I didn’t realize there was a controversy about the origins of the term “hip hop” in the media until Michael Holman contacted me via facebook. Michael was part of the original downtown scene that included Jean Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy. He’d just started managing the New York City Breakers when I first met him. The picture of him and me with Phase 2 and Stephen Crichlow was taken around this time at my birthday party at Lucky Strike. I wanted to get his crew into my film Beat Street, so I introduced Michael to Harry Belafonte. At that first meeting, Michael made a pitch to be the director of Beat Street. Both Harry and I felt though, that he was too inexperienced for a multi-million dollar project, but Harry liked him and signed him on as an associate producer. Who knows what might have happened though because the arrival of Andrew Davis as director signaled the demise of my script, although my original story is available on smashwords.com so any interested parties can dream with me about what might have been. I wonder if Michael even ever read it? Maybe he’s just the guy to go to back to Hollywood and get it done finally in time for the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip hop.
More to the point of this blog: ever since my original Voice article on Afrika Bambaataa was reprinted in a best-of hip hop journalism compilation, I began getting credit for putting the words “hip hop” into print for the first time. Not so, as it turns out, since Michael Holman apparently did that in a interview in the East Village Eye in January 1982. The interview probably took place shortly after Fab Five Freddy lured Bambaataa downtown to the Mudd Club for the first time, although Bambaataa and Fred soon began spending a lot of time working on the soon-to-come downtown-uptown merger that helped birth an explosion of creativity out of both camps. Michael and Charlie Ahearn were the first independent filmmakers to arrive on that scene. Anyway, I hope this mea culpa clears up the whole controversy.
Meanwhile, I’m about to release the first three ebooks from my new High Times Greatest Hits venture on smashwords. But I also have turned my attention back to my original Hip Hop book, which, although available in beta form on smashwords, desperately needs a complete overhaul with images and new material, as well as corrections to numerous typos. Thanks to Michael, I’ve been inspired to dive back into that project and hope to have an amazing new edition out in a few weeks. Among the gems I’ve uncovered so far is a picture of Kool Herc in 1975 taken by Coke La Rock and a complete copy of Bambaataa’s English class paper on street gangs.
I was hoping to run into some old friends I haven’t seen in a while, like Fred, Futura and Zephyr, but none of them made it to Patti Astor’s book signing. The four of us belong to a very special group, you see, one that also includes Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. We all had shows at the Fun Gallery, although mine was the only photographic exhibit ever held at that gallery. (Only one photograph sold, btw, an Andre Grossmann blow-up of an early breakdance competition, which was purchased by Gary Pini for around $150. Last time I saw it, it was hanging over a fireplace in his townhouse in Brooklyn, although I haven’t been there in over a decade.)
Patti was a true Queen of the East Village during its glory days. The scene back then was divided between the older, more sophisticated Mudd Club crowd and the retro Club 57 crew, both of which were pursuing much different esthetics, although both worlds got suddenly pulled together when hip hop arrived. Patti and Jean-Michel were part of the core of Mudd Club, while Keith, Kenny, John Sex and Ann Magnuson were the emerging Club 57 stars. The Mudd Club was mostly on heroin at the time, while Club 57 much preferred mushrooms. Later cocaine took over everywhere.
Patti’s drug of preference, however, was probably Veuve Clicqout. At least that’s what usually emerged when a major ceremony of her’s was about to go down. Patti was the greatest master of ceremonies in New York at the time, which is why all these artists wanted desperately to show in her gallery.
Her book is a masterpiece of counterculture literature, and a way better guide to the era than what has been published so far (with the possible exception of my book Art After Midnight). I read it in one sitting and it really took me back to the period. Despite the emergence of AIDS right in our midst, the infusion of hip hop into the downtown scene was monumental. Fred Brathwaite was really the first person to catch onto the potentials of merging downtown with the South Bronx. He met Patti at a cocktail party and the rest is history. In the book, she refers to him as the “chairman of the board.” I had to read the book to discover they were also lovers for a brief time. One of my favorite scenes in the book happens after Patti breaks up with her husband Steven Kramer and moves quickly from Fred to Futura to Jean-Michel. Walking home late at night, Fred looks over at Keily Jenkins and snarls “You’ll probably be next.” “Really?!” says Keily. Not only was Keily next, but he was the one who actually stuck. Of course, Patti wasn’t there to see that conversation. She heard about it later from Keily, one of the many luminaries from that time period who died too young to comb his grey hair.
I arrived at the Mudd Club right on time and went upstairs to view the opening of the new Mudd Club Art Gallery. The owner, Steve Maas, had recently taken over the downtown scene by creating the coolest club in town, one that helped focus the merger of CBGB’s crowd with the Soho art scene. My article on Futura 2000 had appeared that morning, my first cover story for the Manhattan edition of the hip new afternoon New York Daily News.
Futura had designed the headline himself and been paid around $100. While Futura was in the art room sketching the piece, a senior dude looked me in the eye and said: “We shouldn’t be promoting this.” It was my first inkling my reporting might be rubbing some of the old guard the wrong way.
I assumed we’d all be celebrating up a storm at the Mudd Club. Fred Braithwaite greeted me. When I asked if he’d seen the Daily News article, he pulled out a copy of High Times and showed me Glenn O’Brien’s much more in-depth article that ran for pages with lots of amazing color photos. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fred were the major characters in his piece.
Somewhat deflated, I speed-read the article while thinking, “Shit, this guy beat me to the punch. I need to start reading High Times.”
Meanwhile, I notice a bunch of girls are looking at me funny. “That’s him,” one says. I can tell they are super pissed-off about something, so I ask them what’s up.
“You called our father an alcoholic! Do you know what if was like for him to read that!” snarled one, which cranked up the angry vibes on the rest of them.
I sought refuge behind the desk with Fred and whispered, “Holy shit. I assumed his dad was dead or he wouldn’t have told me.”
“Well,” said Fred, “he told you so he must have wanted it to come out, even subconsciously.”
It was the first time I realized the power of the media to cause intense emotional problems and how the unvarnished truth is not always the best option. The whole incident put a real damper on the celebration for me, and I went home early, although not before Fred gave me Bambaataa’s phone number, so I could interview him the next day. It was the beginning of a long trail I’d scout for the next four years, a trail I’d been put on by viewing a subway car called “Break” that I’d seen at New York/New Wave at P.S. 1, a train painted by Futura 2000. You can read the original Daily News article in my book Hip Hop: The Complete Archives.
I was a reporter for the New York Daily News and a contributing writer to Horizon magazine, when I attended Diego Cortez’s New York/New Wave at P.S. 1 in Long Island City. Many in the press detested that ultra-hip show, but I was blown away. It celebrated the CBGB punk scene, East Village art, the re-emergence of image, and the recent flowering of graffiti that was taking place in New York. There were several huge rooms covered floor-to-ceiling with art and photography. It was the cutting edge of the underground, and the first time Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibited. Basquiat was the sensation of the moment, his paintings already sold to the de Menil collection. But one room was devoted to photos of spray-painted subway trains, and one of those photos absolutely floored me. I’d only been in New York for a few years, and when I arrived, I assumed the city paid artists to paint those murals on trains because so many of them looked like they were part of a set out of Disneyland. One train in the exhibit especially stopped me in my tracks: it was called “Break” by Futura 2000.
Kurtis Blow had just achieved the first certified-gold rap record with a song called “The Breaks.” At first, I thought Futura’s train was an homage to Kurtis Blow. But then it occured to me there were subcultural undercurrents running through both rap music and graffiti, and that this probably represented an authentic cultural movement that had not been acknowledged in the mass media. (At this time, I knew nothing about break dancing, but that element would surface within days.)
I bought “Break” from Futura and he signed and autographed it to me (it still hangs prominently in my bedroom). Futura introduced me to Fab Five Freddy, who gave me Afrika Bambaataa’s number after I told him I wanted to research where this culture had actually started.
Over the next few weeks, I interviewed Bambaataa several times. He was extremely helpful, and even opened up his archives for me to peruse. Bam had written a book-length report on the history of the Black Spades while in high school, and he let me make a copy. Most important, Bam gave me the telephone number of Kool Herc, and indicated it all started with him. Back in the ’80s, every minor hip hopper in New York was spinning tales about “how it all began” and 90% of these stories were complete fabrications. But Bam only spoke the truth and he never exaggerated about anything. In fact, Bam seemed to be operating on a higher plane of existence, and was obviously a spiritually-charged being. Even better, he became famous and successful beyond imagination while I was working on the story, releasing a monster hit called “Planet Rock,” which created the electro-boogie sound and transformed hip hop and dance music in general.
I got fired by the Daily News, but that was okay, because now I was onto the biggest story of my life, and I knew it. I spent several weeks researching the story, which I eventually submitted to the Village Voice, and titled: “The Pied Piper of Hip Hop.” Keep in mind, at this point in time, the words “hip hop” had never appeared in print anywhere and were not even well-known to most people inside the culture. The story was mostly about Bambaataa, but it covered many of the major developments in the history of the hip hop, including who did what first.
The Village Voice sat on the manuscript for weeks, and I kept calling Robert Christgau, the music editor, leaving messages every other day. I just wanted him to accept it or reject it, so I could submit it to Rolling Stone, and I couldn’t get an answer. I was terrified another writer was going to break the story of hip hop before I did. Finally, Tulani Davis called and said she wanted to publish the article and would edit it.
I went out on a limb in the article and said hip hop was going to become the most significant cultural movement of the decade, and I can’t tell you how many people found that comment ridiculous in 1981. Even in the East Village, there was intense resistance to recognizing the value of rap music in some quarters. Rap was viewed as a ghetto fad that had no significance for the rest of the world.
Sadly, there was always something mysterious about Bam as he was typically surrounded by teenage boys, and there never seemed to be any women around. Decades later, several boys would come forward with accusations of sexual abuse and one of them ended up murdered as a result.
During the winter of 1979, I moved to New York City and was crashing in a loft below Tribeca with a friend of a friend while I looked for a cheap apartment and job. After a late dinner, my host took me to an after hours club on Houston street to show me my first taste of New York City nightlife. There was a bebop jazz combo performing and it was around midnight when we walked in. While I was standing at the bar, a young black man approached and asked me: “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” Until then, I hadn’t realized how out-of-place I looked in my button-down shirt and ski jacket, and I got very self-conscious. I’d just arrived from graduate school in the Midwest and it would take years for me to assimilate into a New York sense of style. I was so punctured by the comment that I never forgot the dude, although it would be several months before we met again.
Actually, my next encounter was with the art, not the man. One hot summer afternoon, I traveled to the Lower East Side to interview Fab Five Freddy. At the end of the interview, Fred showed me a postcard for an opening at the Annina Nosei Gallery. “Wow, what a great painting!” I exclaimed the second I saw the image of two primitive figures with a roast chicken being placed on a table.
I didn’t know much about Jean Michel at the time, but I did know something about current directions in art. After years of the dominance and eventual dead-end of minimalism, there was an obvious yearning for color and imagery. I’d recently written the first magazine profile on Julian Schnabel for the now-defunct Horizon magazine and knew imagery was on the way back. But I was startled by the originality of that postcard. I think Fred was a little let-down by my sudden burst of excitement. I’d been looking at his work for an hour (he was hoping to sell me something) and hadn’t reacted so strongly to anything he’d shown me of his own. I got the impression Fred was feeling a bit overshadowed by his friend Jean Michel’s exploding talents. Like many graffiti writers at the time, Jean Michel was making the switch from writing on walls and trains to painting on canvas. But he wasn’t making “graffiti-style” paintings at all, rather he was creating an entirely original vocabulary.
In 1981, when Diego Cortez’s seminal “New York/New Wave” show opened at P.S. 1, I was most impressed by a photograph of a train painted by Futura 2000 and purchased a signed copy of that photo direct from Futura. It was at that show I decided to devote the next few years of my life to researching the origins of hip hop, which culminated in my book “Hip Hop” as well as the film “Beat Street.” Those projects took me to the South Bronx, far away from the Soho art world Jean Michel had recently invaded. However, as soon as I completed those projects, I began work on a book titled “Art After Midnight,” which was going to tell the story of the rise of the East Village art scene through the stories of its most famous practitioners: Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. I already had solid personal relationships with Haring and Scharf, but knew getting close to Jean Michel was going to present a challenge. One of my closest friends at the time was a gossip columnist for the East Village Eye and also a rival of Basquiat’s. They apparently had some ongoing feud over some girl, a feud Basquiat eventually won.
I called my friend Mary Boone, who was now representing Basquiat. She agreed to take me to visit his studio (and home). A few days later, we arrived at Great Jones Street. I think the author Robert Faris Thompson (“Flash of the Spirit”) was there at the time. Basquiat seemed fully aware of my work on hip hop history and treated me with utmost respect. He brought Mary and I to the back room and showed us his latest work, a series of oil stick drawings on paper. The work was phenomenal. Mary had a great eye and tried to sort out the best pieces immediately to take and sell, but Jean Michel coyly put the best ones aside. He was keeping them for his own private collection. I could see he was pretty savvy about maintaining control over his legacy and finances. Before I left, we set up a time and date for me to come back and start interviewing him for my upcoming book.
When I returned a few days later, Jean Michel was still in bed and had forgotten about the appointment, but he agreed to get up to see me. After a short wait, his studio assistant led me upstairs to his bedroom. He had a bottle of very expensive Bordeaux and a joint going. He offered me a glass of wine. “It’s a little early for me to start drinking,” I said, “But I’d love to take a hit on the joint.” There was a huge stack of records next to a turntable, and the room contained hundreds of videotapes and a large projection TV. It was really hard to get Basquiat to open up about his childhood, so I began talking about the club scene, specifically Club 57. I was working on a preliminary thesis there was a stylistic divide between the mostly European sensibility of the Mudd Club and the pop/camp culture of Club 57. When Jean Michel said he didn’t really grasp the appeal of the Club 57 aesthetic (“Why do something old and bad?” he said), I jumped on that comment and began pursuing that line of questioning aggressively, which immediately made him suspicious and paranoid unfortunately. Then the phone rang. The second he picked it up, I knew it was Andy Warhol. “I’m doing an interview,” he said, “but I’ve already said too much.” By the time he got off the phone, he’d already decided to end the interview. “It’s like the end of mystery,” he explained. “I can’t do this.”
I was pretty crushed. I’d envisioned several long interview sessions and felt it was unlikely I’d ever be invited back, which I wasn’t. Several months later we crossed paths again briefly at a Kenny Scharf VIP party at Area. I was celebrating the arrival of the proofs of a color insert for my book, “Art After Midnight,” which included double-page spreads on Basquiat, Haring and Scharf that looked spectacular. I put the layouts on the bar and Glenn O’Brien and Jean Michel both inspected them. I could tell Jean was pleased with his layout. I was hoping the book might resurrect a relationship. Later that evening, I bumped into Jean in a remote corner of the club. He was alone and seemed strangely isolated for such a celebrated figure.
Last night I watched “The Radiant Child,” Tamra Davis’ loving documentary, now available on Netflix on demand, which is where I see most films these days. It’s a very powerful film and the most well-rounded biography of Basquiat I’ve come across. I was a little bugged by the title at first since its taken from a Rene Ricard Art Forum article. “Radiant Child” is a reference to a Keith Haring icon and has nothing to do with Basquiat. I wish Tamra had come up with a different title. But her film is the best introduction to Basquiat around and I strongly recommend it. After watching the film, I felt compelled to write down these memories.