"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Monday, July 11, 2005,7:45 AM
Flavor Flav Taints Public Enemy’s Legacy
By jimi izrael, AOL BlackVoices columnist

This year represents the best and worst of times for hip-hop's Public Enemy.

On one hand, their 1988 release ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,’ made number 2 on Spin Magazine’s list of the most important records of the last 20 years, as well as inspiring a conference of hip-hop journalist and critics earlier this year. Few groups have kicked the ballistics like P.E., but the group accrued another not-so honorable distinction this year.

Unfortunately, Public Enemy’s legacy has arguably become the first casualty of reality television. Let's go back to the late 80s, when William Drayton as Flavor Flav and Carlton Ridenhour as Chuck D formed Public Enemy and instantly became the most dangerous rap group in the history of hip-hop. Public Enemy, who first hit the scene with 'Yo, Bum Rush the Show,' wasn't dangerous because of their quasi-military security phalanx known as the Security of the First World. Even lines like "your gonna get yours" and samples of Farrakhan speeches subverted underneath screaming James Brown horns didn’t make them the public enemy.

They were dangerous for the same three reasons all revolutionaries are dangerous: because they were telling the truth, because they had an audience and because they had a mission slash agenda; to chronicle the death of the New Black Poor and confront America with that reality. Public Enemy's narrative documents the devastation of Reaganomics and the demise of the living wage.

When they jumped into the fray with 'Nation of Millions,' they brought with it a message more potent than Grand Master Flash and a thousand Furious Fives. Sure, there was the message. But when Chuck D said "Bring the Noise" and Flavor Flav returned a "Yeaaaah Boy," you knew that he meant business.

Public Enemy very quickly became every street corner politician, every street-light messiah, every bus-stop pundit, every 40-ounce poet laureate. They were the voice of a new black consciousness. Educated. Dedicated. Dangerous.

It's a mistake to dismiss Flavor Flav's contribution to P.E. as comic relief. His lyrical contributions, outside of the (apparently) semi-autobiographical "Mega Blast," "Too Much Posse" and "I Can't Do Nothing For Ya Man" seemed slightly disjoined from the P.E. mission statement. Only his hit "911 is a Joke" gave us some inkling as to what he brought to the mix. With "911." it became clear that Flav wasn’t Chuck D's foil so much as the exclamation mark on D's bold proclamations. It’s true: these moments are sparse and uneven. But Flav proved himself less the loudest amen in the choir and more the voice capable of lifting out of the chorus, stepping to the podium preaching a sermon of his own. And this is how we would have all remembered him . . . until he took his turn on reality television, and besmirched the P.E. legacy forever.

Reality shows are entertaining low-tech social experiments for the voyeuristic and mildly retarded. But for the participants, they can be quite lucrative. So it made all the sense in the world to me when Flav took his turn on VH1's 'The Surreal Life.' Who among us would begrudge him a big-money shot at prime time? Unfortunately, things went south when he started canoodling with fellow 'Surreal'-er Bridgette Neilsen. Nielsen's celebrity in the 80s relied largely on her ample bosom, but time and nicotine have not been kind to Sly Stallone’s ex-wife. Once a fetching, tall glass of milk and Stoli, lately she resembles a baked rubber chicken in a fright wig with two water balloons -- the LONG kind -- pinned to her chest. I got queasy when she slapped Flav, and he, subsequently, fell in love.

This unlikely coupling inspired a spin-off called 'Strangelove,' where time and time again we watch Flav coonin’ for, cavorting with and confessing all his undying love for Nielsen. Watching him fit her up for gold teeth and faux-hip-hop attire was bad enough. More troubling was the not-so-subtle "Mandingo" motif woven throughout the edited narrative.

It's encouraging that Public Enemy is getting some long-overdue props this year for the work they did to elevate hip-hop dialog. Sadly, people that have never known the music of P.E. will only know them through 'Strangelove,' and Flavor Flav's sambo-isms significantly dilute the uncompromising, no-sell-out stance and political relevance of what the group stood for. Flavor's foray into reality television made him some money, cost him some dignity and diminished a lot of what P.E. was trying to accomplish through their music.

posted by R J Noriega
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