Fab 5 Freddy on Mainstream Hip-Hop: "Largely Repetitive and Not That Challenging"

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The National YoungArts Foundation was founded in 1981 to identify emerging talent in artistic disciplines such as visual, literary, design, and performance. That same year, the herald of New Wave, Blondie, introduced the general public to a man who was working outside the commonly accepted boundaries of contemporary art: Fab 5 Freddy. Though he didn't actually rap on the track, the band's hit single "Rapture" did some name-dropping with the line "Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody's fly" and also featured the Brooklyn street artist in the song's music video.

It was an experience that only hinted at what life had in store for Fab 5 Freddy in the ensuing years. As a new venture known as MTV began to dominate popular culture, Fab 5 Freddy, born Fred Brathwaite, found himself at the forefront of the experiment throughout the '80s and '90s. Not only was he in front of the camera as the first host of Yo! MTV Raps, the prototype for the multitude of VJs on the horizon, but he also directed a number of music videos for rap giants on both coasts.

However, despite his fame for being one of the godfathers of rap and hip-hop, Brathwaite is and has always been an artist first and foremost. Though he recorded "Change the Beat," which, according to the BBC is the world's most sampled song, he was initially known as a pioneer in street art, namely graffiti, in and around New York City and the underground art scene. Today he continues to make art in various forms and will lend his voice to Miami's YoungArts Salon Series this Wednesday for a conversation and reading moderated by James Allister Sprang, an artist and former YoungArts prize winner.

New Times: What are your thoughts about the graffiti artwork in the Design District and Wynwood?
Fab 5 Freddy: I've been to and exhibited work at Art Basel several times and have seen the development of Wynwood and the Design District. The street art there is very impressive and always next-level, as the artists know it's one of the world's newest arts centers.

What do you, as the first host of Yo! MTV Raps, think about how new artists and music videos are introduced these days, specifically the way the medium has changed with the evolution of technology?
Back in 1994 while still hosting Yo! MTV Raps, I was also directing lots of music videos for artists who'd be featured on my show, like Snoop, Nas, Uncle Luke, Queen Latifah, and many others. I was also very curious about computers and the internet at that time and was the first person on MTV to put these ideas on the air. Now most music and music videos are listened to and viewed on computers today, as well as on the cell phones we all have. We are really living in the future, almost like The Jetsons, a favorite TV show from when I was a kid.

Is hip-hop in a healthy state these days? Is it better, worse, or just different from when it started?
Hip-hop culture and music is strong and still dominating youth culture worldwide. On mainstream radio in America, hip-hop music is largely repetitive and not that challenging, interesting, or dynamic. For the more interesting hip-hop music, you've got to search the web for the jewels these days.

How do you feel about street artists today, such as Banksy, C215, and Jaz?
When Jeffrey Deitch put the blockbuster museum show "Art in the Streets" together at Los Angeles' MOCA a few years ago, I was featured in that exhibit along with many of the world's leading street artists. It was cool to learn how they'd studied the playbook that artists like myself, Futura, Keith Haring, and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat laid down back in the '80s. And Banksy, a favorite of mine, let me know my film Wild Style is a favorite of his and inspired him to make art in the streets.

What advice do you have for street artists looking to make a name for themselves?
My advice is study art history. Know what Dada was about, futurism, constructivism, pop art, etc.

What are you working on?
Currently, I'm making wild and amazing new paintings at my Harlem studio. We have some film and TV projects in development, and I'm a creative consultant to the Africa Center in New York City — a new, 70,000-square-foot space on Fifth Avenue and 110th Street that will focus on the arts from Africa's 54 countries and the diaspora.

YoungArts Salon Series

With Fab 5 Freddy. 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 18, at Jewel Box on YoungArts Campus, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-377-1140; youngarts.org/salonseries. Tickets cost $20 to $55 via eventbrite.com.

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