Anyone who was into hip-hop during the 1980s and early 1990s has surely heard the name Fab Five Freddy. As a pioneer of the genre, he would go on to be one of its most popular figures — yet, he never released a hit single. Even so, he became so prominent that he was even featured in a hit song in 1981 and has been awarded many accolades throughout the years.
In this bio, we discuss the life and career of one of hip-hop’s most influential artists, detailing the steps he took to become the visionary he is today.
The Beginning of Fab Five Freddy
Born on August 31, 1959, as Fred Brathwaite, he was first introduced to jazz music by his parents. The family lived in the Bed Stuy section of Brooklyn, NY, where he would go on to study painting during his college years. According to Fred himself, his interest in art started in his early years — he recalls cutting school to explore museums around Manhattan.
He remembers that the Met was his favorite due to its lenient entry policies, where he would simply toss a nickel into the admission box and then proceed to spend the whole day there. He used to call it his “fantasy land,” where he would travel from the sections of English armor to pop art, Renaissance paintings, and expressionism exhibitions. As he got older, he only became more and more interested in art and became determined to build a career as an artist.
In the late 70s, he emerged in the downtown underground creative scene around New York for his work as a graffiti artist and has since been considered an architect of the street art movement. He became the bridge between the No Wave art scene downtown and the rising rap scene uptown. This is where he was first exposed to hip-hop culture and was, in turn, credited for introducing Afrika Bambaataa to the world of hip-hop.
Emerging as a Visual Artist
By the late 70s, Fred was trying to make it in the Big Apple as an artist and had joined The Fabulous 5, a Brooklyn-based graffiti crew, along with Lee Quinones. The duo became known for their work — painting entire areas of subway cars around New York City. Under Fred’s direction, the duo began their shift from creating graffiti on the street to creating art for the world to see.
Fellow artists Al Diaz and Jean-Michel Basquiat had joined a rival crew called SAMO. All four artists became addicted to tagging the streets of Manhattan. They were driven to elevate their current art forms into something that could be labeled as “fine art.” While Basquiat is known as one of America’s most influential figures in art history, it was Fred who actually bridged the gap successfully between fine art and street art.
As such, he had a big hand in changing the course of art history. Along with Quinones, The Fabulous 5 graffiti crew started their first art exhibit in 1979 inside the prestigious Galleria LaMedusa in Rome, Italy. This bold step allowed them to create the genesis for taking hip-hop into the world of fine art internationally.
At the same time, both Al Diaz and Basquiat were garnering attention for the expressive tags they left throughout the Lower East Side. Renowned photographer Henry Flynt was able to capture and exhibit various images of the pair’s art, furthering their reputation as artists. After getting inspired by other rising artists, Basquiat started branching out on his own and also connected with other emerging talents, such as Keith Haring.
In an excerpt from Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (1991) by John Gruen, Haring confirmed that since 1979, he had been a fan of Basquiat:
“From the moment I saw Jean-Michel’s drawings and the things he did in the streets, I knew he was a great artist. His early drawings are really simple, yet aggressive and intense. A lot of them had this scrawling language at the bottom, and there was something hauntingly real about them. The messier Jean-Michel’s things were, the better they looked.”
Career and “Rapture”
When the 1980s arrived, Fred started by painting a subway train using cartoon-style depictions after Andy Warhol of giant Campbell’s Soup cans. He then became a regular guest on TV Party, a public access cable show hosted by Glenn O’Brien.
By the late 1980s, both Fred and Quinones were cast by O’Brien in the movie “New York Beat,” which was later released as Downtown 81. The film also showcased other artists such as Basquiat who was filmed within his turf in Lower Manhattan along with the culture that came with it. Lead singer for Blondie, Debbie Harry, also made an appearance in the movie, and in 1981, Fred returned the favor by appearing in a cameo in the music video for “Rapture.”
In the video, Fred was immortalized after the legendary singer rapped the line, “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly.” Fred was both mentioned in the lyrics and shown in the music video, where you’ll see him painting on a wall in the background. Harry is shown to be walking down a New York City street covered in graffiti and is supposedly located somewhere in the East Village.
She then walks past street artists including Fab 5 Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Lee Quinones. The video had a significant impact on viewers since hip-hop was still quite unknown. During these days, graffiti wasn’t a legitimate art form, while rapping was still a fairly new concept to mainstream consumers, but soon enough this all changed.
In a TV documentary called The Hip Hop Years, it was confirmed that Grandmaster Flash was supposed to make an appearance but failed to show up on the day of the shoot. As a result, Basquiat was called to take his place — the song would then go on to become the first rap video to be aired on MTV and the first #1 hip-hop hit on US music charts while gaining commercial success.
Soon after this appearance, Fred connected with Charlie Ahearn, New York’s leading underground filmmaker who he met earlier, and began the production of the film Wild Style. The movie showcased hip-hop culture and was the first to illustrate Fred’s idea of breaking the negative perceptions about New York’s urban youth. It was also the first movie to place rapping, dancing, DJing, and graffiti under one umbrella and branch of the same tree.
For this movie, Fred co-produced, created original music, and even starred in a leading role as Phade, a former graffiti artist and charismatic hip-hop club promoter from the Bronx. By 1981, Fred had co-curated Beyond Words, a graffiti-related art show along with Futura 2000 at the Mudd Club. It contained their original works along with those of fellow artists, including Basquiat, Keith Haring, Rammellzee, Kenny Scharf, and more.
This event marked the first time that various artists from the Bronx’s hip-hop scene made an appearance in New York City’s art world. In 1982, the A-side of “Change the Beat” featured Fred’s rapping in both the English and French versions, while the B-side had a shorter version, where Fred says “Ahhhhh, this stuff is really fresh.” This line would go on to become one of the most scratched samples in hip-hop music history and was used in more than 750 songs since then.
Change the Beat would also lead to four other songs, including one about a graffiti painting done by Futura 2000, where the song was performed by The Clash. The song was released in France and was followed by a hip-hop tour around Europe where it was called “New York City Rap.” The tour was headlined by various artists, including Fab 5 Freddy, Grand Mixer D.ST the Infinity rappers, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Futura 2000, The Rock Steady Crew, Dondi, Rammellzee, and Phase Two.
They made their way throughout 10 cities around France and also did two shows in London. During this time, no other American hip-hop acts were released in France and the now legendary tour paved the way for hip-hop culture in the country. Today, France is still the biggest hip-hop consumer in the market after the United States.
Shortly after, Fred was offered to host the phenomenal hip-hop music video show, YO! MTV Raps by MTV.
Thanks to his talent and charisma, the show immediately became the channel’s highest-rated show and helped to spread the popularity of hip-hop culture into millions of living rooms throughout the country. The show eventually introduced hip-hop culture to mainstream America as well as various countries and continents all over the world.
By 1991, Fred served as an associate producer for the 1991 movie New Jack City, where he also made a brief appearance. He also directed the music video for rapper Nas’ 1994 single, “One Love.” In 2007, he was featured in the episode titled “Flipped” of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, where he played Terrence ‘Fulla T’ Smith, a murdered rap artist.
This same year, he also made a short appearance in the movie American Gangster, which Ridley Scott directed. The next year, he appeared as a wedding guest in the movie Rachel Getting Married, where he was joined by other known musicians. Conceived by the producer, Jonathan Demme, the movie served to explore the varied lives of wedding members which contrasted with the norms of a traditional wedding.
After a hiatus from screens, Fred returned in 2016 to act in the CBS police procedural drama Blue Bloods, during the seventh season’s fourth episode “Mob Rules” as Atticus Howard. In August 2017, Fred appeared as an animation on Google Doodle, where he narrated during DJ Kool Herc’s 44th anniversary as one of hip-hop’s pioneers. In 2019, Fred served as the creative director for a full-size, hip-hop culture and photography exhibit called Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop.
The exhibit was based on a 2018 book of the same name by Vikki Tobak, and also coincided with the release of Fred’s Netflix film, Grass Is Greener. Contact High was hosted by The Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. In the months leading up to the exhibition, Fab 5 Freddy was present for many group discussions as well as lecture panels regarding his show.
After reaching success through his many solo exhibits and group shows during the late 80s, Freddy went on to reach a wider audience by making the movie Wild Style along with direct music videos. His first video would be made for the song “My Philosophy” by one of hip-hop’s legends, KRS-ONE. Freddy would then go on to create videos for artists like Snoop Dog, Queen Latifah, and Nas while creating commercials for brands like Pepsi.
After leaving MTV, Freddy pursued business ventures which included being the head of Pallas records, an independent label, for a short time. Here, he served as the executive producer and created the visuals after signing Crucial Conflict, a million-dollar rap group from Chicago. He then continued to chase after his creative passions through film, art, music, and TV projects and would eventually be known as a pioneer and architect behind hip-hop.
Freddy also lectured at universities and schools all over the world and published various articles for different publications such as The New York Times Magazine, XXL, and Vibe. He then wrote a book called “Fresh Fly Flavor, Words and Phrases of the Hip Hop Generation” which highlighted hip-hop slang. Finally, he was involved as an executive producer for the Hip Hop Honors TV specials on VH1.
These days, Freddy is focused on creating visual art and putting it in exhibitions. He was featured in the Los Angeles Museum Of Contemporary Art recently. Called “Art In The Streets,” the blockbuster exhibit highlighted a historical view of street art and graffiti, gathering crowds upon release. Through his numerous works, Fab 5 Freddy is recognized today as one of the most precious pioneers of hip-hop in more ways than one and is also a celebrated filmmaker and visual artist.