Habitat is a weekly series that visits with artists in their workspaces.
This week’s studio: Fab 5 Freddy; Hamilton Heights, New York. “Hell no, honey!” Fab 5 Freddy responded when I asked him if downtown Manhattan is still full of the creative people it was home to in the 1980s, when he was a 20-something young man painting subway cars. “The sad thing going on in this town, which David Byrne wrote about a few years ago, is that real estate speculators have gotten so slick,” he said. “Our whole thing back then was predicated on affordable rent, which is why we ended up in certain parts of town.” (And why he now lives uptown.)
Fab 5 Freddy emerged in late 1970s New York, creating bridges between the graffiti scene, the art world, and the punk movement. He broke into the mainstream in Blondie’s “Rapture” music video and made regular appearances on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party before going on to host Yo! MTV Raps.
But though he is perhaps best known for his time in the music world, Freddy said that he never considered himself a musician. “I’m an artist first and foremost,” he said. “I work in film and television just like a lot of other working artists. Because my name is Fab 5 Freddy, many people think of me as a music person. I made a song and a soundtrack 30 years ago, that’s the music that I’ve done.” (He produced the soundtrack for Charlie Ahearn’s 1983 graffiti-world film Wild Style, and his track “Change the Beat” is credited by the BBC as the most sampled song of all time.) “If I was pressed to define it, I’d say I was ‘playing with sound,’ ” he said. “It was organic and spontaneous in development. Nobody was thinking about the money and grandeur that artists get now.”
He said that he pitched the idea for Wild Style to Ahearn when the two met at “The Time Square Art Show” in 1980, the storied DIY art exhibition that was housed in an abandoned old massage parlor. “I had the idea of making Wild Style as a way of showing that there was a link between elements which weren’t linked prior,” he said, referring to the Bronx graffiti-writing scene and the downtown art and film community. “The cult film status it received is incredible, but it’s nowhere near what we expected. We were just happy to get the movie made.”
In the slideshow below, Freddy provides anecdotes about his workspace and process, some of which will appear in his memoir, which he’s currently writing.
ALL PHOTOS: KATHERINE MCMAHON