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A Hip-Hop Pioneer Was Left for Dead: ‘I Thought It Was All Over’


T
here are several
ways to soundtrack a journey back from hell. On a Wednesday afternoon in late November, Jorge Pabón lifts himself out of his wheelchair, props himself up, and scrolls through his iTunes until the right song hits him. “Órale!” he exclaims, as the chugging guitar riffs of “Disposable Heroes,” Metallica’s adrenaline-pumping war epic, fill his own personal purgatory: the unassuming physical therapy gym inside New Franklin Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Queens, New York. He clasps his hands on the arm bike and propels bicycle pedals with his hands.

An easygoing occupational therapist watches him patiently — amusedly even — to ensure he’s not overexerting himself. He pauses only to sing along: “Soldier boy, made of clay/Now an empty shell.” But when he hears the salvo “Back to the front,” he spins faster. 

He’s smiling when he catches his breath after an exhausting five and a half minutes. The endurance is a small triumph for Pabón, a 58-year-old hip-hop dancer, “aerosol artist,” MC, and college lecturer better known by his stage name, Popmaster Fabel. 

He’s wearing a red “Harlem” hat, which frames his trim beard perfectly against his matching Adidas tracksuit, the likes of which haven’t gone out of style since Jam Master Jay krushed his first grooves. His six-foot-two-inch frame has complicated his therapy, since he needs a higher walker than his geriatric neighbors in the facility. He’s lost around 50 pounds since his injury, making him look slim, but he still has more mass to lift when he stands than New Franklin’s usual residents. 

He’s come a long way in the past few months while recovering from a violent hit-and-run in the Bronx in August. Fabel blacked out and doesn’t remember the type of vehicle that struck him. But when he regained consciousness in an intensive-care unit, he simply felt grateful to be alive. The impact left him with compound leg fractures, a broken pelvis, cracked ribs, a punctured right lung, and a lacerated liver, among other injuries. The driver has yet to be found, and Fabel has been fighting ever since to rehabilitate himself into a complete human being. 

Since there’s no hip-hop pension plan to cover his recovery, his family launched a GoFundMe in September. So far, they’ve raised over $61,000 of the $150,000 goal to help offset his medical bills and refurbish his apartment to accommodate his recovery. The list of donors reads like a Hip-Hop 50 red-carpet event: Rapper Kurtis Blow, photographer Henry Chalfant, and Fab 5 Freddy all made generous contributions, and it’s still attracting donations from people concerned for Fabel’s well-being. 

“He’s a high-quality cat and one of the best to ever do it,” Freddy tells Rolling Stone.

“Fabel was a pioneer back in the day for creating some diversity in his technique, his approach, and the quality of his performances,” graffiti artist Futura 2000, who contributed, says. “He was super unique and very important to that genre and element of the hip-hop community.”

Popmaster Fabel on West Broadway in New York, 1982.

© Henry Chalfant

“It’s terrible for a dancer to be shattered,” Chalfant says. “The first thing I thought about was how many bones have been broken in his body and how difficult it must be, and will be, to overcome that. I hope he gets as much back as humanly possible.” 

The outpouring of support has lifted Fabel’s spirits and motivated him to push himself harder in therapy. Next up in his obstacle course is the finger ladder, a corrugated wooden strip nailed to a wall. The exercise helps him elevate his arm and stretch his shoulder, as his fingers slowly inch their way toward the ceiling. To complement this Olympic test, he cues up the Police.

Fabel works slowly, taking a break when his hand reaches belly level. His therapist cheers him on, and eventually Fabel’s knuckles arrive at nose-level. He tries to dance, jerking his body to Stewart Copeland’s rhythm. But then he winces. “This is the perfect song,” he says, as Sting sings, “It’s my destiny to be the King of Pain.” His right arm crawls up a little higher before he drops it to move over to physical therapy for leg movements.

“Oh, we’re dancing,” he says. “I’m gonna do my toe hop. It’s my dance.”

Fabel can get around slowly using a walker, but he’s more comfortable in a wheelchair. Still, he knows he needs to challenge himself if he wants to walk regularly. So he climbs into the seat of a machine called NuStep that works his body similarly to an elliptical. 

“My musical tastes are all over the place,” he says, holding his phone and a Bluetooth speaker. “You’re gonna learn more about me now.” He cues up Bauhaus’ “Dark Entries,” as another therapist placidly endures Peter Murphy’s gothy declamations. He finds his focus with the propulsive groove. When he finishes, the therapist helps him walk around the facility.

“The day I stood up on my own two feet — of course, with them spotting me — I almost could have cried,” he says. “I hadn’t stood up in two months. I felt like a newborn.”

Fabel in treatment at a Queens, NY rehabilitation center.

Roy Baizan for Rolling Stone

Fabel and his older brother, Pedro, were born four minutes apart and raised with their two older sisters, Aida and Noemi, by a single mother in Spanish Harlem. He credits his “old-school Puerto Rican mom” with keeping him on the right track while he was growing up. He says that with dance, nature and nurture converged on him when his sisters introduced him to salsa music and James Brown. He had to move.

Fabel settles himself in a conference room, moving gingerly to an office chair with help from his significant other, a Swiss dancer named Anja Roelli. With the easy volubility of a native New Yorker, the hip-hop expert can orate both his own history and that of the culture in vivid color, a quality that has made him a welcome college lecturer.

If it weren’t for the violent street gangs that laid claim to New York in the 1970s, he says, he might never have become a professional dancer. His surreal recollections of pre-gentrified New York exist somewhere between scenes from Rocky and West Side Story: Men sing doo-wop around burning garbage cans in his memories and multi-ethnic street gangs face off in dance. “There was a gang on my block called the Savage Samurais,” he says. “None of them were Japanese. They were all Puerto Rican and Black. They wore patches like bikers, but none of them had motorcycles. These guys were notorious, but were amazing dancers.” (The Samurai were notable enough to feature in a Geraldo Rivera news segment in 1975.)

Fabel and Pedro would peer out of the windows of their apartment, near East 123rd Street and Lexington Avenue, as kids and watch gang members battle one another in “rock dances,” choreography Fabel loosely compares to the Afro-Brazilian form of dance-fighting known as capoeira. “You might gesture at me like you’re shooting me, and I might pull up a shield and block it,” he explains, pantomiming in his office chair. “It doesn’t even have to be violent. It could be goofy, like I grabbed you and jumped rope with you. The whole thing was to humiliate your opponent.” 

Humiliation would occasionally escalate to violence. But by the late-Seventies, the Samurais started B-boying. “When I saw the B-boying happening, I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’” Fabel says. “I fell in love with the culture more.” His sister’s boyfriend introduced him to DJ culture at age 12, and Fabel started making “pause tapes” — making beats by recording the breaks in a song, hitting pause, moving the needle back on the vinyl, and recording it again.

He still wears his love of hip-hop on his sleeves — and on his head. He surprises Rolling Stone with a white hat that he’s decorated with “Fabel,” jaggedly scrawled across the front panels in orange, yellow, and blue, and “Rolling Stone” beneath the bill. The calligraphy looks identical to the tag he’d spraypainted on a wall near the intersection of East 135th Street and St. Ann’s Avenue in the Bronx on the day of the hit-and-run. But on the hat, the lettering is vibrant. It’s his identity. “I painted this hat just to have some cool stuff for you guys,” he beams. “That’s close-range art. But my goal is to swing my arms wide [for murals].”

After watching the Samurai tag his neighborhood, and taking cues from his sister’s boyfriend, Fabel embraced hip-hop’s four elements: dancing, DJ’ing, MC’ing, and tagging. “I was a late-bloomer,” he says. “I didn’t really start tagging on walls and stuff until I was 13, 14.” At New York’s High School of Art and Design, he met Steffan Clemente, who performs as Mr. Wiggles, and became Fabel’s dancing and tagging partner.

Fabel’s first noms de fume were “Radar” and “Paser,” but when a classmate claimed “Pase” for himself, Pabón opened a textbook, covered his eyes, and pointed randomly at the page: “Fable.” (He swapped the last two letters so it wouldn’t sound like a fairy tale, and because “rhythmically, in a tag, you can blast off with the L.”) He’d also been calling himself Sir Pop-a-Lot, but wisely switched to Popmaster after a battle host introduced him as such. 

A quarter of a century ago, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame commissioned his essay “Physical Graffiti,” which details the history of B-boying and B-girling — titles he prefers to “breakdancing,” since that’s a “media term” — as well as the West Coast dances that he mastered, like popping and locking. Those dances require him to stretch his arms and flip his hands in jittery movements as he spins his hips to the beat. His dissertation eloquently explains popping, locking, rocking, footwork, and freezes, and is required reading for anyone who’s curious about the origins of hip-hop or wants to follow Fabel’s glossary.

(Precise wording is important to Fabel. If you refer to him as a B-boy, he’ll politely explain: “People call me a B-boy only because my whole aura and essence — how I dress and all that — is very B-boyish. But technically, I ‘pop,’ so I’m a ‘popper.’ I lock. I don’t like to say I’m a locker, though, because the Lockers are a distinct group. But I’m a lock dancer, and I’m a rock dancer.”)

In 1982, Fabel and Wiggles would take the money they earned performing in the Times Square subway station and buy uniforms. Eventually, famed clubs like the Roxy, Studio 54, Roseland, and others asked, and occasionally paid, them to dance at their venues.

Henry Chalfant first met Fabel around this time. Beginning in 1977, Chalfant documented hip-hop culture with photos of the aerosol art he saw on subway trains. His first memory of Fabel was at his 1982 exhibition, “New York-New Wave.” “He had his trousers painted, I assume by him, and it said ‘Jorge’ on it,” he says. “I took a picture of him standing on West Broadway on the day of the [show] opening, and it’s one of my iconic pictures of graffiti and the people who do it.” Fabel served as a consultant and scholar for Chalfant’s film From Mambo to Hip-Hop: A South Bronx Tale. As a dancer, Chalfant says, “Fabel was always on the beat, and he could flow.”

Around the time Fabel first met Chalfant, another dancer and aerosol artist, Doze, invited Fabel and Wiggles to hang out with the famous B-boy collective the Rock Steady Crew. Fabel recalls he and Wiggles hit it off with dancers Crazy Legs, Ken Swift, Frosty Freeze, and others, and in 1982, when Fabel and Wiggles had the opportunity to battle-dance another crew, Electric Force, at a club called Negril — and won — they got to join the fabled Rock Steady Crew. Fabel would eventually claim the title of Rock Steady vice president.

“I met Fabel in the early Eighties with the Rock Steady Crew at various events on the New York downtown scene,” Fab 5 Freddy says. “As one of the producers of Wild Style, we featured Rock Steady along with him and Wiggles in our movie, hip-hop’s first and best feature film. He’s the standout mold and model for many around the world when it comes to popping, locking, and electric boogaloo.”

Dance became a career for Fabel when record labels realized that their rappers should have dancers. Around that time, Harry Belafonte, who saw Fabel in Berlin and had begun producing a movie about hip-hop culture, asked him and Wiggles to appear in it. That 1984 film, Beat Street, which features Fabel dancing in the finale and in a Christmas pageant to rhymes by the Treacherous Three, would go on to be one of hip-hop’s defining statements.

After Beat Street, Fabel’s career fully popped and locked into place. “Now we’re doing commercials as well on TV,” he says. “I did a national American Dairy milk commercial that aired for two years.” Fabel’s mother had hoped he’d go into advertising art, but she eventually embraced his love of dance when the royalty checks came in. “That’s when she went, ‘Maybe he knows what he’s doing,’” he remembers.

On a break from reminiscing, Fabel climbs back into his wheelchair for Rolling Stone’s photo shoot in the facility’s courtyard. He doesn’t show any pain other than when he’s standing with a walker nearby, trying to dance. He puts his arms out to pop and lock. The temperature is in the 30s, and the movement exhausts him, so he politely asks if the photographer got the shot. Back inside, he warms up. 

In the mid-Eighties, he says, the work dried up and he distanced himself from hip-hop for a while, disillusioned by how the media and music business co-opted the culture, and got into the New York hardcore-punk scene instead. But by the late-Eighties, his interests in hip-hop and dance came back to him on a grander scale. 

The production So! What Happens Now?, one of the first of its kind, was a hit in the early-Nineties. Although he says studios wanted to produce it, Fabel and his fellow creators refused the offers so they wouldn’t have to alter the script. In the mid-Nineties, Fabel helped conceive an off-Broadway hip-hop play called Jam on the Groove, which he says suffered in New York because of heavy snowstorms. (He says the play fared better overseas and in Middle America, where nostalgia for hip-hop’s first wave still lingered.)

In 2001, Fabel and his then-wife, Christie Z, started holding park jams, called Tools of War, like the ones he’d grown up with so people could listen to hip-hop and dance. “We wanted to highlight the DJ again, because the emphasis typically was on the MC.… So-called hip-hop was hijacked by the recording industry,” he says. “The dancing, the aerosol art, even the DJs, at one point, were kicked to the curb.” Their goal was to reunite hip-hop’s four pillars, something Fabel has lectured on since 1999, when he became an adjunct professor teaching theater students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

After close to two hours of talking, Fabel needs a break. He dines on a lunch of chicken and vegetables that New Franklin provides, and struggles to his feet to embrace Roelli. “I just stood to give a hug to Anja,” he exclaims. “That was triumphant for me. I was on top of the mountain right there. You witnessed it.”

Fabel, on right, in ‘Beat Street.’

© Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

For as sharp as Fabel is about his own history and hip-hop’s legacy, he can speak only abstractly about the cause of his injuries. Pushing aside the trays of food after lunch, Fabel sighs and widens his eyes as he tries to recollect how he ended up at New Franklin. Here’s what he knows: He’d spent Aug. 27 working on his Bronx mural, quitting as dusk set in. He crossed a street to get a bicycle for the trip home. That’s it.

“I don’t remember seeing a car come,” he says. His hands look calm on the conference table, but his eyes show amazement. “I don’t remember hearing it. I don’t remember a damn thing. Total blackout.”

Fabel’s injuries tell him a vehicle ran him over completely. “The dude scrambled me,” he says. “It’s all bad.”

He woke up two days later. All he felt was numb. His brother read him a list of all his injuries, and Fabel felt defeated. Then the enormity of the collision hit him almost as hard as the vehicle that put him there. “I thought it was all over,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m just going to be in a wheelchair, incapacitated.’ I had a moment of giving up.” 

Fabel has long thought it was unfortunate that hip-hop doesn’t have the same infrastructure as other artistic disciplines. Dancers in the classical arts can rely on unions for insurance, pensions, and contract negotiations. B-boys can’t. The thought first hit him a decade ago when an enraged sciatic nerve almost sidelined a full schedule of appearances. A family member who works in the medical profession helped him find a doctor. “That’s the closest I’ve come to what I’m experiencing now,” he says. 

“This is worse,” he adds. “I almost died.”

Reflecting now, Fabel is adamant that what happened to him was not “an accident.” “This is a crime,” he says. “A hit-and-run is a crime.” Sadly, his chances of restitution are bleak. He claims that the security cameras in the area were all dummies, intended to scare criminals but not catch them. No witnesses have come forward, and Fabel believes the NYPD didn’t make “their best effort” in solving the hit-and-run. He says he would “like to do [his] own investigation” and explore other legal options. Fortuitously, someone saw his body and called 911. “I could have been left for dead,” he says, “and my last graffiti piece would’ve been my last farewell.”

Now, he faces acceptance. His injuries severed his livelihood only temporarily, he hopes. Unable to dance for the near-future, Fabel is relying on what money he has saved to exist. “Artist” has never been an easy profession, but “injured artist” is worse. He nevertheless stays hopeful.

“You have to be [optimistic],” he says. “My whole career is based on thinking, ‘I’m going to make it’ — living hand to mouth. I’m lucky in the fact that I am multitalented with drawing, painting, patchwork — I have my hands in a few different things that hopefully will guarantee me putting food on the table and a roof over my head and clothes on my back.” (Fabel has designed some pins he’s selling, including one depicting his scene in Beat Street.

Now, he says, his “warrior spirit” has returned. He credits his brother Pete and Roelli for sticking with him throughout his recovery. His mother, who now lives in Florida, calls him twice a day.

Roy Baizan for Rolling Stone

Talking to him in November, he’s happiest right after a therapy session. “I don’t feel pain during the therapy because my adrenaline kicks in. However, once I’m upstairs back in my bed chilling and waiting for dinner to be served, it creeps up on me,” he says. “From one to 10, my pain would be anywhere between a three and an eight.”

In the past few months, his injured lung has improved greatly. His ribs still hurt if he gets out of bed the wrong way. As a side-sleeper, he still isn’t used to sleeping on his back. His broken right clavicle is healing the slowest. “They call it a fracture, but if you look at the X-ray, it looks like it snapped,” he says. But he’s able to see new cells growing on his clavicle, appearing as glowing clouds on his bones in X-rays. He can’t put his full weight on his legs, and he had to return to the hospital once because a rod that doctors installed caused an infection. But overall, he’s improving. A true milestone, he says, was the first time he used the toilet by himself.

The staff at New Franklin Center treats him well, but he has cabin fever. His bed upstairs is small, and other than a view of the sunset and a TV, his greatest comfort is a thin creamsicle curtain separating him from his neighbor. He was able to go to his brother’s house for Thanksgiving, and friends and family sometimes bring him food that he misses from his neighborhood. 

In early December, Fabel was able to leave New Franklin for the day. On the way to his destination, his Uber passed the location of his mural. “Initially, I felt numb and slight chills as we passed by the area,” he says. “It was bittersweet seeing my piece on the wall, then realizing I was almost killed just a couple blocks away. I consoled myself with the thought that I was spared and given a new lease on life. I’m grateful to be alive.”

Last week, New Franklin discharged Fabel and sent him home for recovery. He felt it was early, and the transition has been abrupt. “I’m confronted with daily challenges at home,” he says via email. “Everything from preparing meals to bathing on my own seems high-risk and takes an amazing amount of patience and energy. I never would have imagined being in this difficult and life-altering reality.”

Roy Baizan for Rolling Stone

He’s also finding optimism difficult. “Trying to stay upbeat knowing that there is a possibility that I may not be able to dance exactly the way I used to is trialing and a test of my warrior spirit,” he says. “As much as I try to think positively and reach towards my ultimate goal, there are moments where I can’t help but feel like life will never be the same.”

Now that he’s home, he’ll spend some of the GoFundMe money on a wheelchair or rollator, which he graduated to in mid-December, and make his place accessible for his new mode of transportation. “I’ll be fixing up my toilet so that I can sit on it without busting my ass, literally,” he says. “I might have to buy cabinets. I can’t reach the ones above my sink unless I have one of these grabby things.” He also intends to use the money on the expensive medicine he needs, since he predicts that his insurance may put a cap on how much he can spend.

His eyes well up thinking about the generosity of those who’ve donated to the GoFundMe. “I could cry right now, bro,” he says. “I get teary-eyed. That’s my hip-hop family, bro. I have my family that I love, but wow. When you see, like, Henry Chalfant — oh, my God, I love that man — I get emotional, bro. I can’t help it. No one had to do that. No one had to give me shit. It’s like, ‘Fuck it, he’s on his own. Cross at the green, not in between.’ But Kurtis Blow, oh, my God. Fab 5 Freddy. You never know who’s going to do what until you’re in this situation.”

“He’s always been a stand-up dude repping the culture to the fullest,” Fab 5 Freddy says. “When I saw the link to his GoFundMe, I didn’t hesitate to contribute. Fabel is good people, dedicated to expressing hip-hop culture.”

Back in November, when he was still sitting at the conference table, he parsed what “healing” meant to him. “Healing is multilayered,” he said serenely. “Healing physically is one thing, healing emotionally is another, healing spiritually is yet another phase.

“The minute you accept that I’m the one that it was meant to happen to, it’s a place where you can sleep,” he continued. “Accepting it is a level of healing emotionally. Will I ever be able to dance like I used to? Even if I don’t, at one point I did. I was dancing as if there is no tomorrow, because tomorrow’s not promised to anyone.”

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