A few years ago I was sitting at a bar when I noticed a series of missed calls from my mother logged on my cell phone. I knew she was alone for the weekend, my father was vacationing with one of his brothers in the southern U.S. I quickly made my way to the front of the bar so I could try to get a hold of her, to make sure she hadn’t fallen down the stairs or suffered some similar indignity.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Are you aware there is a show called Flavor of Love?”
“Uh. Yeah, Mom. I know.”
“Why did I never know who Flavor Flav was before now? Who is he?”
“He’s in a rap group called Public Enemy. Aggressive, political stuff. You’re not really their demo.”
“Well I think he’s just hysterical.”
This is what had become of one of the most dangerous and outright terrifying acts in the history of rap, only possibly outmatched by NWA. But really, it’s unfair to lump them together like that. Both acts were dangerous, thus making them appealing to eleven-year-old boys in southwestern Ontario towns, but for different reasons. NWA was a sonic document of life for young black men in Los Angeles, laid out over traditional West Coast funk elements. Public Enemy had an agenda.
They were aggressive, and confrontational, taking aim at everything from black radio stations, to the skyrocketing rate of drug use in urban communities, to the criminal justice system to the media’s representations of black people in film and television. And the lyrics weren’t the only thing confrontational. The group’s production team was called The Bomb Squad for God’s sake, and that’s exactly what they were doing: dropping bombs. Up until PE, most rap producers then [and now] will take a couple recognizable elements of a song, sample it and loop it. The Bomb Squad took that concept, shot it full of steroids and fired it out of a bazooka. From a helicopter. On fire. A single musical track might have over 20 different samples on it. Sometimes the only thing they take is a vocal piece [the ‘chuh-chuh! at the start of Fight the Power] or a squawking saxophone note [Maceo Parker’s opening to ‘The Grunt,’ looped to almost painful effect in ‘Rebel Without a Pause‘]. In some cases these sounds should not sound good together, under any circumstance. And as a kid, encountering this music for the first time, it didn’t a lot of the time, if we’re being real.
But time changes a man, they say, and I got an itch to go back and listen to some PE as an adult. And my God, what a difference some life makes. Songs I already liked I like even more, songs I was iffy or ambivalent about have won me over. ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos‘ was always good. But being older, fully understanding the narrative that Chuck D is weaving over that sinister piano loop…I mean, this is a song that matter-of-factly describes the shooting of a female Corrections Officer during a prison break. Who else is making music like this? Who would have the balls? And this aired all the time on Muchmusic!
But if there was any one genius element to Public Enemy, it was Flav. Clownish, but no clown, his comic presence kept the music from becoming one long drag after another. Chuck D famously called hip-hop ‘The Black CNN,’ and Flavor Flav was the reason a lot of us kids were tuning in. Whether a Canadian white kid was their target audience or not, art is the transmission of ideas, and the ideas the group was trying to get across stuck in my brain because I thought Flav was cool.
I see him making the rounds these days, the talk show circuits. He’s got a book out, which I’m not sure I’ll bother reading. He’s doing what he needs to do, and the rules of game say to never knock another man’s hustle. But I wish people like my mom, people like the kids watching him on the Comedy Central Roast, could realize or remember how important he was to the culture, reminding us all to not believe the hype, or that 911 is indeed a joke.
And isn’t it funny how some of those outfits that were so ‘kuh-razy’ in 1990 would totally kill today? Seriously, the neon green is fire.