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Chris Rock: Hip-Hop Ambassador


“Sammy the Bull would have made a shitty album. And I don’t really have a desire to hear Warren Buffett’s album – or the new CD by Paul Allen. That’s what everybody [in rap's] aspiring to be.”-Chris Rock, Rolling Stone Magazine, Nov. 2007

Chris Rock knows hip-hop. His first big HBO special was called ‘Bring the Pain’, Prince Paul produced his comedy albums, and his musical sidekick on his short-lived but brilliant talk show for HBO was Grandmaster Flash. He’s also one of hip-hop’s most insightful critics, whether he’s praising the genre on his favorite albums list, breaking-down rap’s problems as in the quote above, or doing some real analytical shit like he did for TIME’s 2005 Kanye West article: “In the early days, the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C was from Hollis. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood“. As a comedian, it’s his job to make fun of shit and his parodies of hip-hop– the Pen n Pixel parody for ‘Bigger & Blacker’, SNL skits like ‘I’m Chillin’, the severely-underrated ‘CB4′, his movie soundtracks filled with rap he loves and rap that’s hilarious (that he also loves)– are always done a keen eye towards accuracy and always with affection.

More than anything though, it’s that kinda-forgotten HBO talk show he hosted for a few seasons in the late 90s that exemplified Rock’s devotion to hip-hop. Without being cloying or contrived ‘The Chris Rock Show’ really was the rap version of the lily-white comedic talk-show. Rock’s Paul Schaefer was–as I already said– Grandmaster Flash and old friend Prince Paul added additional music. I always thought it was interesting that the show was on between seasons of ‘Dennis Miller Live’ and played before ‘Mr. Show’. The intention I guess, was for a comedic talk-show replacement but the show rejected the condescending smarm of Miller and surprisingly, had way more in common with the absurd chaos of ‘Mr. Show’.

And it’s not that black comedians can’t do that nerdy, typically-white guy college boy anti-humor, but for a number of complex reasons, black comedy– especially from “sophisticated satirists” like Rock– veers away from absurdity and aims for social/political satire. ‘The Chris Rock Show’ had a really interesting balance of really, smart satire and college-boy yucks and it was Rock’s impressive writing staff that maintained that balance. Along with Rock, Wanda Sykes, and a cast of black comedy writers, some crazy white boys were thrown into the mix. Ex-Conan O’Brien/Letterman writer and successful comedian on his own Louis CK was a big part of the show, as was ex-SNL/Letterman writer (and the basis of ‘30 Rock’ character Frank!) Frank Sebastiano. Maybe it doesn’t seem like too big of a deal to mix smart racial humor with out-there stoner absurdism because of the insane popularity of ‘Chappelle’s Show’, but it felt like a big deal at the time.

And the show aimed to be way more than just a comedy show too. Not that ‘Chappelle’s Show’ should lose credit for being really fucking hilarious, but the episodes always felt slapped-together, with like three skits per episode, a lot of Dave setting-up the bits, and then a killer musical guest. Okay, that sounds like a great show, but I think it wouldn’t have existed without ‘The Chris Rock Show’ a few years before and as I suggested, Rock did a little more to. He navigated the show into a fairly serious, NPR-style interview show for the 10 minutes between the introductory skit and monologue, and the second skit and musical guest. Sometimes it would be hilarious when like, Johnnie Cochran or someone comes out after some weird pussy-eating skit or recurring character Controversial Lou- a black comedian obsessed with the differences between black people and white people, in a purple Gerald Levert-ish suit and parrot on his shoulder- but that just added to the crazy charm of the show.

I remember a really strong and heated discussion with Spike Lee about essentially, why black and white people don’t go to see “better” black movies. Rock’s point was aggressively populist while Lee’s was admonishing. At one point, Lee said how when a “good” black movie like ‘Rosewood’ comes out, no one goes to see it. Rock got that squinched-up eye-look with a grin that’s half-entertained and half-devilish, and breaks it to Spike that not only is ‘Rosewood’ not something people want to see, but it wasn’t that good either! He talked to political figures like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or black conservative J.C Watts and wasn’t afraid to argue with any or all of them! Also, I could be wrong, but the musical guest on that Jesse Jackson episode was, I think, Rakim!?

And those musical guests! Not many of them are on YouTube, but I remember a pretty-perfect performance of ‘Rosa Parks’ by Outkast and Jay-Z and State Property dropping a performance way too hip-hop for TV (even for HBO)…you know, where there’s just a crazy bunch of people on-stage and Jay’s rapping fast-as-shit and he’s hunched over with like Bleek or whoever and they’re all wearing hoodies or big-ass leather jackets and don’t really care if there’s an audience or not? It’s pretty good. But probably the best and most out-there–and maybe therefore most hip-hop– performance was the Biz Markie doing ‘Bennie & the Jets’:

Then there were the skits, which really were on another level. In addition to the typical talk-show on-location question-and-answer type stuff (which Rock still did really good because he sort of gives a shit about people), you’d get these really weird, sort of really insular skits that really seemed like they were written for Rock and his writers to laugh-at; fuck the audience. Plenty of winners are on YouTube–I’ve chosen a few below– but one of my personal favorites not on YouTube was ‘The Malcolm X Games’ which was just a bunch of dudes in Nation of Islam suit-and-bowtie skateboarding and snowboarding and stuff.

Other favorites:
-’Daddy Still Has A Flat-Top’: Does the lame after-school special thing really well and has some of the painfully-earnest “African-American 90s Social Drama’ corniness of like ‘Straight Out of Brooklyn’ (a movie I actually like a lot, but still) in there too. “A masterpiece”-Larry Blackmon of Cameo”:

-’The Chris Mullin Show’:

-’Tupac Shakur Blvd?’

And of course, out of ‘The Chris Rock Show’ came ‘Pootie-Tang’ which will probably one day, get its own post..

Apparently, Season 1 & 2 of ‘The Chris Rock Show’ are out on DVD, so if you have money for that, go pick it up.

Written by Brandon

May 23rd, 2008 at 7:37 am