Music News

GOOD GRIFF

The 2 Live Crew has snatched many headlines thanks to the banning of the group's sexplicit album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. And no doubt the rappers will create even more controversy by performing the unedited versions of their songs at the Celebrity Theatre on Saturday. But there's someone else working out of the Crew's Miami-based Luke Records label, someone who's endured his own share of media hype during the past year. Like the Crew members, he's a hip-hopper, but unlike his labelmates, he doesn't rhyme about sex. He raps about black pride, black nationalism, the betrayal of the black person by America, and the rampant evil of the U.S. government. In his music, there's not much room for "pussy" and "bitches"--his work addresses the lack of sufficient education in this nation, the crack epidemic, the history of misery. And he talks to reporters about these things, too. And that's how his trouble began. This is how it ended.

On May 9, 1989, Richard Griffin, better known as Professor Griff, met with a writer from the Washington Times for the purpose of an interview. The article resulting from that tape-recorded session, published two weeks later, quoted Griff as saying, among other things, that "Jews have a grip on America" and that they "have a history of killing black men." Further, Griff told writer David Mills that Jews are responsible for "the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe."

Sitting in a cramped, windowless office within the new Luke Records complex in northeast Miami earlier this month, Professor Griff recalls that fateful day ruefully. He still believes he was manipulated by Mills. "It was supposed to be a musical interview," Griff says. "It led into a discussion of Jewish control of the music industry, the media, TV and movies. It was music, music, music, and then he slips in a question about who controls the music industry. I was caught off guard, and it was at a time when there was a lot of tension [among his musical colleagues]. He made it sound like I was lashing out. I was under a lot of stress." Whatever stress he may have been under at the time would have to be considered insignificant compared to what followed: a national firestorm of controversy, threats to him and his family, and the loss of his job.

David Mills, who now writes feature stories and music articles for the Washington Post, says this about the allegation he used chicanery to squeeze from Griff headline-grabbing quotes: "Griff's entitled to his opinion." And like many reporters on the other end of an interview, Mills has a question of his own: "Why, in all this time, has nobody heard Griff speak on the substance of the question--whether he believed the things he said?" Here in Miami, Griff now has done that, and in recent days he's been less the professor and more the student.

At the time of the D.C. interview, Professor Griff held the post of "minister of information" for the wildly popular rap group Public Enemy, formed in the mid-Eighties by current leader Chuck D and two college classmates in Long Island. Their 1987 debut LP, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, made an instant impression, both at the cash register (it sold more than 300,000 copies) and with music critics, mostly white music critics who abandoned their "rap is not music" position as soon as Public Enemy introduced inflammatory political commentary to the genre. The rappers were mean and dangerous, unapologetically pro-black to the point, some suggested, that they were anti-white. Subsequently, Public Enemy has become the most influential rap group since the major record labels (that is, mainstream America) discovered the music's marketability.

Griff wasn't so much a performer with the outfit at the time of the Mills interview as he was a behind-the-scenes contributor, and as "minister of information" he had gained a reputation as Public Enemy's designated spokesman. By May of 1989, Public Enemy had attracted widespread attention with its album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which sold well more than a million copies. Chuck D had become famous for his radical raps; sideman Flavor Flav for his goofy antics; and the group's gun-toting "security force," S1W (short for Security of the First World) for its intimidating presence. It was Griff who, in the formative days of Public Enemy, taught S1W members about martial arts and religious philosophy, much of the latter drawn from the ideology of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

Whatever reporter Mills' interest in interviewing Griff, he came away with a hell of a tape-recorded conversation. Griff is articulate and engaging. He can't, however, count discretion among his virtues. If he has something on his mind, he soon has it on his lips. When that impulse comes into contact with controversial ideas (some of them borne of ignorance, Griff now admits), the results are often volatile.

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Greg Baker