Then he met Carlton Ridenhour (who would soon become Chuck D), and the two started collaborating, first on Ridenhour's hip-hop radio show at nearby Adelphi University, then on their own rap tracks. ''Me and Chuck used to work for his father, delivering furniture for interior designers,'' says Flav. ''We wrote the first Public Enemy album in a U-Haul truck.'' In 1987, a demo earned the group a deal with Def Jam. That same year they released Yo! Bum Rush the Show and hit the road with labelmates the Beastie Boys. ''Being on tour was great,'' says Flav. ''But I was battling drug addiction. I had just introduced myself to crack and cocaine. The devil turned me on to that s---. That's who I was [hanging out] with the devil.''
Over the next four years, Public Enemy released three increasingly profound and successful albums that quickly ranked them among the definitive artists of the 20th century. As the comic foil to Chuck D's militant pro-black rhetoric, Flav played a vital role in the group: celebrity mascot. He appeared in movies (Mo' Better Blues, New Jack City), invented the regrettable large-clock-as-necklace fad, and wrote a comical hit single called ''911 Is a Joke'' that proved he had the skills to go solo.
But by the time Public Enemy dropped its fourth album, Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black, in 1991, Flav's drug use was out of control. ''Quaaludes, angel dust, PCP, cocaine, crack, alcohol, weed your boy did it all back in the days,'' he says. That same year, he was arrested for domestic violence against then girlfriend Karen Ross, with whom he had three children. He pleaded guilty to assault, served 30 days in jail, lost custody of his kids and sank deeper into addiction.
Flav's erratic behavior also strained his relationship with Public Enemy. ''Flavor presented problems to the group because he was undependable,'' says their former publicist Bill Adler. ''He was the same person on and off stage: He continued to wild out.'' Flav got into violent altercations with PE's Professor Griff, and disappeared for days and weeks at a time, missing concerts and recording sessions. ''Flav was considered untouchable,'' says Chuck D. ''It got to the point where I had to put the group on hiatus for a couple of years.''
Following a 1993 intervention from his family, Flav entered rehab at the Betty Ford Center. He stayed clean for a while and fathered three more kids with his new girlfriend, Angie Parker. But with Public Enemy on hold, he found himself all cleaned up with no place to go. ''When you're addicted to drugs and you don't have nothing but time,'' he says, ''you take your time and put it into your drug use.'' Sobriety didn't stick.
Flav didn't seek treatment again until his father died of diabetes in 1997. Shortly after the funeral, he checked into the Long Island Center for Recovery. ''The staff helped tutor my mind to be able to stay strong enough to say no to triggers,'' he says. Flav emerged with a new commitment to staying sober and a new flame, Beverly Johnson. He moved into her apartment, but the situation wasn't exactly stable. ''It was rough for him to adapt to the Bronx,'' says Chuck D, who remained friends with Flav through his tough times. ''He had problems with the police and certain elements in his neighborhood people that have been involved with drug use.''