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.
All that changed with Bring the Pain, a special named after a Method Man song -- perfect for a man who once owned the Def Comedy Jam. Suddenly the kid beneath the flattop fade was the funniest, angriest, smartest, sharpest, slyest motherfucker who ever dared take Richard Pryor's place behind a microphone. The guy discovered by Eddie Murphy in an L.A. comedy club a decade earlier proved himself, in 60 too-short minutes, to be far funnier than Murphy ever was. Murphy's politics started and stopped with his dick; he never met a woman he didn't want to bend over a chair. Murphy's moment had come and long gone by the time Rock took the stage in 1996 and told the brothers and sisters he wished he could join the Ku Klux Klan so he could do a drive-by all the way from D.C. to Brooklyn. Rock's comedy, in a blazing instant, had turned hysterical and oddly profound; since then no one's been able to lay a glove on the champ, who would return to SNL later that year as host and have the first, last, and best laugh.
After Bring the Pain, Rock would no longer receive fourteenth billing in shitty Steve Martin movies based on Phil Silvers TV shows; there'd be no more roles like Yuck Mouth in Panther, the funniest drama ever about the Black Panthers. He moved from B movies to the A list; look only at the picture of Rock standing next to his hero Woody Allen in Esquire to see how far he's come since his days turning out the lights on the In Living Color set.
It's easy to fit Chris Rock on the comedy family tree; he's the branch just beneath the ones holding Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Hicks. His is an anger, a humor, a pain that knows no color line; who else but Rock would appear on the cover of Vanity Fair in Sambo black face? He's the man who said that what white people hate about black people, black people hate about black people; he's the man who tells the brothers and sisters to boo, "but y'all know I'm right." He may insist his comedy "isn't political," but that's only to defuse the punch line. After all there's nothing funnier than the truth, the ability to laugh it off before it knocks you out.
Hence the references on the new album to Social Security ("The average black man dies at 54; black people should get Social Security at 29"); why a brother can't get health insurance ("I broke my leg; Daddy poured Robitussin on it"); and taxes ("They take money out your check every week, then they want more money in April -- what kinda gangsta shit is that?"). Give Cornel West some of this material, and he might kill on the lecture circuit after all.
Bigger and Blacker (which will be released on July 13) plays like Prince Paul's recently released A Prince Among Thieves without any songs to get in the way; even the stand-up routines feel incidental, like Harpo Marx harp solos during Animal Crackers. There's nothing as biting as "Niggas vs. Black People," nothing as prescient as "O.J., I Understand." The closest he comes is a routine about how "there ain't a white man in this room [who] would trade places with me, and I'm rich." But even that seems like a tap instead of a punch, or maybe it's just hard to top yourself when you're Muhammad Ali and everyone else around you is Butterbean.
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The disc's best moments are the sketches and songs; one features Rock singing to strippers, wondering what it takes to get a table dance. But there's none better than Rock's parody of Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," perhaps the most insipid pop song ever based on a dreadful newspaper advice column aimed at college graduates. In Rock's version (titled "No Sex") the comedian addresses "the GED class of 1999," doling out nuggets of wisdom such as "If a woman tells you she's twenty and looks sixteen, she's twelve," "Cornbread -- ain't nuttin' wrong with that," and, "If a homeless person has a funny sign, he hasn't been homeless that long." Chances are "No Sex" will be the first single from the album -- at least once free of the line about how "if a girl has a pierced tongue, she'll probably suck your dick."
Rock likes to talk about how De La Soul's Buhloone Mindstate and Public Enemy's Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age have been highly influential on his stand-up, but he can't quite explain how. "You just gotta listen to it," he says of those records. "Like, on Muse Sick, that song 'What Side You On?' Please. I ripped off that whole thing. And Buhloone was basically the same thing as Bring the Pain -- same themes, different presentation." That's why he keeps coming back to Prince Paul, the man who virtually defined the between-rap sketches on De La's 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. Rock also appears on Paul's A Prince Among Thieves, playing a wacked-out junkie. And if Paul turns his album into a film, as planned, Rock likely will reprise the role.
"After my last special, I got all this hype, and it was just like, 'Do an album, Chris,'" Rock recalls. "Everybody's vying for me to do an album, and I just picked Prince Paul. I don't know why; it just seemed natural. I can't even imagine working with anyone else. Who else would I work with? I was thinking maybe Dr. Dre -- maybe. But with Prince Paul, it's very relaxing. We have the same sensibility. We never have arguments. And Paul is always talking to me like, 'You should do a record, or just produce a record for somebody.' But I don't have any interest in doing that, 'cause most people are good at one thing, and that's a lot to be good at one thing, and it would really suck if I tried that. I did CB4. That's the closest I get to doing a hip-hop record, and even that was a joke. But there is an artistic community I'm lucky to be a part of."
Perhaps one need look no further than Eddie Murphy's own recording career to understand the significance of Chris Rock. When Murphy decided to split the grooves between comedy and music, he sought out the lightest, whitest men around: Narada Michael Walden and Michael Jackson. For Bigger and Blacker Rock's posse includes Ice Cube, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Biz Markie, with whom he turns the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" into the astonishingly funny "White Bitches." Then there's the Roger and Zapp homage, during which Rock wonders what the disc would have sounded like if Roger Troutman had produced the record. He then begins singing through a digital vocoder: "I'm buying a Cadillac/I'm thinking of pussy." White folks will not get it. But they will love it nonetheless.