The role of a hip-hop hypeman is to take an audience—whether bored or eager, sleepy or anxious—and transform them into a cohesive, screaming crowd, ready to dance and hungry for a good time. No one fills that role quite like Flavor Flav.
William Drayton Jr. was born in Long Island in 1959, and rose to fame in the late ’80s as Flavor Flav, the legendary hypeman of Public Enemy, the group that gave rap a political edge with its debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Serving as a comedic foil to the stern front man Chuck D, Flav blazed a path across the stage like a pied piper of hip-hop, urging people to get out of their seats, follow along with the song, and turn up for a party. When he wasn’t pumping up the crowd, Flav would take the mic on songs like “Too Much Posse,” “911 Is a Joke,” and “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor.”
His charismatic stage presence and his unique ability to accessorize—transforming a large clock from a strange timepiece into statement jewelry—gave Flav his own fan base. He earned even more fans when he reinvented himself in the 2000s on VH1’s reality series The Surreal Life, where he shacked up with the legendary Charo, New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight, Full House star Dave Coulier, and model and actress Brigitte Nielsen for our viewing pleasure. That was followed by a romantic spin-off series with Nielsen called Strange Love, and then his own reality dating show, Flavor of Love, which lasted three seasons.
Now, at age sixty-four, Flav is two-years-and-counting sober. He’s back to making music and looking toward the future, while nodding to the past. When August 2023 rolls around, it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of hip-hop, marking the day when eighteen-year-old DJ Kool Herc changed music forever. While Herc started the party, it’s hard to imagine hip-hop without its biggest hypeman, Flavor Flav.
I. The Owner of New York
THE BELIEVER: Where in the world are you?
FLAVOR FLAV: Right now I’m in Manhattan. I am in New York City, in the streets of New York.
BLVR: Do you feel like you own the town?
FF: Sure do. And I’m gonna own it for the rest of my life, until the day I die. Even though I live in Vegas, I still own New York.
BLVR: Is there a song that goes through your head when you’re in New York?
FF: There’s no songs that come into my head about New York when I come to New York outside of “Empire State of Mind.” That’s what I’m talking about! Jay Z and Alicia Keys. And Frank Sinatra—old blue eyes. “It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That’s what plays through my mind too.
BLVR: You were born and raised on Long Island, right?
FF: Yeah. I was born in Freeport. Born and raised in Freeport. I moved to Roosevelt [Long Island] when I was fourteen. I finished growing up there. And I have a fun fact: when I moved to Roosevelt in 1974, Eddie Murphy was in my ninth-grade English class.
BLVR: Really? Eddie Murphy, Eddie Murphy?
FF: Yes, we had a teacher named Mrs. Muckle. I’ll never forget it, man. But, yep, that’s part of my bragging rights.
BLVR: Between you and Eddie Murphy, who was the class clown? Who was in trouble more often?
FF: I was the class clown and I was in trouble more. Eddie wasn’t a class clown around that time.
BLVR: It took him a while to achieve that status?
FF: Probably once he became a teenager and all that.
BLVR: What was the most trouble you got into in that class?
FF: I didn’t stay in the Roosevelt High School long. I got kicked out and put back in Freeport High School.
BLVR: Oh no. Was it because of Mrs. Muckle?
FF: No, it wasn’t because of Mrs. Muckle. It was because I was the Dennis the Menace of the society. Not just of the school, but of the society. I ain’t gonna lie, I was a very mischievous kid.
But that’s all just part of growing up and stuff and, you know, peer pressure. Sometimes you hang out with the wrong crowd because you want to be the talk of the town. You want to be the man, you want to be the—the one everybody’s talking about. I was more of a follower than a leader, but yet I still was a leader, because I did have people following me.
BLVR: Do you think you’ve changed much since you were a kid?
FF: Around that time, I was fourteen, fifteen. Today, I’m sixty-three. So what do you think?
BLVR: So, yeah, I’m going to guess you’ve changed?
FF: People do change with time. But there are certain things within people that don’t change. You know what I’m saying? And, you know, that’s genuine.
BLVR: That’s very true. I mean, look at Eddie Murphy. He went from being just a normal kid in your class to suddenly being one of the most famous comedians around.
FF: He sure did. And I am so proud of my man. Very proud of him and his come-up. I do miss his brother, Charlie, who was one of my good friends.
BLVR: Charlie Murphy did True Hollywood Stories, right?
FF: Yeah, I think he did. There was a lot of stuff that Charlie did touch that I don’t really know about too much. But I know Charlie was out there. Charlie had himself out there doing his thing before he passed away. Yeah, man, that was my boy. Man, I really miss him.
BLVR: Did he go to high school with you as well?
FF: He did. I mean, they were both in school around the time that I got to Roosevelt: both of them were there.
BLVR: This high school seems to have put out a lot of incredibly famous people. Do any of you get invited back to speak?
FF: I’ve been back to speak on a couple of occasions. The reason is because I love giving back to where I come from. It’s only right that you do, you know what I’m saying? That’s my roots, you know? I don’t care how big of a tree you get to be, one day you’re gonna have to go back to your roots for something. That’s true.
II. A Natural Career
BLVR: Speaking of roots, you’re in New York, you’re staying in Manhattan, but you grew up in Long Island. Do you feel like Long Island needs a hypeman?
FF: You mean does Long Island need another hypeman? The reason I say that is because you know I’m the first, the original hypeman.
BLVR: Yes, of course. All due respect to the original hypeman! But do you think Long Island needs someone to build it up a little bit?
FF: Even though I did move out of New York State, I don’t feel that Long Island lost its hypeman. I feel that Long Island is always gonna have its hypeman. As long as I live, as long as I breathe air, you know? Even though I don’t live there, it always represents home.
BLVR: So if, say, the New York Tourism Board came to you and said, We need people to go to Long Island. Can you hype it up in the press?, what would be your sales pitch?
FF: Check this out. My sales pitch would be: To all the people that’s dead: come alive. No jive. Let’s strip and strive. That’s my sales pitch.
BLVR: That’s a good one! I now feel like I need to go to Long Island.
FF: No doubt, no doubt.
BLVR: That said, have you heard of the Montauk Monster?
BLVR: There was a mysterious creature that washed up on the shores of Long Island.
FF: Oh boy. Is this another one of those Bigfoot stories, Loch Ness monster stories?
BLVR: It is! I mean, it’s not as scary as Long Island traffic, but it’s still pretty scary.
FF: I never heard of that before. That’s a brand-new one to me.
BLVR: Yeah, I’m going to look up details for you right now, because I feel like we need to discuss this.
FF: We need to discuss the monster? Why do I need to discuss the monster? To make friends with him? Or are you trying to get me to be the monster’s hypeman?
BLVR: Absolutely! If you’re going to be Long Island’s hypeman, you’re going to have to hype for the monster too.
FF: I need to know exactly about the monster, huh, Melissa?
BLVR: For sure, you need to know what you’re going to be facing. Oh look, discoverlongisland.com says there’s a Long Island Monster Gallery.
FF: There’s a Long Island Monster Gallery out there? Where is it located?
BLVR: It’s in Mineola.
FF: Are you serious? That’s crazy. I thought I knew all about Mineola.
BLVR: So you really haven’t heard of the Montauk Monster?
FF: No, I haven’t heard of any of these monsters.
BLVR: It was an animal carcass that washed ashore in Montauk in 2008. But no one could ever figure out what type of animal it was.
FF: Did they figure out what the animal was? Did they get a picture of it?
BLVR: They do have a lot of pictures of it. It’s not attractive. You’re the professional, but it might be hard to hype up.
FF: I would love to see it. I would love to see what a monster looks like. To see the monster in real life. I mean, you know, I’ve seen them on TV and dreamed about them.
BLVR: You dream about monsters?
FF: When you’re a kid you always dream about monsters and shit. One time when I was little, I had a dream that Godzilla and I became the best of friends. That was my boy! Just like King Kong.
BLVR: I love that! It’s very optimistic that, like, you and Godzilla would meet and be friends. It shows good self-confidence. Do you feel like you had a lot of self-confidence as a kid?
FF: I sure did. That’s why I am who I am right now. I couldn’t have been who I am right now without confidence.
BLVR: Where do you think that confidence came from?
FF: From God. From him: he gave me the notion to know that I can do certain things in life. I had confidence in myself that I could do these things, you know? So that’s where I say my confidence comes from, really. I’m saying it comes from God. It’s a personal feeling from God.
BLVR: And that confidence helped you become a hypeman. How did that start?
FF: Well, that came from being at parties, being on the microphone, getting everybody to get up out of their seats and on the floor at the party. And I just brought that into rap music. So when we’d be on the stage, I’d be telling everybody, Come on, get out of your seat! Come on, everybody, raise your hands in the air. Everybody say, “Oho!” You know, all that is hyping up the crowd.
BLVR: And then it became your career.
FF: And you know what? It became my career without me even trying to do it. It just naturally happened.
BLVR: That’s amazing. Most people would love a career to just happen to them. What is your definition of a hypeman’s job?
FF: My definition of a hypeman’s job is to hype up the crowd when the crowd is dead.
BLVR: Have you ever found it impossible to hype up a crowd?
FF: No, never. I’ve always found that to be possible. And I was always the type of person who was like, Hey, look, listen, man. If you don’t want to get your dead ass out of the seat, stay there and be dead! Fuck it! I know one thing: we’re gonna be hype without you. So that’s my attitude to people that don’t want to be hype.
III. The Soul/Sole Diner
BLVR: Did you ever think about being anything other than a hypeman?
FF: Just a musician and that’s about it. I always wanted to be famous through music, like Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, and James Brown. So I became famous through music; it’s just that I came from a different part of the ball field. I got famous, but as they say, be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. I asked for this. And I got it.
BLVR: Do you regret it at all?
FF: Nah, man. God is good, man. I don’t regret the gifts that God gives me.
BLVR: Do you ever find fame challenging? It seems so double-edged, great in certain ways, but also you can’t just go out for some soup without being surrounded by people.
FF: Yeah, it happens. It comes with the territory. I ain’t gonna lie, but I feel like I handle it very well.
BLVR: Have you had a particularly memorable fan interaction?
FF: One of my most favorite fan interactions was me hugging this lady because she seen me and she started crying, but with happiness. It was through tears of happiness. She couldn’t believe that she was seeing Flavor Flav. And I was like one of her most favorite people in the world. And this lady could not stop crying for nothing! And I went over and I hugged her and tried to console her and tell her, “Hey, look, listen, ma’am, it’s OK. It’s all right.” But this lady would not stop bawling for nothing! I felt so good inside because she was crying about me. It could have been crying about anybody else in the world, but it ended up being Flavor Flav!
BLVR: That’s sweet, but I think I would be alarmed if someone burst into tears when they saw me.
FF: Well, I was a little concerned for a second, like, Dammit, lady, am I ugly? Why the fuck are you crying? Does my breath stink? But it was tears of happiness. It was tears of joy.
BLVR: I know you’ve always wanted to be famous for music, but I also hear you’re pretty famous for your cooking. When did you start cooking?
FF: I started cooking when I was young. I used to always watch my mom and my aunts make prepared dinners and stuff like that. My mother and my dad ended up owning a restaurant, and that’s when I really learned how to cook: inside our restaurant. It was called the Soul Diner in Freeport, Long Island. That’s when I really learned how to really, really cook my lima beans and my rice and fried chicken and greens, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, all kinds of stuff.
BLVR: I hear your fried chicken is better than Wolfgang Puck’s.
FF: For me it is! But one day, me and Wolfgang are going to do a chicken standoff and the loser has to jump into the swan pond at the Hotel Bel-Air. The restaurant inside the hotel is a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. That’s where I got to meet Wolfgang Puck. And when we did the podcast together [The Flavor Flav Show], we said we were going to do a chicken standoff one day. So I’m looking forward to doing it.
BLVR: Do you and Wolfgang Puck swap recipes?
FF: No. I don’t think he’s giving anybody any of his recipes. I do have a couple of recipes that I did put out there, but they’re in my book. So you got to get my book, Flavor Flav: The Icon, The Memoir, and look at the back of that book, because I put out at least three real recipes.
BLVR: So you really like cooking?
FF: I sure do.
BLVR: What do you cook for yourself?
FF: My specialty is fried chicken. One day I want to have a franchise, a fried chicken franchise. But when I cook for myself, it’s just normal things, you know? Like, I wake up in the morning and I take a whole pack of bacon and I cook a pack of bacon and I got to eat the whole pack, along with maybe some eggs and some bread?
BLVR: Do you do this under medical supervision? That sounds like a lot.
FF: Under my own medical supervision. It works for me, Melissa.
BLVR: Has there ever been a fried chicken you didn’t like?
FF: I forgot where we were, but I ain’t gonna lie, shit was absolutely nasty. I swear to goodness, the crust on it was so hard and damn near chipped my teeth. I know the way there, and I am never going back again.
BLVR: I read this question in Bon Appétit, but if you’re having a dinner party and you’ve cooked all the food, which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite over?
FF: To tell you the truth—I’m not trying to sound selfish but, yes, sometimes I do get very selfish—the main three people I would love to have there is me, myself, and I.
BLVR: You just want all your cooking to yourself?
FF: That’s right. I want it all for myself.
IV. Flavor Flav Twinkle Toes Flintstone
BLVR: OK, so if you don’t want to share your food, who would be your dream guests for a Flavor Flav variety show or Las Vegas residency?
FF: I would want to get Megan Thee Stallion. I want to get Bruno Mars. I want to get Wiz Khalifa, Snoop, some of my old friends like Ice-T and Flo Rida. And some of my old influences that are still living, like Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle. I’m gonna get some movie actors like Robert De Niro coming through my show.
BLVR: So you would have all these people on your show, but you wouldn’t have them for dinner?
FF: I would have them for dinner if they would eat my food. Nobody would leave my house with an empty stomach.
BLVR: You live in Las Vegas now, so do you go to any of the big shows? Did you ever see Siegfried and Roy?
FF: No, I’ve never seen Siegfried and Roy in person. I’ve seen them on television. But, you know, my good friend is Criss Angel and he has his show out there, Mindfreak. And Carrot Top is my boy. He’s a funny character, man. I go down to his show sometimes. I also love the Jabbawockeez. Those guys got some dance moves!
BLVR: What about Celine Dion?
FF: No. And I still never got to the Boyz II Men show and I want to get down there. Gotta go see my Boyz II Men. I love those guys, man.
BLVR: They’ve been Boys II Men for so long, like, when are they going to become, like, Boys II Grandpas?
FF: Yeah. From Boys II Grandpas! Probably some of them are grandpas by now. That is a good one, man. Wait till I see them next time, man. I’ll be like, Yo, who got grandkids in your group?
BLVR: You seem to be working a lot. What do you do for fun?
FF: I bowl a lot. I love going bowling. I’m a bowling junkie. Sometimes you can find me at the bowling alley two or three times a week. Four times a week sometimes.
BLVR: Do you own your own shoes?
FF: I sure do, and I own my own ball.
BLVR: What was your best score?
FF: The highest score that I ever had in my life was, like, I don’t know, a 275 or 76 or something. But I only did it once.
BLVR: I don’t really know bowling, but congratulations?
FF: They call me Flavor Flav Twinkle Toes Flintstone when I am at the bowling alley, OK? I’m a beast! I go full beast mode.
BLVR: Do you hype yourself up before you bowl?
FF: Sometimes. It depends on who I’m bowling against.
BLVR: When you, the quintessential hypeman, are hyping yourself up, what does that sound like?
FF: I ain’t gonna lie, but I do a good job after I hype myself up, you know? Usually I don’t lose.
BLVR: Does bowling count as exercise?
FF: Yes. It’s exercise, but it’s also a mental thing. Some people go to the bowling alley to knock pins down because they’re stressed out. At the end of the bowling game, a lot of the stress is gone, ’cause they took it out on the pins instead of taking it out on people at home.
BLVR: It makes you wonder what was stressing Fred Flintstone out if he had to spend so much time in the bowling alley.
FF: That’s right. He would’ve been going crazy with Barney [Rubble], that’s for sure.
BLVR: You said you always wanted to be famous for music, and I know you just released a new song. Can you tell me about it?
FF: Yeah it’s an EDM song called “Hands up in the Air.” It’s the first solo single that I’ve dropped in a very long time. I feel it’s definitely, definitely a good record.
BLVR: What made you want to explore EDM?
FF: Well, I’m a musician, so I explore all kinds of music. I never put out an EDM record before so I said to myself: I can put out any kind of record I want and be successful. So that’s why you got EDM.
BLVR: There has been a lot of crossover to country music. Maybe you should do a country song next!
FF: I did one a long time ago. Way back in 2000, 1999. The world never heard it, because my first album got cease-and-desisted, but the name of the song was “Harder than Ice.”
BLVR: Do you remember how the song went?
FF: “I’m hotter than ice for you, baby. I hope our love will never end. Without you my world is like yellow snow, but with you it’s white once again.”
BLVR: Wow! I feel like you just need one reference to a truck or a love of tequila and fried chicken and you have the perfect country song.
FF: Yeah, Git along, little doggie!
BLVR: So if you’re now in this age of exploring, since you’re doing an EDM song, maybe you can resurrect that song and do a whole country crossover.
FF: Yep, that’s right. I’m going to redo it anyway. I have a lot cooking. I’m getting ready to shock you. I’m going to shock you. I’m going to shock everybody.