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From the Archives: A Vintage Conversation With Public Enemy's Professor Griff

The accompanying Q&A with Chuck D of Public Enemy, keyed to an appearance by the venerable group that's previewed in the October 25 Westword, provides a perfect excuse to unearth a profile of PE's Professor Griff. The piece, complete with the very same image seen here, was published in March 1993, before Westword was archived on the Internet. Hence, this represents its online debut.

The article caught Griff at an interesting moment. Several years earlier, he'd been expelled from Public Enemy following furor over published comments he made that disparaged Jews -- statements he apologized for in his conversation with Westword. He subsequently tried to get a solo career off the ground, but the combination of bad press and bad luck related to labels and distribution left him in limbo. So he was traveling the country on a speaking tour of colleges such as Denver's Metro State, delivering lectures on "the history of civilization" as seen from his notably opinionated perspective.

It was a very different time in hip-hop. Flash back to it below:

Class Warfare Professor Griff thinks that America has a lot to learn By Michael Roberts March 3-9, 1993

Straighten up, students. Your instructor has a few things to reach you about the history of civilization.

“Christopher Columbus did not discover America,” says Professor Griff, former member of the politico-rap group Public Enemy. “There were people here 16,000 years before you were even a thought. There’s also a preconception that black people didn’t contribute anything to the advance of the civilizations we read about in history. That’s a preconceived notion that a lot of people carry to this day, and it’s all because of a lack of information.”

The good Professor (born Richard Griffin) wants to change all that. He’s on a one-man campaign to, in his words, “correct history.” To that end, Griff has assembled a slide show and lecture that he’s taking to colleges and universities around the country. “I give an overview of the things they never taught you in history class,” he says. His presentation is also said to include a touch of humor, but when he’s asked about his funniest material, he replies, in a voice as serious as George Will’s, “That’s a wait-and-see kind of thing.”

It’s no surprise that Griff is cautious, since he’s seen his music career take some ugly hits over the past several years. Through most of the Eighties, he was Public Enemy’s Minister of Information and leader of the S1Ws (Security of the First World), the band’s paramilitary dance squad. To outsiders, Griff seemingly did little more than oversee PE’s khaki-clad hoofers and glower in the shadow of lead rapper Chuck D, né Carlton Ridenhour, who, like the Professor, grew up in the Long Island neighborhood of Roosevelt. But Griff was actually a vital part of the group, primarily because he brought to it his belief in the Nation of Islam. While Chuck D clearly did his own thinking, many of his thoughts were shaped by the intellectual theories in which Griff believed.

From the beginning, the Nation of Islam connection followed Public Enemy. White journalists in particular found it all but impossible to praise the group’s brilliant first pair of albums (1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show and 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) without mentioning Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam spokesman who’s frequently accused of racism and anti-Semitism. Chuck D effectively deflected this criticism until May 1989, when Griff granted an interview with Washington Times journalist David Mills. During this conversation, the Professor opined that “Jews have a grip on America,” that they “have a history of killing black men” and that they are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” Even Chuck D couldn’t talk his way out of the controversy that ensued. He eventually fired Griff and did his best to distance PE from these indefensible words.

In the years since then, Griff has repeatedly apologized for his published sentiments; today, he says, “I’ve learned a lot and gained more respect for other ethnic group’s trials and tribulations.” Still, the incident dogs him and has made it all but impossible for him to establish a viable solo career. He signed a deal with Luke Records, the company fronted by Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, and released a surprisingly credible album, Pawns in the Game, shortly after his expulsion from PE. That was followed in 1991 by a more scattered offering, Kao’s II, Wiz *7* Dome. Like Pawns, it sank like an anvil, selling few copies and receiving little attention from the press or Atlantic Records, Luke’s distributor. Atlantic subsequently severed its relationship with Luke – a smart move commercially, given the recent breakup of 2 Live Crew and the lame performance of Campbell’s solo album – leaving Griff’s new record, Disturb N Tha Peace, without the assistance of a major label. Rather than complain about this situation, though, Griff looks forward to it.

“When Luke was being distributed by Atlantic, that’s when people never heard my album,” he says. “The Kao’s album was so difficult to find. I don’t know what Atlantic was doing. People don’t know it exists, so when they go to a store, they don’t ask for it. I think a lot of the times with big corporations and big labels, you get lost in the sauce.”

Griff found it just as difficult to help others get the attention of Atlantic. For a time after signing with Luke, the Professor also served as the company’s artists and repertoire director, reviewing hundreds of tapes. “There’s a lot of talent out there,” he says, “a lot of positive talent that a lot of record companies just overlook because of the way the consumer is thinking. I turned in two or three groups that I thought were good, and sadly, they never got signed. And one group that did get signed never left the shelf.”

Atlantic didn’t respond to the acts Griff championed because, he believes, “everybody wants sex and violence.” The Professor’s no prude, and he defends label president Campbell’s right to sing exclusively about popping pussies if that’s what turns him on. But Griff’s got other things on his mind. “I’m saying people need to get higher education, people need to stay positive, people need to respect one another,” he says. “As opposed to saying, ‘Face down, ass up.’”

The Professor’s righteous message comes through with unmistakable clarity on Disturb N Tha Peace. In language that is introspective one moment, raw the next, Griff takes on a slew of targets with an intensity worthy of Public enemy. Many of his themes may be overly familiar – “Phuck the Media” won’t win any points for originality – but others deserve a wider hearing. The album’s single, “Sista Sista,” is a spirited defense of black women, who take a beating in far too many rap songs, and numbers such as “God Bless Amerikka” and “Point Live (At the Slave Theater)” attack racism from a solidly intellectual point of view. Just as important, the music created by Griff and Society, the sole remaining member of the Professor’s backup band, the Last Asiatic Disciples, is rough and relentless. No new ground is broken, but the old ground is given a real working over.

While Griff rightly believes that this material is his strongest yet, he has a lot of obstacles to overcome to get the word out to others. Luke Records, for instance, is a disorganized outfit under the best circumstances, and that situation has only been exacerbated by the end of its distribution deal. Also, Griff’s serious, occasionally pedantic tone may prove to be a tough sell in a hip-hop marketplace dominated by imitations of the song “Jump.” The Professor realizes that he’s fighting the tide, but he’s not about to change.

“Some guy was asking me on the phone the other day, ‘If you had the chance to do all three of your albums again, would you go back and add a little bit of sex, a little bit of violence, a little bit of stuff that the people might like?’” he says. “I said no – no, I’m not. Because when you go before God on the last day, you take that with you. All this is being recorded, so when you go before God, “He’ll say, ‘You’re the one who did so-and-so. You’re the one that disrespected the mother civilization. And although every man comes from the womb of a woman, you’re the one on your records who was disrespecting the woman.’ You understand what I’m saying? You’re not going to attach that to me.”

So Griff slogs on, releasing albums he hopes will return him to prominence and speaking to students whose heads are stuffed with lies he is compelled to refute. And he feels he’s making progress. “When I do my talk, I lay out the ground rules and explain that you need to come to me with an open mind and an open heart and give it a chance,” he says. “And a lot of people do.”

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts