Rock's pal Mikal Yusuf, a lanky man garbed Muslim style with a small knit cap over his skull, emerges with his father from their Decatur Street brownstone, and the three men greet each other. Mikal, Muslim like his dad, now lives most of the year in Saudi Arabia, where there's no booze, tittie mags or shade, while Rock travels through an infidel world of Snoop, hoops and backward caps. So they chat quietly, hushed as if in respect for that weird dream, the past. Their block of Decatur Street was and remains somewhat charmed. "There were gangs in [Bed-Stuy]," says Mikal, "but these three blocks were always a little oasis."
"I wouldn't count that one," says Rock, nodding to the east.
"What was down there?"
"Whosis and them who shot at your brother."
"No, they didn't live over there."
"Yeah, they did – forever. And that guy who got shot in the back right in front of his house. He was paralyzed, man. Don't throw that crazy block in there."
Rock peers twice at a sedan that comes down the street looking to park – it's his friend Hope Harrell, who had a true-to-life cameo last year in one of Rock's HBO shows as an object of desire who got away (he gifted her with a greasy helping of ham hocks). Pretty and saucy, dressed for the office, she's happy to reminisce: "You knew he was going to be famous, because he was always running around telling people, 'I'm Chris Rock. I'm Chris Rock.' I mean, kiss my ass, who's Chris Rock?"
He was born in Andrews, S.C, on Feb. 7, 1966, but as Chris Rock notes in a chapter from his forthcoming book, Rock This! (a cut above its ilk), that sleepy town of 3,000 turned out to be "the dirt road not taken" when the family migrated north. The Rocks moved from Brooklyn's Crown Heights to Bed-Stuy when Chris was 6 (brothers Andre and Tony were, respectively, 4 and 2, with three more brothers and a sister in the future), and the next year, Chris embarked on the ugly adventure of being bused to a school in the poor white district of Gerritsen Beach, in Brooklyn. (It was a spiritual cousin to Howard Beach, where white thugs, notoriously, wailed on three innocent black youths in 1986 – prompting Rock to film an entertainingly scary remote for his HBO show wherein he asked the latter community's burghers to sign a petition to rename Cross Bay Boulevard as Tupac Shakur Boulevard. "You got a set a balls on you," said one interviewee.)
Rock is quick to point out that he eschews all violence, and even talking about it seems to give him the fidgets. Legendarily, he enlivened his presenting duties at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards by ad-libbing to the elephantine, scowling rap impresario Marion "Suge" Knight, "Don't kill me, Suge." Though a report that Knight was unamused proved false, on Roll With the New's credits, Rock hastened to point out, "Suge: really, just kidding." Driving across the Brooklyn Bridge, he has deflected the Knight question: "I don't say anything bad about anybody who can whup my ass. To tell you the truth, it don't have to be Suge; it could be a big guy from my block. I ain't no tough guy. Who needs to get hurt over a joke?"
Over a joke, perhaps not. But Mikal Yusuf, with a sleepy smile and to Rock's discomfiture, recalls how the 16-year-old Rock used "a pipe? No, a stick" on his tormentors: "Some guys had accosted him, and he went his way. Then maybe two or three days later, he saw the guy pass by his classroom. So he went after him. And he slugged him. You know he was in his right."
"Chris was real quiet," Harrell says. "He didn't bother you if you didn't bother him. But don't mess with him, because he may not get you that day, but he will eventually get you. Remember this guy Rodney – he dissed you in front of a girl. That's like the ultimate dis, right? Chris didn't do nothing – no problem. That same night, Chris snuck up behind him – he had a sock with bricks in it – and hit him over the head."
"A sock?" asks Yusuf.
"Uh-uh," says Rock wearily, a little perturbed at this turn in the conversation. "Book bag."
The central event in Chris Rock's life was the 1989 death of his father, Julius, from complications from an ulcer, at the cruelly early age of 55. Rock is determined to shed the stress that he's sure killed his dad; when Chris wafts through an airport in his Nike gear, wearing an off-brand backpack, he seems almost to be praying that no one accosts him. His love for and loyalty to his father are so profound that he's likely to wonder, with uncharacteristic churlishness, why his family-obsessed, working-two-jobs "Pops" should be taken when Bed-Stuy has street corners full of aging, family-deserting winos.
Julius Rock was a union trucker, hauling freshly printed bundles of the New York Daily News from the printing plant to newsstands. Sometimes, to support the growing clan, he also drove a cab, and on nights when his load was a couple of bundles too big, he'd wake Chris in the wee hours to meet him and sell off the stack. The boy was still meant to go to school and, once he started working — at McDonald's, at Red Lobster, at a discount store called Odd Lots – to get to the job on time.
"One piece of advice my dad gave me," says Rock one day as he stands chatting with his limo driver along some boat slips in Marina del Rey, Calif. (he has just filmed the video for "Champagne," throwing up voluminously over the side of a bouncing speedboat used in one sequence), " 'Never be the smartest guy in the room. You never learn anything that way.' "
Malaak Compton-Rock is a fine-boned, long-legged, café-au-lait-complected beauty – almost like a department-store mannequin come elegantly alive. Rock met her in 1994 when he crashed the Essence magazine awards. They courted bicoastally (she travels often for her work, coordinating celebrity representatives such as actor Laurence Fishburne for UNICEF) and married just 10 months ago; she accepts his itinerant lifestyle and talks about having kids a few years down the line. "I feel like I know his father," she says. "I don't think a day goes by that one of the brothers is not telling a story about his dad. He and his brothers Andre and Tony are just incredibly tight. Their dad stressed togetherness, and they're just really beautiful together."
Compton-Rock stands talking in their carriage house while Rock advises Tony – trimly dreadlocked, quiet, currently working as a messenger on Wall Street – on just which Woody Allen movie to watch that night. You arrive at this retreat (in the district of Clinton Hill) by pulling into the ground floor as carriages once did, and once the electric door shuts behind, you're in a sort of fortress, further defended by the garage walls' stern portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. "It's a really nice neighborhood – quiet, very family oriented," she says of the tree-lined street a few blocks from places occupied by Spike Lee and Rosie Perez. "But it's still urban, and [Chris] needs that for his comedy. He's Brooklyn through and through. I don't think we'll ever move out to the suburbs."
When Rock was getting ready to tape Bring the Pain, "he trained like a fighter," recalls his friend and colleague Nelson George. Compton-Rock remembers long nights in skeins of comedy clubs: "For a few months, every single night – leaving the house at about 9 and coming in at about 2, you know. He has one song [KRS-One's "Outta Here," about washed-up rap stars] that he listens to on the way to the city." Backstage, she says, Rock is "a definite pacer. He doesn't really get nervous. I get more nervous than Chris does. He gets really intense. He has certain things that he has to do. He has a ton of miniature chocolate bars. He puts up posters in the dressing room with different key words like pace and intense – there's words all around on the mirrors."
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