FAB 5 FREDDY'S MOTHER USED TO WORRY about him. This was 15 years or so ago, when the host of Yo! MTV Raps was still known to most people as Frederick Brathwaite, still a teenager, still living at home in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section (in street parlance, "Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy") and still sneaking in and out of the New York City subway system spray-painting trains. "I would say, 'Frederick, you're going to get in trouble,' " says Theresa Brathwaite. "But he didn't."
In fact to borrow rap's term for highest praise, her son, 32, has turned out fly. In the early 1980s, by which time he was painting canvases instead of trains, he landed smack in the red-hot center of New York City's emerging rap scene. He was composer, coproducer and star of Wild Style, the first movie about hip-hop (the general term for rap culture). He directed videos for rappers KRS-One and Queen Latifah
(in fact he gave up painting for video). He has been hottest, though, in his almost four years as host of the weekend edition of MTV's popular rap-video show. And now, taking stock of the explosive inventiveness of rap's language—with its slang, double entendres and furiously driven rhymes—he has written a paperback dictionary, Fresh Fly Flavor. "These are the words of the hip-hop generation," he proclaims (examples: fresh, meaning new, and flavor, the vibe of a person or situation).
Summing up his own flavor, Freddy says, "I like to expand, parlay and multiply." When he's not mixing media, trend spotter Freddy (the "Fab 5" derives from a handful of graffiti-artist buddies) is mixing socially out for the fresh, whether on the street or in the clubs and galleries. "He moves like a chameleon," says his friend Roy Cormier, better known as Great Adventure, a concert promoter.
Freddy hung out with the late pop artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. He's friends with director Spike Lee (he had a bit part in She's Gotta Have It and dated Jungle Fever actress Veronica Webb). He has partied with Madonna
("She was really cool and has a good understanding of the street aesthetic") and Deborah Harry, who dropped his name in "Rapture," Blondie's 1981 rap number.
Freddy discovered back at John Dewey High School that he had a gift for working the crowd—any crowd. "I had diplomatic relations with the key groups," he says, "the Italian kids, the hip black party kids, the nerdy bunch. But," he adds, "I'm better on my own."
He developed that lone-wolf nature growing up the only child of Frederick Brathwaite, a retired accountant, and Theresa, still a practicing nurse. "I didn't have everything I wanted, but I had a little more than others in my neighborhood," he recalls. His godfather is jazz legend Max Roach (a boyhood friend of his dad's), and music, as well as talk of art, literature and politics, flowed through the family's brownstone.
Freddy loved books—especially ones on such abstract painters as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning—but he wasn't interested in classes. "I would leave school and ride the subways," he says, "and find places to go, like the Museum of Natural History." It was underground that Freddy, with his friends, found his first art form. "Spray-painting was just something that was quick, was visual and just fit the time," says Freddy, who figured out the appropriate manholes and exits and always managed to avoid the cops. His final work, executed in 1980, was an homage to Warhol—"an entire subway car covered in soup cans. It took two hours, tops," he says. And it took him over the top. The "Warhol" train brought him to the attention of art galleries here and abroad. By the mid-'80s his canvases (usually spray-painted) were fetching $10,000.
But Yo! MTV has been the gravy train for Freddy, who lives alone in a midtown Manhattan high rise with a telescope to take in the view. Even now, though, Freddy can still glance back at his subway days, when he would ride to the end of the line: "I'd look at the map and say, 'Wow! I'm here, and look how far that is.' " That's nothing to the distance from Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy to where he is today.
SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City