Chris Rock said white people would never let it happen. A plan would be devised.
White Person A: "You know, the mayor is on crack, and one of us is gonna be embarrassed. What do you say we do?"
White Person B: "Oh, we're gonna have to kill him."
The bit comes from Rock's first stand-up album, 1991's Born Suspect; its subject is Marion Barry, the infamous (and, surprisingly, still breathing) former mayor of Washington, D.C. And now, nearly a quarter-century later, another North American mayor has boarded the Crack Express: Toronto's Rob Ford holds a diluted form of office, with the majority of his powers stripped away, and has proved less than impervious to character assassinations in general, but at least those robed templars Rock spoke of have yet to visit him, either.
Comedy often creates this type of coincidence: Think of all those jokes about two different presidents with the same last name, fighting the same war in the same Middle East a decade apart. Born Suspect, released in the same year as Rock's breakthrough role as a crackhead in New Jack City and a year after he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live, is especially prescient. The album, his first of four, finds Rock flaunting the sharp wit and frank disposition that would soon make him a superstar; listening to this record in 2014, it's fascinating how little our cultural and political hang-ups have changed.
In addition to the mayor-on-crack bit, Rock ponders the minimum wage ($4.25 in 1991 and $7.25 now, though inflation wipes out much of the difference). His thesis: If your bosses could pay you less, they would, because they don't give a fuck about you. "They don't care about your Christmas," he says. "They don't care if your kids got shoes on." Think of just last year, when McDonald's—Rock's former employer—showed how much they care for their workers by publicly suggesting a second job and a 70-hour work week to make ends meet. That's the type of shit you do for a Beamer, not a used Nissan Sentra or a bus pass.
But Rock's most prescient riff is reserved for Dan Snyder and his Washington Redskins, thoroughly explored and all but settled here long before everyone from the U.S. Attorney General to half the Senate to the POTUS himself felt compelled to rail against it. In the midst of a bit about the exploitation of American Indians, the comedian explains the issue plainly: "Redskins? That's not nice. This ain't cool. That's a racial slur." He wonders: Would we cheer for the "New York Niggas" or the "Denver Dykes"? It should've been the last word on the issue, and it arrived decades before it even became an issue at all.
Of course, Born Suspect has its share of crass moments, as when Rock boasts that he attended a pro-choice rally, noting that they're a fabulous place to pick up women, because "you know they're fucking." (He also explains that old men voting on abortion is simply unfair: He wouldn't want women to vote "on my balls or anything.") But the album's title foreshadows a more serious topic: The fact that black men are feared almost instantly. Rock jokes that once he left the womb, he was suspected of every crime committed within a three-block radius; meanwhile, Trayvon Martin hadn't even been born yet.
It's easy to forget now how most of America initially responded to Rock, that not everyone loved him on impact, that plenty of people found him loud, gauche, and polarizing. Consider "Niggas vs. Black People," from his 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain, a bit so divisive it could part the Red Sea. It's racially charged and sublimely uncomfortable in a way that predicted the rise of Dave Chappelle, who also grappled with the trickiness of performing such sensitive material, from Rick James to Negrodamus, in front of a mixed—i.e., largely white—audience. That conundrum, of course, drove Chappelle underground for a decade; only in the past year has he truly begun the hard work of reclaiming his art from "young white alcoholics."
Rock never dropped completely out of sight, and his own evolution is easy to track. Early in his career, before he became a showman and adopted his trademarks—that shrill voice, a Cheshire cat grin, and the cadence of a Baptist preacher—his standup work evoked not so much Eddie Murphy as Bill Hicks, sans the anger. You look at the cover of Born Suspect and see a rebel's uniform: leather motorcycle jacket, ripped blue jeans, Air Jordans. It's the portrait of a wise elder statesman as a volatile young man.
Today, Rock is in full-blown elder-statesman mode, funding his passion projects with nonsense. He takes joyrides with Jerry Seinfeld, acts in Broadway plays, and stars in ambitious indie comedies presumably paid for through his roles in shitty Adam Sandler movies. The premise of his next film, Finally Famous, reminds me of Woody Allen's Stardust Memories: Rock (who will also write and direct) plays a comedy star who wants to take on more serious roles despite being set to publicly wed a reality-TV star. He may have lost his ability to polarize, but he's still navigating the divide between high and low culture, and still fearlessly serving up wisdom it'll take us more than 20 years to fully appreciate.
H. Drew Blackburn is a freelance writer living in hot-ass Texas; he thinks it's weird to do the third-person thing, so follow me on Twitter @hdrewblackburn.
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