The circumstances surrounding Flavor Flav’s forced departure from Public Enemy this week raised more than a few eyebrows and understandably so. On the surface, it’s a self-destructive move by PE mainman Chuck D. While D has always inarguably been the font of talent within the group, Flav offered a fascinating juxtaposition. His comedic-hype provides levity in the face of extraordinary weight.
We shouldn’t have ever needed it. The subjects they covered — particularly on the groundbreaking and incendiary It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and on Fear of a Black Planet, were and are vital — wouldn’t it have been great if the mainstream could have accepted them on face value?
But the world isn’t perfect and Chuck D might be a genius. He knew from the start that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and the inclusion of Flavor Flav — the biggest funny man in rap outside of ICP — would smooth the way to getting his messages out to many, many more people. White kids were walking around their suburbs in the ’80s with a clock around their neck, buying albums and, god willing, soaking up what Chuck was saying.
We’ll never know how far Public Enemy would have risen without Flavor Flav. Again, we shouldn’t need the silliness but we also have to be pragmatic. The entertainment industry is there to entertain. And Flav certainly entertained. From the “YEAH BOYEEEE!!!” catchphrase to those oversized timepieces, to the goofy faces and his reality TV appearances — car crash TV at its worst — Flav has kept his profile high.
At the Phoenix Music Festival in England in 1995, this writer saw Flav bungee jump, wearing his clock. The sight of the guy plummeting while the clock flew about his head (it had to have been dangerous) is something that has stuck.
Ultimately, the differences between Chuck D and Flavor Flav made for a fascinating element in what made the band tick. The classic theatrical comedy/tragedy thing, except that in this case the tragedies of which D was rapping were very real. But still, it worked.
Here’s the thing though: The whole time, fans assumed that Flav at least had a rudimentary understanding of the nature of the group he was in. Sure, he’s always been a goon. But he must have known that Public Enemy has never been an ordinary hip-hop project. This is about more than music. Even within his role as the jester to D’s king, he must have at least been aware of what was going on around him.
This week’s events would suggest otherwise and that’s mind-blowing. So to recap: Public Enemy were billed to appear at the Los Angeles rally for Senator Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for president. If you looked very, very closely at the poster, it read “Public Enemy Radio,” except that the “PUBLIC ENEMY” was in huge letters alongside “BERNIE SANDERS” and the “radio” was in a teeny tiny font. Public Enemy Radio is a term Chuck D uses from time to time to differentiate from full-on PE activities. But anyway, prior to the event, Flav sent the office of Bernie Sanders a cease and desist letter.
“While Chuck is certainly free to express his political view as he sees fit — his voice alone does not speak for Public Enemy,” the letter states. “The planned performance will only be Chuck D of Public Enemy, it will not be a performance by Public Enemy. Those who truly know what Public Enemy stands for know what time it is, there is no Public Enemy without Flavor Flav.”
On March 1, D tweeted: “It’s not about BERNIE with Flav… he don’t know the difference between BarrySanders or BernieSanders he don’t know either. FLAV refused to support @Sankofa after @harrybelafonte inducted us. He don’t do that.”
D followed that up by suggesting that Flav is less than savvy when it comes to politics:
“So I don’t attack FLAV on what he don’t know. I gotta leave him at the crib so y’all trying to fill his persona with some political aplomb is absolutely‘stupid’ Obviously I understand his craziness after all this damn time. Duh you don’t know him from a box of cigars or me either.”
Then followed that up with: “If there was a $bag, Flav would’ve been there front & center. He will NOT do free benefit shows. Sued me in court the 1st time I let him back in. His ambulance lawyer sued me again on Friday & so now he stays home & better find REHAB.”
Amongst all of that, Public Enemy announced that they were parting ways with Flav, thanking him for his service but adding that he’s been on suspension since 2016 when he missed a Harry Belafonte benefit. The Sanders debacle was simply the last straw. Flav didn’t take it well.
“.@MrChuckD are you kidding me right now???,,,over Bernie Sanders??? You wanna destroy something we’ve built over 35 years OVER POLITICS???,,,all because I don’t wanna endorse a candidate,,,I’m very disappointed in you and your decisions right now Chuck,,,”
That final tweet right there is the most telling of all. The fact that Flav capitalizes “OVER POLITICS” and adds three question marks, suggesting an element of nonsense about the concept, confirms what we suggested and suspected at the start of this column: Flav has perhaps never understood the importance of his own group beyond the trappings of fame and fortune. That’s certainly what Chuck D is saying. Isn’t that staggering?
The debate will rage on. Chuck D owns the Public Enemy name and so, legally, he can do with it as he pleases. Flav says, with some validity, that he’s a partner in the creation and without him Public Enemy only half-exists. Certainly a PE show with Flav is missing something. Not the most important thing. But something.