Hip-hop court jester Flavor Flav may be the newest reality-TV sensation (see The Surreal Life and Strange Love, if you can stomach it) but one person isn’t buying the act: Chuck D, Flav’s former comrade in the seminal rap group Public Enemy.
“You gotta understand, when somebody says, ‘Yo, yo, what do you think of Flavor Flav, he’s doing TV now,’ I say, ‘No, we have to tell Flavor Flav TV is kinda doing him right now,’” Chuck told a packed house at N.Y.U.’s Tishman Auditorium on Feb. 26. The occasion was a weekend-long discussion of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy’s most celebrated album, and arguably one of the best pieces of recorded music in any genre. Never mind that the night before the band had reunited for the first time in years to perform together before such stars as Missy Elliott, Naomi Campbell, Russell Simmons, Lil’ Kim, Fat Joe and Q-Tip at a benefit party for the Jam Master Jay Foundation, where they stormed their way through hits like “Welcome to the Terrordome,” “Public Enemy No. 1,” “911 Is a Joke,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” and “Bring the Noise.”
But never one to mince words, Chuck, dressed down in a crew-neck sweatshirt and trademark black baseball cap, skipped over self-congratulatory reminiscences to attack the cultural malaise currently being endorsed by his onetime band mate. He may be a little older now, but the rapper-activist looked just as imposing and defiant as the young man staring out from the cover photo of It Takes a Nation ….
“MTV and Viacom have extended the teenage years to age 29,” Chuck went on. “Now people are so deep in fantasy that Americans have to watch TV for ‘reality.’
“When we made this album there was a crack epidemic going on. Today we have another epidemic: ‘Consumption’ is the new crack.”
The crowd at Tishman didn’t seem to mind when Chuck moved the Public Enemy tribute on to broader topics of discussion. After all, many of the audience members had already sat through two days of various panel discussions singing the praises of It Takes a Nation ….
In addition to heaping endless amounts of praise on the album, panelists focused on another thread, espoused by everyone from former Public Enemy publicity agent Craig Davis to Chuck D himself: Contemporary hip-hop is drowning in the bling-bling abyss of albums like 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
“The rap groups I deal with now,” said Mr. Davis, “I just shake my head. Here comes another guy talking about bling; here comes another guy talking about his .22.” As promised, Davis shook his head.
Chuck D was slightly kinder toward 80′s-era mainstream rappers like Fresh Prince and LL Cool J, citing them as both a boon to P.E.’s own efforts and a routine to be avoided:
“I liked LL Cool J, but I felt we should talk about what we know,” Chuck D said. “When we did this album I was 10 years older than LL. We weren’t going to be rapping about making out with girls.”
Fellow P.E. alumnus Hank Shocklee, who is currently writing a book on the creation of It Takes a Nation … , joined Chuck D for the weekend’s final discussion. Looking a little sleeker in form-fitting black pants and jacket, with a military-surplus cap snug on his head, Mr. Shocklee fixed the crowd with an ominous stare as he blasted the current rap scene.
Addressing the African-American members of the audience, Mr. Shocklee told the crowd, “Black culture has been replaced by hip-hop culture. Black culture is not representing you anymore-hip-hop is.”
When a frustrated record producer in the audience asked Mr. Shocklee for advice on dealing with the younger generation of bling-obsessed rappers, Mr. Shocklee pointedly told the man he “might want to consider changing the genre of music you work in.”
“I’m not telling you what you want to hear,” Mr. Shocklee added, “I’m telling you what you need to hear. This problem is too big for one individual to take the responsibility of fixing.”
Times certainly have changed since Public Enemy burst on to the scene. Hip-hop may dominate the airwaves today, but in 1988 Public Enemy’s publicity team had to drag journalists, sometimes kicking and screaming, to interviews with the group.
“White media were terrified of these guys,” said former Public Enemy publicist Leyla Turkkan. Though she wouldn’t name names, Ms. Turkkan related the tale of one journalist (“Someone who participated in a panel this weekend”) who cowered in terror as Ms. Turkkan drove him to an interview with Public Enemy. The Transom’s mind was racing: Was it John Leland, or maybe Robert Christgau?
After distancing themselves from the current rap scene, Chuck D and Mr. Shocklee described their own conception of It Takes a Nation … as an album with firm roots in rock, punk and soul music. Chuck D emphasized this point onstage by including Vernon Reid and Will Calhoun, of acclaimed rock outfit Living Colour, in the final panel discussion.
“We’re part of a hidden history of rock ‘n’ roll,” Reid said. “The history you usually get doesn’t include the Isley Brothers; it doesn’t include ‘World Is a Ghetto.’”
Mr. Reid pointed out that rock outfits like Bad Brains and Fishbone were a vital inspiration to his own music, and he was quick to add that the pigeonholing of black musicians into hip-hop perpetuates ridiculous stereotypes.
Mr. Reid related the story of a backstage confrontation with Alex Van Halen, right after brother Eddie (the talented one) and new VH front man Sammy Hagar paid tribute to Living Colour in the pages of Rolling Stone. The bumbling Van Halen brother told Mr. Reid that while Eddie was a big fan, he himself could not understand why an African-American man would want to wail on the guitar.
“I just don’t get that shit,” he reportedly told Mr. Reid.
Though Mr. Reid admitted that he was “feeling pretty ghetto,” he chose to sagely put the other Van Halen in his place.
“Why don’t you go ask your brother?” replied Mr. Reid. “He’s a real musician.”
Going for Broke
There must be a support group for this kind of thing-Celebrity Daughters Embarrassed by their Lawbreaking Daddies. Long before pop tart Lindsay Lohan’s father was making a full-time career out of racking up tabloid headlines with allegations of his wife-threatening, brother-in-law-beating, car-crashing high jinks, supermodel Maggie Rizer’s stepfather was doing his best impression of a bad dad.
John Breen pled guilty last October to robbing Ms. Rizer of $7 million and gambling away plenty of the cash in a Quick Draw spree that started in 1998-leaving her unable to pay the mortgage on her condominium. As a result, the board of Franklin Tower, the posh Tribeca building where she bought her 1,895-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in 2000 for $1.6 million, sued the freckle-faced model in State Supreme Court on Feb. 18 for $21,186.29 plus lawyers’ fees.
“It’s not the first time that they’ve filed suit against her,” says the board’s lawyer, David Abramovitz. “The last time they sued, they worked it out and she paid up. Why she hasn’t paid now, I really don’t know.”
Ms. Rizer’s lawyer insists that she will pay back the board in full. “She was broke but she’s going to straighten it out,” says Ed Hayes. “She owes them money, she’ll get it, she’s back at work now.” Ms. Rizer, who modeled for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, is lining up work and recently celebrated her 27th birthday with David Schwimmer and Keith Richards’ daughters, Theodora and Alexandra, at downtown lounge Pink Elephant. Further, Mr. Hayes claimed that he was preparing to file suits on Ms. Rizer’s behalf against several banks and investment houses for breach of fiduciary duty, for in effect allowing her fortune to be fleeced by her stepfather.
Mr. Breen, who could face up to 800 years in jail, was due to be sentenced on several felony counts in early January, but the case has been postponed. In the meantime, the gambling spree has roiled Ms. Rizer’s upstate hometown of Watertown, where Mr. Breen gambled away most of the money on Quick Draw machines at a bar called Speak Easy, which is owned by the town’s mayor, Jeff Graham. In early February, two machines were turned off by New York State Lottery officials who are conducting an investigation into the incident.
And Ms. Rizer, frustrated by malicious comments about her inability to read a bank statement or to keep track of her own fortune, which were posted on Jefferson County’s Web board, has gone on the attack. Here it is verbatim: “[F]irst off.. of course i asked for statements. sadly, they were falsified … and please, i’m an intelligent girl …. these statements were also accepted by the united states government , italian, french and U.K… so- if i accepted them, .. i’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt. check the facts, please- they’re facinating.” She also shot back at her family’s detractors. “[L]astly, point no fingers at my family. this subject is between john, myself, and his pathetic ‘friends’-ex …. and my fabulous lawyer. So back off … i will not be intimidated, i never have been.”