When he was hopscotching between segregated poles of 1970s and ’80s New York — the uptown of Grandmaster Flash and the Rock Steady Crew; the downtown of Andy Warhol and Blondie — brokering the kind of cultural exchange that would pave the way for hip-hop’s eventual takeover, Fred Brathwaite, better known as Fab 5 Freddy, never kept a consistent diary. Instead, decades before social media, he documented the events of his daily life on film, deploying either a compact point-and-shoot camera or a Hi8 camcorder that he always kept at the ready.
“At a certain point, I began to think of myself as a camera,” Fab 5 Freddy said in a recent interview. “I was always trying to capture moments, or visual ideas. It was only later that I realized they could form an ongoing narrative.”
As a sought-after graffiti artist, music video director, film producer and the original host and creative force behind “Yo! MTV Raps,” Fab 5 Freddy’s lens produced a panorama of future cultural landmarks of New York and beyond, revealing an era when hierarchies of race, class and taste in art were beginning to scramble. His personal photographs and videos, and the narratives they tell, make up much of a career-spanning archive that was recently acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library.
The 120-box archive, which will eventually be made available to the public, also includes notebooks, screenplays, vinyl records, fliers and apparel — a modern mélange that distinguishes the collection, and the collector, from many of the center’s earlier acquisition targets, including the papers of James Baldwin and Sonny Rollins.
“It’s kind of the archive of the future,” said Kevin Young, the director of the Schomburg. “Not only are there papers, but there’s all these videos, audio and snapshots that really show a life — both his life and the life of hip-hop.”
Shola Lynch, the curator of the moving image and recorded sound division at the center, said the materials were 55 percent audio and video, making it the rare collection at the institution to consist mostly of multimedia artifacts.
“People may say that VHS is an unsexy format, but Freddy is reflective of the time in which he was creating, just as Sonny Rollins is reflective of his,” she said.
Young said that memorializing the birth and spread of hip-hop — an art form that elite cultural institutions once deemed unsophisticated, and whose pioneers are only in their 50s and 60s — was a top priority when he joined the Schomburg Center in 2016.
“Hip-hop is not a form that is often looking back, necessarily — it’s usually on to the next thing,” he said. “But I knew that if anyone had a great collection, it would be Freddy.”
For Fab 5 Freddy, that’s unexpected, but welcome, validation.
“I never thought these things would have that kind of importance, they were just important to me,” he said. “The fact that the Schomburg is interested has been one of life’s great surprises.”
In a recent interview at the Schomburg Center, Fab 5 Freddy shared the stories behind a few items in the collection.
VHS Recordings of ‘Yo! MTV Raps’
“Yo! MTV Raps,” which premiered in 1988, was an early television show devoted to hip-hop music and videos, and helped the genre reach a broader and more suburban audience. But because it aired on cable, then a relatively new medium, not everyone could tune in. “My parents didn’t have cable until several years into ‘Yo! MTV Raps,’” Fab 5 Freddy said, “so it was a part of my deal that [the network] would send me VHS copies of the show, and I would also have a copy go to my parents. I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m on TV! Really!’”
Viewers got in touch, and “the illest fan mail I would get from the ‘Yo! MTV Raps’ era was from people in prison,” he said. “They really liked the show, because they felt like it connected them to the street. Ice-T once told me that all throughout South Central he knew people that were demanding cable just to see this show. People that looked like them? Coming from their hood? Talking real stuff? It was unprecedented.” He said his own desire for better representation in media was the inspiration for making “Wild Style,” the 1982 film by director Charlie Ahearn that co-starred Fab 5 Freddy and was the first to center on hip-hop culture. “Anytime you saw somebody young, black or Latin in the press, it was almost always negative. I’m like, that’s some bull.”
Draft of the Screenplay for ‘New Jack City’
With “Wild Style” and “Yo! MTV Raps,” Fab 5 Freddy was one of hip-hop’s most visible chaperones on the road from the streets to Hollywood. He produced or appeared in several films that drew from or inspired the music scene he had championed in New York, including “New Jack City” and “Juice.”
“I had just directed a video called ‘Road to the Riches’ for Kool G Rap and Polo that was the first video about the rise and fall of a New York crack dealer,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “In the video, there was an undercover cop that turned out to be a part of his crew. So when [movie producer] George Jackson saw that, he was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the same as ‘New Jack City’! You have to come and work on this film!” As an associate producer, Fab 5 Freddy selected wardrobe, including jewelry — “the right four-finger rings and the ropes that they would wear from the street level until they got fully polished,” he explained.
“‘Wild Style’ was film school for me,” he said. “But this was really Hollywood. It was huge.”
‘Yo! MTV Raps’ T-Shirt
“Yo! MTV Raps” went off the air in 1995. But merchandise bearing its logo — much of it unofficial — remains popular with nostalgic fans. A graffiti artist named Dr. Revolt designed the logo. “This was at the time when I kind of kicked the doors open to the gallery scene for all of us,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “The inspiration is clearly a comic book image, specifically Ben Day dot treatment that Roy Lichtenstein would apply to his pop art imagery, which we were riffing off. Now you see the logo all over the place — people put all kinds of things in it.”
Snapshot of Puff Daddy and the Notorious B.I.G.
A young Christopher Wallace was among the numerous rising hip-hop stars that Fab 5 Freddy introduced to a national audience with “Yo! MTV Raps.” A personal photograph of the Notorious B.I.G. and his mentor, Puff Daddy, was taken at the Bad Boy offices in Manhattan in 1994. “Puff’s two main acts at the time were Craig Mack and Biggie, and Craig was peaking, and Big was just taking off,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “If you look at the footage, I talked to Craig first and then Big, and Big just really kept it one hundred.”
Tape Reel Labeled ‘Malcolm’s Assassination Sunday, Feb. 21, 1965’
Fab 5 Freddy’s grandfather was a follower of Marcus Garvey, and his father was a fixture of the 1950s jazz scene in New York (Fab 5 Freddy’s godfather was drummer Max Roach). Proximity to landmark cultural moments is his birthright, and there is no more dramatic evidence in the collection than a tape reel, which Fab 5 Freddy said contains audio of the assassination of Malcolm X. “My dad was in the room,” he said. “His best friend was a guy by the name of Willie Jones who would record a lot of speeches for Malcolm, and this is from the day he was killed. You hear it all. One of the bullets actually goes through the mic — you can hear the pitch change, and then the recording stops.”
Notes for Fab 5 Freddy’s College Radio Show ‘The People’s Beat’
Fab 5 Freddy briefly studied communications at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. The classes didn’t stick, but a radio show he started there with a friend opened doors. “I had learned a lot about music from Glenn O’Brien’s column in Interview — he would write about dancehall and reggae and punk and new wave,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “So I ended up inviting him on the radio show, and he said yes.” A few months later, O’Brien asked Fab 5 Freddy to appear on his public access TV show, “TV Party,” where Fab 5 Freddy eventually became a camera operator. That job introduced him to Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie, Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among other figures of the downtown art scene who would become his friends and mentors.
VHS Tape: ‘My Pal, Jean-Michel Basquiat Speaking His Mind!’
Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy became close friends in the years after “TV Party.” After his death in 1988, their mutual friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis, sent Fab 5 Freddy footage of an interview she had conducted with Basquiat, which would later be featured in the documentary “Radiant Child.” “He had asked her to film him,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “He was just in great spirits and at a great time in his life.”
Photos From the Sets of Nas’ ‘One Love’ and Queen Latifah’s ‘Ladies First’ Videos
Fab 5 Freddy directed one of Nas’ first videos, for the “Illmatic” track “One Love," in 1994 and took some snapshots on the set, including of Nas’ brother, Jabari “Jungle” Jones. “These other cats are just real hood cats from the Queensbridge projects, where we shot it,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “Queensbridge was the most crack-infested place. Most everyone living in the projects had been in some way affected by crack, whether your loved one was on it, or was in jail, or you got robbed. It was real deep at the time.”
Fab 5 Freddy noted he was “instrumental” in getting Queen Latifah signed to a record deal. “I knew her as a part of DJ Mark the 45 King’s crew, Flavor Unit, and really dug her sound,” he said. “I would rave about her to Monica Lynch, who was president of Tommy Boy Records at the time.” Her 1989 video for “Ladies First” was the second clip he directed for her. “The song was just a strong affirmation of womanhood, but I created a narrative that Latifah was the daughter of one of the generals of the anti-apartheid struggle.”
Snapshot With Debbie Harry of Blondie From the Late ’90s
Fab 5 Freddy’s friendship with Harry was immortalized on Blondie’s No. 1 hit from 1981, “Rapture,” on which she drops his name in the opening words. In the video for the song, Fab 5 Freddy appears along with Basquiat and graffiti artist Lee Quiñones.
“Debbie Harry and Chris Stein and I had kind of a cultural exchange — they were the first to buy my paintings,” Fab 5 Freddy said. “We would talk about all kinds of things, and I would tell them all about hip-hop and how I felt it had a similar energy to punk. Later, they went off on tour, and when they came back, they played me this new song that had Debbie rapping on it. A lot of the things she was rapping were things that I’d told her about: 'Flash is fast,' 'You don't stop.' So at first I thought they had just made it for me as a goof. It wasn’t until I heard it in a cab months later that I realized it was not only a real song, but the first single from their new album. It was surreal.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.