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.
But if street talk is worth anything, he remained a threat to the group. In the heat of the fight, Griff told the press that certain anonymous individuals had approached him and volunteered assistance. These folks purportedly informed the Professor they'd gladly kill Chuck D and other offenders - free of charge. Griff says he declined, at least partially because he trusted Allah to deliver whatever vengeance was deemed worthy.
Today Griff says he just wants "peace," but clearly he remains bitter toward his former group. "There was no investigation," he says, "they had no right to speak. The majority of people [at the record labels] never heard what I said, nor did they just talk to me the way you're talking to me right now. They would rather fire me. That dollar, chump change - or Trump change, really - was being threatened. I feel sorry for Chuck. We grew up together and put Public Enemy together. And then I was fired over the phone, on TV and the newspapers. They just kicked me to the curb. And that's when my family was threatened."
In the year since the Washington Times article, Professor Griff has never publicly apologized for his anti-Semitic comments. But that changed dramatically last week, thanks in large part to a twenty-year-old Florida International University student named Sam Rogatinsky.
Three years ago Rogatinsky moved with his family from Houston to North Bay Village. While studying at FIU (he aspires to become an attorney), Rogatinsky grew concerned about the widespread lack of knowledge regarding Jewish history. Having attended the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami, having lost family to the Holocaust, and having listened to his paternal grandparents describe in harrowing detail their survival in hiding during the Nazi atrocities (they were literally underground for years), Rogatinsky became convinced there simply "wasn't enough awareness." With an older brother and two friends, he formed the National Holocaust Awareness Student Organization, and began recruiting members. Today he serves as the group's president.
Rogatinsky is familiar with rap music. In fact, he likes it a great deal (he once interviewed Tone Loc for FIU's campus radio station), especially the hip-hop of Big Daddy Kane and, yes, even Public Enemy. But the furor that ensued after the publication of Griff's remarks overshadowed Rogatinsky's appreciation for the music. One day a few months ago, he recalls, he was at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach when a group of students from an inner-city high school came through on a tour. He asked if he could say a few words to the visitors. "I asked them how many had heard of Public Enemy. Their eyes lit up," he recounts. "Then I asked how many knew Professor Griff. Their eyes lit up again. I asked them how Professor Griff's comments about Jews made them feel. Nobody said much. A group of them came over to talk some more, and one kid said, `Griff's successful, he's been involved, so he must know what he's talking about.' That one person was one too
When Rogatinsky learned that Professor Griff had signed a record contract with Miami's Luke Records, he saw an opportunity to take action. On April 13, he sent a letter to company president Luther Campbell. "We find it difficult to comprehend your recent acceptance of Professor Griff," Rogatinsky wrote. "He has repeatedly made cruel anti-Semitic remarks about Jewish people.... They are hurtful, malevolent, and contempt-filled." About a month later Rogatinsky wrote directly to Griff and requested an apology. He also mentioned that "both Jews and blacks face daily prejudices and injustices; therefore, it is difficult to comprehend any conflicts that exist between the two groups." After receiving the letter, Griff telephoned Rogatinsky and challenged the accuracy of Rogatinsky's interpretation. He also asserted that the media can twist reality into something ugly any time they please.
Late last week Professor Griff and Sam Rogatinsky met face-to-face for the first time. The setting was neutral territory - a photographer's studio in Miami Beach. Griff had dressed for the occasion: black hat, black shirt, black pants, black shoes, and a Luke Skyywalker athletic jacket. Rogatinsky, the model student, wore a dress shirt, slacks, and brown penny loafers. Two more incongruous images of American youth could hardly be imagined. When they were introduced in the studio, Griff stood up to shake Rogatinsky's outstretched hand. "Wow!" Griff exclaimed. "I pictured you being taller, with glasses and graying hair." Rogatinsky, smiling, replied, "I pictured you much bigger." As photos were taken, the two launched into lively conversation:
Griff: "All that blacks know is that the Jews own everything, they're the bosses. Blacks know nothing about the history, and someone has to bridge that
Griff: "I have the vehicle - the music."
Rogatinsky: "Would Louis Farrakhan do it?"
Griff: "I believe he would. I need to get you tape of him meeting with rabbis. I use the means I have, you use the means you have, and we can bridge this gap. Give me the facts."
Rogatinsky: "You would do this?"
Rogatinsky: "I hate to think that blacks and Jews would be fighting each other. Our people both were enslaved. I understand what your people are going through."
Griff: "It's one big mess. But we don't need to be fighting each other."
Then Griff brightened and said to Rogatinsky, "This is a rarity. I mean, you're actually opening up to
Apparently, at one point, the two realized that the trouble with life in America isn't so much the result of ethnic differences as it is the trickle-down of a corrupt system. As the conversation turned to American politics, Rogatinsky asked Griff why he hasn't addressed that subject through his music. Griff seemed a bit confused by the question. That is one of the most prominent subjects of his debut album. A surprised Rogatinsky had to admit that he hadn't yet listened to the whole record.
After being forced to leave Public Enemy, Professor Griff went on to record what some critics, including the highly regarded Dave Marsh, consider a masterful rap album, Pawns in the Game. Last year Griff recruited five solo rappers with "different styles, old and new, slow and fast." He dubbed them the Last Asiatic Disciples, and gave them stage names: Life, X, B-Wyze, Obie, and JXL. Though he lacked a recording contract, Griff began putting songs together at his Long Island studio, and in the fall, Griff signed a deal with Miami-based Skyywalker Records, now known as Luke Records, home of the notorious 2 Live Crew. Eighteen days later, Pawns in the Game was completed.
While it may be forever clouded by Griff's previous association with Public Enemy, the fact is Griff's album not only stands alone, but exposes Public Enemy's concurrent effort, Fear of a Black Planet, as a Pink-Floyd-meets-hip-hop jumble of nonsense. Where his former associates have lowered themselves to incorporating random sonic distractions, such as a seemingly interminable, self-referential montage of radio talk-show gibberish, Griff has crafted cutting songs that all but draw blood. If "Pass the Ammo" is a scathing and melodic statement about young people deprived of education because they're too poor to afford tutors or nice-neighborhood private schools, "Suzi Wants to Be a Rock Star" ups the ante on all of rap music. "Suzi," the LP's centerpiece, is not the the most compelling drug-related rap song ever put to wax - it's the single most evocative drug-related song in any genre. It's a rock song with rap verses, and it lights a dozen thematic fires under the raging drug-abuse inferno. America, sings Griff, is a drug-sucking whore; crack is the throbbing currency of destruction. And beyond the impassioned and painful truths exposed in "Suzi" is the sheer elegance of the song, its grand musical
On January 19 Skyywalker released a statement. "Since Griff will be doing interviews, videos, and a tour, we hope this shows how strongly we stand behind him as an artist. Any beliefs, political or religious, are solely those of Professor Griff and the Last Asiatic Disciples. We want it clearly understood that [they] are part of the Skyywalker family based on their potential as artists."
Griff says now that he had offers from other labels, but came to Miami and Luke Records because the move offered him the freedom of expression he wanted. It's not paradise, though. "I really, really disagree with a lot of [the label's] points," he says. "But they told me, `You do it as you see fit.'" Among the disagreements is the fact that Campbell's group, 2 Live Crew, sings humorously about sex and little else. Griff rarely mentions sex in his songs; each is a miniature political manifesto. (That should make for a startling contrast when the two groups begin a national tour together this week.)
There's also the matter of the Crew's banned album As Nasty as They Wanna Be. "My daughter [six-year-old Taqiyyah] asked me why she couldn't listen to it," Griff says. "So I had to explain it to her, that it's material made for adults. `Listen, you can't go from first grade straight to sixth grade.' That's the way I deal with it." In fact, raising the issue, Griff argues, can be beneficial if it leads to communication between parent and child. "It's better than if the kids learn it from movies or magazines or their peers."
If he switched positions with Luther Campbell and became president of the record label, Griff says he would sign the 2 Live Crew, "as artists. We don't dive into each other's personal beliefs. We could go on about that for days. In a capitalistic society, you have to survive. Luke offers the whole spectrum with the artists on his label. I think conflict is good, and I know that I wouldn't fit in at many labels the way I fit in
Despite his aversion to raunchy lyrics, Griff is vehemently opposed to artistic censorship. "I'm going on a college speaking tour," he says, "to talk about censor shit. When I give this talk, I'm going to point out the positive of rap as a communication vehicle to all ethnic groups. It's an international language, like a smile. You don't smile in Italian or Spanish or English. I'm going to explain their rights, that they have rights that they don't even know about. These parents who are trying to come down on this - well, if they don't know what little Johnny is listening to, that's really
On the cover of Griff's album are printed these words: "Explicit language contained. Parental discretion advised." However, cuss words are used sparingly and the sort of sex talk that landed the Crew in hot water is completely absent. Griff addresses matters of the intellect, not the genitals. If the album has a theme, it is contained it its title, Pawns in the Game. "Society plays out white supremacy," explains Professor Griff. "Like pool - the white ball knocking the colors in. The last one on the table is black [i.e., the eight ball]. In chess, the pawns leave the board first. People up front are used as pawns first - AIDS, crack, ice remove them. It's just like Hitler's plan, which was aimed at the darker skinned and the Jews. The Hitler mentality still exists in a lot of people."
For Professor Griff knowledge is the strongest weapon in the human arsenal, though in the naivete of youth (he refuses to reveal his age), he has been inclined to regurgitate the ideas of his heroes, particularly Louis Farrakhan. And that is at the root of his recent problems. Behind the desk in his new office at Luke Records in northeast Miami, Griff takes a cassette tape from one of several plastic milk crates filled with them. It's a speech by the Nation of Islam's Abdul Allah Muhammad, delivered November 17, 1985. The title typed on the tape's label reads, "Will the Real Jews Please Stand Up." From the verbiage on that tape came the name of Griff's group, the Last Asiatic Disciples, because Asia represents the "whole world." Also from that tape - as well as from various "elders," street acquaintances, and other sources - Griff received what he calls "a lopsided view of the situation. I take this stuff in and it affects me." In an ironic echo of the words Sam Rogatinsky heard from the youngster at the Holocaust Memorial, Griff adds, "I'm taking it from a tape by a man who is smarter, more articulate, better informed than I am. Don't put it all on me. And you know, I haven't run across too many Jews willing to talk it out." Rogatinsky himself changed that.
As the Miami Beach photo session concluded, a revealing reversal of roles occurred. Rogatinsky the student became a professor, and Griff the professor became a student. "If you have a question about Jewish history," Rogatinsky told Griff, "call me. If I don't know the answer, I'll find out who does for you." Griff in turn promised to fax a list of questions to Rogatinsky's organization. Then they jumped into Rogatinsky's green 1985 Volvo and drove the short distance to the Holocaust Memorial at Dade Boulevard and Meridian Avenue.
Rogatinsky acted as guide. "I explained to him what the pictures of the Holocaust were, about the human medical experiments," Rogatinsky said later. "I took him progressively through the memorial and into that tunnel to the statue. In the tunnel there's a skylight with the word `Jude' on it. I explained they put that on badges and would make Jews wear them so they could pick them out on the street. We went through the tunnel and I showed him the statue. He didn't know about the tattooed numbers branded on their arms. He didn't know about that. I explained that this is fairly recent, only 40 or 50 years ago. Griff kept saying, `This is critical.'"
The experience, Professor Griff said, was enlightening. "I saw things I wasn't aware of even after talking to my Jewish friends in New York," he admitted. "It was my first time experiencing anything like that. Black kids don't know these things. I study, and I didn't know about some of these things, so the black kids without education definitely don't know about
"I had mixed emotions - both sad and angry," Griff continued. "It made me think! If that happens to them, if six million people can have that happen to them, imagine the 250 million blacks. It could happen to them, too. I mentioned to Sam that I bet a lot of Jewish people don't come here, because I know that if I was Jewish, I couldn't take seeing this. And he told me that, yes, that for some Jews it was too painful."
The following day Griff reflected further on his encounter with Sam, the Holocaust Memorial, and his own notorious words of a year ago. "I'm just sad about the whole incident," he said in reference to the Washington Times interview. "I'm not even going to go back and single out the quotes I made. That's nothing compared to what I saw yesterday. Now I'm more angry about the whole shebang, to be honest with you. If I knew what I know now, I never would have uttered those words. I would have stayed away from whole subject."
But how would he reconcile his new historical perspective with his allegiance to the Nation of Islam? Suppose Louis Farrakhan himself called after reading these words and insisted that Griff had been taken in by some clever Jewish trick? "I don't think that would ever happen," said Griff. "He wouldn't say that. Now, someone in the Nation would probably say that, and I would ask them to prove it. The thing is, this wickedness is not sanctioned on either side. The difference in religions is up to each individual. The Nation was built on truth and righteousness, and it doesn't mock human suffering. So I can empathize with Jews and sympathize with blacks at the same time.
"One thing about me is I'm not that kind of hollow person," he continued. "You can't figure me out in one or two conversations. I'm no politician and I'm no Chuck D. I don't talk in circles, I talk directly. If you think I was joking or kidding or putting up a front when I went to the memorial with the gentleman, well, we'll see. My views change with time, and my views about this have changed. This could be a process of me maturing."
As the two men were departing the Holocaust Memorial, Rogatinsky looked into Griff's clear brown eyes and said, "I'd like to be your friend." Griff recalled his answer: "I told him I'd love that. That we could try to do this together. That's not about trying to clear the way for me to make safe records, no. But he and I are young and sincere. I have a lot of energy and I'm ready and raring to go. You have to remember that a lot of prophets and messengers of God didn't even know what their mission was until it was revealed to them by God when these people were at a late age."
And then Samuel Rogatinsky and Richard Griffin shook hands.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.