Rapper and television star
Born William Johnathon Drayton, Jr., March 16, 1959, in Roosevelt, Long Island, New York; son of William Sr. and Anna Drayton; children: three (with Karen Ross), three (with Angie Parker), one (with a former girlfriend).
Addresses: Office—c/o VH1, 1515 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
Formed Public Enemy with Chuck D, 1982; Public Enemy released first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, 1987; released solo album, Flavor Flav, 2006. Film appearances include: Mo' Better Blues, 1990; New Jack City, 1991. Television appearances include: The Surreal Life 3, VH1, 2004; Strange Love, VH1, 2005; Flavor of Love, VH1, 2006; Flavor of Love 2, VH1, 2006.
While Flavor Flav was best known for being the court jester-like MC of the influential rap group Public Enemy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he found new fame from his appearances on a number of reality shows in the early 2000s. Beginning in 2004 with The Surreal Life 3, Flav gained a new audience as he showed off his comically odd personality to television cameras. He went on star in other reality shows for VH1, including Strange Love and Flavor of Love.
Flav was born William Drayton, Jr., in 1959 in Roosevelt, Long Island, New York. He grew up in Freeport, Long Island, a working class community. His father, William Sr., was the owner of a restaurant, the Soul Diner. Music was a part of Flav's life from an early age. He taught himself piano, guitar, and drums as a small child, and was regarded as a musical prodigy. Flav showed off his musical skills at church.
While Flav had musical gifts, he also experienced some of the harshness of life; he had few friends and a talent for trouble. When he was young, he played with lighters and burned his family's house down. As a teenager, he was repeatedly arrested for robbery and burglary. Flav dropped out of school during the eleventh grade. By this time, he had already began rapping under the handle MC DJ Flavor.
Flav's career took a turn when he met Carlton Ridenhour, a graphic design student at Adelphi University who became a rapper dubbed Chuck D. The pair held jobs working for Chuck D's father as furniture deliverymen while working on rap tracks after Chuck D earned his degree. In 1982, they formed the rap group Public Enemy with Flav playing the role of MC, comic foil, and sidekick to Chuck D's harder-edged persona. Flav essentially became the first rap sidekick, a part he embellished with his signature look and persona.
When he appeared with Public Enemy, Flav wore a large clock as a necklace. It began as a joke when Flav observed a studio technician wearing a stopwatch the same way. Flav was also known for the Flavor Flav dance and always wearing sunglasses while performing. He later claimed that this persona was created out of necessity, telling Burhan Wazir of the Observer in 2000, "Right now, you're interviewing Flavor Flav. William Drayton is nowhere to be seen. I tried to strangle that part of my character. He saw some awful [stuff] growing up—Flav was his escape."
After creating a demo and signing a deal with Def Jam in 1987, Public Enemy released their debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. With the album, the group established their stake as one of the most significant hip-hop acts. Their influence stretched beyond rap to a mainstream audience as they combined political and social concerns in their rhymes with frenzied productions. In support of Bum Rush, Public Enemy toured with the Beastie Boys. On the tour, Flav had to deal with recently acquired addictions to crack and cocaine.
Public Enemy continued to produce influential albums, including It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Back. While Flav was more of a visual than musical focus in Public Enemy, he occasionally took on vocals including "911 is a Joke," a popular song from Fear of a Black Planet, which he wrote. He also had a secondary career in acting with small roles in films like 1990's Mo' Better Blues and 1991's New Jack City.
While Public Enemy sold millions of albums, the group was not as influential after the early 1990s. Flav remained in the spotlight because of legal difficulties, often exacerbated by his drug problems. By this time, he was abusing Quaaludes, PCP, marijuana, and alcohol in addition to crack and cocaine. In 1991, Flav was arrested for an assault against Karen Ross, his then-girlfriend and mother of three of his children. While he plead guilty to the charges and served 30 days in jail, his addictions only grew stronger after he was released and lost custody of his children.
His addictions also created problems with his band-mates in Public Enemy. Flav began acting erratically, disappearing for extensive periods of time, not showing up to recording sessions and concerts, and getting into major arguments with fellow Public Enemy member Professor Griff. Because of the situation, Chuck D put Public Enemy on hiatus for some time.
Flav's legal issues continued to mount. In 1993, Flav was arrested for allegedly shooting at a neighbor, Thelouis English, because the rapper believed English was sleeping with Flav's girlfriend. Flav was charged with possession of a weapon and attempted murder. To address Flav's addiction issues, his family staged an intervention soon after the arrest. He went to rehab at the Betty Ford Center and was able to remain clean for some time.
After being released, Flav became involved with Angie Parker and had three more children. Because Public Enemy only had limited activity—releasing only the poorly received Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age in 1994—Flav had no focus for his energy and soon succumbed to his addictions again. The result was more legal difficulties. In 1996, Flav was arrested for carrying two pounds of marijuana. After his father's death in 1997, Flav returned to rehab, this time at the Long Island Center for Recovery, and again emerged clean.
In addition to dealing with legal troubles (which included another arrest for failure to pay child support), addictions, and rehab, Flav also began working on solo record. His first two attempts at an album were rejected by his record label, Def Jam. In 1999, Flav finally created an album entitled It's About Time, but it was never released. By 2000, Flav was living in the Bronx in a small apartment with girlfriend Beverly Johnson and her two children. Again using drugs, he made money by scalping baseball tickets at nearby Yankee Stadium, and had more legal woes by being arrested for driving without a license.
By 2002, Flav was sentenced to nine weeks in jail for not paying numerous traffic fines and violating parole. His dark descent continued when his relationship with Johnson ended and he moved in with his mother on Long Island for the time. Because Chuck D was still concerned about Flav's life, he encouraged his friend to move to Los Angeles at the end of 2003, telling him that appearing on television and films would be an ideal use of his persona.
Flav found a new career in Los Angeles appearing on reality shows. His first taste of reality fame came with his appearance on the third season of The Surreal Life, a reality show which featured minor, often has-been celebrities living in the same house and completing various tasks. The creators and executive producers of the show, Cris Abrego and Mark Cronin, had sought Flav out for the program as soon as they heard he was living in Los Angeles. Though Flav was initially reluctant to appear on The Surreal Life 3, a conversation with MC Hammer, who appeared on a previous season of the show, convinced Flav that it would help his career.
Flav's connection with and seduction of fellow house member Brigitte Nielsen, a former actress who was once married to Sylvester Stallone, led to the highest-rated season of The Surreal Life and a new reality series focusing on the pair and their lives, called Strange Love. The show was again produced by Abrego and Cronin and focused on the odd relationship between Flav and Nielsen. Over ten episodes, the couple spent time together, even though Nielsen was engaged to someone else, Italian bartender Mattia Disse. Flav, however, claimed to be in love with her. Nielsen did have feelings for Flav, telling Marisa Guthrie of the New York Daily News, "He's not the love of my life, because I have a fiancé that I love very much. But I adore him. We have such a good time together. We feel so natural together. I don't know how it happened. But it did happen."
While Chuck D had urged Flav to pursue a television career and remained supportive of his friend, he did have problems with what Flav revealed about himself on Strange Love. Tracey Ford of Rolling Stone quoted Chuck D as saying "I would be lying if I said that the side of Flav shown on Strange Love doesn't affect what I've wanted our collective to stand for because it does, and many have told us how deeply they are bothered by this."
Though Flav and Nielsen did not stay together, Strange Love led to yet another reality show for him. In early 2006, Flav appeared on Flavor of Love, in which Flav was looking for love and a relationship, if not a spouse. On the program, 20 women lived with Flav in a mansion in Encino, California, with the goal of gaining his romantic attention. The series finale became the highest-rated program ever on VH1 by drawing 5.9 million viewers. However, the winner, Nicole "Hoopz" Alexander, ended up only as a friend for Flav, not a romantic interest.
VH1 capitalized on the success of the show by airing Flavor of Love 2 beginning in the fall of 2006. Flav continued to look for love on the program, and apparently found a more ideal relationship with London "Deelishis" Charles at the end of the second series. He told Bill Keveney of USA Today "It's kind of difficult to find true love in three weeks, but it can be done." This series was also a ratings hit for VH1, setting another record with 7.5 million viewers watching the finale. In November of 2006, Flav announced that he was expecting a child, but not with Charles. Instead the child was conceived with a woman he had been dating on and off; the birth was expected in January of 2007.
While these shows were popular, some journalists were critical of the sometimes degrading way Flav treated the contestants, most of whom were black women. In Essence, Debra Dickerson commented "I fail to understand how even the most devoted hip-hop head could reconcile Flav's objectifying and degrading of (mostly) black women with any claims of spokesmanship, leadership, or love for his people."
While Flav was gaining a whole new audience on television, he continued to pursue hip-hop. In 2006, he finally put out his first solo album, a self-titled independent release. He also toured with Public Enemy and worked on a new album with the group. In addition, Flav was able to keep his substance use in greater check and support his seven children, leading to higher personal satisfaction with his life.
With the popularity of his reality shows and talk of an animated series, Flav believed his professional life was remaining on the upswing. He told Margeux Watson of Entertainment Weekly, "My frame of mind right now is focused on building my career. I'm fighting to keep the success moving."
With Public Enemy
Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Def Jam, 1987.
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Def Jam, 1988.
Fear of a Black Planet, Def Jam, Def Jam, 1990.
Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Back, Def Jam, 1991.
Greatest Misses, Def Jam, 1992.
Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, Def Jam, 1994.
He Got Game, Def Jam, 1998.
There's a Poison Goin' On, Play It Again, 1999.
It's About Time (not released), 1999.
Revolverlution, Koch, 2002.
New Whirl Odor, 2005.
Rebirth of a Nation, 2006.
"Git on Down" (single), 1999.
Flavor Flav, Draytown Records, 2006.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990, Schirmer Reference, 2004.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 6, 1994, p. B9; October 19, 2006, p. 3E.
Chicago Sun Times, October 8, 2006, p. D11.
Daily News (New York, NY), October 19, 2004, p. 51.
Entertainment Weekly, August 11, 2006, pp. 38-42.
Essence, November 2006, p. 154.
Jet, November 15, 1993, p. 59; November 22, 1993, p. 18.
Observer (England), July 9, 2000, p. 10; June 18, 2006, p. 18; December 10, 2006, p. 65.
USA Today, August 4, 2006, p. 10E.
Washington Post, November 2, 2006, p. C1.
"Chuck D, Flav Square Off," Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/7223184/chuck_d_flav_square_off (February 7, 2007).
"Flavor Flav Bets On Seven," E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/news/article/index.jsp?uuid=a5ab7337-f0ab-4380-86cc-5cd51aa5711a (March 14, 2007).
"Flavor Flav," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0281318 (February 7, 2007).
"Flavor Flav," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/flavor_flav/bio.jhtml (February 7, 2007).
"Public Enemy: Discography," Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/publicenemy/discography (February 7, 2007).