The Revolution Will Not Be Flavorized
(photo: Rock Pop Gallery)
Legendary Hip Hop group Public Enemy is performing tonight at the Madison Theater in Covington. PE are my favorite Hip Hop group ever — though it’s not public consensus (according to polls and lists and whatnot), I think Chuck D is Hip Hop’s greatest MC, lyricist and voice. Chuck’s words are bombastic, brute poetry, with more insight in one stanza than most MCs today conjure in an entire career. Louder than a bomb, indeed.
But I’m not going to the show tonight. Something has changed about Public Enemy. And that something comes down to one thing – reality TV.
The ads and posters for tonight’s event make sure to point out that Public Enemy is Chuck D, Professor Griff (once booted from the group over alleged anti-Semitic statements) and Flavor Flav. Sure, it’s a way to let the fans know this is Public Enemy’s core performing. But it also feels like a way of saying “Public Enemy featuring Flavor Flav” without coming off too crass. Let’s face it — Flav’s reality show career on VH1 is more successful than PE ever was and ever will be. Flav no doubt sells more tickets because of his high profile on TV’s Flavor of Love. There may even be people there who have never heard a note of Public Enemy’s music.
Flav has been responsible for a network’s worth of reality TV gold, with each show getting progressively more offensive and embarrassing. First, there was his appearance on the D-list celebrity hostage-situation known as The Surreal Life. Flav’s always been “comedic relief”; his clowning in PE almost seemed necessary, like the weight of Chuck’s words demanded a short recovery period so we can all reflect on what was just said. Flav didn’t seem to be being “used” in PE. While analogies could be (and have been) made to Stephin Fetchit or The Apollo’s “Sandman,” in the context of Chuck’s deep deconstruction of and commentary on societal ills, Flav came off more like a parody of those offensive stereotypes.
Comedic relief has a long history in art and literature, from Falstaff to Jar Jar Binks, usually manifesting itself in the form of a clumsy, buffoonish sidekick. Flav’s role in PE fits into that tradition — breaking down the drama to give the audience a quick breather. When the sidekick takes center stage, it becomes just “comedy.” And Flav’s comedy now perpetuates the stereotypes he once seemed to be satirizing. It’s like if one of the main characters in The Sopranos was spun off into a slapstick sitcom — James Gandolfini and Andy Dick star in All Mobbed Up!, immediately following According to Jim on ABC!
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Flav’s certainly entitled to his career – he’s a gifted musician and a funny man (though it occasionally seems like his comedy is the result of a mental quirk – are fans laughing with him or at him?). His run-ins with the law are well documented, begging the question, “If Flav didn’t have this fame, would he be in jail?” My problem isn’t with Flav, per se — it’s with his continued membership in Pubic Enemy. Is his “character” now not the antithesis of everything PE has ever stood for?
On The Surreal Life, Flav’s personality stood out among a houseful of dull no-names. But it was with his next series, Strange Love (documenting his “courtship” of Amazonian former actress/model Brigitte Nielsen), that his role in Public Enemy began to be compromised. Chuck D went public with his disappointment over the show. But it wasn’t directed at Flav; Chuck bemoaned Flav’s treatment by the show’s producers, pissed that they were delving into Flav’s personal life, dragging his kids and family into the fray. Chuck said the network was exploiting Flav for “profit and ratings” — he called it “Flavsploitation,” despite the fact that this was (allegedly) “reality” TV and Flav didn’t really appear to be an unwilling victim. There was even a scene in the series where Chuck flips out after “Mr. F” brings his beloved “’Gitte” onstage during a PE concert. The cameras seemed to catch Chuck at his wit’s end – clearly, he didn’t want Flav’s “other life” interfering with PE in any way. At least back then.
Flav’s appearances on The Surreal Life and Strange Love were just kind of bizarre, but not really that offensive. I remember watching and chuckling at Flav’s “Yeah, boyeeees” and “Flaver Flaaaavs,” just like I did when I listened to the records. But then someone at VH1 had what turned out to be a brilliant programming concept. Put Flav in a situation like The Bachelor and find the beclocked one a “mate” (or, as it seemed at times, someone for him to “mate” with). Flav was put in a house with a bevy of potential lovers and forced to whittle through the pack to find the right woman.
The racial stereotypes some of the women (see: the other mind-numbing Flav spin-off, I Love New York) perpetuated were obvious and much talked about; less talked about was the misogynistic assembly-line premise, where women are pitted against each other to vie for one man’s attention. It’s a microcosm of a big problem in Rap music today – the total objectification of women, who are presented as merely asses with heads attached in videos. Not very Public Enemy-like. At all.
I controlled my vomit-reflex enough to watch a few minutes of that show, out of curiosity. All I remember is the one episode where Flav’s Rap buddies come over to the house to paw his prospective girlfriends in order to find out which ladies might leave him for another “star.” And I also remember the much-run clip of two of the women physically fighting, which escalated into one of them spitting in the other’s face (or mouth, as it turned out). Most reality TV is lowest common denominator stuff; it seems to get crueler with every new show. But Flavor of Love was an all-time low. Not to be all “Will someone please think of the children!,” but I can’t stop imagining a young 13-year-old girl watching that program and looking up to these women and Flav. “Who’s your role model, little girl?” “New York from Flavor of Love, ’cause she gets hers!”
Chuck D’s earlier rage about Flav’s TV exploits seems to have subsided. Flav is still an integral part of Public Enemy (as the posters attest) and Chuck’s more recent comments about Flav have been along the lines of “He’s always been like that — that’s just Flav doing his thing. There just happens to be TV cameras rolling.” Again, it seems to go against everything Public Enemy ever stood for.
When I – a middle-class white kid from the lilywhite Westside town of Cheviot, where racism was thriving (someone once spraypainted “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on your ass” on a prominent drug store wall and it took the owners about two months to get it off) – first heard Public Enemy, I had just left home after graduating high school. My parents were extremely anti-racism and raised me well. No doubt like many kids in my situation, I became fascinated with the Civil Rights movement, hanging on every word of Malcom X’s autobiography and the PBS documentary The Eyes on the Prize. I was never the suburban kid who though he was black. It was the strength-in-the-face-of-unfathomable-animosity morals of the stories that inspired me. Racism (like all bigotry) seemed illogical to me.
I was also deep into Punk Rock. Great Punk artists like The Clash spoke to the concepts of unity and often presented racism as a synonym for stupidity. In the band I was in at the time, we incorporated every member’s influences, which resulted in a weird Punk/Funk/Rap hybrid that was like a mix between the Butthole Surfers, Black Flag and early, unhinged Red Hot Chili Peppers. And, soon enough, Public Enemy.
My friends and bandmates were adventurous in their listening habits and we’d all share our favorite new records. One day, Charlie, the drummer, brought in a tape of Public Enemy’s debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. All he said was (excitedly), “It’s like Punk Rap music.” I was intrigued. Then we listened. I was hooked.
I was a fan of the Hip Hop that many white kids were starting to pick up on — Run D.M.C., Beastie Boys, etc. But the sound (courtesy of the Bomb Squad, perhaps the most original production team in Hip Hop history) and the lyrics of Public Enemy took everything further. Presented unapologetically, the messages in the music moved me to explore exactly what Chuck was talking about. Over time, Chuck’s words led me to read up on Huey P. Newton, “a son slain in Bensonhurst,” Marcus Garvey, Alexander Munday, “40 acres and a mule,” Farrakahn, Tony Rome, Joannne Chesimard — it was probably the first music that would have been well served having footnotes.
Flav’s role in the group was always the same live and on record. PE gave me one of my most memorable concert experiences. In 1990, my friends and I discovered they were playing in Dayton at Hara Arena. I remember the year because the final game of the World Series was going on. The Reds swept Oakland, but we could care less (though we did head straight downtown on our way home to run through the streets; sadly, we were broomless). We were on our way to see our new heroes, and they didn’t swing bats or throw balls. They swung empowerment and threw bombs.
When we arrived, we discovered we were the only white people in the arena (this is something often said, but rarely true; I swear it was in this case). Again, we didn’t really care, but it seemed odd (even then, plenty of white folks could be found in the audiences of Rap concerts). Turns out it was homecoming for the all-black Central State University. The group’s performance was phenomenal — maybe it’s the haze of nostalgia talking, but we were all blown away and that show is still burned in my memory. It could also be my dislodged brain — the bass was thunderous, literally shaking the entire arena. I’ve seen PE since and they were still excellent (and the bass was always heavy, just not quite so). But, in Dayton on that night, the group seemed particularly on fire, perhaps jazzed to be playing for an all-black crowd (something they likely never get to do these days), or maybe they were just especially feeling it that night. It felt like a block party.
Whatever it was, PE’s “big picture” revealed itself to me that October evening — they are “entertainment” first, political pundits second.
So maybe I shouldn’t be shocked that Chuck and Flav are still teammates. Chuck has been involved in social causes and political commentary over the years, but he is primarily an entertainer. If there’s a message in there, all the better. It’s like crushing up medicine and putting it in your toddler’s ice cream — the kid still thinks it’s just ice cream, but there’s something good for them at the core. If Flav’s fame brings more people to the message, does that make whatever he stands for now A-OK, because people will be rocked and schooled? I don’t know — I still think it’s all the equivalent of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech being followed by a reunion of Amos ’n’ Andy.
In “Burn Hollywood Burn,” Chuck once rapped, “Get me the hell away from this TV/All this news and views are beneath me.” Apparently, they are no longer that beneath him. Chuck also once rapped about fighting the power, but now it seems he’s, at the very least, a by-standing enabler of the culture he so masterfully analyzes and condemns. Chuck has stuck by his friend admirably, but now that Flav is probably the biggest selling point for the group, you would think — judging by his past words — that Mr. D would start becoming concerned about his own legacy.
As of now, Public Enemy will still go down as one of the greatest Hip Hop groups of all time (they should also be first ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, if the committee had any sense — which is debatable). But how many more Flav reality shows can PE’s legacy withstand before their place in history becomes a footnote in the story of a flash-in-the-pan TV star’s lunacy?
— Mike Breen