In "Dolemite," the raunchy routine that helped define his career, profanity-spewing comedian turned ass-kicking, ass-baring cult-film favorite Rudy Ray Moore describes a character who takes no shit from anyone -- even his own father. "Why, the day he was dropped from his mommy's ass," Moore brashly announces in his trademark song, "he slapped his pappy's face and said, 'From now on, cocksucker, I'm runnin' this place.'"
Trying to reconcile the gleefully blasphemous voice of vintage Rudy Ray -- an influence on successors ranging from Richard Pryor to Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew -- with the one that crawls out of the telephone in a recent interview isn't easy. Throughout the conversation, Moore, 65, sounds tired: He yawns frequently, speaks in a barely audible croak, and puts comparatively little juice behind the self-promotional patter at which he's always excelled. The Return of Dolemite 2002, his latest movie, came out earlier this year, and it's filled with the bare-knuckles martial arts action that marks microbudget epics such as 1975's Dolemite, 1976's The Human Tornado, and 1978's truly bizarre Petey Wheatstraw, a.k.a. The Devil's Son-in-Law. To the question of whether he kicks as high in Return as he does in his cinematic benchmarks, he replies, "I might as well . . . because I've got somebody else doing it for me."
Fortunately, Moore is capable of whipping up his old hysteria when required. On 21st Century Dolemite, his latest CD for the Right Stuff imprint, he cuts loose on bawdy tunes such as "Hot Nuts" ("My nuts is good and big and round/And almost draggin' to the ground") and comic outbursts like "Deaf & Dumb," in which he tells an audience member that he can't find "any pussy" in town because "you done ate it all up." In the immortal words of Dolemite, a rude, crude superhero whose most powerful weapon can be found between his legs, Moore remains more than capable of "fuckin' up muthafuckas."
A native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Moore moved north as a teenager and eventually wound up in Milwaukee, where he got a job as a dancer at a couple of colorfully named venues, the Flame Show Bar and the Moonglow Night Club. Shortly thereafter, he made the transition to music, dubbing himself "Prince Dumarr, the Turban-Headed Prince of the Blues" and, as a sop to the rock crowd, "the Harlem Hillbilly."
Back in the day, however, Moore was never able to reach the musical big time, and so he reinvented himself as a stand-up comic. He was good enough to attract the notice of Dooto Records, but struggled to find his niche throughout the 1960s. Moore finally came up with one, thanks to the unlikeliest of saviors: a "wino" he identifies as Rico.
"See, people would sit out in front of liquor stores, and when they were passing around bottles of wine, they'd tell all this folklore in a structure of ghetto expressions," he says. "They'd have so much fun, and people would laugh. When I heard it, I felt like I could do it and make it work for me. So I got this one wino, Rico, to sit down with my tape recorder and put this stuff on tape, and in the next two or three days, I recorded it and had music set to it. I took it to a truck stop and let the truck drivers hear it, and they were like 'My God, I've got to have one of these!'"
The name Moore slapped on this 1970 opus -- Eat Out More Often -- was designed to offend puritanical sensibilities; so was the cover photo of a nude Rudy Ray with an equally unclothed female. As such, record stores had to stock them under the counter. But that didn't prevent Eat, which features the first appearance of Dolemite, from becoming an underground phenomenon.
Moore started cranking out follow-ups in the Eat Out More Often mode, including This Pussy Belongs to Me, on which he offered "Signifying Monkey," a well-traveled routine about a monkey outwitting a lion that he infused with an extra helping of naughtiness ("She got down so low she sucked an earthworm's dick"). But within a few years, he recognized that in order to advance himself, he needed to broaden his scope -- and he saw movies as a way to do so. He filmed Dolemite over a span of 13 months, using his own home as the main set and taking regular breaks for stand-up tours to finance the next reels of celluloid.
Predictably, Dolemite was dubbed blaxploitation, a term Moore dislikes. "There were a few groups in that time that were not in favor of what we were doing with our movies for our people, and they're the ones that came up with that title. But that word comes with an edge, and I was always disgusted with it. When I was a boy and went to the movies, I watched Roy Rogers and Tim Holt and those singing cowboys killing Indians, but they never called those movies 'Indian exploitation' -- and I never heard The Godfather called 'Eye-talian exploitation.'
"I was shooting on a shoestring, so naturally I had to put everything into it that would be controversial, daring, and different. This is what I was trying to put across on the screen -- that I was different from what you'd seen otherwise."
This approach didn't work forever: When 1979's Disco Godfather tanked, Moore's viability as a filmmaker went with it. But he was kept aloft during the '80s and '90s by the kindness of rap stars, who recognized Rudy Ray as a kindred spirit.
"I have become their idol," says Moore, rousing himself to immodesty. "Like, Busta Rhymes has called me twice to come to rap with him, and Big Daddy Kane and Eric B and Rakim. Snoop Dogg has had me to Hollywood to rap with him on his records. I've been sampled at least 71 times."
The recent revival of interest in Moore -- the CDs, the DVDs, and so on -- gave rise to The Return of Dolemite. There's even a chance of a big-budget remake of the original Dolemite, to star LL Cool J. No matter what happens on this front, Moore remains proud of his legacy -- although he's a bit worried that the masses don't recognize exactly what he's accomplished.
"I want people to see how positive I am and see the greatness of the performances," he says wearily. "I don't just do a bunch of X-rated words just to be doing them. My structure has an art-form flow, and I do what I do as a form of art. I'm a ghetto expressionist, not a dirty old man."
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