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The Trash-Mouth Wisdom of Chris Rock

Being America's funniest man is no simple case of black and white

October 2, 1997
Chris Rock on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Chris Rock on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

A summer night in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a fine one. You can actually sit on your kitchen chair, instead of the stoop, and feel the breeze off Upper New York Bay. The streets of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant district are quiet as Chris Rock's boxy black Range Rover breathes hoarsely through them.

It's about 10 p.m. as Rock pulls over on a dimly lit, nearly deserted block of Decatur Street, a few yards from the house he grew up in, and steps out to summon a boyhood friend. He tilts his head toward his passenger in a characteristic way and – only half-kid-dingly – rasps, "Don't get jacked."

Though Bed-Stuy's streets are tough, with their share of crime and death by taped-up pistol, they are not the meanest around. The family values that came up from the South have survived better here than in other urban trouble spots; the churches and politicians have made something of a federally funded social laboratory of it. Chris Rock was raised in what may be the last outpost of big-city America's last God-fearing generation. Offstage, he's not the screeching voice of L'il Penny, not even the blue-talking stand-up guy who loudly and helpfully instructs, "Boy, you don't eat no pussy, you will lose your woman like a set of keys." He's a guy who reads the biblical Book of Proverbs, as he pointed out moments ago when we passed a late-night church service set up under a tent in a park: "I'm telling you: I'm Proverbs, man. All that other stuff is people who think they're right. The only guy who's right is the guy who knows he's not right."

Rock had driven down Fulton Street, where his father's father, Alphonzo, once preached in a storefront tabernacle, maybe a half-mile from where we're parked. "My grandfather – I guess he meant well," Rock says. "Cursed more than any person I ever knew. Not from the pulpit, but, boy, he's driving you somewhere, somebody cuts him off – the preacher that cursed. 'Motherfucker, cocksucker.' I guess I'm that guy in a sense."

Now, on Shadowy Decatur street, rock is softly calling into the house, looking for his friend or his friend's dad: "Hey, Mikal? Mr. Yusuf?" Rock is angular, careful of step and, even among friends, surprisingly shy and remote. Thinks fast, moves slow. Inevitably, as he calls into the house, a dog sets to barking down the street.

Bed-Stuy's western half was settled by Dutch farmers and their slaves in the 1600s; free blacks began owning land by the 1830s. The Brooklyn Bridge opened the area, in 1903, to wealthier brownstone dwellers, who gave way, after the subway tunneled through to Manhattan, in 1936, to a mix of immigrants and, finally, flocks of newly arriving Southerners of color. The wisdom of lawmakers meant that Chris Rock was made to ride a school bus an hour across the borough to a virtually all-white school, where the street-rat rednecks reliably called him nigger and made every day hell. Rock truly seems not to be bitter about those days, but (after dropping out of high school) he came away with a kind of sad wisdom that will never leave him and thoroughly inhabits his humor. He denies any political intent, but – along with the crackling invective that makes him laugh-out-loud funny – he delivers a street-smart brand of the welfare-reformist New Democrat agenda. Underneath his scolding of his black brethren for, say, thinking midnight basketball will save the youth ("Excuse me for being late – I scored 45 last night") is a message saying, "I bore up. I made it. I work hard. Now why can't everybody else do the same?" But he never forgets that this country's racial inequities remain very real. Listen to him in a big room in Vegas the night of the Tyson-Holyfield match, spieling to the high rollers about white people's complaints of "reverse racism": "'Oh, we're losing everything we worked for; we're losing . . . ' – white people ain't losing shit. If you all are losing, who's winning? It ain't us. Shit, there ain't a white man in this room that would change places with me. And I'm rich."

There can be little disputing that in the fall of 1997, it's still pretty good to be Chris Rock. At age 31, he is married to a beautiful woman, Malaak Compton-Rock, 28, and they live in a spacious three-story carriage house not far from his old hood. (When he hesitatingly escorts me to the top floor, where a large brass bed sits smack in the dark room's middle, theatrically lighted from above, strolls along its length while almost subconsciously making a repetitive shushing sound, which would seem to translate to, "My wife, standing a floor below, is a person of delicate sensibilities and would take amiss any speculation about the meaning of our bedroom furnishings.") The house is a bit Spartan, woody and low-tech. On the road (where he often is), Rock is usually in a sort of digitized retreat, jacked into his CD player or half-minding human room noise while busily thumbing a video game. He was recently nominated for three Emmys, two for last year's masterful stand-up concert Bring the Pain, on HBO, and one for his work as a field correspondent on Politically Incorrect during last year's presidential campaign.

The HBO concert is part of an overall long-term deal that has set Rock up in offices in midtown Manhattan, where currently a staff of some 30 are employed in producing a series of Friday-night half-hour comedy-variety programs – The Chris Rock Show. This season's first show was on Sept. 12, and at this writing, he is preparing both for that and for his spot as guest host of the MTV Video Music Awards, a high-profile gig that dovetails nicely with the release of his music video "Champagne." The latter is a species of rap ballad from his (the work keeps coming) current comedy CD, Roll With the New. The Nike company's L'il Penny ads, featuring him as the voice of a slightly eerie puppet ("Can ya do that for a brother?") modeled on NBA star Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, combine with his ads for 1-800-COLLECT to make him a fairly ubiquitous presence on television, day and night. Somehow this volley of product and promotion (e.g., his Jamiroquai and Men in Black spoofs plugging the MTV awards show), rather than making America wail for respite, seems just to have made him nicely visible and still plenty hip – the coming thing, the Great Black Comic Hope.

Rock has not only eclipsed his sometime peers from the HBO series Def Comedy Jam but has amusingly parodied and poor-mouthed them, managing to stay "urban" while getting a toehold on urbane. He hasn't had the kind of movie success that his old Saturday Night Live mates – Myers, Carvey, Sandler, Spade and Farley – have had, but he burned down scarily as the crack-head Pookie in 1991's New Jack City and will play the 13th apostle, Rufus, in Kevin Smith's Dogma next year.

Rock, despite his notoriously low-affect style with interviewers, has become something of a media darling. He's also the toast of almost any big-time comic or talk-show host you speak to. Conan O'Brien, who worked as a writer on SNL when Rock was there, recalls the monologue that Rock did when he hosted SNL last November: "He came out there, completely grabbed the show – almost to show how far he had come. It's like those lines they draw in the kitchen for how tall you are, you know? He came back and was now 6 foot 8."

Perhaps most significant for a future that now has the pundits comparing him to black comic icons – Cosby, Pryor and Rock's discoverer, Eddie Murphy – the comic (whose stand-up touchstone and great friend was the late Sam Kinison) has a large and growing crossover – read, "white" – audience. To discuss such things makes Rock nervous ("I'm not about sending messages") but he's also getting serious attention as a voice of the black middle class, even as the most pointed bit from Bring the Pain —"I love black people, but I hate niggas" – is quoted by every white-collar hipster dude within earshot of the office kitchen. Seasoned pessimist that he is, Rock points out that he had a hellish time, just two years ago, finding a new talent agency when he quit his original one: "Nobody wanted me. The whole town turned me down. With the black acts, unless you get really big, no one distinguishes you. It's just 'black acts.' "

But for now, Rock has little choice but to roll with the general adulation. During a chance meeting with Stevie Wonder a few weeks back, the singer lighted up before him: "I love black people," came the refrain from the lips of one of the music-mad Rock's heroes, "but I hate niggas!"

When Rock performed at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater in April, recalls Chris Albrecht, the HBO honcho who has been his champion at the cable channel, "it was a Hollywood event backstage: heads of studios, movie stars, TV stars, major record-label people." In the cigar clubs, on the digital cell phones, around the tile-inlaid pools of Hollywood, Rock is a kind of comic swami with a sneaker deal. "He's a performer who just has a point of view," says Albrecht. "Speaks it honestly, eloquently and with, now, great performing skill. He's not denigrating anybody – he's speaking out loud what other people can only whisper. It's almost heroic in a way."

"Niggas vs. Black People," Rock's voice sandpapering away, yawps across nearly 13 minutes of Roll With the New. "There's, like, a civil war goin' on with black people," he tells the Washington, D.C., crowd, which is richer in African-Americans than his usual 50-50 mix. "There's two sides: There's black people, and there's niggas . . . Every time black people want to have a good time, ignorant-ass niggas fuck it up . . .  Can't go to a movie the first week it come out – why? 'Cause niggas are shootin' at the screen . . . You know what's the worst thing about niggas? Niggas always want credit for some shit they supposed to do . . . A nigga will say some shit like, 'I take care of my kids.' Ya supposed to, ya dumb muthafucka! . . . 'I ain't never been to jail.' Whatchoo want, a cookie? You not supposed to go to jail!"

The magic formula for Rock has been his mix of street logic, honesty, anger and charm. Jouncing across the stage like a marionette worked by a distracted puppeteer, bugging out his eyes in antic outrage, he tends to finish off bits with an almost apologetic sideways look, sometimes adding a self-conscious splaying of his hand. Then there's the smile – "Not just having it but knowing when to use it," notes Albrecht – a beaming, welcoming prelude to what might be a guffaw if Rock, with his comic discipline, wasn't already buzz-sawing toward the next punch line. "There's a certain innocence to Chris onstage," says Kevin Smith, "like he's just discovering these things he's talking about. It allows him to get away with humor that people would consider insulting or misogynist."

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