When Debbie Harry met Fab 5 Freddy, 1979
4 MIN READ
The iconic face of chart-topping band Blondie met a student, graffiti writer and rapper from the streets of Brooklyn behind the scenes of a TV show.
In the late 70s, New York was in trouble and the city nearly bankrupt but there was still a sharp division between the edgy scenes of downtown and uptown. Hip Hop still lived in the parks and block parties of New York’s outer boroughs and New Wave Punk and Pop Art in downtown Manhattan. But by January 1981 Fab 5 Freddy and Grandmaster Flash had been name-checked in the chart-topping Blondie song Rapture and, for the first time, the underground hip hop scene collided with mainstream pop.
Rapture was not Hip Hop’s first commercial outing, that honour goes to the Sugar Hill Gang, but it was the first time any song featuring a rap had made it to the top of the charts. It was also the first rap played on regular rotation on the newly born MTV.
Behind the lens at TV Party
In 1978 Chris Stein of Blondie and music journalist Glenn O’Brien had an idea to take advantage of low-cost public access broadcasting and put on their own TV show called TV Party. O’Brien recalled how it began in VICE magazine: “I thought, wow, people are actually watching this. In those days, the lack of decent cable options meant random dial-spinners had a very good chance of landing on your channel.”
Around the same time student Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, was running a weekly music show on his college radio station and a huge fan of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. He particularly loved the column on the back — Glenn O’Brien’s Beat — so he wrote to ask if Glenn would come to Brooklyn to be interviewed on air. He agreed and Fab 5 Freddy’s life changed trajectory. Glenn asked Freddy if would he return the favour and be interviewed on his new show.
Fab 5 Freddy recalled, “Two months later, I get a call from Glenn to come on his show. It was going to happen. So I show up at this funky little bar on 23rd Street in Manhattan called the Blarney Stone. There were all these cool new-wave, punk-rock folks, and we walked across the street to the studio, which was no bigger than your average living room.”
After being interviewed by O’Brien on the first ever TV Party show Fred ended up standing in behind the camera when they were caught short. “It was very low-tech, very lo-fi; the video cameras we used were actually black-and-white.”
He assumed a regular role behind the lens with guests that included Debbie Harry, David Bowie, George Clinton, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, Nile Rogers and Kid Creole. The show was crawling with filmmakers, writers, poets, painters and photographers and was a hotbed of inspiration for the young artist.
It was here, behind the scenes at TV Party, that Freddy first illustrated the role of the emcee for Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. As he rapped for them with rhymes about coming from Mars he would inspire the lyrics of Rapture and earn himself a name-check on a no.1 song.
In a video by Charlie Ahearn Fab 5 Freddy remembers, “In 1979 I was launching my assault on the art world aka pop culture. I was plotting, planning, scheming. Trying to devise a way to kick these doors in…At the same time there was this music thing bubbling. These jams in parks, these block parties and I would go to hear these DJ’s, mostly in Brooklyn.”
Downtown vs. Uptown
Playing on the connections he’d made at TV Party Fab 5 Freddy started to build a bridge between the uptown graffiti and hip hop scene and the downtown new wave art scene. He had a vision that graffiti could be seen as art rather than an output of urban delinquency. Inspired by the downtown pop culture he was sure there should be a fusion in urban art and rap music too.
“I arranged to take Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Glenn O’Brien and a bunch of other people from that downtown, new wave, TV Party scene up to a P.A.L [Webster Avenue Police Athletic League] in the Bronx. And Debbie Harry was totally enthralled. Everybody was super-energised at seeing this new form of music go down. That kinda got things sparking in their heads.”
After seeing the virtuoso Grandmaster Flash at the P.A.L Debbie Harry was thrilled at discovering rap music. “Nobody does this, it’s really wild and great. It’s very underground and very hip, and it’s really happening.”
Despite their fame and popularity Blondie remained true to their punk roots and were still combing their experiences for risky new directions. Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and the rest of Blondie began to riff off Fab 5 Freddy’s backstage raps about men from mars. The result was Rapture, a fusion of punk swagger, hip hop and pop art. Harry herself admits she was not the most accomplished rapper, but that hardly matters; Rapture broke new ground for mainstream pop music and paved the way for early hip hop artists.
"Debbie Harry was totally enthralled. Everybody was super-energised at seeing this new form of music go down. That kinda got things sparking in their heads.”
Before Rapture was released and Debbie Harry’s rap launched his name into the public consciousness Fab 5 Freddy was busy making plans. Bolstered by his connections from TV Party he made his move at the Times Square Art Show.
“This tall, handsome guy with dark sunglasses approached me, and I later got to know him as Fab 5 Freddy,” says filmmaker Charlie Ahearn “he had an idea that it would be great to put some of this stuff on film and pull together aspects of this culture.”
Freddy was well connected in the graffiti scene but he wanted to create a film to show graffiti alongside the DJs, Emcees and break dancers he encountered on the streets. “What I really wanted to do was capture some of that energy and put a frame around it.”
Hip hop was created in South Bronx by DJ Kool Herc who had grown up listening to rhythmic ‘toasting’ as a young boy in his native Jamaica. He added spoken rhymes over extended funk and disco beats and hip hop was born. By the late 70s Grandmaster Flash had taken up the baton of the break-beat and refined it with his own techniques and flamboyant DJing style. And it was in the Bronx that Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy decided to make the film Wild Style.
But Freddy was in Europe hustling for Wild Style when the song was released and he recalled the moment he first heard it on a Parisian radio station in the back of a cab with Chris and Tina from the Talking Heads: “I thought this was a joke, I didn’t know this was a real record that they were going to release”. Still he jumped on board to write graffiti in the background of the music video as Debbie Harry rapped in her inimitable way.
And you don’t stop
MTV had burst on to the scene in the summer of 1981. Its promise of non-stop music videos had a strikingly similar proposition to the hip hop exhortation featured in Rapture ‘and you don’t stop’. The channel would become the backbone of the 1980s music scene but in 1981 black artists were struggling to get any airtime, even big names like Michael Jackson in the days before Thriller.
But Blondie’s music video for Rapture, featuring graffiti artists, turntables and breakdancers, was front and center of this burgeoning world of 24-hour TV. It seems that moment on the set of TV Party opened the doors for the hip hop artists of the 1980s and this kind of exposure, even just in name, gave rap artists a wider platform and the possibility of commercial success.
Ironically, when MTV launched its new hip hop show Yo! MTV Raps in 1988 it was Fab 5 Freddy who was the VJ host. And by the time Blondie had resurfaced in 1999, after a long hiatus, rap music had gone from broke to bling.