The Once and Future Dolemite

The first time I saw Rudy Ray Moore doing his act live, he was laying out a heavy hand of rude, raw, scatological humor. A big man who seems somehow more dark-skinned in person than he does on-screen, where he forever lives on as the B-grade blaxploitation hero Dolemite, Moore sported a gray double-breasted suit that made him look incongruously like a deacon at some A.M.E. church. Instead of the elm-tree-size afro he wore in his films, a kente cloth skullcap covered his now clean-shaven head, and a matching scarf was wrapped around his neck. Worn down by the years, he wandered around the stage with his eyes perpetually at half-mast and those large lips of his constantly in motion.

Turning to a black woman in the audience, he said, "You know, baby, you got them peanut butter legs -- smooth, brown and easy to spread." The audience burst into applause, as it often did during the evening. Sizing up a large brother in the audience, Moore made his move. "You like Pee-Wee Herman?" he asked the hefty hunk of ebony junk. He then turned and fired off a series of live rounds about Herman: "If you like him, you musta jacked off so much your dick starts dodgin' when you stick your hand in your pocket."

Sitting in the back of the house that night was Paul Reubens -- Pee-Wee Herman himself -- at a table that included actress Debi Mazar. Reubens seemed to stop laughing. He stroked his soul-patch as a grim, tight smile hardened on his face. Standing right behind Reubens, I gasped and turned away. I knew enough to not let him catch me laughing at his expense.

A year later, driving around Detroit with the 62-year-old Moore, I asked if he remembered that part of the show, and he started rattling off his jokes in perfect sequence. I wondered if he knew Reubens was in the audience.

"Hell no," he gruffly snickered. "If I did, you think I'da done that joke? I wudn't tryin' to hurt the muthafucka's feelin's. Was he really there, though? Usually, they tell me when it's celebrities in the audience."

Asked later about that night, Reubens said he didn't even know who Moore was; he had gone to the show because "I just tagged along with a friend." As for the Pee-Wee bashing, he shrugged it off. "Oh, I don't care," he said. "I mean, I've heard worse."

Rudy Ray Moore's business card reads, "I'd rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I'm not." That, of course, leads to the question: What is he? Well, he's not particularly well known, but he's infamous nonetheless. He's a legendary storyteller in the toasting tradition, which predates rap. He's also remembered as the star of a series of mid-'70s blaxploitation pictures in which he appears as Dolemite -- action hero, standup comic and Mack Daddy running a pack of girls whose blowzy appearances are exceeded only by the lameness of their martial-arts skills.

Moore raised the money to produce such films as Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Devil's Son-in-Law and Avenging Disco Godfather. Intoxicating in their sheer awfulness, these films have achieved a rarefied status for students of serious blaxploitation. (Fortunately, Moore's entire filmography is available on videocassette.) Moore deserves to be immortalized if only for the reason that he delivers the epithet "motherfucker" better than any living human being -- rolling and poetic and plaintive, all at the same time.

Moore has been seeping into the pop-culture consciousness like a gas leak over the past few years, a little-known brotherman who threw down mightily during the '70s. He's probably done a drive-by on your sensibility via the recordings of Dr. Dre, Luther Campbell and the late, great N.W.A.; he's hasn't been sampled as often as James Brown or P-Funk, but he's high on the list.

Back in his heyday, Moore was the exemplar of foul-mouthed humor, spinning dirty tales and busting crazy filthy rhyme. He released a series of 17 albums in a genre known as "party records" that still stand up as spectacular entertainment. The title of the first, Eat Out More Often (a phrase that barely even qualifies as single-entendre), signals exactly the kind of entertainment you're going to receive.

"I used to sing the blues on-stage," he says. "But I stopped when I hit with the party records. I was singin' the blues in the late '60s and early '70s. I was denied a hit in the blues because I was on too small a label, so I was never able to break through."

Most likely, without Moore there wouldn't be a Def Comedy Jam. "What made my stuff fresh was that I didn't want it to sound like no dry shit!" he explains. Moore speaks in that courtly, almost formal cadence of older Southern blacks -- he was born and raised in Arkansas -- which is hypnotic because he occasionally punches the oddest words with an unexpected emphasis. "I put music in it, because I wanted it to have a flow. I think that gives the rap generation more of a feel for me, because the records have a tempo."

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Elvis Mitchell