He took a very courageous, gallant, and elegant stance.
Fred Braithwaite – a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy :: Interview excerpt by Ingrid Sischy
INGRID SISCHY: What made Jean-Michel Basquiat so great an artist?
FAB 5 FREDDY: The way he demonstrated who he was to the world. He took a very courageous, gallant, and elegant stance. Jean Michel was a painter. At the time I met him, it was what we all wanted to be. This was a time in New York when you could wake up on one morning and say, Well, this is what I want to do, and by mid- day you could just decide that you were going to do it.
IS: When and where did you meet him?
F5F:At a party in 1978. The guy throwing the party was trying to start his own plantation of downtown creative culture – put us all together and fill our heads with grandiose ideas, with things on the other side of the rainbow. All that shit never really happened, but what did happen was, he gave this happening, this party. People from the Tubes were there, and all these posers and people who were trying to be down. There had just been a little item in The Village Voice about me and Lee Quinones, and the guy throwing the party was like, “Yeah, man, you guys want to be artists? You like pop art? Well, yo, I used to be down with the scene in England and I’m hooked up with Fiorucci, and this person, and that person, and you guys are gonna be rich.” But all we wanted to do was paint. And we knew that in order for our type of art to work its way into people’s cultural appetite we had to take it off the trains, while maintaining its integrity and developing it as a technique of painting.
So, what happened was, Lee and I were standing in this huge loft with the hot lights and this video camera blaring down on us. And this guy comes popping into the room – Jean Michel Basquiat, aka SAMO. There had been a lot of talk that the graffiti writer named SAMO was a white conceptual artist – everybody was up on conceptual stuff in the ’70s. And then this black guy comes in and everybody’s like, “Yo, Fred, SAMO’s here.” And the guy who was organising this whole scam, which he was calling Canal Zone, tried to pit us against each other. I remember Jean had this big smile on his face. He had a blond mohawk (REALLY? – ed.) that came to a point at the tip of his forehead, and the rest of his head was shaved in the front, and the back portion was still intact. It was very bizarre. He had on a white smock, which was dingy and paint-splattered, and raggedy shoes, and he came in smiling. Lee and I looked at him and smiled, and it was like… there’s a thing in the graffiti world, which is that people know who you are before they meet you. The writers are always happy to meet other writers. Jean Michel was a writer, and he was a fan of ours, and we were fans of his.
At the time we met, Jean was going to this color Xerox shop on Prince Street and gluing stuff together, creating postcards and baseball cards. Then he would walk around the Village trying to sell them. Me and Lee were painting at the studio of this guy who gave the big party, who had taken a lot of our work to Italy to try to sell it to the Italians – so that he would get the money to franchise our stuff and rip us off. He was gone for about two weeks and in that two weeks we asked Jean to move in with us. We were like real SoHo artists – me, Lee and Jean Michel.
Every time I played that record Jean-Michel would run out and we would all stop and start dancing.
Jean-Michel would be in the back making baseball cards, and me and Lee would be hanging up these fifteen-foot-high, thirty-to-forty-foot-long pieces of plastic, just spray-painting them as gigantic murals. We were always playing music really loud. I was playing hip-hop tapes from parties in the Bronx that nobody had heard about yet. I mean, it was so early that unless you know Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” you really didn’t have any clue about what was going on. And there was a record called “Super Sperm” that we would play. It had this incredible drum break and I remember every time I played that record Jean-Michel would run out and we would all stop and start dancing. The energy level was high. We also talked about painting a lot. And that was when Jean Michel and I realized that we had something in common. There were no other people from the graffiti world who knew anything about the painters that interested us. Everybody was influenced by comic book art – stuff sold in the super markets with bright colors and bold letters.
Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981
Jean Michel discovered that my favorite artists were Warhol and Rauschenberg, and I found out that Jean’s favorite artists were Warhol and Jasper Johns. Which was great because we could both talk about other painters as well as about the guys painting on the trains. Jean and I learnt that we looked at art in a similar way, too. I told him an idea that Lee and I had had to walk into Leo Castelli’s gallery at 420 West Broadway and commence to make a paint ing on the wall. We wanted to do it on a Saturday when tons of people were down there; we were gonna have it photographed and just launch an assault. It was a kind of military manoeuvre which was the way I thought about a lot of stuff then. And Jean Michel was like, “Yo, that’s cool, because I had a similar idea. What I wanted to do was fill up balloons with paint and throw them on the walls outside of the 420 building and let the paint drip down.” He just wanted to attack the gallery with paint! It was like, Bang! Paint! Let it drip down! We bonded at that time.
IS: What made you choose painting?
F5F: It just seemed like the coolest fucking thing that you could do.
IS: Music didn’t seem that?
We went out at night and listened to music and danced a lot. We painted in the daytime, that was the whole idea – and it was all seen as one.
F5F: When the ideas began to gel, the musical aspects were part of it. Particularly when me and Keith Haring became good friends, because Keith and I, and a lot of people that we hung around with, like Jean Michel, knew what the latest records were, knew what the latest dances were, and we went out at night and listened to music and danced a lot. We painted in the daytime, that was the whole idea – and it was all seen as one.
We used to talk about how the gallery scene was very staid, very quiet, pristine, white walls, hush-hush. We thought that was all bullshit. Why not have an opening be fun? Like, Keith curated an invitational drawing show at the upstairs gallery of the Mudd Club, and he invited Jean Michel, and Futura 2000, and Lee and myself to be in it. That was a very successful show.
IS: That was still when the downtown musicians were leading the neighborhood.
F5F: Well, in the mid-’70s the coolest people on the scene were either people in bands or film makers – Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Scott and Beth B, Jim Jarmusch, Becky Johnston, Charlie Ahearn. The “NY underground cinema,” they called it. And mixing with them were people from punk and new wave – the Contortions, 8 Eyed Spy, Lydia Lunch, James White and the Blacks. I used to be able to get into the Mudd Club, but Keith in particular used to get turned away sometimes because they didn’t deem him cool enough, which inspired him to create his own little scene at Club 57. And then, all of a sudden, as we began to focus and our ideas began to go into practice, people responded and we became the focus.
IS: At that point, was Jean still doing his SAMO tag?
F5F: He used to do occasional SAMO’s, but –
IS: And SAMO stood for?
F5F: Same old same old, or like the same old shit. Remember, he always would put the copyright sign after he wrote it, with a c in a circle – SAMO© Originally it came from Jean-Michel, Al Diaz, and Shannon from Konk, a really hot, funky downtown band – they were all doing SAMO and SAMO slogans. I remember Jean did one like: “Which of the following are omnipresent: McDonald’s, AT&T…” I can’t remember it quite. (DOES HE NOT? we do, click samo for 750k of quick time proof – ed.) Or “SAMO as an alter native to the radically chic set trying to play hip with Daddy’s money.” Jean would write this shit on key walls in the SoHo area. That was the audience he was targeting. He put the whole downtown scene under his attack, learning from the broader attack which was being waged citywide on the subway system.
[end of transcript.]
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(All rights reserved. Text @ Ingrid Sischy. Images @ the Basquiat Foundation.)