Q&A

Last month, Michael Holman launched a Kickstarter campaign to release a 30th-anniversary DVD of Graffiti Rock, the first nationally-syndicated hip-hop TV show, whose pilot aired the weekend of June 19, 1984. Holman plans to use the funding, as well as his years of experience in television production, to make an hourlong documentary about the show he created and hosted. Despite its influence (it was sampled by the Beastie Boys and formed the basis for Gnarls Barkley's "Run" video), Graffiti Rock might not be the most impressive achievement in a career that runs from Basquiat to Blue's Clues. We got Holman to narrate some of the cultural developments he's witnessed and shaped.

New York's proto-hip-hop subculture:

I grew up an army brat all over Europe and the United States. And when my dad was stationed in Vietnam in '66, we moved to California. That was where I grew up. Went to the University of San Francisco. In the beginning of my sophomore year, that summer, I visited the East Coast. Coming to New York in '74 was a real mind-blower. It kind of sets the stage for hip-hop later.

Our version of glam was 1930s zoot-suit thrift-shop gear.

Visiting New York with my cousins and their friend, I witness this amazing scene at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park on the East Side, near 72nd Street. It was a whole like urban disco outdoor party that was populated for the most part by uptown kids. Black and Puerto Rican, white kids, but all down with this urban disco vibe. There were fifty or more boom boxes planted all around the fountain area, all tuned to WBLS playing the sickest tracks. MFSB, "Love is the Message," and the Trammps, all of these amazing tracks from the height of disco. Kids hanging out there wearing this fashion, it was like this thrift-shop aesthetic that kids wore in New York. It was the American version of glam fashion. Going on at the exact same time as London was having its glam moment, with T. Rex and Bowie and everything, except that in New York, and to a lesser extent in San Francisco and L.A., it was much more of an R&B/disco music sound. That was our indigenous glam movement. And the fashion, instead of it being like space-age glam shit that you'd see in London, our version of glam was 1930s zoot-suit thrift-shop gear. This is something you do not hear very much about today. You do not see very many pictures of this period. Even though it was massive at the time, it's not very well documented. The band that really rocked that fashion was Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band.

Anyway, so I came and visited New York and bought that gear and went back to San Francisco just turned on by that whole look. Guys would wear peg-leg pants, with pajama-top-type tank-tops; girls would wear 1940s and '50s summer dresses with penciled-in eyebrows and 1940s hairdos.

Going on tour with glam-rock band the Tubes:

So I bought all this gear, and when I went back home to San Francisco after this couple-of-week trip to the East Coast, I'm going out to the clubs. As a straight guy, I would oftentimes go out to the gay clubs because it was so easy to pick out all the models. I went to one of these clubs called the Cabaret, dressed in my whole New York gear, and Michael Cotten from the Tubes is there with another good friend of his. They spot me, and they go up to me and they go, "Oh man, are you from New York?" This would have been probably the summer of '75.

(Holman appears at 5:11)

He had seen me dancing, and I was a really good dancer, and he invites me to be in the cast of thousands at the end of their show at Winterland when they do "White Punks on Dope." This show was perfect timing because that was the time that they blew up. From then on they became a household name all across the country. You just don't have a sense of it today. They were in every newspaper, every town we showed up in, it was like major news! There were people there protesting that we were irreverent, saying bad things about religion, or there was a lot of nudity.

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Holman (right) onstage with the Lewdettes. Courtesy Michael Holman

That was my baptism into show business. It was my introduction into theater and to performance art, what I learned from the Tubes, and especially from Michael Cotten and Prairie Prince. The two of them were the visual force behind the Tubes. They designed all the sets. It could easily be the most fun I ever had in my life, on the road with the Tubes. I had my own groupies, I had chicks that wanted my autograph, and I wasn't even a musician in the band, I was just a character onstage!

Moving to New York and starting the no-wave band Gray:

I dropped out for a year to join the Tubes. Went back to school to get my degree. I was an economics major. I come to New York and got a job soon after arriving here working at Chemical Bank. A lot of people think that was crazy, that I was a Wall Street banker. But I was, for a year, working on Wall Street during the day and then at night going out to CBGB's, Max's Kansas City, Mudd Club, you name it. Mickey One's, the Ocean Club, all these great spots that were in New York at the time. And gradually realizing that I didn't belong in any structured world, I belonged with these artists, partying and clubbing and writing and painting.

When you're in a band with Jean-Michel Basquiat, you're not going to be doing anything that anyone can accuse you of being boring.

The first, most important creative venture in my young artistic life was meeting Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Canal Zone party and he and I starting Gray together. A lot of the Tubes' theatrical DNA was used in some of the sets that I would design for Gray. It was very theatrical but in a fine art way, like the "ignorant geodesic dome," things that would look good in a museum. And we played CBGB's and we played the Mudd Club and we played Tier Three and Hurrah's.

You had bands like James Chance and you had the Del-Byzanteens, you had the Girls, which was George Condo's band. The scene had been set with the no wave bands and the new wave bands. We were like, "We see what's out there and we want to do something different and better and more interesting." You know, when you're in a band with Jean-Michel Basquiat, you're not going to be doing anything that anyone can accuse you of being boring or like anybody else or trying to follow the trends. But at the same time, being inspired by musique concrète, Stockhausen, John Cage. I think one of our biggest influences, certainly mine, was This Heat.

When Nick Taylor joined the band -- who, he and I are now Gray today -- we started rehearsing at his apartment on West 82nd. [Now] we perform not as frequently as most bands because we mainly perform in museums. We're working on our second album. It's pretty exciting, we're gonna have people like Sal Principato from Liquid Liquid, trying to get some of the artists from Bush Tetras, and Al Diazfrom Samo. We're trying to make it like an all-star thing from the downtown scene. We really want to get Jim Jarmusch. Do you know him?

Documenting hip-hop:When Jean blew up from the P.S. 1 show [New York/New Wave] in '81, he quit the band, because he didn't want to be distracted, which I understand, and the band kind of fell apart because of that. That was my time to really delve into filmmaking. My first actor in my first film was Vincent Gallo. We made a film together called Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ. It's kind of a famous film. It must be twelve or thirteen seconds long. It's like an art film, shot on Super 8, and it was his first film, it was my first film. We did other films, too, short art films.

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Still from "Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ"

One of the things I wanted to film was what I'd been hearing about, these guys called breakdancers who could spin on their heads, perfectly in the milieu of the kind of films I was making. That surrealistic imagery, and human claymation-type filmmaking I was making, using in-camera editing and whatnot, somebody spinning on their head made perfect sense. So I was hunting these guys down, and I went to a party that Henry Chalfant threw in the Lower East Side called Graffiti Rock, funny enough, which is where I got the name from, years later, unconsciously.

I go to this Graffiti Rock event, and actually it didn't happen because it was broken up by the Ballbusters, this gang that had beef with the Rock Steady Crew, who were performing at the event. I ran into some breakdancers outside: IBM, the Incredible Break Masters. I said, "Are you breakdancers?" "Yeah, yeah!" "Well can you spin on your head?" And they're like, "We're not gonna do that on the concrete sidewalk." So I got to know them, they gave me their numbers and we became friends, and I went to visit them, they showed me what they did, and I started taking them downtown and filming them. I filmed them at this club called Interferon and I filmed them at the Mudd Club. I thought, "People have to get hip to this!"

Nightclubs as social networks:It's quite easy to meet people in this town. You'd be at an art event or something and you'd be introduced to somebody. Fab Five Freddy, early on in '79, kind of introduced me to the whole scene. And then I'd go up to the Bronx, and when you know [Afrika] Bambaataa you'd meet other people in his sphere. I forget how I met Phase Two, but Phase Two was very much a liaison for me to connect to a lot of people and places and things and concepts that were going on uptown that I didn't know about. Once you start meeting a few people, then it snowballs. Especially if you want to find them, if you're fascinated by it, if you're looking for it, it comes to you, in New York.

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Holman's Soul Party installation at the Mudd Club, 1981. Photo courtesy Michael Holman

We didn't have social media. You had to meet people in a much more human way, on a much more human scale. You'd meet people at clubs all the time. Back in the day the nightclub was the singular most critical way to build your network of friends and collaborators and contacts. Which was great, because you could have fun, get high, oftentimes get laid, dance, do all kinds of things, while you could make the excuse that you were working.

The Mudd Club, singularly, was that. The Mudd Club was this super-networking club that had different themes going on almost every other week. I did one myself, an installation that covered the whole club called the Soul Party, it was a real seminal party at the Mudd Club. There would be all kinds. The Dead Rock Star party. The Combat party.

Making hip-hop history:

Malcolm [McLaren] ask[ed] me to put together a revue to open up for Bow Wow Wow at the Ritz, which is now Webster Hall, on East 11th street, September 15, 1981. [It] includes DJ Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Jazzy Jay, the Rock Steady Crew, graf artist Kel-1, my film "Catch a Beat," which is part of this footage I'm shooting of these breakdancers and everything, which turns out to be the first hip-hop film. I had graffiti pieces by Rammellzee up on the wall. DJ High Priest, who is Nick Taylor from Gray, performed, not only did he perform on the turntables, but he played audio tape loops, which was completely bugged. On the mic you had Ikey C, Fab Five Freddy jumped on the mic, Futura jumped on the mic, it was crazy. You had all the four major elements of hip-hop in front of an audience really for the first time in history.

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"Hip hop'"s first print appearance: East Village Eye, January 1982. Photo courtesy Michael Holman

And Ruza Blue, who was a friend of Malcolm, has a night at Negril, invites me to bring that revue every Thursday night. And that took off like wildfire. That really turned the whole downtown hipster scene in the East Village onto what was going on uptown without them having to risk life and limb going up to the Bronx to witness it themselves. And so it also allowed the local national and international press and film and television media to come to this very convenient club downtown in Manhattan to witness all of this, to then take it to the rest of the world, as much as they did. I think there might have been only 8 or 9 evenings, some in '81 and some in '82, but we had people like Grand Wizzard Theodore and Kool Herc and Cold Crush Brothers.

You had all the four major elements of hip-hop in front of an audience really for the first time in history.

I'll always argue that if it wasn't for the downtown scene and kids like me and Freddy and Charlie Ahearn and Barney Cooper and Henry Chalfant bringing this culture downtown, it wouldn't have happened. Not the way it did. No way.

And then from there it kind of built to me getting to know Bambaataa and doing a big interview with him for the East Village Eye, which was the first article that ever printed the term "hip hop." I didn't coin it, I didn't invent it, but I was the first writer, journalist, to use the word in an article and define it as well. That was in January 1982 in the East Village Eye. By '82, we would throw around the term "hip hop" to loosely define the entire uptown culture that we were witnessing from downtown, and also kind of innocently and ignorantly thinking it was one cohesive culture.

Putting it on TV:

And I went in an entirely different direction. I went into television. I applied for a [public access] show and I got a slot. I decided, "I'm gonna put this culture that I've been cultivating, at least as an impresario and a journalist, on TV." And so I created a couple of shows. "On Beat TV," I had Fab Five Freddy as the host of a number of episodes, DJ High Priest was on there, K-Rob from the Rammellzee rap battle on Basquiat's Beat Bop record. So as early as '82, two years before Graffiti Rock, I was already putting hip-hop on TV, but limited to public access and only New York City.

On Beat TV was very magazine-like, I would go to people's places and interview them or go to a nightclub and film it. TV New York was more of a studio show, much more like Graffiti Rock, that I shot at SVA.

Creating Graffiti Rock:

I've taken a lot of flack from different quarters that I had designed it as a studio dance show. "Why didn't you make it raw and from the streets?" Something that a lot of people don't understand today is that back then, the kids who made up what would be called the hip-hop scene, all of them wanted to take what they were doing, whether it be b-boying or graffiti art or turntablism or rapping, and they wanted it to become mainstream. They wanted to be recognized and appreciated and enjoyed by mass audiences in a context that was not the rough streets that they came from. They wanted to escape that. And I understood that, and I wanted to create a vehicle.

I was actually more inspired by Shindig and Hullabaloo, I wasn't even thinking about Bandstand or Soul Train. You could easily argue that they're all the same. I had already explored hip-hop, I had already videotaped it and shot it in its natural element, and I was bored with that. I wasn't looking to sanitize it or make it safe or anything. I was just looking to make it big.

I didn't want it to be "Soul Train." And I did want to reflect what hip-hop really was.

On that note, I did have producers who put a lot of money into it, who I had to listen to when they wanted things to be accessible to a larger general audience. I had to make sure there was X amount of white kids dancing, because all the artists were black. There was me, there was Special K, Kool Moe Dee, there was Run-DMC, there was Shannon. They needed to have an audience that wasn't all-black, they needed Puerto-Ricans, Latinos, and white kids. Or it would have been "Soul Train." And I didn't want it to be "Soul Train." And I did want to reflect what hip-hop really was.

Hip-hop's multicultural nature:

As important as the black influence to hip-hop was the Puerto-Rican influence. And in many cases, when it came to graffiti, there was also a certain New York white influence. Hip-hop very much owes its existence to the city itself. It's not like jazz and soul and funk and blues, a black thing that comes from the South. If you wanna say rap is primarily a black thing, yeah, but if you talk about hip-hop culture -- and DJ Afrika Bambaataa -- will back me up on this, hip-hop culture is really a multiracial thing that a lot of people have a hand in. And the city itself has a big hand in.

If you look at the style, hip-hop style, the way somebody might wear their cap at an angle, sort of flapped-up, the way they might wear their sneakers, the way they might wear their clothes, you can see that same thing worn by a dead-end kid in the 1930s, some Irish dead-end kid. You can see a certain aesthetic within hip-hop that's like straight-up Italian gangsterism! You can see in hip-hop a certain Chinese martial art influence.

The failure of Graffiti Rock:

In my naïveté, in my confidence, in my ambition, I sort of thought that Graffiti Rock was a slam dunk and I was gonna get to do many more episodes. We got really good reviews, we got great Nielsen ratings. But then when we went to NATPE [the National Association of Television Programming Executives], where you go in Vegas at the end of each year to peddle your wares. You try to sell your show to the wandering station managers from the different stations around the country, enough of them to make the show viable economically. 9 out of the 10 station managers felt in 1984 that rap was a passing fad and that it would never last. I would have been a superstar, I would have been like Russell Simmons if it had been picked up.

After Graffiti Rock:I went back to film school. I exhibited in film school certain skills and certain talents that made me a perfect writer, producer, director for children's television. I wrote, produced and directed for two different shows: Blue's Clues and Eureeka's Castle. I even taught how to write and produce for children's television at the New School and a few other places. I also made a few commercials and I made a lot of music videos, hip-hop music videos, for Doug E. Fresh, Run DMC. The "Christmas in Hollis" music video was one of the most-played videos in history, because it played every Christmas. It won all these awards, [Best Video of the Year] from Rolling Stone magazine, I was really proud of that.

Then as a feature filmmaker, I wrote the Basquiat script. That film, Flying Vince Gallo, that's in Basquiat. Benicio del Toro's character shows the Basquiat character, played by Jeffrey Wright, this film that he made. He's kind of playing me and a lot of other characters, like a composite character, and he says, "Check out this video I made," and it's "Vincent Gallo as Flying Christ."

Hip-hop's future:

The goal is to make the documentary, of course, and to talk about the behind-the-scenes, to interview people like Q-Tip and find out how he felt about the show when he was a kid and how it impacted those 1990s rap stars who were 12, 13, 14 years old when the show came out. And also talk about my experiences as a hip-hop pioneer.

But then I started thinking, too, what if this Kickstarter campaign becomes a bug in the ear of somebody who says, "Well, shit. Hip-hop today is just rap." B-boying is a thousand times bigger than it was back then. It's massive, it's powerful, it's commercial, it has incredible wealth and exposure, but it's not connected to rap anymore. Graffiti art is all over the world, making hundreds of thousands of dollars a canvas! Bigger than it ever was then, but not connected anymore to hip-hop culture. Turntablism. Competitions all over the world with battles that are televised now. But again, not connected to hip-hop.

What would happen if all the elements got back together and started a second movement of hip-hop?

So what if that bug got in somebody's ear, somebody with money and power who said, "Fuck! What would happen if hip-hop returned? What would happen if early-'80s hip-hop culture, a cohesive culture, joined together like a fist, the different fingers making a fist of b-boying and turntablism and graffiti art, rapping, fashion, language, what would happen if all those things came back together again and became a movement?"

I think freestyle rapping would become bigger. I think the music behind the rapping would change. I think the DJ would take his place again at the top of the game. The DJ was always king back in the day. In certain worlds, dance music, the DJ is like a god, but in hip-hop the DJ was the god in the early days, and then the rapper just kicked everybody to the curb. What would happen if all the elements got back together and started a second movement of hip-hop? Now that is fucking exciting. To think that my innocent little Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to make a documentary could maybe spark a new movement in music and culture? Not hip-hop the way it was, something else, that's what I'd like to see happen. And let me tell you something. My dreams back in the day were no less fanciful, and I made it happen. Boom. You know what I mean? Boom, for real.

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