Fab 5 Freddy And The Return of Yo! MTV Raps

With Yo! MTV Raps coming back for a special tribute, Fab 5 Freddy told us who's fly and why the show's legacy continues to grow.

It’s undeniable that Yo! MTV Raps, the first hip hop-focused show on the then music television network, forever changed the genre when it launched in 1988.

MTV made a low budget bet on Yo! MTV Raps at a time when rap music struggled to get airtime on popular radio. The show almost immediately made waves across the world. It featured a mix of music videos, live performances, and guest appearances by the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Eric B & Rakim, Run DMC, NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, and Tupac to name just a few. As it was put in the Yo! MTV Raps documentary, the show became an “ambassadorship for hip hop to mainstream America.”

At the center of it all was Fab 5 Freddy, an influential graffiti artist and filmmaker from Bed Stuy who had his finger on the pulse of New York’s burgeoning hip hop scene, and the eclectic downtown arts movement as a whole. He was a tastemaker whose legend grew after being saluted in the Blondie song “Rapture,” the first rap video ever played on MTV, with the line “Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly.” “If you got his stamp of approval, then you were hip hop,” Big Boi said in the Yo! MTV Raps documentary.

When MTV called him up to host their new show, Fab 5 Freddy made it a point to go to the places where music history was being made. They brought MTV out of the studio and into the streets, dance studios, clubs, and music venues, building momentum by taking the show to the people. With black talent in front of and behind the camera, not only was it a groundbreaking moment in television history, but it became MTV’s highest rated show.

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With MTV set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Yo! MTV Raps at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 1st, and a revival of the show coming to the network soon, Den of Geek spoke with Fab 5 Freddy on how the show changed the perception of hip hop, his early career, and the health of today’s hip hop music. 

DEN OF GEEK: What are you most nostalgic about when you’re thinking back to that era?

Fab 5 Freddy: Thanks to YouTube, I get to see little moments. People send me clips and highlights that were a big part of their lives. It’s just a blessing and amazing to me.

Once hip hop emerged from the outer boroughs and arrived in Manhattan, one of the things that strikes me from looking at that old footage is the diversity of people that were in those rooms, just how inclusive it was. 

A good friend came out of the hip English scene and was around the Blitz Kids and Malcolm McLaren and all that stuff. She was in New York and saw that hip hop was blowing up and she put together some parties at a reggae club called The Grill, and then took it to a place called The Roxy. She connected a real kind of a trendy New York new wave punk crowd and they all came out and we all partied as one. And everybody had a good time checking everybody’s style out and you know, yeah it was a good time for all.

Is that still alive today, that kind of inclusivity?

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Yeah, sure it’s still alive. I mean, it may not happen in a room, but people with similar sensibilities like similar things! You may not have a lot of opportunities to have that kind of a picture back then when it was first happening. But I guess it depends on where you are or where you go. 

But England has been reflective of a more, kind of an integrated situation because it wasn’t the same kind of racism that we’d have in America. So when Wild Style came out in England and I got an early look at how diverse and open, and the charts were never segregated like Pop meaning white or R&B meaning black essentially. If you had a hit record, it went to the top of the charts in England. So I remember understanding that and realizing that and then being received over there early on.

You know, you might not know this but Wild Style, hip hop’s first movie that I star in, was co-funded by Channel 4 way before it was accepted or understood over here. German TV helped us fund the movie as well. So that was indicative of England just being open and aware and not having those racial blinders that a lot of times people in America have had when it comes to music. So that’s a good thing.

You were initially known for your graffiti and street art. When you got started, was it difficult to get into the galleries?

The way I did that was similar to the way we would figure out how to get our names on the side of that train. So that was a lot of cunning and cleverness and not getting caught and all of that stuff just to make some pictures. 

My way, my idea of getting into the art world was the same idea. It was like, we’re gonna figure out a way. So myself and close friends like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, others of us that could comprehend on that level, that was a part of my team. So we were able to figure some things out, get some love, people like Blondie helped introduce me to people like Andy Warhol and things of that nature where we was all partying together, you feel me? So yeah, we figured out a way to get in.

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I’m still making paintings and exhibiting. I’m also still making films and directing. You probably know I directed a lot of videos through that Yo! MTV Raps era for Snoop, Queen Latifah, Gang Starr, and numerous others. I’m in the process of directing a documentary for a major digital platform about the history of cannabis in America and people of color primarily. So the beginnings of cannabis becoming popular coincides with the development of jazz. All the way from jazz to Snoop. It will be finished end of summer and keep your eyes out some time in the fall. The name of the film is The Grass is Greener.

What did getting involved with Yo! MTV Raps mean to you in terms of hip hop’s evolution?

Well, it was just like the fun, cool thing to do. Out of nowhere, you get a call from a good friend like “MTV is finally ready to test out this idea” and I’m like, okay, that’s interesting! ‘And we wanna screen test you to be the host,’ and I’m like, really? And so they said, well how would you want to do it? 

And I said, ‘Well I don’t want to be cooped up in the studio the way those other DJs were at that time.’ I would feel more comfortable if I can go where the music is, where the people making it are. Whether that’s on a corner in Harlem, a basement like Pete Rock’s basement, up in Mount Vernon, you know, or standing in Compton with NWA, introducing them.

So that formula worked out and the ratings were good and we just made history. It’s amazing that 30 years later that a lot of those original artists get to come together at Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the Yo! MTV Raps 30th Anniversary experience. It’s gonna be real special, a lot really incredible special guests that I can’t announce are going to be there. It’s will be something really kind of unique happening in that room.

What kind of feedback did you get from some of the younger artists that might’ve grown up watching the show and had it influence their careers?

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The younger artists, especially the ones who are smart, they’re in a fortunate situation that they can access so much of this sound and picture right online. So artists like Kendrick just come up to me knowing practically my whole history. 

And that’s pretty amazing and encouraging, seeing how that works. Artists are figuring out how to do whatever it is that they want to do. But it’s really great to know that a lot of the smarter ones are really taking a look at the early Yo! MTV Raps history, which I think is really important. A lot of hip hop was sampling great music from the ’60s and ’70s. A lot of the better artists really pay homage and study the things that happened before.

Who’s on your Spotify right now? Who are you listening to?

I’ve been doing a little more Tidal, actually. I jumped on Tidal. I really had to think about how incredible it was that an artist that I like so much actually owns his own platform so I use Tidal. 

But I listen to a bunch of things. I listen to the new mixes coming out, I listen to reggae, I listen to jazz, I’m still just amazed at how much music is at my fingertips! It’s kind of exciting when you check that out. But then, in thinking about aspects of the culture, I’m still fascinated that mixtapes are still referred to as such when cassette tapes don’t even exist anymore! 

What kind of health do you think hip hop is in today?

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I think it’s really great! If you can dig and find your niche, it’s such an interesting time where through the technology we can find whatever it is that we’re looking for. There are some different things that people may not like, but there were records I didn’t like back then as well as now. You know? People made records that weren’t so dope, and that’s the same thing now. The things that really resonate though, there are certain things that just define a point in time. Once we move past a few years, we’ll see who of these new young rappers really can survive. I mean, some will and some won’t. And that was the same thing through every period, so we’ll see soon.