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Flavor Flav Has Many Thoughts on Water Polo

It makes zero sense and all the sense in the world why Flavor Flav and I have spent the past hour grabbing lunch at New York’s Harvard Club. Built in the 1890s, the stately private social club in midtown Manhattan boasts an elegant dining room with chandeliers, ornate silverware, and for one day, a 65-year-old hip-hop icon wearing sparkly pants, an Olympic women’s water-polo team T-shirt and a Team USA clock dangling from his neck.

Like any other place, the Public Enemy hypeman both sticks out and is gleefully welcomed by all. (“Fix your shit,” one employee is overheard saying to another. “Flav’s almost here.”) Throughout his career — but especially in recent years — Flavor Flav has become music’s de facto good vibes ambassador, posting heartfelt Instagram videos of meeting other musicians (“Woooooooooooow,” he says to a smiling Bruce Springsteen while bowing) and doing absurd shit like trying to save Red Lobster from bankruptcy. (The seafood chain thanked him with his own signature meal.)

So when Flavor Flav responded to Olympic water-polo gold medalist Maggie Steffans’ Instagram post in May with “AYYY YOOO,,, as a girl dad and supporter of all women’s sports – imma personally sponsor you my girl, whatever you need. And imma sponsor the whole team …. That’s a FLAVOR FLAV promise,” it was unclear how serious he meant it.

Very serious, it turns out. As the team’s official hypeman, he’s been promoting the team at every opportunity ever since. Later this month, he’ll be on a flight to Paris supporting them in their quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal. “If everything goes well, I’ll be doing this for the next five years into the next Olympics,” he tells Rolling Stone over a barely touched minestrone soup. “I might even do it for another five.”

Four decades into his career, Flav may be more famous and busier now than he’s ever been. Public Enemy continue to tour 37 years after their debut album. A solo R&B album is in the works, as is a reality show where he goes back to high school to get his diploma. In a wide-ranging discussion, hip-hop’s most famous hypeman waxes about water polo, being “King Swiftie” and why he wants to make everyone he meets “feel like they’re on top of the world.”

Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

Let’s start with the obvious: How does Flavor Flav become the official hypeman for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Water Polo Team?
My manager ran across Maggie’s post and said “Flav, this wouldn’t be a bad idea to help these guys out.” Then I read the post and was like, “Man, I would be honored and I would love to help.” It’s my first time ever doing something like this. One thing about Flavor Flav: He’s always known to be the first to do something and then everybody follows my train after. So hopefully, I might be opening the doors to where other celebs will come out and sponsor some of these Olympic teams. Because nobody’s doing it; not even the government, which is messed up. I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna step up to the plate and give these girls some help.” These girls won three Olympic gold medals doing this hard-ass sport but they’re not really getting the recognition. A lot of people ain’t really paying attention and I’d love to see the sport grow.

What does it mean specifically to be a water polo hypeman? What are your goals for the team?
My goal is to drive them further to want to do better, feel more comfortable and get more gold medals. I also want to make sure that these women feel like they’re important and like somebody’s got their back. When you feel like somebody’s got your back, it makes you want to do even better.

It’s a side of you most people haven’t seen.
Well, let me say this: the reason why a lot of people really haven’t been seeing that side of me is because they been seeing me in a totally different light. Either they see me onstage performing music or they see me on reality TV shows. But my personal life? Yes, it portrays this part of me. I’ve always been a supporter of women because I respect women a lot. I think a lot of women need more respect than men. I don’t mind being one of the first to show it. If there’s a certain way of life that you would love to see people live, then it wouldn’t be bad for you to try to project that first. Show the example.

Were you a fan of the Olympics growing up?
Always. Growing up watching [gold medalist figure skater] Peggy Fleming. Nobody did it better than [gold medalist swimmer] Marc Spitz. The great Olga Korbut from way back in the days. And, um, what’s my girl’s name? Nadia Comăneci. 

One of my favorite historical moments watching on TV was Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch [in 1996]. And one day, hopefully, I’ll get to do it. What’s crazy now is that two of Muhammad Ali’s grandkids ended up being my godchildren.

Did you two ever cross paths?
I met him two years before he passed away. [His daughter] Rashida is a friend of the family and called me and said, “Hey Flav, daddy’s here!” I ran down the street and everything to get some pictures. It was a sentimental moment. On his last birthday, they videotaped him with me on FaceTime singing “911 Is a Joke” to him.

You’ve been recognized globally for so long. Do you remember the first time you felt famous?
It’s difficult for me to answer because it never crossed my mind. Everything just happened and I just gradually took it in and just lived it. But I think I knew the first time when we were invited to the Soul Train Music Awards to give an award to Michael Jackson [in the 1980s]. I showed my ass off that day. [Soul Train creator] Don Cornelius did not like me; he was not accepting me because he’s never seen that type of behavior before. I met Don backstage and he said, “Look, brother. That shit you pulled out there was fucked up.” I was a big fan and he just broke me down. The following year, we were invited back again and we gave out another award. I saw Don backstage and he said, “Brother, listen. I really tried my best, brother, to keep you off my show. My producers would not let it happen. I don’t know what it is about you.”

Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

I read somewhere there’s a reality show in the works about getting your high school diploma. What’s the latest on that?
I dropped out in the 10th grade, so I’ve got a real big degree in street education. What made me drop out was me being a Dennis the Menace getting in a lot of trouble, getting locked up, going in and out of jail all the time. Next thing you know, I just ended up not going back to school after the last time that I went to jail. I was in gangs and I used to be a follower more than a leader. As a little kid, you want to be the one in the neighborhood that everybody’s talking about. And some of those people that I wanted to be like weren’t the right people. Anybody fuck with me, I would beat they ass. If anybody tried to fight me back, they would get fucked up.

So what made you decide to get your diploma now at age 65?
I always wanted to make my mom happy and she would have been happy if I would have graduated from high school. So my mom passed away, but to me, the body is nothing but a shell that goes in the ground. We still stay here; it’s just the shell that went in the ground. So my mom is right here right now with us while I’m doing this interview with you. Plus, I really want it. My two older sisters got theirs and I want to complete the family with education. I’m more focused now. I’m not living with distractions. We gettin’ ready to go into production this year. We’re just trying to find a school for me to join.

Is it actually you in a high school desk with the rest of the students?
I’m going to regular school every single day. Every day, I wanna go to school and sit in class and learn and take tests like all the other kids.  

A regular school year is like nine months.
Man, listen. Whatever it takes to get my diploma. I don’t want a GED. I want a [emphasizes each syllable] di-plo-ma. The real shit. I’m doing the program to show people my age that it’s never too late to go back and get your diploma but it’s also to influence all of the kids that are in school right now to get that piece of paper because you’re gonna have a hard time in life without it.

Staying on TV, any thoughts on a Flavor of Love Season Four?
[Looks at girlfriend next to him] No. I been there and done that. With dating shows, I set the tone for reality television already. I’ve got a good fucking woman. I’m not losing what I got. [Picks up recorder] Fuck. That. I’m putting the anchor around her ankles. She ain’t goin’ no place.

Social media can obviously be deceiving, but optically it looks like you’re having one of the best times of your life right now.
I’m having a real good time in my life. This time right now is a little more exciting ’cause I’m getting to meet some of my favorite people that I’ve never met before. Meeting Cher was so huge to me. Bruce Springsteen was so huge to me. Me learning about Taylor Swift and becoming one of her biggest supporters was huge to me.

The Flav/Taylor friendship has been one of the more endearing stories in music.
Man, when I went to her show in Detroit, her fanbase came up to me and embraced me. I had friendship bracelets on both arms. I didn’t really know too much about Taylor Swift – my girlfriend’s daughter wanted to see her – and didn’t know it was going to be all of what it ended up to be. Then I went home and listened to some of her lyrics. My favorite song and the one that really made me understand her the most was “Bad Blood.” This girl writes about all the actual life experiences she goes through.

When I looked at the lyrics, it’s true shit. Me and you, man, we used to be cool, bro. You done fucked up! Our problems are so fucking bad, we can’t even solve them. That’s in a whole bunch of people’s lives. There will be times when people would read the lyrics and break down and analyze a Public Enemy record. I did the same thing with Taylor Swift and ever since then, I started supporting her.

[At this point, a maître d’ for the Harvard Club sheepishly comes over. “I’m so sorry to bother you but I just wanted to say ‘welcome back to the club.’” Flav and him embrace.]

It’s surreal thinking of her younger fans listening to Public Enemy. You’ve existed as a pop culture figure outside of PE for so long, does it almost feel like you’ve divorced Flavor Flav the performer from Flavor Flav the icon?
Flavor Flav is a street character that I made based off of my real life in the streets. The same Flavor Flav that’s onstage with Public Enemy is the same Flavor Flav that’s off stage too. I remember one time I came home like, “Yo ma, what’s going on?” She was like, “Don’t you come in here with that Flavor Flav shit.” My mom wasn’t having it, she’s a church lady. But after a while, she got to understand Flavor Flav and started allowing it. I usually cut it off when I’m home with my kids.

It’s been 37 years since Public Enemy’s first album. Is it harder to do shows now?
Honestly, it’s easier but I’m more anxious now than back then because what we did back in those days is missing from music and I want to put it back. I’m anxious to put it back. I’m anxious to lead the way again. When I’m onstage with my partner Chuck D, magic happens.

A lot of veteran musicians have mixed feelings about playing songs they’ve played so much in the past. It doesn’t seem like you’re in that position.
Fuck, no. I love doing all my old ass songs. If it wasn’t for those old ass songs, I wouldn’t be the new ass me. I couldn’t be the new ass me without all of the support from all of my old ass fans. You take all my old ass fans along with the new ass fans to make the new ass me.

What do you hope your legacy is?
That I tried to make a difference within the world. I have a personal goal: Inside of Flavor Flav, there’s not one, not one racist bone in my body. I’m against separatism. This world is made up of a whole bunch of different races of people. But everybody is so fucking separate and divided. No matter what race we come from, no matter what part of the world that we come from, no matter what religion we study, no matter what language we speak, at the end of the day, we’re all brothers and sisters, man. So my goal is to try to combine all the races of the world together as one and build a wall of unity.

The only way that I can help make that happen is to speak about it now and hopefully other people will understand and listen to me and try to join me. That’s the only way that I can help make the world change, but I can’t do it by myself. But I can put the word out by myself.

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It also helps explain your interest in the Olympics. 
Exactly. And hopefully, there’ll be other celebrities that will follow my trend and help sponsor a lot of these teams that need help with sponsorship. I’m known for opening up new doors.

You told CNN that “when we die, we become nothing but memories. But we wanna be the most positive memories, the most influential memories, the most innovative memories … that’s talked about years after our death.” Why is this so important to you?
The purpose of me coming into this business is to put smiles on people’s faces and to give people good memories. When people support you, you should be grateful for that. And the person that supports you, you got to make them feel like they’re on top of the world. And so when that person leaves you, you want them to leave with a good feeling about you.

That’s why when people come up to me and ask for a picture or a handshake or a hug, sometimes I don’t feel like being fucked with by nobody inside. But these people are the ones that supported me and made me who I am to society. So whatever I’m feeling inside, I gotta cut that shit off and give that fan what they want. Let them leave me with a smile on their face. Let them go home and brag to their families, “Hey, I met Flavor!” You give them good memories to take to their graves. You don’t want them to take bad memories of you to their grave. I want everybody to have a good feeling about me. I want everybody to have something positive to say about me. Even years after my death, I want people saying positive shit about me.

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