FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
He was known as Dolomite and Willie Green. I'm talking about the rhyming comedian, Rudy Ray Moore. Moore died over the weekend after a long battle with illness; he was 81 years old. He cut countless blue comedy records, beginning in 1959. He also made several cult films during the blaxploitation era. Here to help us put Moore's career in perspective is Todd Boyd. He's a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. Hi, Todd.
Professor TODD BOYD (Critical Studies, University of Southern California's School for Cinematic Arts): Hi.
CHIDEYA: So to give us a taste of Rudy Ray Moore, let's listen to a trailer from his first film, the self-produced "Dolemite," circa 1974.
(Soundbite of movie "Dolemite")
Mr. RUDY RAY MOORE (Comedian, Entertainer): Dolomite is my name, and (bleep) up mutha (bleep) is my game.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Mr. MOORE: I've got an all-girl army that knows what to do. They're boxer's hell, and practice kung fu. I put my finger in the ground and turn the whole world around. Yes, I'm Dolemite, I'm the one that killed Monday, whipped Tuesday and put Wednesday in the hospital. Called up Thursday to tell Friday not to bury Saturday on Sunday. I'm the one that had the elephants roosting in trees, and all the ants wearing BVDs. From the first to the last, I give 'em the blast so fast that their life is past before they (bleep) has even hit the grass.
See me uptown, downtown, crowned and renowned. Delayed, relayed, mislaid and parlayed. Hatch, match, snatch, and scratch. Wack, jack, smack, crack, bootblack, blackjack, racetrack and flapjack, and still coming back. If you crave satisfaction, this is the place to find that action. Coming to this theater, as its next attraction, is the picture that will put you in traction. Dolemite.
CHIDEYA: OK, Todd. That's a lot of information to process. And it's dated, you know. What is it saying, or where is it in the history of, kind of, popular black cinema? What are we supposed to make out of this?
Prof. BOYD: Well, the importance of a figure like Rudy Ray Moore in the Dolemite character comes from the fact that it represented what some might refer to as the Chitlin Circuit of, say, black popular culture from another era. A time when there were still elements of black culture that were only, you know, performed for black audiences. A time before, you know, the time we live in now, where elements of black culture are pretty pervasive across the landscape, and are very accessible in the mainstream.
In Rudy Ray Moore's time, in his era, that was just starting to happen. But Rudy Ray Moore was someone who had a loyal black fan base, who spoke to his audiences about issues that would be funny to them, and in a manner and in a language that was very familiar.
But I think that element of black culture, what some might call black folk culture, has probably passed at this point. But his significance lies in the fact that he, in many ways, transcended that moment because he was, of course, later referenced many, many times as hip-hop culture became so prominent.
CHIDEYA: Tell us about some of those references. I mean, you know, you can definitely listen to Snoop and hear him reference Dolemite. Why would hip-hop artists reference this character?
Prof. BOYD: Well, again, you know, Dolemite is a figure from an era of black popular culture that was, at least in his case, segregated. And so if you were a young black male growing up in the, you know, '60s and '70s, learning the Dolemite routines was like a rite of passage.
And so for a generation of rappers coming of age in the '80s, they would have listened to Dolemite, they would have been exposed to Dolemite. And you have, you know, people like Too Short, what he calls his favorite word, this exaggerated pronunciation of the word that people would be very familiar with if they know Too Short, actually grows from Rudy Ray Moore.
You could talk about Big Daddy Kane versus Dolemite on a Big Daddy Kane record, "Taste of Chocolate," in which the two of them sort of went at each other in this verbal joust reminiscent of the cutting sessions that define the black oral tradition. So as hip-hop started to come of age, you have other examples, like Dr. Dre on The Chronic, for instance, he uses a sample of Dolemite's joke, "If I had some nuts hangin on the wall." So you know, if you knew that culture, if you learned it as a rite of passage, and then later on started to come of age as hip-hop became popular, to use Dolemite was to indicate your connection to that older era, but at the same time, make him relevant in a more contemporary environment.
CHIDEYA: His contemporaries included people like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor. Why do you think he wasn't more popular in the mainstream?
Prof. BOYD: Well, you know, Redd Foxx, in his standup comedy, was actually part of a similar circuit as that of Dolemite. But at a certain point, Redd Foxx transcended that, and of course, became quite popular on "Sanford and Son." But if you look at Redd Foxx on "Sanford and Son" and you listen to his standup routines, they're two different things.
Richard Pryor, you know, the greatest American comedian ever. If you know his career, he started out as someone imitating Bill Cosby in the early '60s, and it wasn't until the late '60s that he evolved - he hooked up with Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, developed a great deal of consciousness, and that material, you know, came to define his presence in the '70s with his standup comedy.
In the case of Rudy Ray Moore, it's folk culture, it's what some would call country. It's not necessarily something that's going to appeal to a broad audience, but would appeal to those who are familiar with those customs.
CHIDEYA: All right. Professor, thank you.
Prof. BOYD: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Todd Boyd is the Catherine and Frank Price-endowed chair for the study of race and popular culture. He's also a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.