The Education of Professor Griff

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 late last week, 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." (See the sidebar accompanying this article for relevant excerpts from the interview.) 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 has now 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 their 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's 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.

Fallout from the Washington Times story was fast and fatal. After Mills's piece was published, Griff says, "I was suspended by Public Enemy. Then I was fired. Hired. Fired again." Then Chuck D announced that his group was disbanding. Only later did he explain the reason for that drastic decision. One of Public Enemy's new songs, "Fight the Power," was being used in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing. Chuck D apparently wanted to save the movie's producers, and Spike Lee, the embarrassment of being associated with anti-Semitism.

The dissolution of the group didn't last long, however, and Griff seemed to be back in. But the public pressure on Public Enemy was too much. The Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith protested to CBS/Columbia Records, which distributes Public Enemy's albums. Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS, fired off a memo to his underlings demanding they pay more attention to what their acts were saying with regard to matters of ethnicity. Jewish leaders nationwide roundly condemned Griff's remarks, the national media went wild, and even former allies cut and ran. For example, Russell Simmons, co-founder of Public Enemy's record label, reportedly dismissed Griff as "a racist stage prop." By the end of last year, the Professor was gone for good from Public Enemy.

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Greg Baker

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