With his gold grill, Viking helmet—or crown, depending on his mood—and ubiquitous jumbo-clock necklace, Flavor Flav is one of the most recognizable figures in hip-hop music. Born William Jonathan Drayton, Jr., the diminutive musician grew up on the streets of Freeport, Long Island, causing varying degrees of mischief ranging from petty (putting tacks on his teacher’s chair) to serious (doing/dealing drugs). After dropping out of high school in 10th grade, Flav started to gain notoriety as a local DJ, and eventually hooked up with Carlton Ridenhour, who would later be known as Chuck D. The two would eventually form the nucleus—along with Professor Griff—of the seminal 1980s rap group Public Enemy.
Flav, whose role as a hype man was to amp up the crowd, served as a goofy foil to Chuck D and Griff’s politically charged lyrics and style, patterned largely after the Black Panthers. The group gained wide acclaim with their 1988 sophomore album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which ranked No. 48 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 greatest albums of all time (the highest ranking hip-hop album on the list). Their 1989 single, “Fight the Power,” further cemented their status as the voice of African-American, Reagan-era rebellion, and was used in the climactic scene of Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing.
During his time with Public Enemy, Flav suffered a long battle with drug addiction that, at the height of his fame, amounted to a $2,600-a-day habit. With no money in the bank and his rap group on hiatus, he moved to Los Angeles in 2003 and, after some coaxing from pal M.C. Hammer, agreed to appear on the third season of the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life. The season was a smash hit, and Flav was soon offered a series of his own reality shows on the network, including Strange Love, focusing on his bizarre affair with Amazonian actress Brigitte Nielsen, and the hit dating show Flavor of Love.
Flavor Flav: The Icon The Memoir, hitting shelves June 1, chronicles Flav’s tumultuous life. In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, the hip-hop legend opens up about the origins of his clocks, partying with the Beastie Boys, being dissed by Chris Rock, and much, much more.
“I really got to thank God for Tupac stopping me from committing a murder.”
Let’s talk about the “birth” of Flavor Flav. You said it started with a joint of angel dust at age 17…
That’s when the character Flavor Flav, and the name, was born. When I was a kid I used to eat a whole bunch of different colored Lifesavers, and also, I used to drink different colored fruit-flavored sodas. So there was a guy named Kevin Starks, and my nickname was Ricco, so he used to call me, ‘Ric the Flavor Freak.’ When MCing came about, I wanted to be out of the ordinary, but it had to mean something. So, I stuck with MC Flavor. And then Chuck D [from Public Enemy] started calling me Flavor Flav.
What a lot of people probably wouldn’t guess about you is that you grew up a musical prodigy of sorts.
I grew up playing about 15 instruments and the way that I was able to accomplish that was by cutting my classes, hanging out in the band room all day, and going from one instrument to the next to the next, until I learned how to play everything by ear. I started learning how to mock and mimic whatever I heard on the instruments until I got good, and the next thing you know, I’m playing them.
And you had a bunch of odd jobs prior to becoming a full-time MC. You once even drove a school bus?
Yeah! As a matter of fact, the license I lost in 1983 was a Class II license. That was one of the funnest parts of my life, driving school buses. I used to drive kids from Rockville Centre to Holy Trinity in Hicksville. I was about to get a job with the MTA before I lost my license.
Your hype-man antics caused tension with your Public Enemy group mates several times when you’d join other acts like the Beastie Boys onstage.
I was taking away the hype from the group, you know what I’m saying? At that time, when Public Enemy was entering its peak, I was the focal point of the group; I was the street guy that everybody could identify with. I guess that’s what made me the greatest hype man because people could identify with me.
In the book, you say that you brought authenticity to the group because you’re from the streets. But today, there aren’t too many high-profile rappers actually from the streets. Has the rap game changed?
Now it’s a different day and age from when I was coming up, you know what I mean? Today’s rap music is a lot different from the rap music that we used to make. To me, there’s no more hip-hop right now. The only thing that exists right now is good rap records. Drake is making good rap records; Lil Weezy is making great rap records. But it’s not hip-hop. Hip-hop is when you have crowd participation; when you chant at the audience and they chant back at you; when you wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care; or some breakdancing. Everything today is just low-beat, real bass-y, bass-y, good rap records.
Let’s talk about the origin of the shower clock. It apparently all began as a dare…
We started off wearing stopwatches as a fad, and one day, this lady came through our project selling shower clocks. My boy took the stopwatch off my neck, put this big clock around my neck, and everybody was laughing in the hallway saying that it looked funny. Then, they dared me to wear it onstage during the show. So, when we went to open up for the Beastie Boys in Passaic, New Jersey, I wore the clock. When we got these photos back from Newsday, the New York Post, and the clocks looked dope. And if anyone wants to know what the definition of DOPE means, it’s: “Definition of Public Enemy.” Anyway, then Chuck D wore a clock for maybe three or four years. After that, Chuck D took his clock off, but I kept mine on, and by me keeping mine on, I’m now one of the most recognized people in hip-hop and rap music today.
How many clocks do you own?
I have over a hundred clocks. This one I’m wearing right now [a red one] has always been one of my favorites because I got it from Kelly Ripa. Regis and Kelly used to do a cooking segment on their show and they used to wear these clocks. Kelly Ripa decided to give me hers, so I cherish this clock right here. My favorite clock that I’ve been wearing since 1987 is back at my room somewhere.
And in the book, you say that you actually picked up one of your famous catchphrases, Yeahhhh Boyyyy!, from LL Cool J.
Back in the day, LL used to always say “Yeah, boy.” So I took the “Yeah” and made it longer, and I took the “Boy” and made it longer, and made the whole phrase my own, which ended up being: “Yeahhhh Boyyyy!” And the next thing you know, everybody started sampling it to where it made me the most sampled voice in the history of music.
It’s the 25th anniversary this year of License to Ill, and I know you partied a lot with the Beastie Boys. Any crazy stories?
License to Ill was the first tour we went on as a group. We had some crazy hotel stories to where we’d be in the hotel, and Ad-Rock and MCA would fill up the bathtub with water, and we’d be diving in that s---, just having swimming parties. I trashed up many rooms with the Beastie Boys. My group used to hate when I’d go out in their set and slip and slide around in all the Budweiser, because my group was anti-drugs and alcohol. But Flavor Flav wasn’t.
One of the most hilarious stories from your book is when you actually stole a Long Island Railroad train and drove it a few stops.
We used to go up on the train tracks, start the trains up, and drive them on the tracks going toward Merrick. There were times when we went toward Baldwin too, and when the train started to go a certain speed, we’d jump off the train and watch it keep going with nobody driving it and s---. But as far as I know, nobody got hurt or killed. How did they stop the train? I don’t know.
And Tupac actually saved you from committing a murder when he was a teenager.
Yes, he actually saved me from committing murder. Tupac was 17 or 18 years old when he stopped me from hitting this guy over the head with a fire extinguisher. If I had hit this guy over the head, the whole tour would have had to go home, I would have gone to jail, I might not be sitting here talking to you today. So I really got to thank God for Tupac stopping me from committing a murder.
And you actually took a lot of Notorious B.I.G.’s money one time, as well.
You doggone right! The first time I ever met Biggie Smalls in my life, we were staying at the Le Montrose hotel, and they were all gambling—him, Lil Cease, and the rest of the Junior M.A.F.I.A. were shooting dice, playing cee-lo. And you know your man is the gambling king! I went back up to my hotel room, grabbed $400, got the dice, and I started throwing some numbers. Next thing you know, I had all of their money, all their per diems, and I left them with nothing but the dice. It wasn’t really all that much because it was when Biggie was just starting out, and he actually filmed his video for his hit song “Juicy” on the roof of that hotel the next day.
Queen Latifah also used to babysit your kids while you were on tour?
Yeah. Queen Latifah used to help me out with my kids, because while we were all out on tour—Public Enemy, Naughty By Nature, Queen Latifah, Heavy D—when Public Enemy went onstage, I didn’t have anybody solid to watch my kids. So, Latifah would help me out.
It’s interesting though because for all your affairs and women on the side, you do seem to fall in love pretty easily.
When I fall, I fall, but when I’m out, I’m out. But I am an entertainer, and my job was to bring good entertainment to television and that I did. When I did Surreal Life 3, that was the No. 1 show; then me and Brigitte Nielsen did Strange Love, that was the No. 1 show; then, I started filming the Flavor of Love shows.
The VH1 reality shows really seemed to save you.
All I had was $142 and a cellphone and this was like the middle of 2003 when I left New York and went to L.A. to pursue a television and movie career.
So, Brigitte was real love? But the Flavor of Love stuff really wasn’t, right?
Yeah, Brigitte was real love and everything. The Flavor of Love’ was real at first, because I first met my girl, Liz, right before I started filming the first season. So, by the time Flavor of Love 2 came around, I was very uncomfortable with doing it because I had a girl at home, and she got pregnant during the second one. We’re still together, have our 4-year-old son, Karma, and we’re doing great.
And later in your career, the Chris Rock joke really seemed to get under your skin.
Yeah, man. When you make a joke that said, “I would pay the legal fees for anyone who kills Flavor Flav,” if someone came to do that for real, what about my kids? Now, they’re out of a father. It’s good to be a comedian, but you should only go so far with your jokes. You do have people out on the street who could try that for real. Do I hate Chris Rock? No. I’m just disappointed in the joke that he told about me. To this day, I would accept his apology, give him a hug, and congratulate him for still being so successful.
On the subject of kids, you have seven so far and in the book you say you want 10.
Yeah, 10 is the magical number. I’m tryin’, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m workin’ on eight right now. My dad had seven, and I’m trying to have more than him.
As far as future projects go, you’re pitching a reality show called Flavor Flav Goes Back to High School, as well as a comedy tour.
I never got my diploma. I dropped out in 10th grade. And right now, my mother only had three children—my sister Gail is the oldest, my sister Pam is in the middle, and I’m the baby. I’m the only one who doesn’t have a diploma, so I want to go back to high school to get my diploma to make my mom happy while she’s alive, so she can see that all three of her kids graduated from high school. And then there’s Flavor Flav’s Freaky Comedy Tour. It’s not about me being a comedian, but hosting the show and bringing on other comedians. I’m the MC, and I do that pretty, pretty well.
Marlow Stern is the assistant culture editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast and holds a masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, and as an editor at both Amplifier Magazine and Manhattan Movie Magazine.