ‘Apache’ or ‘Good Times’: good time, good time. good time. good time. Oh shit!
That final scene in Wildstyle, that energy we captured, where D.ST’s cutting ‘Good Times’: good, ga, ga ga-good, ga-good, g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g ga ga good g-g-g-g-g-g-g GOOD TIMES!!! That’s how DJs played back then, they used to build you up, ’cos they knew, that was your favourite part of the record.
It’s a tease.
Pure tease, money. Just tease. That’s the skill of it. It’s the right time of night, and when you let that shit go, it‘s like aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. You so happy. It’s a science. A lot of motherfuckers don’t know how to do that no more.
Could you hook us up with any of these Brooklyn guys?
Let me tell you a tragic story. It’s about six years ago. I’m in the middle of directing some video. We’re doing MTV, the whole shit, and I’m running around town in pre-production. So I have to run into Tower Records to buy something, on 4th and Broadway. I’m in a van with some people on my crew, a million things on my mind. And there’s a couple of guys panhandling, begging, outside Tower Records. Busy day, people walking up and down Broadway. I’m about to step into the door, and I glanced at this guy, disheveled, obviously he’s a crackhead or something. And for a second, I pause, looking at him. I’m literally in mid-step, and the guy makes eye contact and he goes, ‘You recognise me, you know who I am right?’ He’s with some other guy and he goes, ‘See, he knows me.’ And I don’t know where the fuck I know this guy from. I come back, I stop and I turn. I walk back to him and I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ And he goes, ‘You recognise me, you recognise me right. I’m Flowers.’
I felt, in a second, the whole shit just came out. I went in my pocket. I musta had about 25, whatever I had in my pocket I just took it out put it in his hand. I said, ‘Yo, you’re Flowers, you’re Grandmaster Flowers.’ I didn’t want to ask what happened. It was obvious. This was when crack still had a huge part of the community under grips. It was sad, money. Anyway, this brother I was vibing with, a year or two later, said, ‘Yeah, I seen him too, and I regret to tell you that he died. He passed on.’
That crack epidemic. If heads didn’t go to jail and get incredible, unrealistic amounts of jail time, then you know, they died. Just like Cowboy, Grandmaster Flash’s first MC. That’s another part of the whole story of rap.
Tell me about how you helped to bring hip hop downtown.
I brought it downtown in pursuit of my career as a painter. Started meeting people like Blondie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, John Lurie. I was in the midst of that whole new wave scene.
It was from graffiti becoming a part of the artworld?
Exactly. For me, people like Glenn O’Brien, the original editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, he was like a mentor to me. Chris Stein and Debbie from Blondie, they kind of were patrons to me. And I was allowed to flow on their scene. I was introduced to the Mudd Club, the whole downtown swirl, which was a very small scene at the time. People like Jean-Michel Basquiat were coming on the scene, trying to be a painter too. I was making my moves, I was meeting heads that were open to what I was talking about, what I was doing.
Which of the galleries was it?
The first gallery to really represent us effectively, was the Fun Gallery. Which was run by Patty Astor, who starred in Wildstyle as the reporter. She was a good friend of ours, an East Village icon. It was my idea that she become a gallery dealer. I said if SoHo had Mary Boone, who was a hot sexy brunette, East Village should have you as the bombshell blonde. She didn’t know too much about selling art, but she loved to give a party. The idea of the Fun Gallery was that the artist was supposed to change the name of the gallery every month. Kenny Scharf, he was on some fun-type shit, so when he had a show he called it Fun.
We were in preproduction on Wildstyle at the time and I said, ‘Well I’m gonna call it the Serious Gallery. I’m gonna flip my shit like serious.’ But Patty didn’t have any money to change the stationery that she had made for Kenny’s show, so she asked if we could still keep it Fun. It was the first gallery in the East Village; within two years there were 60. That’s how fast it happened.
I met Keith Haring who was also trying to become a painter. I also met Jean-Michel [Basquiat] around that same period. Art was the hot thing and we were this new crew trying to get a piece of it. Keith had put together this big show at Club 57 called the Invitational Black Light Art Show, where everybody had to make art that somehow or other glowed in the dark. And anybody who knew me at that time, I would tell them what kind of music I was into, which was rap. And Keith was like wow, I’ve heard some of those rap records. So I told him, look, I know the real guys. And I had Afrika Bambaataa come down and play at Club 57. And everybody was like, ‘Wow, who’s this DJ playing this new music?’
Where was Club 57?
57 St Marks Place. It was the answer to the Mudd Club, for that whole little scene. John Sex, Keith Haring, Anne Magnusson, that was their own hip little nightclub they invented for themselves, ’cos a lot of them weren’t cool enough to get into the Mudd Club.
Was that the first time a DJ came downtown from uptown?
Yeah. Effectively and officially, but it didn’t really become official official until I was asked to curate an art show at the Mudd Club, and I called it Beyond Words: graffiti based, rooted and inspired work. In which I included a lot of graffiti artists but also a lot of downtown punk rock type artists, whose work I thought had a graffiti thing, like Alan Vega from Suicide.
1980. There was a big art frenzy going on because the Times Square Show had just happened, which was in June 1980, so it was later that same year. Even before that, I performed at the Mudd Club. Steve Maas, who owned the club was like, ‘Why don’t you bring in some more of this rap stuff? I was never trying to be a rapper. I just did it ’cos it was a great way to earn some rent money. I never tried to present myself as a rapper. I was experimenting with different shit, like two DJs cutting in and out of each other. It was kind of crazy, but it looked cool, because I knew nobody downtown had seen that.
Who were the DJs?
It was a kid from my block named DJ Spy and this white kid that used to DJ for me named DJ Nick the High Priest. He was cool, he used to DJ for Jean-Michel. He was a good friend of Jean-Michel. So when I curated a show, Steve Maas was like, ‘Let’s do some rap,’ and I was like, ‘OK, but I’ma set this shit off right.’ By this time we’re in pre-production on Wildstyle, so I’m well-connected with all the big uptown DJs. So I was able to get Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic, I had Bambaataa come down, I had Cold Crush. It was like a rap review. Three or four groups came, Bambaataa DJed all night.
Bambaataa’s title was Master of Records. He would always play some crazy records in the midst of this whole b-boy frenzy. He would put on a Monkees record and people would be like ‘What the fuck?’ but the uptown crowd would love ’em. People would invent dances, like there was this dance called the Patti Duke, that was inspired by some of these sounds. Bam always wanted to play for a white crowd like this, ’cos he’s got these kind of records in his collection. And that inspired him to go and make ‘Planet Rock’. Because now he had played for this audience, he had a feel for what they would like.
He hooked up with Arthur Baker at these downtown parties?
More or less. I forget how exactly that happened. That was a Monica Lynch, Tommy Boy thing. Somehow that was her idea to make that record.
It inspired so much.
Unbelieveable, the way that record just opened up a whole thing.
Taking that Kraftwerk sound…
Six months ago, Kraftwerk played in New York for the first time in about 15 years. I went to see them and it was so incredible, because they were such a big influence on me, when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Discovering that record, and buying that album. And just being into that whole attitude. And now 20 years later, with everything from websites to samplers, to the fucking Powerbook, all this shit connects to Kraftwerk. While they were playing I was thinking of everything you can connect back to them, that’s cool now, that they did first. Those sounds, they were so new to hear.
How did people react uptown to those kind of records?
They loved those kind of records.
They didn’t care where they came from?
Oh, nobody knew where they came from. They just sounded… The whole major thing about all of these records that were played: None of them, NONE of them, with the exception of maybe one or two, were heard on the radio. The records that were the foundation of hip hop, it wasn’t about the hot record of the moment. Maybe one or two would be played – like Parliament Funkadelic hits or some hot Michael Jackson record like Off The Wall. But what made hip hop parties were these records you didn’t hear anywhere else. It was ‘Apache’, ‘Dance to the Drummers Beat’. You went to the parties to hear these kind of records. Like ‘Welcome aboard disco airline flight 78, dum-dum dah d-dah [Eastside Connection’s ‘Frisco Disco’]. Records that made breakdancers want to breakdance. Or Chic’s ‘Good Times’, that became an anthem way after the record was a hit. ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate’ [by Vaughan Mason]. All those records you can buy now on series upon series of breakbeat compilations. Those were records that these particular DJs made their careers on.
Tracking them down.
Yeah, they and only they had those records. They would soak the labels off, so you would never know what the fuck is that record? Records like ‘Super Sperm’ [by Captain Sky], that you never heard on the radio. Records that’d just make you go crazy. That’s what made it so cool, even as a kid, you knew you were gonna hear something you couldn’t hear anywhere else. That’s why you wanted to go, you wanted to be a part of that world, hear that sound, just be in a cloud of angel dust smoke, all that energy, just funky perspiration odour. All that shit was a part of the party. Some stick up kids that could rob you. It was a whole world. that’s what hip hop was at the time.
And the DJ for me was literally god. In the ghetto. To be coming of age in a time when that person was the star that I looked up to was just incredible for me. It’s affected my whole life.
But it took so long for people to catch on that this was happening.
Well that’s why films had to be made, and stories had to be told. Our reasons for making Wildstyle were not for me to be sitting here being interviewed by you, it was just to make a film that the true hardcore members of the culture would go and see. Our dream was to have a movie that would play on 42nd Street in Times Square for like a year.
And they’d see themselves.
Exactly, that was our key thing. We wanted to make something that was real, to the real heads of the game. And we were happy as all hell that we did that. Now it’s revived, I know they just re-released it in London. It’s where this culture starts, as far as doing your research, as far as rap, it starts with Wildstyle, there’s no earlier record of this stuff on film. And there’s no truer record, which is why other Hollywood films, which were done for a lot more money, are glanced over. ’Cos you look at Wildstyle, you’re seeing Crazy Legs, you’re seeing Flash, you’re seeing Cold Crush, you’re seeing Fantastic. These were the stars of the streets at the time. It really does capture what those parties were like then. When I look at the movie it feels really old, even though it was late ’70s, early ’80s, but kids were still rocking Afros and shit… and tight jeans!
I used to be so embarrassed about the movie, technically. ’Cos we didn’t know a thing about all that real technical shit. And I used to watch the movie thinking about why this scene ended up like this, or that one like… Now I just laugh the whole way through. I’ve forgotten all the nightmare stories behind making it.
Can you date when people started using the term hip hop?
Technically it didn’t become known as hip hop until the early ’80s, but I knew early on that that was the one unifying term. And the reason that became the name of the culture was because that was the one thing that almost everybody said at a party: ‘To the hip, the hop, the hibby-hibby-dibby-dibby, hip-hip hop, and you don’t stop.’
It was coined by Lovebug Starski wasn’t it?
Either Lovebug Starski started saying that, or DJ Hollywood. Between the two of them. When you would be describing to somebody what kid of party you were at you would say, ‘Yo it was one of them hibbedy-hop things, you know, that hibbedy-hop shit.’
But it wasn’t seen as a culture. When I came up with that idea to show all these things in a movie, it wasn’t like every other breakdancer, or every other graffiti artist, was thinking about these other two forms as a part of their world.
Breakdancing and graffiti came long before the music.
They were self-sufficient cultures that kind of got roped in?
Totally. It was all roped in by Wildstyle. The perception that these things were one world. Nothing had put it all together like that, until Wildstyle. Prior to that graffiti was the scourge of the city. It was looked at by the administration like dogshit on the street. And although a lot of it was very aggressive and angry, within that anger and aggression there was great art. It challenged a lot of shit. It still does. ‘I’m gonna spray paint on your fuckin house!’ That’s really what it’s saying, ‘…and you can’t catch me!’
Then it was about communicating to other heads like you. Sayin’, ‘Oh, that muthafucka got more heart than the next nigga, ’cos look how many times his name is up.’ Muthafuckas was loving the idea of fuckin up the system. I didn’t want people to be dwelling on that. I wanted to play off the whole aesthetic attitude: ‘I’m an artist.’ It was insane, money. You’re running around spray painting, stealing paint, every chance you get, your whole life is consumed with acquiring paint, and painting. I still get an ill fucking chill when I think about painting. Or when I’m around graffiti. If I even smell spray paint I still get like – ‘Oh shit.’ That shit drove me, money, and I tried to translate that energy into everything else I did. Try to project my shit to the top.
Tell me about the Roxy parties. Were you involved with Kool Lady Blue right from the beginning?
Uh-huh. She was a really great girl. She come offa that Blitzkrieg scene or whatever [he means the Blitz club], – I’m sure she told you – Boy George and them, New Romantics. She didn’t have a clue. But she was a great girl, she had great energy, and she knew all the cool English heads on the scene at the time. Hooked up with a guy named Michael Holman who I knew, who went on to manage the rival breakdancing crew to the Rocksteady Crew [New York City Breakers]. They decided they would give a party, a la the parties that used to happen uptown, at a joint downtown, called Negril.
They had put my name on the flyer without contacting me, so I saw my name on this flyer, I’m like, ‘Who’s this Lady Blue?’ So I stepped to her, and she quickly smoothed me out, I see she’s connected with the Rocksteady, which was already my peoples. So she gave a couple of parties at Negril. I was on the mic, as the house MC. Then she came to me said, ‘Listen, I met these guys that have this rollerskating rink,’ which was the Roxy. I said, ‘Damn that place is so big. How you gonna fill it?’
What I was instrumental in doing for her was I would give her advice on people to book, because we had did the movie, so I knew who was who, uptown. She’d heard about Grand Wizard Theodore, who she put down as one of the first DJs. But the first night, Theodore didn’t show up, and the Roxy’s house DJ was playing. But this kid named D.ST was around for some reason, ’cos I think he used to be a breakdancer too, and he had a crate of records. Nobody knew him, he wasn’t a name uptown. But I knew him because we had used him for Wildstyle. He cut the final scene. Blue was standing there waiting for Grand Wizard Theodore to come, and I said listen, this shit is not happening, honey. And she’s like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ And I said ‘This kid right here. Grand Mixer D.ST, he’s incredible.’ He got on. The rest was history.
What was the greatest Roxy party for you?
The pivotal party was the night when Blue got Malcolm McLaren to let her show a copy of The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle. It was hot, because everybody was still conscious of that whole punk rock thing, but nobody had saw the film, because it was never released. So she arranged a screening, and right after was around the time when the uptown heads from the Bronx, the hip hoppers, would start coming in. These two scenes had never been mixed on this level. I had did it somewhat at the Mudd Club, but the downtown scene was pretty much predominantly white, and the uptown scene was black and Hispanic. And I couldn’t imagine it was gonna work. I just anticipated kids from the Bronx beating the shit out of weird looking punk rockers.
And true to form, she had all the fashionable on-the-edge punk rock people, the new wave people, the English glitterati, in the Roxy for the movie. And when it ended, I expected all these heads would leave. But a lot lurked around, kinda curious. And sure enough, here come all the little b-boys and b-girls, the fly guys and fly girls coming in. I was waiting for some shit to jump off. But kids was coming in, just dancing, energy was right. And it seemed to me, from that point on, you had this great mix.
From that moment on that became what the Roxy was. You had a big forum now, where uptown can meet downtown, and everybody mix, and got to hear and see what each other were into. You had punk rock kids with mohawks, standing next to b-boys [does the b-boy stance] It was the first time each other was seeing each other.
Was there much mingling, did people make friends or were they just checking each other out?
A lot of fucking going on. In short. Lot of fucking going on, because the hot dance at the time, this is when Madonna’s ‘Everybody’ is a new record. We were all moving in that same crew. ‘White Lines’ is coming out. The hot dance at the time was the Webo. It was this dance that came out of the Latin scene, where you would get all up on a girl and really rub your two pelvic areas together, furiously. Like really wind and grind on each other. If you were cool with the girl or if the girl was really wild, she would let more than one guy hop on. So you would sometimes have a guy on the front and a guy at the back. It was called the Webo, or the Freak, doing the freak.
The black and Latin girls wouldn’t want to let just any guy jump on them. But a lot of the white chicks, at the Roxy, they didn’t know that it’s cool to do this, but not like all the time, and don’t let guys get too carried away with it. So, you would see three or four Puerto Rican dudes all around one girl, and she would be like [dizzy abandon] ‘Aaah, this is greeat!,’ and them guys would be like, ‘Yeeeahhhh!’ There’d be a lot of energy like that. Just people rubbin’ on each other. Kids would be hookin’ up, you know.
So that was what brought the two scenes together.
You know… It helped! It was a really really good era. You’d see people checking out what each other’s doing. You got Madonna, a good example of that whole cross-pollenisation, cos she made her initial style what hip Puerto Rican chicks were wearing, mixed with some b-boy shit. Like, c’mon, that whole nameplate belt-buckle, that was a b-boy fuckin’ staple. That was official shit. So she incorporated that with the whole Puerto Rican disco club girl look. Took it to the world, money!
It’s quite a trip that the club was run by an Englishwoman.
There was also a kid named Jon Baker, that runs Gee Street records. He used to be the doorman at the Roxy. We used to call him Mole. He was part of that whole English crew that was running behind the Roxy. I guess through Blue, the English contribution was really important. Also for us, as far as Wildstyle, some of the first money we got was from the fourth channel [Channel 4]. So I’ve always felt a kinship there. The England scene, they gave us some money, ’cos nobody was trying to hear us over here.
What about McLaren, was he just poaching?
I had met Malcolm back then. When he first came to New York, Blue was the one taking him around. Pointing him in the direction, because he wanted to do something. But I had been connected with the punk rock scene really well. I was tight with The Clash, so I knew how people felt about him. Blue brought him to a gig I was havin’, with the Rocksteady, when he first came to town. ‘Oh, he wants to make a record!’ But I didn’t warm up to him. I was like, ‘He ripped off fuckin’ punk rock.’ So she took him over to the Supreme Team – they had one of the first hip hop radio shows – and the rest was history. Malcolm made good records. I had a lot of respect for him, I just couldn’t get down with him.
The DJ was overshadowed very quickly. Why was that?
Because of the prominence of the rapper. I just think culturally that’s how it was supposed to go. But I think the DJ’s influence is still there, just is for obvious reasons, the rapper coming out front, the DJ has a somewhat diminished role.
In any form of music, there’s not that many innovators, a handful that defined the culture. And from that handful you can make lines, drawing out, spanning out to everybody else. So as long as you understand who those key originators and innovators were, just make sure that we acknowledge who they are.
It’s not who made the most money or who sold the most records, but who made the most impact. Let’s balance who sold 50 million records with who was the first to do this. Who really invented this type of flow. This is what the real heads are conscious of. And that’s what keeps this culture so vital today. You have so many of the practitioners there still spitting game and stating facts.
You also went to the Paradise Garage
It was through my friendship with Keith Haring, I went to the Garage. That redefined his life, Keith became a part of that whole scene, he became friends with Larry, and in terms of club music, he was god. I would be able to go up into the booth. And it was indescribable, the energy in there. It was fucking incredible, you understand, it was incredible to be in that room.
The other day, I was in my car and I made a turn, and I saw King Street, I looked in my rear-view mirror, and I was like, ‘That’s where it was!’ THE ENERGY. ’Cos to be up in there was just another world. It was the only place I ever saw, where in between a DJ playing a 20, 30-minute sequence of records. When he would come out of it, people would just clap, on the dancefloor, spontaneously.
And he would play records so far before you would ever hear them anywhere else. I can remember ‘Din Daa Daa’, I remember Imagination. [Sings] It’s just an illusion. You’d hear that record six months at the Garage. Grace Jones, every time she would come out with something new. Hear that at the garage for six months. Peech Boys, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. Being at the Garage for that first night. The excitement. I can’t believe it, it was just fabulous.
Even after seeing how people talked about Flash, there was never a DJ I ever encountered, who people spoke about like Larry Levan. ‘Oh Larry, was OK, he wasn’t playing great.’ Or if Larry was angry, people would be like, ‘Oh shit, Larry’s not happy tonight. Something ain’t right.’ But if you were there on a great night, it’d just be ‘Oh my god.’ It was really that incredible. The way the lights would be working, it’d be phenomenal, money, the effect that shit had on the senses. I cannot describe it, man.
Nothing makes you feel like that no more, There’s nothing that’s going on with that kind of excitement. Just being in the room, waiting.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton