Flavor Flav is in tears.
Hip-hop’s most famous hypeman is getting choked up on stage at New York’s Iridium Jazz Club, thanking fans and discussing his 2013 Hall of Fame induction. Since the mid-Eighties, the 55-year-old has made a career egging on others as part of Public Enemy. Now, midway through his set with rock and funk cover group the Flavortronz, he’s extolling his past while actualizing a future as the band’s frontman.
It’s okay to initially laugh at the idea of Flavor Flav — the comic, manic foil to Chuck D’s cerebral rhymes — fronting a cover band that plays Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” and Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Although the rapper is acutely aware that he’s stepping out of his comfort zone, he looks at the group as far more than a novelty act.
“I’m dead serious about what I’m doing with this,” Flav tells Rolling Stone. “This band can take us to new heights. My concept is this: A lot of people love to come to concerts, get drunk and sing. You have to give people their favorite singalong songs. If I can accomplish that, then maybe one day I can be on a U2 level of filling stadiums.”
Before the stadiums, though, we are at Iridium, the club most famous for hosting weekly concerts by guitar pioneer Les Paul, where a few hundred people have come to check out the Flavortronz in their second ever gig. The crowd is a mix of Public Enemy fans and curious tourists, and in defense of the latter, you could do worse if searching for an “Only in New York” experience.
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Onstage, the band, led by guitarist and musical director Karl Cochran, plays Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” into “Play That Funky Music,” while Flav, clad in a conservative white polo shirt and one tiny clock, straps on a bass and begins mashing up the track with the first verse of “911 Is a Joke.” Technically, this is rap-rock, but the Flavortronz’ take on the genre is more celebratory and horn-laced than the aggro fusion that occasionally makes it way to radio.
Over the course of an hour, Flav will sing, tell stories about Miles Davis and Prince and play bass. Save for a few tracks, though, that bass is worn almost ornamentally, a security blanket Flav uses to remind himself he’s not (for now) in a hip-hop group. He will call Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” “one of my all-time favorites” and belt out a decent Plant-esque extended growl. And sure, he misses a few spots even with the lyrics written down at his feet, but Flavor Flav singing “Black Dog” will still trump the majority of what’s going on around town that night.
The seven-piece band, whose members have played with the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Bon Jovi, are all veteran musicians, deftly covering tracks by Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic and the Gap Band, while leaving a bit of improvisational wiggle room where Flav can be Flav. Trumpeter Alan Chez describes the sound as “Modern day Sly Stone with rapping over it.” And while the comparison may be a bit lofty, you see his point.
“A lot of people can’t picture Flavor Flav singing, and that’s because they’re used to seeing me in a certain light,” says the rapper. “All of that, ‘Yeah boy’ and in-your-face stuff, I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I’ve proven myself to be who I am in that field. Everybody says I’m the greatest hypeman in the world. Now it’s time to be a frontman.”
In the Iridium dressing room, where Flav earlier received a batch of homemade cupcakes frosted to resemble his signature clock necklaces, drummer Bobby Marks recalls the moment a mutual friend gave him a call saying that the Public Enemy legend was looking to assemble a rock and soul revue. “There happened to be a studio in the place I went to and we jammed a little bit, and he said to me, ‘I want to put this thing together and I want it to be everyone’s favorite songs and I want everyone to sing along,'” says Marks. “It went in one ear and out the other.”
Four years later, in 2012, Flav called again, this time more insistent on putting the group together. “Our whole mission together is to make this legitimate,” says keyboardist Benny Harrison.
Back onstage, Flav looks both 55 and 25, sweating his ass off under the hot lights but employing several of the hype man tricks he’s collected over the years. At the end of the show — the first of two for the band that night — fans rush to the stage to take pictures and get autographs from the rapper. He seems genuinely flattered by all the attention and emboldened for the second show.
“I want to fill stadiums and arenas with what we do,” Flav says without a hint of humor. “And I know I can do it if I give the people what they want. I’m not done. I’ve only just begun.”