With Flavor Flav's clock having run out in Public Enemy, is the role of the hip-hop hype man dead?
The unsung hero of hip-hop typically takes to the stage like a confident frontman, but is humble enough to stand in the shadows
If you’re a fan of Public Enemy, last week’s ousting of its flamboyant member Flavor Flav over his increasingly contentious relationship with the group is no surprise. For hip-hop lovers, his dismissal is not only a blow to the art form but could also hasten the demise of one of the genre’s most celebrated roles: the hype man.
That’s because Flav, 60, whose real name is William Drayton Jr, is one of the best to ever do it. For almost 40 years, he embodied all the seemingly contradictory attributes of the position and showcased its role in taking hip-hop performances from nightclubs to arenas.
For the uninitiated, the hype man is the stage warmer – the person with the highly caffeinated personality who marauds the boards and amps up crowds before the main act arrives.
But in reality, he is the unsung hero of the night. He is the concert’s Pied Piper, he lifts the show when it’s lagging and helps the main act when they are flagging. He takes the stage like a confident frontman, but is humble enough to stand in the shadows to let the night’s headliner bask in the crowd adoration they were not fully responsible for.
While there is no strong early account on how the hype man originated, the consensus among hip-hop historians is that the role was formed in the 1970s in the pre-hip-hop era of funk and soul house parties in New York. The party’s planner or promoter was considered the first hype man as he moved around the venue and ensured the vibe was right.
As hip-hop emerged in the early 1980s, the genre’s first generation of hype men – such as Kidd Creole from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – gave the role an artistic flair by also providing backing vocals. “The hype man gives [an artist] a certain emphasis and actually makes his show a bit better,” Creole previously told hip-hop magazine Vibe. “A person can have a hype man and still have a bad show, but the [hype man] adds to the artist.”
It was Flav who elevated the part into a pillar of hip-hop. Through his zany work with Public Enemy, Flav allowed the hype man to become a musical force of its own. At the time, Public Enemy had caused huge controversy in the US with their politically charged lyricism, so Flav provided a welcome counterpoint both in the studio and on stage.
Whereas rapper Chuck D wore black and preached African-American independence, Flav kept it light with colourful clothing and that oversize clock around his neck. While D bludgeoned fans with his bombastic voice, Flav was the vocal foil with his scratchy yet melodic yelps. In short, Flav was the sugar coating allowing Public Enemy’s hardcore rhetoric to go down well and inspire generations of hip-hop artists.
With the role requiring a level of charisma on stage, it’s no wonder many hype men become stars in their own right. Before Jay-Z became, well, Jay-Z, he was an aspiring artist warming up the stage for his mentor, Jaz-O, in the early 1990s. It was the same Sean “P Diddy” Combs, who worked the stage for The Notorious BIG.
Ironically, it was the success of both moguls that allowed hip-hop to become a permanent part of popular culture, and with that came a new generation of individualistic rappers who gradually diminished the role of the hype man.
The chief architect of this move is perhaps unsurprisingly, Kanye West, who took the stage by himself as part of his 2008 Glow in the Dark Tour. That minimalism, augmented by edgy visuals, continues to define the modern hip-hop live experience. When Drake and Post Malone performed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 2015 and 2018 respectively, they took the stage solo with their only backing group a blinding army of spotlights.
While the hype man remains alive through artists such as Eminem (Mr Porter) and 50 Cent (Tony Yayo), they sound no way as vital as they used to. As one of its greatest practitioners, Vin Rock from Naughty by Nature, told The National in a previous interview, the individualistic streak running through hip-hop now is killing the genre’s collaborative spirit and a proud hip-hop tradition: “Everyone wants to be ‘The Man’ now, instead of being a team.”
Updated: March 10, 2020 05:08 PM