On a Sunday afternoon in June, inside a cavernous warehouse in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, the 40th anniversary of Wild Style, the 1983 film that did more than any other to frame, codify, and promote the culture now known as hip-hop, was celebrated as the climax of the weekend-long Five Points Festival. It felt as if an old-school Bronx block party had been transported to 21st-century Brooklyn. The guy manning the turntables? That would be Grand Wizzard Theodore, the DJ widely credited with inventing scratching, the revolutionary technique that defined early hip-hop; the PA was set to a decibel level somewhere between a jackhammer and a Boeing 787. The director of Wild Style, Charlie Ahearn, a wiry guy with white hair and a friendly pink face dressed head to toe in red, milled around, receiving hugs from an expansive retinue of early hip-hop heroes who had appeared in the movie. There was Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers; Crazy Legs from the Rock Steady Crew, one of the original B-boys; and MC Busy Bee Starski, the Chief Rocker himself, who still somehow looked like a teenager. Members of the Fantastic 5 hammed it up as a phalanx of iPhones flashed in their faces.
Soon enough, all of them were arrayed onstage, seated at a long table. It looked like a hip-hop Last Supper, but in actuality it was something more akin to a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame moment. You couldn’t help but think that here were the Little Richards and Chuck Berrys of rap. They were joined by Patti Astor, the art house Kim Novak of the early ’80s, who starred in Wild Style as a hip downtown reporter fascinated by graffiti, rap, and break dancing. That was the triumvirate of urban pursuits—then coming into their own as art forms—chronicled in Wild Style, a sui generis melding of scripted drama and vérité documentary.
Smack in the middle of this assemblage sat Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab Five Freddy (a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy), the artist, rapper, video director, documentary maker, podcaster, cannabis entrepreneur, and former longtime host of Yo! MTV Raps, who happens to be the person who first synergized the aesthetic elements—art, music, dance—that we all call hip-hop. Introducing the movie’s luminaries, Master Gee, of the Sugarhill Gang, declared Brathwaite “the engine of Wild Style,” which he called “the greatest hip-hop movie in the history of hip-hop.” It was Brathwaite who’d proposed to Ahearn the idea of a hip-hop movie; Ahearn, in turn, cast him as Phade, a slick-talking, scene-stealing impresario.
Given his natural gift of gab, Brathwaite couldn’t help but be the center of attention. At 64, he retains much of his familiar mien from the MTV glory days: ball cap, sunglasses, knowing grin, smooth delivery. He’s still tall and rangy, although the well-curated stubble on his cheeks is now silver. His energy level remains engine-like. When he came offstage after being presented with a red satin Wild Style jacket, care of the National Hip-Hop Museum in Washington, DC, he was swarmed. Sharpies were thrust upon him, and he graciously signed records, posters, even somebody’s Nikes. He shrugged apologetically and made a good-natured aside about “the autograph people.” He was perhaps protesting too much. Just then, another well-wisher, a guy with graying hair who looked like he could have been at a hip-hop party or two in the South Bronx back in the day, bounced up to Brathwaite and announced so that everyone around could hear: “This man’s a genius!”
Considering the breadth of Brathwaite’s free-ranging polyglot career and the fact that it’s still in progress, it can be hard to sum up just what that genius is and why it still matters. “He’s some kind of cultural entrepreneur, you know?” Chris Stein, a cofounder of Blondie, put it this way when I asked about the man his band name-checked in their 1980 hit “Rapture,” the first Billboard number one to feature rapping: “Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly!” “He’s a linking figure,” Stein emphasized. “He was able to approach all these different worlds.” Debbie Harry, Blondie’s lead singer, told me, “He’s a facilitator. He makes it easy for people to understand each other.” It was Brathwaite, Harry suggested, who likely first exposed Blondie to rap.
The pioneering rap artist Grandmaster Flash put it succinctly: “Fab was the liaison between whites downtown and this Black culture in the Bronx”—a cross-pollinator adept at bringing creative communities together. The art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, whose SoHo gallery will host a Wild Style anniversary exhibition starting November 11, told me that Fab Five Freddy’s impact in the late ’70s and early ’80s was transformative, representing the “meeting of the birth of hip-hop music, break dancing, graffiti, a connection between street culture and art-school culture. And that’s what took over the entire world. This is world culture now. More than anyone else, that’s Fred. He was the guy who put things together.”
Brathwaite grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; his father was an accountant and jazz fan and his mother was a nurse. When I recently met up with him in his old neighborhood, he mentioned that his sister still lives in the family town house, on Hancock Street, where Brathwaite spent his boyhood in a bedroom on the top floor. He also told me that Max Roach, the jazz drummer, was his godfather. “He and my dad grew up together,” Brathwaite said, noting that the two of them were pals at Boys High in Brooklyn and remained lifelong friends. “He was always around.” Conversations at the Brathwaite dinner table were a little out of the ordinary too, as topics might include Charlie Parker, dialectical materialism, or Malcolm X, whose assassination Fred’s father witnessed. Brathwaite inherited a reel-to-reel tape recording of the murder; since 2019, this artifact, among 129 boxes of materials known as the Fab 5 Freddy Papers, has resided in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
We strolled around the old Brooklyn stomping grounds, with Brathwaite pointing out his favorite aunt’s apartment and the house of a kid he knew who kept a pigeonnière on the roof. As Brathwaite spoke, a window opened onto the Bed-Stuy of the ’60s and ’70s, of young people cultivating pigeon flocks and running wild playing Ringolevio and stickball. All of this street life ended, Brathwaite said, when the crack epidemic swept through in the ’80s. As we turned down Stuyvesant Avenue, in tony Stuyvesant Heights, he detailed how, as a boy, he was greatly perplexed that the residents here all seemed to have lighter complexions. It was a hard lesson to absorb about socioeconomics and racism.
At Holy Rosary Elementary, the only trouble he got into stemmed from an incident in which he broke into the communion-wafer cache and gulped down 50 at one sitting, testing a hypothesis that megadosing on the body of Christ might impart superhero-level spiritual effects. The nuns were not amused. Holy Rosary is now a luxury apartment building. Brathwaite paused on the sidewalk, blinking up at the building’s Gothic exterior. “This is a semi out-of-body experience standing here,” he said.