The Once and Future Dolemite

Rudy Ray Moore, the brotherman from another land, is still outta sight

His albums feature a smoky groove that works as a cooled-out contrast to the eye-opening sexual exploits Moore serves up. The result is a funny, funky intimacy that Ice-T used to full effect in his earliest work; if you listen to Ice's "Our Most Requested Record," a brass knuckle to Michael Jackson's cleft chin, you can savor the Moore influence. And half the cuts on Dr. Dre's The Chronic share a bizarre contradictory quality with Moore's stuff -- a rapt amiability.

What's intriguing about Moore is that he essentially represents the epitome of the chitlin' circuit, the standup as pure entertainer: His material was completely lacking in self-reflection. Coming as he did at a time when using profanity on-stage was purely personal in terms of exploring sexual politics, either as an assault on public sensibilities or as a volcanic expression of anger, he seemed almost innocent. Because a lot of the stories that Moore told were folklore -- the kinds of things that had been passed down, generation to generation, forever -- hearing them on record gave them a hotter, bigger kick, especially when expanded with a fetid sprinkle of "fucks" and "pussies."

The first of the Dolemite films, 1975's Dolemite, is an epic poem that stars a bloated and confident Moore as the standard-issue bad motherfucker. Back in that day, standard-issue bad motherfuckers were usually played by guys such as Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree, former football players and models who at least looked like leading men and, in two of the three aforementioned cases, had almost mastered English as a spoken language. Samuel Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction was inspired by them, right down to the "Bad Motherfucker"-emblazoned wallet he carries. Of course, the omnivorous Quentin Tarantino is a Rudy Ray Moore fan. "Oh, my God, he's great," Tarantino confesses. "I saw Human Tornado in a drive-in. Nothing else like it."

Unlike the rest of those ass-kicking heroes, Moore was squat and so heavy-lidded as to make you wonder if he was sleepwalking. He mouthed his dialogue as though he had learned it phonetically, each sentence cracking like a shard of glass from a window. And he was the best actor in the picture. Within minutes of my first viewing of Dolemite, I was weeping with laughter; by the third showing, I was reciting the dialogue along with the actors.

Dolemite came near the end of the superbad-superstud film cycle, and its humor -- both intentional and unintentional -- made it the perfect capper. It unwittingly commented on the genre. The movie included all the touchstones: racist white cops; cheap-looking white women eager to jump in bed with the hero; underground revolutionaries out to overthrow The Man; and epic martial-arts battles staged in a style best described as Graceland karate (Moore probably raises his leg higher to step onto the curb than he does in his kick-fighting sequences). And last, but certainly not least, Dolemite has several musical numbers that are insanely photographed: The camera is always jerking away to shoot the wrong spot, and the numbers are so badly dubbed you'll swear you're hallucinating. Dolemite is, quite simply, the nuttiest movie ever made.

When Moore performs at Los Angeles's Viper Room one night, he seems his age. He is fighting exhaustion, and he's so turned off by the audience's indifference that he doesn't even bother to finish reciting the "Dolemite" toast. When Moore is cooking, age isn't an issue, because he comes to life when the crowd gives it up. Tonight, he looks like something behind glass at the Smithsonian.

Over lunch a few days later, Moore admits he wasn't crazy about the show. "It was fine," he says. "But I did a show a couple of nights later at the House of Blues with Aunt Esther, and we tore the joint up. It was a mostly black crowd. I like playing for soul brothers and sisters. They make you work harder. White folks don't expect as much. You don't have to be as strong for them. You got to throw down for blacks. But I got a lot more young white fans than I ever had. That comes from them researching, finding the stuff and just getting into me."

As he dumps a packet of presweetened Kool Aid into his water glass, a sheepish woman wanders over to the table. "I, um," she says, clearing her throat. "My husband is such a big fan of yours. Could you give him an autograph?"

"That's okay," Moore replies, signing a piece of paper for her. "You can say if it's for you, darlin'."

"No ... I mean, it is for him."
"What's your favorite routine?" I ask her.
"A lot of 'em ... I mean, I can't say any of 'em. It's Sunday."

Her husband, a cruiserweight giddy from being so close to the hem of Dolemite's garment, proudly introduces his two puzzled young sons. That's a conversation I'd like to hear, when Daddy is forced to explain exactly who Dolemite is to the youngsters on the drive home.

"I started doin' poetry when I was a boy, for my mother," Moore says when they've left. "She taught me Robert Louis Stevenson, and I'd recite 'em for her. Said poems at church, too. I'm from a religious family."

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