New Again: Flavor Flav

By
Photography David Lee

Published July 21, 2015

I’m black and I’m proud. I’m ready and hyped, plus I’m amped. Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps. Sample a look back, you look and find nothing but rednecks for 400 years. If you check ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ was a number one jam…Damn if I say it you can slap me right here. Flavor Flav, Interview, September 1990

Never shying away from speaking their minds, seminal hip-hop artists Flavor Flav and Chuck D are back again as Public Enemy, most recently with a video for “Man Plans, God Laughs,” the titular track from their 13th studio album. Chuck D provides his straightforward, gritty rap musings (“Am I radical, am I pacifist? / Am I scared to fight? / I ain’t asking you / Am I grown? Do I stand up? Am I owned?”), commenting on current events and (as he told Rolling Stone) drawing inspiration from Kanye and Rick Rubin‘s work on Yeezus, all things Run the Jewels, and Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly. The visuals further explore the album and song’s thematic threads, as it depicts a school-age boy playing on a playground and walking through hallways, but soon transitions to show him fighting other boys and carrying a gun. He simultaneously runs towards and away from trouble, conflicted about and trying to understand his role in the world.

Having first emerged in 1987 with To! Burn Rush the Show, Public Enemy hasn’t slowed down since. The duo has been nominated for five Grammy Awards, three American Music Awards, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. In light of the recent video and their consistently controversial reputation, here we revisit an early interview with Flavor Flav and on-air personality Cool DJ Red Alert.

Flavor Flav, of Public EnemyBy Cool DJ Red Alert

Public Enemy’s first record, Yo! Bumrush the Show, went gold. Their second record, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, went platinum. The single, “Fight the Power” (from the third and most recent album, Fear of a Back Planet) was the musical theme of Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing. Fear of a Black Planet went platinum in one week. These figures might not be so impressive if the act were a middle-of-the-road act, but Public Enemy pulls no punches, and there is no shortage of controversy over their lyrics. They have become cultural heroes, representing the truth of urban youth in no uncertain terms: “Elvis was a hero to most / but he never meant shit to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Motherfuck him and John Wayne”—from the single “Fight the Power.”

In early 1983, a mobile DJ collective known as Spectrum City was roaming around Roosevelt, Long Island, playing hip-hop in the parks and broadcasting their highly influential Super Spectrum Mix Show on the Long Island radio station WBAU every Saturday night. At the forefront of all the action was a powerhouse jester/MC named Flavor Flav, whose antics and energy brought him into the local prominence. It was also in Spectrum City that Flavor Flav began his collaboration with producer Hank Shocklee and another resident of the ‘Velt, named Chuck D. Chuck had studied the speech patterns of minister Louis Farrakhan, and by blending this dynamic oratory with a keen political consciousness and a Madison Avenue knack for phrase mongering, he established himself as one of the most powerful voices in rap. In 1986, Flavor Flav, Chuck D, and a DJ named Terminator X formed Public Enemy. As his name suggests, Flavor Flav was the perfect counterpart to Chuck D’s heavily militant, hard-core approach to rap. Sometimes Flavor Flav adds spice, accent, or salt, but most often his voice is inserted as a kind of hydraulic adrenaline boost, loopy and cartoon-like against Chucks straight ahead drilling. A master at playing “the dozens” (a ritual requiring speedy wit to out-insult your opponent), Flavor Flav can be as biting as he is hilarious. But as he proves on the recent hit single “911 Is a Joke,” when Flavor Flav takes over the role of serious rapper, he commands serious respect.

COOL DJ RED ALERT: Yesssss! Here is the interview for Interview Magazine. Two people that’s in the rap industry: the person who is the rapper goes by the name of Flavor Flav, of Public Enemy; the person who’s a DJ/air personality goes by the name of Cool DJ Red Alert, of 98.7 KISS FM. Yo, Flavor!

FLAVOR FLAV: Yo, Red. What’s up G?

RED ALERT: How the hell are you?

FLAVOR FLAV: Oh man, I’m livin’ I’m trying to be givin’.

RED ALERT: How many years has Public Enemy been together?

FLAVOR FLAV: We’ve been out for a good four years.

RED ALERT: You’re on this mission to bring understanding to all the youths and to adults. How’s it coming along?

FLAVOR FLAV: So far successfully, you know what I’m saying? Because of the support that we’re getting from everybody that we communicate with. It’s very seldom that you get to teach somebody and they appreciate it. My hat goes off to them. Those are the ones that’s learning, and those are the ones that’s helping us accomplish this mission.

RED ALERT: And right now across the country and around the world, you’re one of the most loved figures in rap. How do you feel about that?

FLAVOR FLAV: I feel so appreciated; this is a feeling that I really can’t describe. I’m overwhelmed by the way people take to me. And the reason why, in a way, I’m not surprised that I’m one of the most loved figures is because when one of the most loved figures gives you love, you got no choice but to give him love back. And see, all around the world, wherever I went, I was giving out my heart to people first, so I feel that this is them giving their heart back to me. So I appreciate everyone that appreciates me and thank them for their support. I hope I can be a better leader as time continues.

RED ALERT: I hear that. Can I ask you a question? What is the difference between you and Chuck D?

FLAVOR FLAV: Well, you know, Chuck is Chuck and Flav is Flav. That’s one difference. The second difference is that Chuck, he’s not much of a joker. And Flav—he’ll drive you up the wall. Like the Raid to the roaches.

RED ALERT: Is it sort of like, every king that has a kingdom needs a court jester to keep everybody in place and having fun?

FLAVOR FLAV: Let me tell you like this: Flavor Flav is his own person. Chuck D, that’s my partner. He is the king because he is a lyrical king. Also he is a king that educated a whooooole lot of communities. So I look at Chuck as being a king. Right now he’s the leader of Public Enemy and he keeps things pretty well together. But it’s up to myself to keep myself together.

RED ALERT: I hear that. Flavor, is there anything in the future you plan to do, besides being with Pubic Enemy?

FLAVOR FLAV: Right now I’m gonna definitely end up going solo, and I think this’ll be real good. I’m gonna try to bat this one home. Myself, Red, man, I’m a man of many tastes. You know what I’m saying? And right now this Public Enemy taste that I have in my mouth is a very strong educating taste.

RED ALERT: But there’s another side of Flavor Flav that you want to show also, right?

FLAVOR FLAV: Yeah. Because I play abut 14 different instruments, and I ain’t going to sit here and name ’em all because it would take up the whole interview time. Also, I can sing a little bit. A lot of people don’t believe Flavor Flav can sing. They would if they could hear when I’m in the shower! But yeah, I can sing a little bit, and I write love tunes, love songs. I can write songs that’ll make ya laugh, make ya cry, you know what I’m saying? I’m a songwriter.

RED ALERT: Where did you get your first start in the music industry?

FLAVOR FLAV: It comes from the education I got from learning how to play my instruments, which was taught by myself, you know what I’m saying? And then I gradually became a comedian playing the dozens, and I was so much the best that no one could really mess with me. Then I ran across my boy Chuck D and I got into Spectrum City, and that’s how I really got started in the music business.

RED ALERT: A lot of people don’t know that Spectrum City broadcasted rap shows out on Long Island before rap even got formulated on major radio.

FLAVOR FLAV: That’s right. You see one thing that we used to do on Spectrum City is we used to break up the monotony of all the tension building up in the neighborhood. ‘Cause there was a lot of times where you had no events going on in the neighborhood. So the only event that everybody had was gangs, you know what I’m saying? Hanging out in the park and drinking beer and all of that stuff. What we did was we rented out parks, and we also rented out American Legion halls, and Korean ballrooms, and we threw parties for the kids around the neighborhood. Before we were on radio we would go around to each town, and we would hold parties in the park and hold ’em hostage and make ’em have a good time. So every town that we left, you can believe that Spectrum City made a mark there. So that’s what we were really known for in the past before radio—we were mobile jocks.

RED ALERT: Hmm. Well respected. So this all took place in your hometown and Chuck D’s?

FLAVOR FLAV: This took place not just around my town, but around a lot of towns. I’m from Freeport, Long Island, and the rest of my group is from Roosevelt. Now I live in Roosevelt so I’m from Roosevelt, too, but my home stomping ground is Freeport. A lot of Spectrum City went on around Freeport, Roosevelt, Hempstead, Uniondale—you know, all around Long Island. Then we busted out to Queens, I don’t know, roller rinks, then we just branched out and started taking it upstate. There was one time when we took Stetastonic out on a gig, and we used to also have MC Shan come down and do gigs—oh man, we did a whole bunch with Spectrum City! Not only that, but I remember one time when we was on the radio, we gave the Fat Boys one of their first interviews on BAU.

RED ALERT: A lot of people will never know this historical connection between Spectrum City and Public Enemy unless it gets told.

FLAVOR FLAV: I’m trying to tell you now, go by me, in the place to be, rappin’ from the bottom to the T-O-P. That’s right, this is the F-L-A-V-O-R F-L-A-V! So seeee ya!

RED ALERT: Flav! A lot of people were trying to downgrade the situation with your ex-wife and who was gonna get custody of the kids. But now a lot of people see that you have your kids with you everywhere you go. Do you think this is a case where they just had to be proved wrong by the way you carry yourself as a true father?

FLAVOR FLAV: Well, let me say this: a true father is something I always will be to any child that I have in the world. And right now I have three, and I would never, ever let them do without. For one thing, I got too much dough to let them do without! You know what I’m saying? And then a jealous woman sees that you are traveling, having fun, making money, meeting people all over the world, around different women, and she’s home in one spot wishing she could be you. Therefore she gets a tendency of, “Well, if I can’t have them, nobody can have them.” And that was the type of the thing that was trying to be projected. But everyone in the world knows that Flavor Flav takes good care of his kids. And not only that, but there was one time that a DJ on KISS said—Red, I don’t think you better print this in case I make a mistake.   

RED ALERT: That’s okay, you just let it go by.

FLAVOR FLAV: Bet. Anyway, they was like slandering, slandering, and slandering, but then they cut it off. But everybody knows that Flavor Flav is a good father and takes good care of home.

RED ALERT: From the very first time you appeared on live TV, a lot of people did not understand what Flavor Flav was all about. Do you feel they were close-minded?

FLAVOR FLAV: I’m not gonna say that they were close-minded; I’m just gonna say that they were shocked by a brand new character that came across the scene so real. You know what I’m saying? Sometimes reality can shock people. To the point where you’d just be amazed. And I really think that I amazed a lot of people with my brand new character, because this is a character that never really came out in the public like this before. I mean somebody from the real world instead of acting, just being real, being yourself. I’m not gonna say these people were close-minded; I think that they were kinda shocked and amazed because this character came across and made an impact so hard, like two meteors colliding together and just blowing up—BOOOM! I ain’t gonna say they were close-minded; I think they just didn’t understand, they had to see as time went along. I made ’em learn at the pace that time allowed.

RED ALERT: I think it’s about near time you’re supposed to go see your man up in Harlem that just came from overseas—I think his name is Nelson Mandela.

FLAVOR FLAV: Our brother. Guess what? I’m getting ready to go up there right after I talk to you, because not only am I going to see my man, Nelson Mandela, but he is what I call proof that black people have strength. Why I say this is because out of 27 long, hard, crazy years, this man gets out of the jail and just dusts himself off like he did it with no problem. You know what I’m saying? Come on, man! His wife is a sign of strength, because look how long she waited and waited and waited for this moment to come. She survived it. If Nelson Mandela can survive what they both went through, that proves that black people can survive almost anything because of our strength and our power. And what we all need to do is take our love and our power and share it amongst everybody. And this whole world will unite together a build a force so strong nobody can tear it down.

RED ALERT: You don’t mind me coming up there with you to check out Mr. Mandela?

FLAVOR FLAV: I would love for you to come up there and spend time with me and check out Mr. Mandela. And if it’s possible, Flavor Flav gonna get the great door to where I’m gonna meet Mr. Mandela myself, and if possible introduce him to you too. 

RED ALERT: Well, it’s about that time for us to go, and as you know, we always say, we got places to go.

FLAVOR FLAV: I don’t wanna go. No, man, I ain’t leaving; this interview ain’t over. I ain’t goin’ for it. Flavor Flav got to run his mouth to the end of the book.

RED ALERT: We got to run to the end of the book?

FLAVOR FLAV: Yeah, prop master.

RED ALERT: Then we gonna have to jet out some kind of way, ’cause there’s props out there and we got to see.

FLAVOR FLAV:  Well, guess what?

RED ALERT: What’s that?

FLAVOR FLAV: All the little props? Send ’em to the cops!

RED ALERT: Any last words you gotta say?

FLAVOR FLAV: Mainly for all of the young people of the world, listen: I, Flavor Flav, of Public Enemy, started exactly from the place you are now. And if I can do it, you can too. I am no better than no one. Always try your best, always do your best. Everybody can succeed. Anything you wanna be you can be; any job you want you can have. Make sure you get that diploma, listen to your parents, and everything will be A to the K. 

RED ALERT: I hear that, boss. Signing off, Flavor Flav, Red Alert.

FLAVOR FLAV: Yeaaa booooy.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE SEPTEMBER 1990 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

 New Again runs every Wednesday. For  more, click here.