During the early days of hip-hop, no one did more to champion the style than Fred Braithwaite, AKA “Fab 5 Freddy.” Initially a New York graffiti artist who dreamed of wider recognition within the art world, he was one of the first people to see hip-hop as a genuine cultural phenomenon.
Before Freddy joined forces with filmmaker Charlie Ahearn to produce the pioneering hip-hop movie Wild Style, few had thought of joining the dots between DJing, rapping, breakdancing and graffiti. Together, they saw those elements as constituent parts of a cohesive grassroots movement, and deliberately showcased all four within their film. This dedication extended to the creation of custom breakbeats and short instrumental tracks, which were then used in the movie by DJs such as Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmixer D.St.
Freddy also played a key role in turning New York’s downtown artists and musicians on to the delights of this burgeoning genre. He acted as a link between the two scenes, encouraging club promoters to bring leading Bronx and Brooklyn DJs to Manhattan venues. He was rewarded with the opportunity to curate gallery shows of graffiti art, a namecheck in Blondie’s hit “Rapture” and the satisfaction of knowing that he had helped cement hip-hop’s place in history.
Back in October 1998, Frank Broughton sat down with Fab 5 Freddy in his New York office to discuss the roots of hip-hop, its move downtown and his love affair with another of his hometown’s great musical institutions, the Paradise Garage.
When did you first hear what was going on in the Bronx?
In the mid-’70s, I grew up with the beginnings of DJing. There were people who inspired guys in the Bronx. And the guys who inspired them were people who came from Brooklyn, where I lived, and I believe possibly Manhattan. They were known as disco DJs. These are the guys who invented disco. This is long before disco was born into the public’s consciousness, by way of Saturday Night Fever and so on. 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 – 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 and a guy named Maboya, and a number of others.
They would give parties, and they didn’t do any cutting or scratching, but what they did was mix. They had two turntables and a mixer, and the most incredible thing that they did was that the music never stopped. 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, “Love Is The Message” by MFSB and “Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae.
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 in New York 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 else played them. He broke the whole mold of radio DJs following the so-called playlist. Frankie Crocker basically opened these records, broke them nationally and it became this media thing known as disco.
I went to the parties where those DJs played. I was a young person dressing up, trying to be older, going to the parties where these guys were gods. What they were doing was incredible.
Being into that scene and knowing what it was about, you would start to ask things: Who’s DJing? Who’s the DJ that makes the party hot? If Flowers or Pete DJ Jones or one of those other guys was on the flyer, it was a must-go-to event.
Because these DJs were icons, everyone in the urban areas wanted to be a DJ, like these gods they’d seen.
They didn’t even play clubs. What you had were these independent promoters that would promote these parties. They would take restaurants in Manhattan and they would rent these places out for the weekend. They’d 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 realize that these places were just regular, average restaurants in the daytime. 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 all.
These parties would be advertised heavily on WBLS at the weekends, so you would know the names of these different clubs. They were places like Nemo’s and Nell Gwynn’s. Sometimes they’d give these big holiday events at a hotel. There was one hotel at the time that was infamous, called the Hotel Diplomat, where they’d give these big extravaganzas.
So that was the big attraction to that scene. There were these promoters, these parties, and you could tune into this radio station that was reflecting what you would hear there, presented by this super-cool DJ named Frankie Crocker. He gave credibility to the scene.
How old were you at the time?
I was a teenager, but these parties were promoted as college parties. I was kinda like high-school age, but I was playing like I was already in college. It was a fake scene as well, because they wouldn’t want you to wear sneakers. They would put on these flyers, “NO SNEAKERS!”
Because these DJs became icons, everyone in the urban areas wanted to be a DJ. You had guys going out, getting their speakers, getting their two turntables – anyhow, any way – wiring them up, trying to be DJs, like these gods they’d seen.
That’s what Flash said. He was inspired by them.
He was completely inspired by them. The first wave of hip-hop DJs, like Herc and Flash, were all inspired by those guys. That’s where Flash got the “Grandmaster” [part of his DJ name] from. It was from Grandmaster Flowers, who was the first Grandmaster. That’s really important.
So, for me, I didn’t have a clue about a Flash or this one or that one at this time. This is still me, a kid in Brooklyn, figuring it out. So, then these local guys in the area started trying to be DJs on their own: Frankie D, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Master D. These were our local guys in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn. They would play in the parks and at the block parties, and you would want to hear these guys play.
When we would go to hear these guys play, 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, but they were still doing something different.
When did they start doing that?
This is all kind of mid-’70s. I don’t have exact years, I would have to sit down and get with some other heads to really lock into years. This is mid-’70s now, moving into late ’70s. Let’s say from ’74 to ’78 as a rough timespan. Now, these new guys were coming out into the streets and every other guy became a DJ. Those guys in my area that were hot were Frankie D and Master D.
I started noticing them playing a different kind of record. Not just the basic disco records: “Rock Your Baby,” “Fly, Robin, Fly,” Kraftwerk. These were records that were synonymous with the disco scene: the real disco scene.
These DJs like Frankie D were playing something else, and rap records had begun to come out – people were rapping, and these [DJs] would also have guys that would get on the mic and rap.
At the point when you’d hear these guys, they had a very crude and early version of scratching. It was really minimal, but it sounded incredible. They were playing a different group of records that you didn’t hear, even at the disco parties – records that had another kind of a feel, rather than disco records.
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?” It made you move a little differently. And they had MCs. But their MCs weren’t great lyricists. At the time, it was more call-and-response. Things like, “Wave your hands in the air,” or “Somebody say, ‘Ho!’”
They’d mostly talk about how dope their DJ was. Most of the rhymes incorporated how great the DJ was, which was the emphasis to this whole era for me. One of the reasons that I wanted to do this interview was because the DJ has always been the focus of this whole thing.
For obvious reasons, 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.
It made me go to jams and stand at the front. Back in those days, you had different kinds of kids. Everyone came for the music, but within the party there were different things going on. At every party, I was a part of that crew stood at the rope.
Almost all DJs had a rope, where they roped off their thing, and you had guys that you would see at every party that would just stand at the rope, watching what the DJ did. I would move around at the parties, but I would spend a great deal of time [standing at the rope] like those guys, because I realized that those were the guys that wanted to be DJs and MCs.
You would stand there watching. I was joking with one of my staff recently that, back then, it 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 everybody had a little thing.
You were always intimidated that there were some really dangerous guys at these parties – and there were – who could really fuck you up. So, you wanted to chill at a party in the b-boy stance. So anyway, that was what was going on at those kind of parties.
Was this all in Brooklyn?
For me, yeah. Grandmaster Flowers was also from Brooklyn, so Brooklyn was very important in the scheme of things. And he also was a graffiti writer, which also was highly influential on me, because that was where I came into the scene, as a painter, a graffiti writer.
So how does this fit in with the scene in the Bronx?
I’m going to 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 then 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, he got 500 amps; he got 500 watts.” Then someone would reply, “Really? Yo, my man got 2,000.” This was the conversation around the DJ and his set. One thing Brooklyn guys were known for was having really strong, clear-sounding sets.
Later, when I really found out where the shit was going on and I began to venture uptown to parties, the sets were horrible, but the guys were much more advanced in terms of turntablism and rapping.
So as I began to go to more parties and began to become known by these different DJs, I asked, “Yo, 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.” Coming from Brooklyn, uptown could either be Manhattan or the Bronx. It was never really clear to me.
You’d ask, “Yo, money, where they jammin’ at?” You’d be looking for a party to go to, just to be out and to taste the energy.
Then I began to hear a very slight inkling about a guy named Flash, who was supposed to be the fastest DJ, because speed became the thing. So I asked questions. A couple of times I even ventured out on the train up to Harlem and just walked around. What we used to do in Brooklyn in the summers, at that time, was look for a jam.
“Where they jammin’ at?” You’d roll up on some heads on the corner and you might recognize somebody. You’d ask, “Yo, money, where they jammin’ at? Where they jammin’ today?” Because you’d be looking for a jam, like a party to go to, just to be out, to taste the energy. Just the classic shit, tapped into the street pole, two o’clock in the morning on some hot, hazy Saturday night.
You just bored, you know, literally on the verge of doing some ill shit. It definitely kept me from fucking doing some crazy shit. A couple of times I went uptown trying to find them, but I couldn’t find them. I used to hear there were these tapes that you could buy from these uptown guys.
In about 1978, through some graffiti connections on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, I met Lee Quiñones. That’s when me and him were getting ready to do the whole Fab 5 thing, the whole graffiti thing, bringing it out into the mainstream. I used to say, “Yo, money, do you know about this hip-hop shit? I hear these uptown guys is where it all really started?” He said, “Yeah, I heard of Flash. There’s another graffiti writer that we know that knows these guys – who’s really into that.”
So I got with this kid and he had a Flash tape. 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. Matter of fact, he was telling me that they sometimes played in the community center at the projects, which is on the Lower East Side. I was trying to find a connection, so I could go and find the real guys.
I went up to Melle Mel in between the sets. I was like, “You guys should make a record.” I remember him going, “Who would buy it?”
So one night he told me, “Yo, there’s gonna be a party this weekend, there’s Flash and a couple of other crews, the Furious Five, the Treacherous this,” or whatever. And I went. This was where I saw Flash with the Furious Four, but they were introducing Rahiem as the fifth member. He had just joined the group. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.
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 remember going, “Well, at least all the people coming to these parties.” He was like, “Yeah?”
But it wasn’t about that. It was just about being somebody. I’ll never forget that. But, back to the whole DJ thing, I got to see Flash and saw him do his thing. It was amazing. It was like state of the art.
This was on the Lower East Side?
Yeah, at the Smith projects. It was at the community center of the Smith projects.
You don’t remember the date or the month?
Like I say, sometime in ’78. It was probably fall, because it wasn’t freezing. So, it was probably between September and November ’78. I definitely know it was ’78, because I remember when I hooked up with Lee. It was ’79 when we had our first show in Rome.
But anyway… Boom! I got to see this thing. A part of plugging into that scene, when you went to these parties, was that there would always be guys giving out flyers. And the flyers would help connect the dots for other joints where I needed to go. I can remember all the imagery and shit – it was really incredible.
This graffiti movement, I didn’t want it to be seen as some folk art thing. I wanted it to be seen as a serious movement like Futurism or Dada.
I got closer and closer through that experience. I began to get my hands on a few more Flash tapes, so I could hear what he was doing and could see the differences between what he did and what guys in Brooklyn did.
I guess for me, as far as the development of it all, things began to happen really rapidly at that time. Not long after that whole experience I got this idea that a movie should be made.
This is Wild Style?
Yeah. The reasons for making the movie, primarily, were twofold for me. Firstly, I was serious about trying to be a painter, and I didn’t want this whole idea of painting, and this movement that I saw was gonna come – this graffiti movement – I didn’t want it to be seen as some folk art thing. I wanted it to be seen as a serious movement like Futurism or Dada, or great movements in painting. I thought that, through racism and through ignorance, people could easily try to brush us off.
I wanted people to know, for one thing, I’m just as smart as anybody out there, and I wanted them to realize that I was aware of Andy Warhol at the time, who had also become kind of 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. Then you have a complete culture. I wanted this film to be made to demonstrate that this graffiti thing, which was the focus, was [part of] a complete culture, and 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. That was the inspiration for making Wild Style. I hooked up with Charlie Ahearn, and 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 for that film, 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.
When was the first time you went up to the Bronx?
Well, I had been up there prior to going up with Charlie. I had been to a few parties. Once I plugged into Flash downtown, I started getting a few flyers, I started going to a few other parties and seeing the other names. I felt like I’d discovered the real world, where it was coming from.
And that was who?
Shit, money… It was Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five MCs. It was Flash, it was Bambaataa, Charlie Chase, Cold Crush… There were other DJs.
You haven’t mentioned Kool Herc.
No, because I missed Kool Herc. Whenever I met other people I would be like, “Well, who did you get it from? Who turned you on? How did you learn it?” Nobody was sampling yet at the time, and rap records – the ones that were being made – were basically just replaying the popular tunes, like what Sugarhill [Gang] was doing and what [record label] Enjoy was doing.
What we wanted to do was capture the energy of these breakbeat records. So me and Charlie sat down. Charlie was real scared about being sued. We’re making this little independent film and Charlie was like, “Man we gotta figure out a way to…” So I said, “I know what we’ll do. I’ll go into the studio and we’ll make our own breakbeat records.”
The idea was I would go in with some musicians, create 10 to 15 small, one-minute pieces of music that would give you the feel of different breakbeats that the DJs would then take, and then pick the beats they want. That would then be our soundtrack.
And I did that. I remember the very first day when I took them up to the DJs so they could rehearse for their scenes in the movie. I remember they were saying, “This is incredible. You made these?” I was like, “Y’all should be able to do this too. Y’all are the guys that really know.” I’m like, “You guys are my heroes, you should be able to do this.” But they weren’t thinking like that at the time.
Later, the best producers in hip-hop were originally DJs, but at this point it 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 yet. But the ideas were there. What Sugar Hill [Records] was obviously doing was just replaying. Flash actually did do it first, if you think about it, with “Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel.” Which was in a sense the precursor to sampling. Although he actually just did what he would do at his shows and recorded it all. For me it was great, because I got to be close to those guys by that point.
When his group became big, because of the fact that the DJ was always the focus in the development of hip-hop, Flash’s name went first. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, representative of their status. He used to own the set. He was giving them a reason, as rappers, to rhyme.
What about the Jamaican connection? Herc says he was directly inspired by the Jamaican parties of his youth. But coming from Brooklyn, where there’s a big Caribbean community–
I had no inkling. None whatsoever.
None at all?
No. What was dope about it was that it was a parallel cultural development. Journalists like to imagine that everybody in Brooklyn or everyone in hip-hop knew everything that was going on in Kingston, but it was totally not the fact.
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 and so on, mixed with this very modern thing, which is what’s so dope about it. And when you have these two things, there’s this parallel development at a certain point.
They were playing off things that were going on in music over here, but it was like an African thing in a sense. At that certain point of time, the idea of using these things in a similar way just hit. 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.
I’m not sure that Herc predates Plumber, Pete DJ Jones and Maboya and them in terms of what they were doing. But it was similar. You may very well find that some Jamaican guys might have seen one of their parties and figured it out. They weren’t doing the two turntables thing so much in Jamaica, but they did have soundsystems early on.
Maybe their soundsystems even predate ours. They might even go back to the ’60s, if I remember: Coxsone Dodd, Tappa Zukie and all them cats. I saw one of them books where they have pictures of all that shit.
Herc was a perfect link, in terms of what he brought to the picture. If he did experience or hear dub in its early form first, it could very well be the case. However, know and understand that Curtis Mayfield was a big inspiration on dancehall music, on reggae music.
There’s one particular record where he uses the echo, and apparently that was the first time the echo was used like that. “If there’s a hell below… ow… ow, we all gonna go… go… go.”
When Curtis Mayfield did that, he made the first message music that inspired a lot of Jamaicans. And I think I remember reading somewhere that was where the echo first came down.
Later, when Herc and them freaked it with the echo, there used to be 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 and DJ Breakout of the Funky Four used to rock the echo. Their tapes, 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, “Oh my God, what are we hearing?”
Back then, in the hip-hop scene, it was very weird and really dark. The DJ would have a couple of lightbulbs nailed to a board and one strobe light.
It used to be so ill, the energy and the vibe. Motherfuckers used to smoke angel dust on the scene. Back then in the hip-hop scene, it was very weird and it’d be really dark. The DJ would have a couple of lightbulbs rigged up on a board: some lightbulbs and shit, nailed to a board, and there might be like one strobe light. A lot of DJs had a strobe light – they’d have it on a table, and that was the lighting.
And a lot of guys would sell the angel dust. At least up in the Bronx that was a popular drug at the time, which I never got into. Guys would be smoking dust.
It makes a really fuckin’ sickly ill smell when guys are smoking that, in a fuckin’ hot, funky room and shit. 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. And that’s how I seen it, son.
When did the battles start?
The battles seemed to start early on. I remember some ill soundsystem battles. I remember one battle back in the day – they had about four soundsystems in there. And they all had their own speakers and everything. It was a big-ass armory.
Yeah, it was 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 I’m actually working with now. They’re producing one of my artists. They real – they foundation DJs. They as important as Frankie D and them. What was fly about them was the two of them were identical twins and they had big afros.
Matter of fact, as far as Queens, they were the kids that was the foundation of [the scene], because they’re from those projects called Queensbridge, which later gave birth to Marley [Marl], the whole Juice Crew and then Nas in this era.
They were the DJs there, and they would do this thing called going around the warpath. One would move around this table and go, “Bam, bam, bam,” [playing beats] and then he would move around the table, and then the other one would be, “Bam, bam, bam.” They would be moving around the table cutting, like on the warpath. Cutting up “Apache” or “Good Times.”
That final scene in Wild Style, the energy we captured, that’s actually [Grandmixer] D.St. A lot of people think that’s Flash, but that’s actually D.St cutting “Good Times” at the very last moment in Wild Style. That’s how DJs played back then. They used to build you up, because they knew that was your favorite part of the record.
It’s a tease.
Pure tease. That’s the skill of it. It’s the right time of night, and when you let that shit go… Money. It’s like, you so happy. It’s a science. A lot of DJs don’t know how to do that no more.
Who of these Brooklyn guys could you hook me up with?
Let me tell you a tragic story. It’s about six years ago. I’m in the middle of directing some video. I’m in pre-production. We’re doing MTV, the whole shit, and I’m running around town. 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, and the van pulls up to the corner, a million things on my mind. I jump out of the van and I’m running into Tower Records.
There’s a couple of guys panhandling and begging outside. It’s a busy day, with people walking up and down Broadway. So, one guy goes, “Hey man, hey man, you got some money?” He got a cup out or whatever. Out of the corner of my eye, I’m about to step into the door, and I glanced at this guy, and something told me to look back.
I look back at this guy and obviously he’s a crackhead. For a second, I pause, looking at him. I’m literally in mid-step, and the guy makes eye contact and says, “You recognize me, right – you know who I am?” He’s with some other guy and he goes, “See, he knows me.”
I come back, stop, turn around and walk back to him. I’m like, “Who are you?” And he goes, “You recognize me, I’m Flowers.” I felt, in a second, the whole shit just come out. I was like, “Oh, my God.” I went in my pocket. I must have had about $25. Whatever I had in my pocket, I just took it out and put it in his hand.
He was like, “Yo, thanks man.” I said, “Yo, you Flowers, you Grandmaster Flowers!” It was obvious what was going on – I didn’t want to ask what happened. This was when crack still had a huge part of the community under grips. It was sad.
A year or two later, I told this story to a brother I was vibing with and he said, “Yeah, I seen him too, and I regret to tell you that he died.” That crack epidemic. If heads didn’t go to jail and get incredible, unrealistic amounts of jail time, then they died. Just like Cowboy, Grandmaster Flash’s first MC.
Tell me about how you helped to bring hip-hop downtown.
It was really from graffiti becoming a part of the art world.
Exactly. Glenn O’Brien, the original editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, was like a mentor to me. Chris and Debbie from Blondie, they kind of were patrons to me. 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 painters, too. Like I said, I was making my moves as a painter, I was meeting heads that were open to what I was talking about, what I was doing.
Which of the galleries first embraced what you were doing?
The original gallery in the East Village, which was the first gallery to really represent us effectively, was the Fun Gallery. That was run by Patti Astor, who starred in Wild Style as the reporter. It was my idea that she should become a gallery dealer, because if SoHo had Mary Boone, who was a hot, sexy brunette, the East Village should have her as the bombshell blonde. I mean, she didn’t know too much about selling art, but she loved to give a party and loved to serve drinks. I thought she’d be perfect.
When Fun opened it was the first gallery in the East Village. Within two years, there were 60 galleries. That’s how big the East Village art scene was and how fast it happened.
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 pre-production on Wild Style at the time and I said, “What’s Kenny doing?” “He’s gonna call it Fun.” I said, “Well, I’m gonna call it the Serious Gallery.” So it would have been the Serious Gallery, but Patti didn’t have any money to change the little stationery that she had made for Kenny’s show, so she asked if we could still keep it Fun for the next show. I was like, “Whatever, go ahead.”
When Fun opened it was the first gallery in the East Village. Within two years, there were 60 galleries in the East Village. That’s how big that whole East Village art scene was and how fast it happened, believe it or not.
Even before the Fun Gallery opened, this all came about as a result of me being connected with all these people I told you about and being plugged into the downtown scene. And also meeting people like Keith Haring, who was also trying to become a painter. We had become friends, he had organized an exhibition and he became a big fan of my work.
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.
It was like an art-school project – everybody made work. Anybody who knew me at that time, when I got to be friends with them, I would tell them what kind of music I was into. [Keith] was like, “Wow, I’ve heard some of those rap records.” I’m telling him, “Look, I know the real guys.” I had Afrika Bambaataa come down and play at Club 57.
Where was Club 57?
It was at 57 St. Mark’s Place. It was the answer to the Mudd Club for that whole little scene. John Sex, Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson – that was their own hip little nightclub that they had invented for themselves, because 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 until I was asked to curate a graffiti show at the Mudd Club. I called it Beyond Words. Graffiti-based, rooted and inspired work. 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 [of Suicide].
It was 1980. I remember there was a big art frenzy going on because the Times Square show had just happened, so it was later that same year. The Times Square show was in June 1980. So it was later that fall I think. For that show, I wanted to give a real big thing.
Even before that, I performed at the Mudd Club. I performed, and that’s where Steve Mass, who owned the club was like, “Why don’t you bring in some more of this rap stuff? Why don’t you do it?”
I was never trying to be a rapper. I just did it because it was a great way to earn some rent money. But when I performed, I rapped and I had two DJs. 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 High Priest. He was cool – he used to DJ for Jean-Michel. Nick the High Priest.
So, when I curated a show, Steve Mass was like, “Let’s do some rap,” and I was like, “OK, but I’m gonna set this shit off right.” I had Bambaataa, because by this time I was well connected with all the big uptown DJs, through the pre-production for Wild Style.
Bambaataa would always play some crazy records in the midst of this b-boy frenzy. People would be like, “What the fuck?” The uptown crowd would love ’em.
I was able to get Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic [Five]. I think I had Bambaataa come down, I think I had Cold Crush. It was like a revue. Three or four groups came, Bambaataa DJed all night and that was the occasion. It would always get listed in the articles as him playing at the Mudd Club, but it was a combination of that and Club 57, because Bambaataa’s title was Master of Records.
Now here’s what’s really important about this: Bambaataa would always play some crazy records in the midst of this whole b-boy frenzy. Like the Monkees. He would put on a Monkees record and people would be like, “What the fuck?” The uptown crowd would love ’em. People would invent dances, like there was this dance called the Patty Duke that people would do back then, which was inspired by some of these sounds.
When Bambaataa played downtown, he really felt like, “I’ve always wanted to play for a white crowd like this, because I’ve got these kinds of records in my collection.” So, he could mix up and play other kinds of things. If you played a Monkees record downtown, they would like it just as much as if you played it uptown, mixed in with all the uptown stuff. So that inspired him to go and make “Planet Rock.” Because he felt he had played for this audience and 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 thing. Monica Lynch of Tommy Boy Records. Somehow, it was her idea to make that record. But I always thought that it was great that the inspiration for “Planet Rock” was those parties, because it did just inspire a whole generation of dance records after.
I was never that crazy about that record, because for me it didn’t feel like the hip-hop records I wanted to hear. They came later. Records that really captured the attitude and the vibe of those parties. That record didn’t do it, but it was an incredible record. It was amazing.
It inspired so much.
Unbelievable, the way that record just opened up a whole thing. About six months ago Kraftwerk played in New York for the first time in about 15 years. They did about three gigs. It was so incredible to see them, because they were such a big influence on me when I was a kid in Brooklyn.
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 just thinking of everything that you could trace back to them.
How did people react uptown to those kinds of records?
They loved those kinds of records.
They didn’t care where they came from.
Oh, nobody knew where they came from. The major thing you have to remember about all of these records that were played is that 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, or a few would be played – like Funkadelic hits or some hot Michael Jackson record like, “Off The Wall.” I remember being at hip-hop parties when “Off The Wall” was being played.
Really what made hip-hop parties were those records that you didn’t hear anywhere else. It was “Apache” and “Dance To The Drummer’s Beat.” You went to these kinds of parties to hear these kinds of records that made breakdancers want to breakdance. Chic’s “Good Times,” that became an anthem way after the record was a hit. [Vaughan Mason and Crew’s] “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.” All of those records you can buy now on series upon series of breakbeat compilation records. Well, those were records that these particular DJs made their careers on.
Tracking them down.
Yeah, they and only they had those records. Records like Captain Sky’s “Super Sporm” that you never heard on the radio. Records that’d just make you go crazy. That’s why you went to these parties. That’s what made it so cool. Even as a kid, you knew that you were gonna hear something that 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 and funky perspiration odor. 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.
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 reason for making Wild Style was 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.
But was there really that complete disconnection between the Bronx and everywhere else?
It wasn’t just the Bronx, it was the five boroughs that was moving to this.
But it took so long for big record companies.
Yeah, you have ignorance and you have racism. And these things haven’t changed. In England, the charts have never really been racist to my knowledge. There, you have records where if people are buying them, they go into the charts and are featured on Top Of The Pops. Over here, it’s only recently that we’ve got a chart that is somewhat reflective, honestly, of sales. Pop used to mean “white.” That’s what pop used to mean here. Now pop means who’s selling the most records. But they used to have that shit locked up, son – so you have racism and you have ignorance. You had Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” going gold and nobody certified it. Nobody even looked to see. “Certify that? What is it?”
And that was a major label.
It was a major label, but the mentality was different: “Let’s just press it up and put it out.” You didn’t have to spend a million dollars to promote and market a record, like shit I’m dealing with now. I’ve got video promoters, independent radio and record company people all promoting the record. I got 11 street teams around the country. Back then, you just made a record and put it in the stores. Word of mouth sold the records.
But even with that going on, this culture has always been taken very lightly. I’ve never taken it lightly, but I never expected it to be where we are. Like, our reason for making Wild Style was 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. That was our number-one goal. We were happy as all hell that we did that and the rest was just, “That’s great, money.” 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 Wild Style. 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.
Because when you look at Wild Style, 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, and they’d never had hit records. Flash and them did have a hit record, but you only see Flash in the movie – you don’t get to see Melle Mel and them. But the spirit of what we were trying to do, the essence of what we created, really does capture what those parties were like then.
I used to be so embarrassed about Wild Style. Now when I watch the movie, I just laugh the whole way through. I’ve forgotten all the nightmare stories behind making it.
When I look at the movie I’m like, “Wow, people really were still wearing afros.” It feels really old, even though it was late ’70s, early ’80s, but the kids were still rocking afros and shit. It was like, “Oh my God, and tight jeans!”
But the reason for making it was good. That’s why me and Chris Blackwell [of Island Records] have been friends, because long before I was able to understand what The Harder They Come was about, I saw what he liked about Wild Style.
I used to be so embarrassed about the movie, technically, because we didn’t know a thing about all that real technical shit. I used to watch the movie thinking about why this scene ended up like this. Now when I watch the movie, I just laugh the whole way through. I’ve forgotten all the nightmare stories behind making it.
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.
And that was something that predated hip-hop, for you?
You can say that, because technically it didn’t become known as hip-hop until the early ’80s, but I knew early on that this was the one unifying term. The reason that became the name of the culture was because that was the one thing that almost everybody said at a party: “Yo, 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. When you would be describing to somebody what kind of party you were at, you would say, “Yo, it was one of them hibbedy-hop… You know, that hibbedy-hop shit.” So that became the one defining term within the culture that everybody related to, but it wasn’t seen as a culture, you understand what I’m saying?
Prior to Wild Style, graffiti was seen as the scourge of the city. It was looked at by the administration like dog shit on the street.
When I got to the point when I came up with that idea to show all these things in a movie, it wasn’t like every other breakdancer, or more importantly, every other graffiti artist was thinking about these other two forms as a part of their whole world.
Breakdancing and graffiti came before the music?
Was it that they were self-sufficient cultures that kind of got roped in?
Totally. It was all roped together by Wild Style. It was the perception that these things were one world. Nothing had put it all together like that, until Wild Style. Prior to that, graffiti was seen as the scourge of the city. It was looked at by the administration like dog shit on the street.
Although a lot of it was very aggressive and angry, there was a reason for it. But within that anger and aggression there was great art that could have been harnessed and corralled. The intention was no different to what man has had throughout the centuries, that urge to embellish his environment.
It challenged a lot of shit. It still does. The attitude of it challenges authority, in your purest form. “I’m gonna spray paint on your house and you can’t catch me!” That’s really the attitude and we got off on that. I got off on that.
At the time you wouldn’t want to talk about that energy, but it was there. “Fuck you! I’m nice, money. You might think I’m nobody, but look, I’ve spray-painted your whole shit and you can’t catch me.”
That was a big part of it, and then it was about communicating to other heads like you. That was a whole aspect of it that we didn’t want to talk about when we was taking it into the media, because I didn’t want people to be dwelling on that.
I wanted to play off the whole aesthetic attitudes. “I’m an artist,” play off that shit. To get them kind of sympathies, but plenty was loving the idea of fuckin’ up the system. You running around spray-painting, stealing paint, every fucking chance you get, your whole life is consumed with acquiring paint and painting.
It was insane, money. 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!” It’s really bizarre – your sense of smell. That shit drove me, and I tried to translate that energy into everything else I did. I tried to project my fucking shit to the top.
Tell me about the Roxy parties.
What about them?
Were you involved with Lady Blue right from the beginning?
From the Negril, Danceteria, you were working together.
She was a really great girl. She come off that scene in London. Boy George and them, New Romantics, whatever. 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. She hooked up with a guy named Michael Holman, who I knew from a long time, who went from not understanding a thing about rap, hip-hop, breaking or whatever, to now managing the rivals to the Rock Steady Crew.
They decided they would give a party, à la the parties that used to happen uptown, at a joint downtown, called Negril. But they’d fallen out by the time they had given their first party and they’d put my name on the flyer without even 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 and said, “Listen, we’re trying to do this.”
She gave a couple of parties. I was on the mic, like the house MC, for the first couple of parties at Negril, then she came to me and said, “Listen, I met these guys that have this roller-skating rink.” She said, “These people want us to do these parties over here at this roller-skating rink.” I said, “Damn, that place is so big. How you gonna get all the people in there?” She said, “Listen, I want you to come and see this.” So we went and saw it. I said, “Look, I don’t understand how you’re gonna do it.” She said, “Well, we’re gonna put up a big partition to close it off and make it a much smaller place.”
I had doubts, but she went ahead with it. What I was instrumental in doing for her was that she didn’t know who was who uptown. She’d heard about Grand Wizard Theodore, who she had put down as being one of the first DJs. I think he may have come to the party she gave at Negril. But the very first party she gave at the Roxy…
There were parties at Danceteria first.
I don’t remember that. No, I remember it going straight to the Roxy. But I remember the first night she was giving it, Theodore didn’t show up and the Roxy’s house DJ was playing. This kid named D.St was around for some reason, because I think he used to be a breakdancer too, and he had a crate of records. Blue was standing there waiting for Theodore to come, and I said, “Listen, this shit is not happening honey, whatever.” And she’s like, “What am I gonna do?” And I said, “This kid right here, D.St, he’s incredible.” Nobody knew him, he wasn’t a name uptown. She was like, “Really? Well, get on!” He got on. The rest is history. Then you had the birth of Grandmixer D.St.
What was the greatest party for you at the Roxy?
I’ll tell you what the pivotal party was: It was the night when Blue got Malcolm McLaren to let her show a copy of The Great Rock & Roll Swindle. It was hot, because everybody still was conscious of that whole punk rock thing, but nobody had seen the film, because the film was never released [in the US].
So she arranged a screening, and the way it was timed was really interesting. Right after the screening 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 done it somewhat, when I had my thing at the Mudd Club, but these two scenes, there was like no real mixing, as there is now, so to speak, when you went to clubs.
The downtown scene was pretty much predominantly white and the uptown scene was black and Hispanic. I couldn’t imagine it was gonna work. I just anticipated kids from the Bronx beating the shit out of weird-looking punk rockers. True to form, she had all the fashionable, on-the-edge punk rock people, the new wave people – you know, the English glitterati, whatever – in the Roxy for the movie.
You had punk rock kids with mohawks standing next to kids doing the b-boy stance. It was the first time they were seeing each other.
When the movie ended, I expected all these heads would leave and go, “Oh my God, rap!” But a lot of those people stayed. I’ll always remember, because I was waiting for some shit to jump off. So as the movie finished showing, a few of those heads left, but a few 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.
A lot of that crew stayed and were checking this shit out. Kids was coming in just dancing, the energy was right. It seemed to me that from that point on you had this great mix.
It was about rebellion.
Yeah, somewhat. You had these real fashion punks, people that were connected to the hip scene in London. From that point on, it became something that really was, I think, indicative of what we have now, in terms of pop culture having embraced this.
For me, that was a really interesting revelation. From that moment on, that became what the Roxy was. You had a big forum now where uptown can meet downtown, and everybody mixed and got to hear and see what each other was into. You had punk rock kids with mohawks standing next to kids doing the b-boy stance. It was the first time they were seeing each other.
Was there much mingling? Did people make friends or were they just checking each other out?
There was a lot of fucking going on, because the hot dance at the time was the Webo. It was this dance that came out of the Latin scene, where you would dance and 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.
What was cool in the black and Latin community, 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. You’d be freaking this girl. It was called the Webo, or the freak, doing the freak.
But what happened was, a lot of 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 that you shouldn’t let guys get too carried away with it. So you would just see three or four Puerto Rican dudes all around one chick and the chick would be like, “Ah, this is great!” There’d be a lot of energy like that. Just people rubbing on each other and shit. I used to be like, “Yo! This is kinda hot!”
So that was what brought the two scenes together.
It helped. It was a really, really good era. It was a good point. You’d see people checking out what each other’s doing. Madonna was a good example of that whole cross-pollination.
For her initial style, when the world first saw her, she got a lot of inspiration from what hip Puerto Rican chicks were wearing, mixed with some b-boy style. That whole belt thing she had going on – that was a b-boy staple. Your nameplate belt buckle: that was official shit. She incorporated that with the whole Puerto Rican disco club girl look and took it to the world.
You know who else would be cool to talk to about that era [is] 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. Now he’s Jon Baker of Gee Street. But he was on the scene. He was part of that whole English crew that was running behind the Roxy. I guess through Lady Blue, the English contribution was really important. Also, I guess for us, as far as Wild Style, some of the first money we got was from the fourth channel [BBC Channel 4]. So I’ve always felt a kinship there. The English scene, they gave us some money, because nobody was trying to hear us over here.
What about Malcolm 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 had met John [Lydon] – me and John had been friends some time. I was tight with the Clash, I was tight with a lot of that scene already, so I knew how people felt about him.
The media didn’t look at breakdancing with any kind of respect or dignity. It was like that era’s tap-dancing.
Blue brought him to a gig I was having with the Rock Steady Crew when he first came to town. I didn’t warm to him. But Blue was like, “Oh, he wants to make a record!” And I was like, “He ripped off punk rock and shit.”
So, she took him over to the Supreme Team, and the rest is history. He made good records, too. I had a lot of respect for him, I just couldn’t get down with him.
They’re from New Jersey, aren’t they?
Supreme Team? I don’t think so. I think they’re from uptown. They used to have one of the first hip-hop radio shows. I used to love the hell out of it.
I read one review, I think of one of Blue’s Danceteria parties, and it said that the DJs were playing, and the b-boys were breaking, and there were just a lot of white folk in a circle watching. Whoever wrote this said that this was common in the early parties, like, “Here are the minstrels for you to watch.”
I was very conscious of that sentiment. I think it became that when you had breakdancing immediately become the focus of the media.
Because they jumped on that more than anything.
They jumped on that more than anything at that time, and I think that was for obvious reasons. It was a sort of minstrel-esque view of it. They didn’t look at it with any kind of respect and dignity. It was that era’s tap dancing. And they didn’t really listen [to the music] at all.
I think later, the music and obviously the voice of it all came to the fore as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions hit the scene. It let you know: “No, this is not that. You won’t be able to deal with this culture in that form and fashion. Because people that invented this are still heavily involved in telling the story, not just some journalist who was in that crowd and feeling that this is a minstrel show.” It was a demonstration of a form that still continues to inspire the youth to this day – which I’m amazed at, but you know, you can’t keep some shit like that down.
The DJ was overshadowed very quickly. What was the reason for that?
It was 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.
Once the DAT came in.
In any form of music, there are not that many innovators. When you look at any kind of genre of what’s creative, or any subset of a creative form, you will find a handful of innovators that defined the culture. And from that handful you can make lines, drawing out, spanning out to everybody else that’s doing it
So as long as we understand who those key innovators were, those originators, we have to make sure that we acknowledge them. To me, that’s really the most important thing. 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.
That’s what keeps this culture so vital today. You have so many of the practitioners there, still spitting game and stating facts. That’s what keeps this right, as opposed to what happened in rock & roll, what happened in blues or whatever. Black people in particular weren’t as able, or didn’t have the means or the voice to state who really played this first.
It’s too easy to just throw down some superficial shit. Flowers, Plumber, Maboya and them, they never get the credit they deserve.
Sure, because of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, we have a big cult around Robert Johnson, the famed blues musician. And I’m not taking anything away from him, but blues musicians will tell you that he was not the innovator that Bob Dylan feels he was. Not to take anything away from him, but let’s understand, well, who really was the innovator? Who inspired him and where did those licks really come from? And let’s give anybody – whoever they are, whatever color they are – let’s give them their correct props.
It’s too easy to just throw down some superficial shit. Like when I started talking about disco – Flowers, Plumber, Maboya and them, they never got the credit that they deserve. I’m sure there were some other Latin DJs that was doing some shit that was incredible, that didn’t get the proper credit.
It’s all about credit when you’re fucking with history. It ain’t who sold the most records that goes down in history, baby, it’s who made the best records and who did it first that’s meant to be there.
Are any of those guys still around?
I have no idea. You would have to ask a lot of heads. Flowers is the only one I know about that passed on, but Pete DJ Jones, Plumber… It would be interesting to see some of those guys. Another interesting thing that you must put in your book, and a very important person that was looked on like God, was a guy named Richard Long.
The sound man.
Yeah. I used to just hear about Richard Long crowning bass. Motherfuckers used to talk about Richard Long, money. I know he built the Paradise Garage system, where I went.
I was there at the Garage. I saw Larry, and then, through my friendship with Keith Haring, I went to the Garage for the very first time. That redefined his life. He became friends with Larry, and that was the real deal. In terms of club music, he was God.
Keith became a part of that whole scene. I’d go to parties there and I would be able to go up into the booth and see Larry. That was indescribable, the energy in there. I saw that shit. I was there, many nights. So I saw that go down – that was fucking incredible, you understand.
That’s the club I would have most liked to have been to.
The other day, I was in my car, 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 FedEx depot, the UPS depot, or whatever it is now.
Is that what it is now? Oh my God, to be up in there was just another world. I seen that shit go down. It was the only place I ever saw, for club music, even for hip-hop, where people would spontaneously clap.
Larry would play a sequence of records, and when he would come out of it, people would just clap on the dancefloor. I’d be like, “Oh shit!” It was really that incredible. The way the lights would be working, the effect that shit had on the senses. I cannot describe it, man.
This interview was conducted in October 1998. © DJ History