The hip-hop pioneer’s film traces cannabis’ connection to music, racism & politics.
Fab 5 Freddy's new Netflix documenary Grass Is Greener is as much about politics as it is about pot — and it has earned the praise of the Majority Leader of New York State's Assembly, Crystal Peoples-Stokes, who is among the Empire State politicians pushing for the legalization of adult marijuana use.
Fab (real name: Fred Brathwaite), a graffiti artist, hip-hop pioneer and cultural tastemaker who was immortalized in Blondie's 1981 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit "Rapture" and served as the original host of Yo! MTV Raps, makes his directorial debut with Grass Is Greener, which traces the cultural history of cannabis — particularly its connection to music — as well as its racially motivated demonization and criminalization culminating in its classification in 1970 as a Schedule 1 narcotic, along with heroin and LSD.
On April 9, in advance of the documentary's April 20 premiere on Netflix, Fab — who calls Harlem home — attended a private screening of his film in Albany, N.Y., that was presented by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus (BPHA), the Marijuana Task Force and The Drug Policy Alliance. The screening was attended by a number of Assembly members, including BPHA chairperson Tremaine Wright, Peoples-Stokes and Harlem representative Al Taylor, who are also BPHA members. The majority leader says that Taylor invited her to the screening "because he knew I was sponsoring legislation that would legalize adult use of cannabis." Peoples-Stokes says that her first reaction was, "How long is this film, because I usually fall asleep while I'm watching TV and sometimes even in movie theaters."
The Majority Leader ultimately decided to see the almost 100-minute film — and she did not nod off. "I was totally engaged," she says. "It's a well-done, well-researched film that speaks truth to power" and depicts "the ridiculous amount of tax dollars we've spent incarcerating people in a very racist way." (At one point, the documentary indicates that people of color comprised 78 percent of all marijuana arrests in New York City alone.
Featuring appearances by Cypress Hill's B. Real, Run the Jewels' Killer Mike, Snoop Dogg, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana author Larry "Ratso" Sloman and High Times editor-in-chief Dan Skye, Grass Is Greener looks at cannabis' popularity with jazz musicians — including Louis Armstrong ("one of our glorious early potheads," according to Sloman), Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington — the Beat poets, reggae and hip-hop musicians. And given its popularity with artists and people of color, Fab, whose godfather was the late jazz drummer Max Roach, also depicts the racial implications of marijuana's criminalization. “Drugs become a proxy to race," the author and activist Asha Bandele says in the film.
Shortly before the state government broke for spring recess, Peoples-Stokes says she recommended Grass Is Greener to a gathering of the 106 Democratic members of the Assembly. Now that they have returned to Albany, she says, "I will remind them [to watch it]."
According to Fab, who spoke to Billboard about Grass Is Greener and local politicians' reactions to it, word is spreading. "They are all trying to get me to come to their districts," he says.
Why did you choose cannabis as the subject of your first film?
It started out conversation with a good buddy of mine who’d been in the marijuana business underground. He got arrested a few times. So when states started legalizing it, he wanted to take part in the legal aspect of the business. But because he had a record he couldn't. So he decided to go into consulting. He was like, "I’m going to get mine this time around. I don’t have to touch the plants, but I can advise people on the specifcs of how to do it right. That and growing up in a household where my dad smoked as did many of the musicians who came to the salons he used to hold. And so many musicians recorded songs about it. Cab Calloway ["Reefer Man"]. Fats Waller ["If You're a Viper"]. Just go to YouTube. You can find dozens of jazz reefer songs and, as you know, in hip-hop, too: Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill. I have to say, YouTube was one of the great sources of information for us at the beginning of making this film. We found music clips, information clips, propaganda clips.
Most people associate marijuana with reggae and hip-hop, but you trace pot's connection to music back to the jazz age — and the Beat poets.
The music made it hip; made it cool, from the jazz era to now, and I could have gone deeper into the subject. If I had a longer film, I would have looked at [pot's] relationship with R&B. Listen to Rick James' "Mary Jane" and D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar." There's a deep connection to music. And to The Beats. I was looking through this book of Weegee photographs and there was a picutre of Charlie Parker at a Beatnik party — welcomed by a bunch of white guys into music and cool poetry — while in the mainstream press, these jazz guys were being vilified. The connection to music was the gist of the idea. We pitched it on 4-20-17 and soon after got a deal with Netflix. On 4-20-18, we were deep into an edit. And on 4-20-19 the film was released in 120 countries.
Grass Is Greener also shows how marijuana was used to vilify people of color, particularly the work of Harry Anslinger, the head of the federal government's Bureau of Narcotics. I had never heard of this guy until I saw your film.
He was like a J. Edgar Hoover type — hell-bent on going after blacks and jazz musicians. He made comments right out of the movie Reefer Madness. He said that cannabis will make you "criminally insane". The hate in some of these people! Anslinger was literally responsible for the death of Billie Holiday. Her methadone treatment was stopped [while she was under arrest, handcuffed to her hospital bed in 1959]. That’s what killed Billie Holiday. And I recently heard that around the same time, he protected Judy Garland, who was also a heroin addict, and kept the police off of her. By the way, this kind of racism is still going on. They treat athletes now the way they treated jazz musicians then. And a lot of stuff is not consistent. The NFL [has been accused] of giving players narcotics, yet [former NBA player-turned-legal-weed-purveyor] Cliff Robinson was suspended because he had a little bit of cannabis in his system.
Do you think that marijuana can be legalized on a nationwide basis?
Absolutely! It’s simply about taking it off the list of Schedule 1 narcotics [which include heroin, cocaine and LSD] and regulating it like alcohol and cigarettes. Pot hasn't killed anybody. No one's gone crazy from smoking it and no one's murdered anybody becaise he smoked a joint. We've had 80 years of bad information, and we've got to re-educate all of these politicians who have been indundated with this old narrative of, "Marijuana is a gateway drug." Counterculture, radical people were onto this early on. The health benefits of this plant need to be recognized. All of that Reefer Madness stuff needs to be thrown out the window. Back in the '20s and '30s, during Prohibition, they had tea pads in Harlem, where you would go to hang out and smoke, similar to the hash bars they have in Amsterdam. Today in New York state, you practically have to be terminally ill to get access to medical marijuana.
You've been showing your film to politicians. Are you changing hearts and minds?
A lot. I showed my film in Albany. They were estatic. I’ve got all these assemblymen who are interested in using the film to educate their districts. Netflix is going to arrange screenings and talks. Politicians are hitting me up on social saying, "What can I do to facilitate discussion?" I hope my film can be used as a tool toward a more progressive approach to marijuana — one that will lead to legalization and the expungement of jail sentences.
If marijuana has been used to foster racism, do you think legalization would help dial it back?
That’s a good question. I think overall, people are less racist than they ever were — particularly white folks who have come to realize that there is a thing called white privilege. Certain types of people are treated better and not looked at it as if they are about to commit a crime. Back in the 1980s, if you were a person of color, racism was a thing you lived with. People are more aware today, but you still have people in power that are enforcing legacies of wrongdoing. They don’t want to unravel them. And if you are a police officer your job is to enforce the law. But there are a lot of people enforcing these laws who don't really understand how– and why — these laws came to be. We want reparations, baby. We want cannabis reparations so that people of color can smoke in peace.
Who put together the soundtrack for Grass is Greener?
Salaam Remi — my cousin. He's the most talented producer. He's worked with Nas, Laurynn Hill and Amy Winehouse. He was working with her when she passed. We've put out a soundtrack of music inspired by the film. We’ve got Stephen Marley, Bun B, The LOX, Black Thought is singing under his A.K.A., Reek Ruffin on “Bad to the Bone.” It’s got soulful music. We've got the classic old-school soul singer Betty Wright doing “Strange Fruit” She did it two takes. She said she couldn't do any more takes because she was starting to break down. The song reminded her of being a little girl in the South when lynching was going on.
I'm sure you're asked for your opinions on today's hip-hop all the time, but I've got to ask you what you think of Lil Nas X's countryfied "Old Town Road."
I love Lil Nas X! The name is a little problematic with me. Nas is a friend, so when I first heard of this guy, I thought, what the hell is he doing? But I really like the record. It’s a cool way to modernize country music. Another thing, record companies used to force artists into specific categories to help sell them at the record store: rap, R&B, rock. Now that the labels don't have the influence that they did, I like that there's all this music that isn't easily categorized and that the artists making it are taking it directly to the internet. I am always being asked, "How do you feel about hip-hop now? They want me to jump on that, and I won't. I don’t listen to a lot of it. But what I like is that some of these guys have developed their own form of rock 'n' roll like XXX Tentacion and Tekashi 6ix9ine. Some of their songs remind me of Onyx and the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" You feel an immediate energy. Travis Scott has that energy, too. I saw him at Coachella and white people were moshing. He has that energy that reminds me of that cool rock 'n' roll stuff that used to piss off older people. If you're not pissing off older people, you're not doing it right.