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Ask for James Baldwin. That's how you get Chris Rock on the phone this morning, by telling the hotel operator in Philadelphia you want to talk to the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Blues for Mr. Charlie. The operator chuckles slightly when you mention the name; either she knows it's Rock, or just someone else using the writer's name. Still, it's enough to make her morning. "I'll connect you," she says, audibly laughing now. Sometimes Rock will check in under the name Slappy White, which is an altogether different sort of homage.
When the call goes through, the voice on the other end of the line doesn't particularly sound like Chris Rock -- at least not the Chris Rock whose voice rises, bends, and breaks whenever he's onstage talking about the difference between the white mall and the black mall, or why he loves black people but hates niggas. This voice is thick with sleep and a morning spent watching TV, which drones in the background throughout the hourlong interview. It takes him awhile to get going; for a while his monologues consist of no more than a few words, at most.
When asked why he again worked with onetime De La Soul producer Prince Paul on his forthcoming album Bigger and Blacker, Rock says only: "He's a genius." Or when asked to delineate the differences between making his own stand-up/hip-hop record, hosting his own HBO talk show, and appearing as Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, in writer-director Kevin Smith's beleaguered film Dogma, Rock offers simply that "they are all the same."
It's only when discussing how his life has changed (or not) since 1996's HBO special Bring the Pain that the 33-year-old Rock begins to take over the conversation. It's proposed to him that his professional life can be viewed as pre-Pain and post-Pain, that the concert (and its subsequent companion album, 1997's Roll with the New) prove he is more than our generation's Garrett Morris. Until that special aired, until Rock came out in front of a mostly black audience in Washington, D.C., and immediately let loose about Mayor Marion Barry at the Million Man March ("You know what that means: Even at our finest hour, we had a crackhead onstage"), Chris Rock was a black man standing in the shadows.
To that point his had been a career of supporting roles (in Beverly Hills Cop II, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!, New Jack City) and walk-on parts (an episode of Miami Vice in 1984, three frustrating seasons spent on Saturday Night Live). His 1991 album Born Suspect was funny enough with its bitter tirades about taxes, minimum wage, and Marion Barry, but you would watch the man on SNL from 1990-93 and never know there was a genius hiding beneath those waiter outfits. Not even a character like Nat X hinted at anything more than a vaguely funny guy doing a bit in a giant 'fro. To be young, gifted, and black on SNL is like being short, hairy, and Jewish in the NBA.
"It was easy when I was the only black guy on Saturday Night Live," Rock says of those years. "Then we got Tim Meadows and Ellen Cleghorne, so then I had to compete with them, and I didn't get a chance to fail that much. It's like, if all three of us wrote the best sketch that week -- which probably only happened once, or never happened at all -- we knew they all weren't going to get on. There just weren't going to be three black-themed sketches on in one week. When you're Garrett Morris or Eddie Murphy, you can pick and choose your slots.... But Saturday Night Live is still real Ivy League, and I couldn't take it.
"They had one or two black writers when I was there, and they were okay, and I don't want to sound like they should have consulted me before they hired them, but they should have let me read the shit. I was really on my own. That was the most frustrating thing. I never had a connection where a writer thought, 'Hey, Chris Rock, that's my guy I'm latching on to.' Now and then a guy would help me out. Conan O'Brien was a good help, and Al Franken every now and then, but no one knew what to do with me."
Worse yet, there was a long period between his brief In Living Color stint in 1993 and Bring the Pain when Rock couldn't get a manager, couldn't find an agent, couldn't get solid work; his most notable output during that time was the more-miss-than-hit CB4, otherwise known as the hip-hop Spi¬nal Tap without the laughs. (The thing played like a Public Enemy documentary.) So often Rock was told talent agencies had enough brothers on the roster; look elsewhere. Eventually he and old pal Mario Joyner hit the road and started playing every Mr. Chuckles and Yuck Shack between Los Angeles and Bensonhurst. As a result Rock invented himself as hip-hop's first comedian, Biz Markie excluded.