The Once and Future Dolemite

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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."

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."

After an uncomfortable pause, he grins and answers the unasked question. "No, she ain't never seen my act. She knows about it, though. She don't mind what it buys her."

Moore's first album was made with Kent Records, which pressed it for free, a favor to him as a former manager of a Hollywood record shop. The album had just a plain white cover with a rubber stamp on it, and Moore took it to the store where he'd worked and played it; people went wild. In an hour, he sold 30 records. Word of mouth did the rest. His albums were too raw for airplay, but he still sold 300,000 of that first one. It was, he claims, the first party album with four-letter words on it. "What I do is different," he says. "I'm a ghetto expressionist."

He's insulted at having to work so hard, having been burned by film distributors that filed bankruptcy so they wouldn't have to pay him the profits on the films he paid for out of his own pocket by scraping and saving every cent. Still, a shrewd businessman, Moore owns his record catalog and is currently negotiating a deal to ensure the rerelease of much of it, instead of the few best-of selections he sells at his appearances.

"I been on the road six months out of the year since 1987, when my act started to take off again after the rappers, Luther Campbell and Hammer and them, was first samplin' me," Moore says. "I got this movie to audition for. I play a golfer with one arm who teaches this kid how to golf. I got my arm bit off by an alligator. Listen to this ad-lib. They ask me which one [bit me], and I say, 'I don't know. All them gators look the same to me.' "

The once and future Dolemite is enthusiastic about the coming year. A set of all of his movies, called The Dolemite Collection, is due for release imminently. Robert Townsend used Moore in his upcoming film, BAPS. And he plans on adding some live blues to his stage show.

"I do it well," he assures. "In L.A. and across the country, I will come and do a show for any disc jockey who plays my records for free. This is the way I intend to break through. I'm [also doing] a new blues album. This new blues album, which I'm producing, is gonna be a fine blues album with strong songs. I'm doin' Muddy Waters's 'Don't Go No Further' and Louis Jordan's 'Do You Call That a Buddy.'

"You wait and see," says Rudy Ray Moore. "Well, I'm outta here.

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