If there’s a cooler dude on the planet than Mr. Fred Brathwaite, better known to the world as the one and only Fab 5 Freddy, it’s news to us. OG graf artist and celebrated painter, name-checked man about downtown in Blondie’s “Rapture,” co-star and co-creative force behind seminal hip-hop film Wild Style, style icon, and Brooklyn representer – Freddy’s resume was already the definition of ill even before being tapped to host a little music video show for a little basic cable channel called Yo! MTV Raps in 1988. In fact, instrumental in landing Freddy the landmark gig was his first music video as director (one that set off an esteemed career calling shots): Boogie Down Productions’ “My Philosophy” – the first national showcase for a charismatic young rapper known as KRS-One. We recently caught up with Fab to discuss how this classic and most uncompromising and artful of visual pieces became one of the cornerstones of a hip-hop music video explosion.
This was your music video directorial debut. How did it happen?
Fab 5 Freddy: It was kind of connected to me being back in art in ’88. I was getting a little restless with the solitude of painting, and wanted to find another way to increase my audience. You know, just do something that people could respond to immediately as opposed to waiting to have a couple of times over a year to exhibit [my] work. I’d learned quite a bit about filmmaking in the process of making Wild Style along with Charlie Ahearn. I thought I was capable of putting some images together. But Yo! MTV Raps had not started yet. So there was very few windows. Ralph McDaniels’ Video Music Box and a couple of little local type shows would show stuff. But I started campaigning. I had been trying to get [to direct] a Public Enemy video. So I had been in the studio when they were recording their first album. I was writing concepts for five or six songs off that album. I was taking meetings with them. But they were kind of hesitant because they were watching their budget. They were [contemplating] what were they gonna get out of a video since there was no direct outlet for those kinds of things. Anne Carli was an A&R, a genius kinda unsung major player at Jive Records, which probably had the strongest roster of rap acts at the time: KRS, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Too Short, Kool Moe Dee – all doing big things. I saw her at an event, [and she] just said, “I’ve got a video for you.” The fact that this woman out of nowhere had just heard the buzz on me trying to do this [P.E.] video and thought, oh, he’d be perfect – it was just a triumph for me that somebody took that chance with me. And I was nervous. I had no reel. I had nothing to show her. But she believed. She thought I could handle it. So that’s how the wheels began to turn for me to direct the “My Philosophy” video.
There’s a lot of unique elements to this video, but maybe the most famous is the section at the start where the music drops out and KRS-One rhymes accapella to camera. How did you decide to do that?
Fab 5 Freddy: The song was close to six minutes long, if I recall. And I was trying to find a way to shorten the song without editing, because the song was essentially three very long verses. [KRS-One] had done a spoken word piece [“Necessary”] on that album [By All Means Necessary]. So I thought, man, maybe this is a way to accentuate the fact that he’s kind of like a poet with this very articulate way of stating his lyrics. And I thought it also might be a way to shorten – which we did a little bit but not greatly – the length of the song by having him speak as opposed to rap, which was in a very tight structure based on the beat. So that was where the idea came from. And it was brilliant because it had never been done. So the song starts off and then it just stops, and then he’s just like: “Let me begin – what, where, why or when.” It just fit his sensibility, his attitude. And I guess it also just made everything seem more immediate.
Can you explain who the children are who are playing with the turntable at the beginning of the video?
Fab 5 Freddy: Those two little kids, who are adults now, one of them is the son of Scott La Rock, and the other is the son of Red Alert. I thought it was really important when we came up with the concept to put [Scott’s] son in the video. Scott La Rock had been killed less than a year before that video was shot. [BDP] had emerged with “The Bridge is Over,” and the singles that were bubbling, and [the group] was KRS-One and Scott La Rock. If you [don’t] know the story, Scott La Rock was a counselor in this men’s shelter where KRS was living, and befriended him and they became a crew out of that situation, and began to make records and shit literally while he was just coming out of a homeless shelter. Then Scott La Rock was tragically killed. And word was that these guys were so close that there was no way that KRS-One was gonna be able to go on. Anyway, I felt it was important to show something along the lines of a continuum, [so we showed] these kids. So that’s what that was about. [Some] people knew [what it was about]. Obviously we didn’t have the Internet all these ways of sharing all this info. But among the crew it was just a sentiment that I felt was special, and I think it helped the energy and the spirit around the creative process.
It sets things off in a very unique, profound way. And you have the shots of the portrait of Scott too.
Fab 5 Freddy: Yes, that’s right. The portrait. Aw, man, that was special. That was just… gosh. Yeah.
What stories do you recall from the production?
Fab 5 Freddy: One of the locations that we found in the Bronx is where a big outside performance takes place with all these kids. I would find out on the set while we were shooting that the big building looming behind everybody in that park is the armory/men’s shelter where KRS-One actually lived. Like, what?!? So we were really right there.
Where were the club scenes shot?
Fab 5 Freddy: The location was the Funhouse, which was a very popular disco at the time, though we didn’t identify it as such. We smoked it up and kept it real funky and hazy. I was trying to create a vibe. I was trying to capture a kind of energy that went down at [famous ’80s NYC hip-hop club] Latin Quarter. In fact, I had [recruited] some of the key dancers that danced at the Latin Quarter [for the video]. A key group of the house dancers [at Latin Quarter] were called the IOU dancers. And there’s a shot where you see these kids and they’ve got these “IOU” shirts on with the hi-top fades and everything. They would do these dances at the club. There might have been 20 or 30 of these cats – who knows maybe more. And they would stand on this huge stage at the LQ. And if they just improvised a move they would all just start mimicking the move and they would all be doing it, and it would look almost like choreography. And it would inspire people in the crowd to start mimicking that as well. It was a dope energy, and they were all great dancers. Later as hip-hoppers began to really emerge they would all have two dancers with them. That was like a standard thing at a point: if you rapped you had to have your DJ and a couple of dancers. And that all kinda grew out of that Latin Quarter aesthetic. A lot of the dancers that would dance with [rappers] were Latin Quarter dancers – you know, Scoob & Scrap, Fendi, the dudes that danced with EPMD, Kid N Play – they were all down with that aesthetic. So I had some of those cats in the party scene.
It’s a party scene, but then you also have these pro-Black images projected behind KRS as he performs.
Fab 5 Freddy: My father followed all kinds of alternative political, anti-war, Black militant [movements]. He was very astute about all these different things that had developed in the ’60s and ’70s towards changes for people of color and other people that were oppressed. So I was kind of well versed from a kid in a lot of the sensibilities around it. My father was in the building when Malcolm X was assassinated. That’s a snapshot of the kind of cat he was and things he was following. And so I was really up on stuff. And when KRS-One had done the pose on that album cover By All Means Necessary looking out the window a la Malcolm X I felt like a kindred spirit so to speak in terms of that sensibility. So when I had got at him and talked to him and relayed the ideas and the things I wanted to do [for the video] and the concepts he was with the whole program, and was impressed with the things I was trying to bring to the table. A lot of the aesthetics, the visuals, had kinda been conceptualized around what I [wanted to] do with Public Enemy. Like I said, as a kid with parents, and my dad in particular, keyed in with that struggle most of my memories of the documentation of that era was black and white news type footage. So that was the reason for putting the video in that field – to try to connect with the visual from that [era] as opposed to color.
And I’ll tell you another thing that was kind of strong for me: MTV at the time – and this is kind of ironic – was not really focusing on any Black music for the most part with the exception of Michael Jackson or maybe Prince or maybe Lionel Richie here and there. It was to me television apartheid, so to speak. Maybe one or two Run-DMC videos were beginning to get a little love – “Rock Box” or something like that. But it was still nowhere where we were [as a] culture. So I remember several times on the set people would ask: “So you think this will make MTV?” And I knew that [MTV] was not trying to mess with anything like this, let alone an artist like KRS-One. So I would be like, please, man don’t anybody on the set ask me that question again. Because it’s not gonna happen. And in fact I’m gonna make sure that this video is so Black and so what it’s supposed to be that I don’t see where there’s any reason why they would even think of playing this. A part of my concept was when he was performing in the Funhouse that I would project video and slides on the wall. And included in those images were Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, and Louis Farrakhan. And so I was certain that they would never play a video like that.
And yet not only did they play the video but things with you and MTV really took off soon after.
Fab 5 Freddy: To my surprise a good friend of mine named Peter Daugherty who was a producer at MTV at the time and had been a good friend of mine from the downtown scene, he produced the pilot for Yo! MTV Raps that would set the stage for me becoming the host soon after. This pilot was a 2-hour pilot hosted by Run-DMC and Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince while they were on tour. They played all the available rap videos at that time. The final video on that show was “My Philosophy” and I was just astonished that Peter made that happen. That show aired I wanna say between May and June of ’88, and it was huge [for me] – that a video that I directed was on MTV was astonishing. And it was an indication that they were about to make an extreme move. Of course, it was nowhere on my radar. I was just really pleased and blessed – that I had finally got something made and it was being seen by all these people. KRS-One had arrived. And soon after I would be asked to be the host of the show. So by the fall of ’88: Yo! MTV Raps. It was like, get the fuck outta here, where did this come from?!? This ain’t nowhere in the script or just even the slightest remote thought. But with 20 + years of reflection [now we understand that] it was the time for a major change.