If you were at Sapphire on Friday between about 11:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., you might have noticed the large group that had taken over a row of tables along the south wall. You almost certainly wouldn’t have noticed, if you didn’t already know he was there, that one member of that group was New York hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy.
The legendary ambassador of the Bronx was in town briefly to promote a young group from Alcoa called Bloody Knuckle. The group has hired the New York firm Creative Edge to handle its marketing; Creative Edge CEO Theodore Palmer, who’s been in town for about six weeks, brought Fab 5 Freddy in for a low-key and semi-private meet-and-greet at Koi that easily exceeded all previous standards for Knoxville hip-hop celebrity events in both name power and smooth uptown sophistication.
In the early 1980s, Fab 5 Freddy—born Frederick Brathwaite—was one of the key figures in getting hip-hop out of parties and rec centers in the Bronx and into downtown Manhattan clubs, and from there, onto MTV, radio, and movie screens. A graffiti artist and part-time rapper, Fab was among the first to recognize the explicit cultural connection among DJs, MCs, break-dancers, and graffiti artists—the four elements of hip-hop. He worked with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat to make graffiti credible in the art world. He also helped promote the pivotal Wheels of Steel dance nights at the Roxy and starred in the influential underground films Downtown 81 and Wild Style, and later hosted MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps. If anybody can help break Knoxville’s bubbling-just-under-the-surface hip-hop scene, it’s Fab 5 Freddy.
On Friday, the 48-year-old Fab, dressed in an orange button-up shirt and black New York Yankees cap and wearing his signature Ray-Bans, sat with Bloody Knuckle in a booth, shook hands with local rap VIPs (including “Where You From [Da 865]” and “So Fly” rapper Mr. Mack, who was there to support his Alcoa homeboys), had his photo taken, and listened to a mix of soul and house music sent in by Palmer’s friend DJ Lee Farmer from Chicago.
When the party moved to Sapphire later, Fab took a seat against the wall and stayed there, slowly sipping what looked like a mojito. A handful of people came over to pay their respects; Fab talked about the history of DJing in the Bronx, the conceptual leap to recording people who were, essentially, playing records, and his current interest in old-school soul and R&B. He even expressed his affection for the Malian rock band Tinariwen, who played at the Bijou Theatre in October, and didn’t seem to mind talking about the old-school days. It might have been the easiest promotional gig Fab 5 Freddy has ever had: Show up in Knoxville, hang out at Koi and Sapphire for a while, talk to some pretty women in short skirts, drink a few mojitos, graciously entertain a star-struck local reporter for half an hour, then go spend a restful night at the nearby Hotel St. Oliver.
Sapphire will host a casting call for a video for Bloody Knuckle’s first single, “Hustle Hard,” on Saturday, April 26, from 1-4 p.m. The group will perform at Club 106 in the Old City on Saturday, May 31, at 8 p.m. to celebrate the release of its album We All We Got. Fab 5 Freddy, DJ Lee Farmer, Boyz n da Hood members Jody Breeze and Gorilla Zoe, and local R&B singer Raymond B. are all scheduled to appear. Tickets range from $20-$100.