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Forty years ago, Debbie Harry went on network TV to introduce a new musical phenomenon called hip-hop.
“The most recent fad to catch on with kids in our big cities and metropolitan areas is rapping,” the Blondie singer explained to the audience on the network variety show “Solid Gold,” in 1981.
After mentioning some of the genre’s rising stars from the Bronx — the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, the Funky 4 + 1 — Harry introduced her band’s latest rap-inspired video.
“Using our new single, ‘Rapture,’” Harry said, in a professorial tone, “Blondie and some of our friends put together a number to show you what rapping in the street scene is like.”
What followed remains one of the most surprising, delightful and groundbreaking videos of all time. It has everything: Jean-Michel Basquiat playing a DJ, graffiti artists Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy, Debbie Harry rapping, voodoo dancers, a goat!
The mini-film — directed by Keith Macmillan, a k a “Keef” — was a revelation, in an era when most music videos consisted of a band pretending to perform a song on a soundstage. It not only told a story, it also merged New York City’s hip-hop, art and clubbing cultures in a totally unprecedented way. When the new cable channel MTV launched later that year, in August 1981, “Rapture” was not only the sole “rap” video it aired on its first day, it was one of the few clips that had any kind of urban grit at all — not to mention one of the few that included people of color. (MTV wouldn’t air a video by a rap group until Run-DMC’s “Rockbox” a whole three years later.)
“One of the things that strikes me about ‘Rapture’ is that it really was the first in many ways,” Harry told The Post. “It’s funny because at the beginning, I didn’t like [the video] so much — I was probably thinking in a more grandiose kind of style, to get the true atmosphere of the Lower East Side where the train yards are and create something truly wild … But now, I like it.”
“It is one of the all-time great New York City videos,” said Sean Corcoran, who curated the exhibit “New York New Music: 1980-1986,” currently at the Museum of the City of New York. “It really encapsulates the kind of cross-pollination and energy that was happening in the city at that time, especially downtown. It shows Blondie — who were already a successful band with hits at this point — taking this new form of New York music and really absorbing it and honoring it.”
“Rapture” couldn’t have happened without Fred Brathwaite — a k a Fab 5 Freddy. Brathwaite, an artist and man-about-town, met Blondie guitarist Chris Stein through the public access show “TV Party,” and he took Stein and Harry to their first hip-hop show in the Bronx, in 1979, where they saw a then-21-year-old turntable whiz Grandmaster Flash perform.
“I was playing at a place called Webster Gym, when I saw Freddy coming from the rear with somebody with blond hair,” Flash told The Post. “I just kind of froze.” When Brathwaite introduced them, Harry said, “I’ve been staring at you for the past 20 minutes or so, and I must say, you are quite incredible on those turntables. I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Flash recalled. Then she said, “You know something? I feel so good about this, I’m going to make a record about you.” Six months later, he heard Harry rapping, “Flash is fast, Flash is cool,” on the radio. “She kept her word!” he whooped.
Harry and Stein wanted the video to combine the uptown hip-hop world with the arty downtown scene they frequented. It would feature a house party DJed by Grandmaster Flash, graffiti and a host of eccentric New York characters.
“It ended up being kind of the cartoon version of reality,” said Stein.
Because they couldn’t execute such a complex treatment on the actual streets of New York, an Upper East Side soundstage had to substitute for the Lower East Side. So Harry and Stein asked graffiti artists Brathwaite and Lee Quiñones to spray-paint the walls to give the set a gritty authenticity.
“Freddy and I got there that morning, and we basically improvised as we went,” said Quiñones. Years of painting subway cars had taught him to paint very quickly. “I said, ‘Let’s make it this big. Let’s make it this small. Let’s flavor it up with some vintage you know, patina-looking tags, just to give it a really gritty, street, downtown [vibe]. I wanted to make it very unique and very genuine to the time.’”
The band members then started asking everyone they knew to play a part. “The policeman was a UK journalist who was doing a story on us at the time,” said Stein. “[Drummer] Clem [Burke’s] girlfriend Diane was in there, [punk violinist] Walter Steding was in there — it was a lot of people we knew.”
“The room was quite crowded with people that I recognized from the Mudd Club,” said filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, who was on set observing. “I remember in particular, there was a woman with a goat, who I used to call Monica, because when I would see her at the Mudd Club she reminded me of ’60s Italian film star Monica Vitti. She had that hard elegance of an Italian actress, so I thought she was really cool. And there she was leading the goat.”
“The goat’s name was Mona,” said Stein. “We found some guy who was a farmer in New Jersey or something, and he brought a goat.”
The director, Keef, hired choreographer William Barnes to play the top-hatted “Man from Mars.” Barnes arrived to set already dressed in the white suit he wears in the video. “It was incredible to meet him,” Harry said. “He was very self-assured, he had a strong persona.” The band never heard from him again after the shoot. “He has an IMDB page with this video and that’s it,” said Stein.
The last piece of the puzzle: the DJ. Grandmaster Flash was ostensibly supposed to play the turntables, but he was unable to make it.
“I wanted to be in that video so bad,” Flash told The Post. “But the record label I was at wouldn’t allow me to appear in it … I was so angry … I was supposed to be in the video with Fab, like that was my moment. But my replacement was pretty good.”
That replacement: Basquiat, who happened to be hanging out on set.
“Jean really wanted to do graffiti on the [house party] set, but Keef didn’t want him to, he wanted it to just be a blank red wall behind him,” said Stein. However, the artist did enhance Quiñones’ and Brathwaite’s scribblings with some of his own famous phrases, like “Build a fort, set it on fire” and “Pay for soup.”
“The soundstage people just couldn’t wait to paint it over,” Harry said.
The video opens with Barnes — the Man from Mars — high-stepping down a dark New York City sidewalk. He peers into a window of a basement apartment, where Harry, in a tube top and short shorts, wanders through a house party, dancing and singing.
“I don’t know if the director Keith MacMillan had the fancy idea of having the guys kind of dance awkwardly with Debbie [in the party scene],” said Blondie drummer Clem Burke, who sports a beard in the film. “We weren’t exactly *NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys, but I guess it’s somewhat endearing.”
Harry then stops to spit some bars in front of Basquiat’s DJ booth, before wandering out into a graffiti-splattered street scene. Behind her, Quiñones and Brathwaite pretend to tag their already-painted walls, a little girl does ballet, people in kooky outfits saunter back and forth, voodoo dancers shake. (During the shoot, one of the voodoo practitioners, who Barnes brought with him, fell into a trance, and the crew had to stop filming until she came out of it. “That’s their religion, so it probably wasn’t as extraordinary for them as it was for us,” Harry said.) At the end, Barnes leads the band outside, where they disappear into the night.
“It somewhat reminded me of Sesame Street, in the way that it looked like a friendly ghetto,” said Ahearn. “I love the video; I love the song. It’s very important that it didn’t steal anything away from hip-hop.”
It did take a long time for much of the mainstream to catch up with Blondie. MTV refused to air another rap video till 1984, and it wasn’t until 1987 that it would launch its first hip-hop program, “Yo! MTV Raps,” hosted by “Rapture” vet Fab 5 Freddy.
Yet Flash said that Blondie helped introduce hip-hop — and him — to a far greater audience. “She kind of opened the gates for us to take [rap] from the Bronx, to downtown, to Queens, to different parts of the city,” he said. “So for that, I want to say thank you.”
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