Story by Todd Williams
Images by Hiltron Bailey for Steed Media Service
The first time I met Flavor Flav was completely random. I was walking out of a pizzeria in midtown Manhattan, about a block or two east of Times Square, when I noticed a street performer coated in gold paint going through his routine. A small throng had gathered, and being the ever-ready photojournalist, I took out my camera to capture a quick shot of the tourists and the performer. As I was reaching for my camera, a short gentleman with a white do-rag and a blue-and-black Viagra® jacket and instantly recognizable gait walked past me and retrieved a giant roll of bills from his pocket — dropping a substantial amount at the gold gentleman’s feet. When he turned around, not only did I recognize the clock-sporting gentleman immediately, but so did everyone else.
As the crowd shifted its attention from the dancer to the infamous Flavor Flav, the rapper-turned-reality-TV star graciously walked away down the block. “I can’t take this man’s shine,” he said. “This is his job — I’m distracting from his job.” Needless to say, the damage had been done; the mass of people rapidly multiplied and followed Flav down the block to ask for autographs.
Flav has always possessed that je ne sais quoi. He has a knack for pulling people into his sphere, and he has a theory as to the secret of his broad appeal. “I always kept it real with people,” he says bluntly. “I’ve always been sincere and loving and I got a crazy, outgoing personality, a fun personality. Everybody likes to have fun and I think that’s probably why everybody really takes to Flavor Flav.” It might be a bit of an overstatement to say that everybody loves Flavor Flav, but one thing is certain — everybody has an opinion on Flavor Flav. Everybody. And those opinions run the gamut.
For everyone who laughs along at his outlandishly goofy persona, there are an equal number of naysayers who criticize the man born William Drayton Jr. for being, at best, a walking caricature — and at worst, the 21st century embodiment of minstrel-level buffoonery. In the hip-hop group Public Enemy, Flav’s personality was brilliantly offset by the fiery rhetoric of Chuck D.’s, and Professor Griff’s stoic revolutionary stance. Flav’s presence almost seemed like an in-your-face reminder of the role that many black entertainers had to play in years past, that of the cartoonish sidekick. The difference this time was that the sidekick was back with some seriously militant, pro-black cohorts and intent on turning pop culture on its ear. Which they did.
‘Stretching out’ has been an ongoing motivation for Common. The Chicago-born MC has long been one of the most respected talents in hip-hop, but in recent years he has answered the call of the silver screen. His appearance in last year’s Smokin’ Aces and the epic American Gangster gave notice to critics and fans that the man dubbed the most thoughtful rapper in hip-hop was a formidable and charismatic screen presence. But, he’s not a rapper-turned-actor who’s counting on his already famous visage to put butts in seats; he’s very serious about the craft of acting as evidenced by the preparation he undertook for his latest role. “I really did a lot of diving into L.A. life — from Compton to Watts,” he explains. “[I was] just going into the neighborhoods and absorbing the culture and the people and also doing a lot of research on police officers and [learning about] being a sheriff’s deputy.”
Growing up on Chicago’s notorious South Side, the young Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. came into contact with more than a few shady personalities. The strength of his mother and mentorship of his father helped the young man avoid the dangers of the streets, but Common remembers those days, and has used some of those old associations as motivation and inspiration for the dark subject matter that he has to tackle in Street Kings. “[I was] getting into that dark side of people that I knew. Everybody dark isn’t necessarily frowning every day, but people that I know that are killers, they certainly got a little quietness about them.”
But, since his appearance in 2004 on VH1’s reality show “The Surreal Life” — a reality show that puts several (ahem) past-their-prime celebrities in a house together — Flav’s public image has been almost completely divorced from those days in P.E. And even though he insists that Public Enemy is ‘forever,’ even Flav has to acknowledge that a lot of his younger fans may not know one verse from Public Enemy’s legendary canon of hip-hop classics. “I thank all of the people that have supported Public Enemy [because] without them there wouldn’t be no Flav, [and] a lot of my fans from music have followed me into television,” he notes. “[But] there are a lot of parents that bring their kids down to a Public Enemy show that don’t really know about Public Enemy. All they know is they’re coming to see Flavor Flav.”
Chuck D. famously quipped that VH1 was engaging in ‘Flavsploitation’ with their seemingly endless parade of reality shows tailor-made for the diminutive hypeman. He pointed in particular to an infamous episode of Flav’s first reality show, “Strange Love,” with his pseudo-girlfriend, former B-actress Brigitte Nielsen. In the episode, Flav is accosted in church by three of his children and their mother, who were declaring Flav a ‘deadbeat dad’ and wearing matching T-shirts that conveyed the same. Chuck D. commented on the situation in a journal entry on .com:
“Peeps will let the Brigitte [sic] thing perhaps slide, but not the wild statements and what seems like a disrespect conflict on camera with his children and their mother. Last week, it was that same part of his family who went on [radio host] Wendy Williams’ program and launched the worst on-air diatribe ever directed at a father by his children.”
A petition to pull “Strange Love” off the air followed, and critics ranging from Rev. Paul Scott to journalist Jason Whitlock chimed in on Flav’s act. But Flav dismisses the criticism, and it seems to barely register on his radar these days. The only time the media has cracked through the veneer of his eternal playfulness and actually wounded Flav emotionally was years ago, as he struggled through his addictions. “The only time that I can say that I got unfair press and the only time that I was really, really misconceived was during my battle with drugs, [when] I was going in and out of jail,” he says, the remorse over those years still palpable in his voice. “A lot of people didn’t really understand me. And a lot of people used to write a lot of false things about me,” he pauses, before throwing on his emotional armor again. “But I’m clean today and I am off of drugs. And a lot of those people that wrote bad things about me — I betcha they feel sorry now that they did it, because I’m still unstoppable. Not untouchable, but unstoppable. And I thank God for that.”
In all fairness, Flavor Flav seems to revel in any chance he gets to do his thing in front of the camera. His latest project is “Under One Roof,” a sitcom centered on Flav’s character, Calvester Hill, an ex-convict who moves in with his wealthy conservative brother after an extended absence. “My man Claude Brooks and Danielle Quarles came up with this fresh idea about these two guys being together; an ex-convict and a wealthy real estate broker. They have somewhat different personalities [but] come from the same family. Claude Brooks felt that I was the best one for the job.”
While Flav has dominated cable reality television for more than three years, his foray into the world of situational comedy represents a shift, on many levels. “See, with reality TV you’re able to do what you want to do and take it to wherever you want to take it, and you’re mostly under your own direction,” Flav says. “[With a] sitcom, you’re under other people’s direction and not only that, I am actually reading and memorizing lines. A sitcom is much more of a challenge to Flav.”
But that challenge is a welcome one. Flav has had his eyes on making the transition to acting ever since his initial success in reality TV with “Surreal Life.” “My purpose for moving from the East Coast to the West Coast was to pursue a TV and movie career,” he explains. “Two people that proved that the way can be paved from music [are] Will Smith and LL Cool J. Will Smith blew that out of the water — first rapper on TV to do a sitcom.”
Having watched from afar as his peers became stars of the small screen, and in the case of the aforementioned Smith, LL, and Oscar® nominee Queen Latifah — the silver screen as well, Flav decided that he could do the same. “I was like ‘Wow, if these guys can do it, I know Flavor Flav can do it, too. I’ve been out on the road with these guys. They’re on television? I know I can last on television, too,” he says.
And hip-hop on reality TV shows no signs of slowing down. Run DMC’s Rev. Run’s hit show “Run’s House” is one of the highest rated on MTV, and Snoop Dogg and Salt-N-Pepa have added their names to the list. “I feel good about Salt-N-Pepa being on TV, because I really did miss my girls and there was times when Public Enemy and Salt-N-Pepa toured as well,” Flav says proudly. “We need more shows like this.”
Flav’s commitment to pursuing television is so all-encompassing, one might wonder where P.E. ranks in his priority list today. “Me and my partner, Chuck D., as long as we’re living, we’re going to always be together as Public Enemy,” Flav states definitively. “We’ll never break up.” But Flav does acknowledge that television has opened a new door in his career. “With music, you reach a certain type of audience, which to me, is like a limited-size audience,” Flav notes. “With television, you hit a much broader audience, it’s more unlimited.”
Hitting that broader audience has meant having to deal with the new fans, the old critics, and everything in between. One has to wonder where the persona ends and the person begins. He’s been Flavor Flav for so long, has he lost a little bit of Will Drayton in the process? But Flav has always maintained his ‘realness,’ and it’s possible that Flav and William are indeed one-and-the-same. Either way, Flavor Flav isn’t about to change, so deal with it. “He’s a clown and all the kids that go to the circus love clowns,” Flav says, speaking in third person. “That’s ya boy, Flav! And as old as I am, I like clowns, too. That’s why I’m still a clown. I ain’t never [grown] up — and I ain’t growing up no time soon. And I’m gonna keep the whole world lovin’ Flav!”