Please Hold The Irony, Dolemite Is Dead

21 Oct

In sad news, Rudy Ray Moore passed away yesterday at the age of 81. At best, most people are going to glance at the obituary, and, if they know about Dolemite, they’ll chuckle a bit. While the Dolemite films are rightly regarded as cult classics, Moore’s passing deserves a greater tribute than a mere chuckle over Dolemite.

Moore started his career during one of America’s periodic neo-Puritanical swings, when white comedians like Lenny Bruce who “worked blue” or otherwise dared challenge the status quo faced legal harassment. Black comedians like Moore and Redd Foxx didn’t even get a platform, and had to forge their own distribution channels, in addition to facing hostility from those they had offended. If Black gospel singers had a hard enough time getting an audience with the likes of Columbia or Warner Brothers, what kind of reaction did one expect with records like Below The Belt and Eat Out More Often?

A public service announcement from Rudy Ray Moore

It’s been said too often to count that Dolemite was the first rapper, and regardless of what musicologists are declaring at the moment,1 his influence on hip-hop’s more playfully seedy artists (Too $hort, Snoop Dogg, Slick Rick) is undeniable,2 a fact reaffirmed by most of the rappers listed. More importantly, though, his fight for the right to truly express oneself, pushing against community standards and most bounds of taste, presaged the various controversies over lyrics that have followed hip-hop practically from its inception. His working with parallel distribution channels can be seen twenty years later in Too $hort selling tapes out of the trunk of his car, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E turning a swapmeet business into Ruthless Records, and Master P turning a record shop into a label that became a national powerhouse. All of the above operated with little concern for the national stage at first, making records that reflected the tastes of their immediate community. The fight for acceptance, and the business infrastructure that it forced them all to build, however, put the machinery in place once national listeners got curious as to what was really going on in Oakland, Los Angeles, and New Orleans.

Of course, another staple of hip-hop is rappers eventually turning to making awful movies, and, once again, Moore was a pioneer. While his repertoire did not expand much beyond the Dolemite character, Disco Godfather managed to be the better of two PCP-scare movies that were released more or less simultaneously, a situation analogous to the box office duel between Armageddon and Deep Impact.

Fortunately, Moore lived long enough to see a second wave of appreciation for his films, and, thanks to the internet, national distribution for all of his albums. While his 98-year-old mother has to bury her 81-year-old son (talk about a tough family!), it’s hard to argue with the idea that Moore led a full life, and for that, we mourn his loss and pay tribute.

1 It’s practically become a parlor game among the musical intelligentsia to come up with the most obscure, improbable, or distant precursor to rap to declare the “first rapper,” whether it’s the Last Poets, Gil-Scot Heron, any number of Jamaican toasters who’ve held the title, or next week, an Austro-Hungarian Count from the late 19th Century who had a habit of taunting his social rivals in rhyme.
2 Along with Clarence “Blowfly” Reid, who is also, unfortunately, in poor health at the moment.

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