The Journey of Flavor Flav: From Public Enemy to Public Buffoon
(As Flavor Flav makes his sitcom debut tonight, I cooked up a column for Floridian lamenting the slide of a brother who once stood for something. Here's the column reposted on the blog)
When Flavor Flav burst on the scene with seminal rap group Public Enemy, he was never the main attraction. Flav brought the noise as the ultimate "hype man," a comic foil to help ease the brutally Afro-centric, often militant messages of rap's first successful group to base its image on a political stance.
While lead M.C. Chuck D. urged fans to Bring the Noise or Fight the Power, Flav provided a break from the seriousness, highlighting the slow response of emergency crews in America's ghettos with 911 Is a Joke before warning listeners on the followup album that you Can't Truss It, especially when left-wing politicians in Little Rock feed you a line.
In his prime, William Drayton was the best rap sidekick in the game. Mouth packed with gold caps and a gigantic clock wrapped around his neck, Flav helped turn the hype man into a hallowed institution in hip-hop while contributing to some of the most legendary rap hits in history.
So how did this image of excess and hedonism, originally presented as a counterweight to the austere black nationalist vibe of Public Enemy's core message, become the group's most visible surviving legacy?
Here's how: In the last few years, reality TV shows have transformed the sidekick clown into the star.
The odyssey started with Flav's debut as a housemate in the series that crammed dysfunctional celebrities in a house, The Surreal Life. It progressed to his goof of a "romance" with Brigitte Nielsen in Strange Love (she reportedly was engaged to someone else during the production) and VH1's ghetto-style version of The Bachelor, Flavor of Love. (That's three No. 1 cable series, if you're counting.)
Flavor of Love in particular has proven a ratings bonanza. The show's first-season finale drew the most viewers in VH1's then-21 years, and its second-season debut drew the channel's biggest premiere audience ever. Small wonder VH1 okayed two spinoffs and a third season.
Now 49, Flav is set to star in a half-hour sitcom, Under One Roof, debuting tonight on low-rated MyNetworkTV. He plays an ex-convict living with his straitlaced brother, and the series is so good, MyNetworkTV didn't send me a review copy (a publicist for the show insists that happened because they are editing the show down to the last minute).
A cynic might assume that fans — black and white — are giddily consuming the buffoonish black-hustler stereotype Flavor Flav offers with little regard to the social consequences.
In the process, the man who once rhymed about black folks being "Divided and sold/For liquor and the gold/Smacked in the back/For the other man to mack" is now lording over women who insult each other over their herpes bumps and one who even relieved herself on the floor. (The punch line: She wasn't eliminated from Flavor of Love for that. Really.)
By now, it's a cliche to complain about how Flav's worn playa shtick has become a license to print money for reality TV producers. It's just the latest in a long line of contradictions from an artist who can boast of skills as a classically trained pianist and arrests for carrying an unlicensed gun and crack cocaine.
Without seeing an episode, it's a safe bet that Under One Roof continues that legacy, mining stereotypes about black folks minus the godly messages you get in a Tyler Perry script.
This Public Enemy fan is left to wonder about the irony: One of rap's most militantly pro-black groups has produced one of TV's biggest black buffoons. The voice of the hype man, in the end, is the loudest left from the rap band that was socially conscious before the industry had a name for it.
Looks like someone decided that fighting the power wasn't as profitable as joining it.
And we all may be the worse for his choice.