Being America's funniest man is no simple case of black and white
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."
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."
Having dropped out of high school, still suffering his share of menial work, Rock set out to study comedy's masters – not just emeritus stand-ups like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Woody Allen, but Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx. He quietly knew – knows – that there's plenty of comic potential to be wrung out of his spindly, almost scarily vulnerable body. "I see a certain Groucho-esque thing in him," says Ali LeRoi, a staff writer on The Chris Rock Show and a longtime intimate. "You liked the idea that Groucho could, you know, be thrown down the stairs by the big guy."
One day in his 17th year, on a night off from his job at Red Lobster, Rock was in line to buy a ticket for Eddie Murphy's show at Radio City Music Hall when he read a notice about an open-mike night at Catch a Rising Star. He left the line, lied to the club staff that he was the legal-minimum age of 18 and survived well enough to come back. And back, and onto the Manhattan club circuit, until one night at the Comic Strip, he was spotted by Eddie Murphy. The rest becomes familiar – recruited by Murphy for a spot on 1987's HBO special Uptown Comedy Express, then club work until Rock was drafted by SNL, in 1990.
Marci Klein is now co-producer of SNL, but she was a talent associate in 1990 when she got in a limo with the new recruit to ride up to Harlem at 3 a.m. to shoot the images for Rock in the show-opening montage. "There was a lot of pressure, more than on any cast member I've ever seen come in here," recalls Klein, "'cause this is the first black guy – in a long time – to come in since Eddie Murphy, who saved the show during the five years [producer] Lorne [Michaels] wasn't here. Now, Lorne's back, and he said, 'Chris Rock is funny,' and Eddie Murphy said, 'Chris Rock is funny,' so, OK, be funny. Now we know about comedians – the darkest, most depressed people. Well, Chris is not dark or depressed, but he is a heavy thinker, very sensitive and extremely hard to get to know. I remember thinking that night, 'He is so young' – he would never tell anybody how old he was. I said, 'You're scared,' and he said, 'I'm fucking terrified.' "
As well he should have been. In one sense, Rock made the most of his shot – he became the partying-est young star in town. "I never worked as hard as I should have at SNL, "he admits. "I was hanging out. 'You having a party? I'll be there.' But you have sketches to do in the morning. 'Sketches, smetches.' I thought I was cool because I wasn't getting high. But I lived the life of a drug addict, kind of. I wasn't getting sleep, and I wasn't eating, and the focus was all off. Fluffing lines." In short, acting perhaps like his departed pal Sam Kinison. "Sam was my mentor," Rock says. "It would be so cool to be large with Sam."
During three seasons of service, Rock had his moments – his Afroed talk-show host, Nat X; a bit called Russell Simmons' Def Magic Show Jam; some barbed Weekend Update shots – but in a show that front-loaded its first hour with the best bits, Rock was seen late – or not at all. Finally, in his third year, he went into Michaels' office and asked out – In Living Color wanted him as their featured guy. Michaels could have said, "No, you're under contract" – "I have said it to others," he says – but he gave his blessing.
'In Living Color" folded up its tent eight episodes later, and Rock, despite a decently regarded album, Born Suspect, and despite several movie credits (he co-produced and starred in CB4), was unemployed. "I mean, everything happens for a reason," he says, "but when you're in show business, when you ain't working, you're unemployed. You're not 'taking a break,' you are unemployed.
"I was right back where I started – playing little clubs, you know. I . . . I had accomplished nothing, really. I'd done everything but done nothing well. I was famous, but everybody's famous. Fame is bullshit. No one said they liked my work. They just said, 'Hey, I saw you on that show.' Big fucking deal."
Inevitably, he went back to Julius Rock's lessons of hard work, putting in the hours, "abandoning the crazy lifestyle, getting up at a decent hour and reading the paper, eating with normal people – living a life, as opposed to the weird comic-vampire life I was living."
"Chris has always had the same style and the same in-your-face kind of humor," says pal and Chris Rock Show writer Lance Crouther. "But I honestly believe that when his father passed, that kind of made him a little bit more steely about it, like, 'I'm going to take risks.' You just go, 'People die; I might die; why am I stressing about saying things like "niggas vs. black people" onstage?' "
"I didn't know why he had titled his special Bring the Pain," says LeRoi. "But when you stop to think about it, it's really a grand act of defiance. It's like, 'Go ahead, hit me. Let's get it over with, and then I'm going to move on.' "
"You can't plan in show business, man," says Rock. "You could be played out tomorrow and it's no fault of your own. Try to make your dough while you can get it. Work as hard as you can, and let the chips fall where they may, and go out swinging. If you're going to make mistakes, make aggressive mistakes."
Rock's range rover is afoot in Bed-Stuy once more, driving down the old rivals' block of MacDonough Street, and he's telling how not to get shot in the back – "Keep eye contact; a lot of people don't have the heart to look at you and shoot you, 'cause chances are, the one who shoots you is somebody you know" – when a coughing, primered Chevy Beretta pulls up, Biggie spilling out of the speakers. The two occupants are approximately twice the size of Rock: "Hey, Chris Rock! Trade me, man! I can't drive this little-assed car." Rock smiles evenly, determined not to look at the light, which remains red for the longest time. "Got to watch out," he says, lips barely moving. "You got to be on the alert."
A gleaming hunk of aristocratic British iron in the ghetto. It can make trouble. En route back home, Rock considers the car thing: "My grandfather could pinpoint the exact time his life went wrong, literally pinpoint it to the late 1940s, buying this Cadillac he couldn't afford . . . "
Rock tools down the avenue where his mom, Rose, would send him with an envelope wadded with bills to pay the electric bill – or a portion of it. "She left it up to me," Rock says. "Rose Rock was not going to be standing there doing that." (For payback, Rock would stop for a "slopper" at a joint called Doc's: "Numbers guys and drug kids there. Not the place to hang out. They used the same grease for 10 years; it had a weird smell to it. Your mother always knew – 'You were in Doc's, weren't you?' ") Rock was shopping for a Porsche until a recent visit to his mom's too-small house in South Carolina. He got her a home in Myrtle Beach and put the car on hold.
The air off New York Bay is still fine, sweeping down the half-lighted avenues, and the past, particularly what Rock shared with his dad, is still remembering. When Julius died, Rock recalls, "I guess I went into a shell. I mean, I'm still kind of in that shell. It's always unfair – but you're not supposed to question God. But if not God, then who? You should be able to question the one guy who's going to have the answer. I don't know, I was just in a maintain mode after my dad died. I'm still not over it. Just . . . time passes and . . . some people drink, some people get high. I just hung out. Hung out and chased girls. Then, in simple terms, I really grew up. Richard Pryor did all his best stuff . . . Live on the Sunset Strip – he was probably past 40 when he did that.
"Fortunately and unfortunately, people got to see me at such a young age, man, working out the kinks on television. It's weird, it's like my dad died, and I guess there's a sense of fear about everything. Any decent dad or mom, you know, gives a child a feeling of invincibility. Just like you can try anything, and if it goes bad, it's, 'Dad, how bad's it going to go? I got Dad here.' It's like, if you're a cop, your backup's gone; you can be behind that tree for 10 years or whatever, you're not going to go out there and try to attack. So I had to get over the fact that my backup was dead and go out there, and attack the world.
"I remember one time when I was a kid, man – 18, 19 at most – I first started comedy. And my dad's looking at me like I'm psycho — a comedian. I'd probably been onstage, I don't know, 25 times. My dad says, 'Are you any good?' And I said to him with a straight face, 'I'm one of the best in the country.' "
This story is from the October 2nd, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.