Holy Smoke

Raunchy rapper Afroman gives up weed for Jesus -- and loses his record deal in the process.

Afroman Peabody's, 2083 East 21 St. 7 p.m., Wednesday, July 7; $10, 216-776-9999
After striking platinum with his major label debut, - Afroman has gone from the penthouse back to the - outhouse on his latest LP.
After striking platinum with his major label debut, Afroman has gone from the penthouse back to the outhouse on his latest LP.
Because he got high -- and because his smash song about it helped his 2001 major-label debut go platinum -- Afroman's record label expected a few more bong-friendly hits the second time around.

But the ribald rapper showed up with plans for a double album praising Christ instead of cannabis, and Universal lost its faith.

"Soon as I told 'em about the idea, I knew I had a major problem," admits Afroman, otherwise known as Joseph Foreman. "I realized I wasn't Afroman any more -- they was. So I had to steal him back."

That heist meant that Afroman, who went from the outhouse to the penthouse on the strength of "Because I Got High," would have to rough it again. He started his own label, Hungry Hustler Records, to market the comedic old-school hip-hop of Afroholic -- The Even Better Times, his new, two-disc opus, available at afromanmusic.com.

But the wisecracking 30-year-old MC is no stranger to counterintuitive career changes. Seeking fame and fortune, he decided to leave L.A. for the rural surroundings of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And not long after cracking up the country with his slacker's account of cribbage damage -- "I was gonna pay my child support, but then I got high/They took my whole paycheck, and I know why" went a representative line -- Afroman realized it was time to wean himself from weed and get right with God.

He'll even admit that the process started with the unfashionable aide of a televangelist -- The Rev. Fred Price, whom Afroman watched in hotel rooms while on tour supporting The Good Times -- as well as some good advice from his father.

Not that the process has produced a wholly spiritual, substance-free Afroman. "I'm not a good Christian. I'm on the bench -- maybe I'm the waterboy. But at least I'm in the game," he says. As for dope, "I'm on the wagon . . . with the option to hop off when I want," he adds with a laugh. "I'm a funny guy, but sometimes I need some help!"

With or without the assistance of a spliff, Afroman has usually been able to get laughs. The Los Angeles native's rapping career began in the eighth grade, after he was booted out of school for wearing saggy jeans and recorded a rap response to his tormentor, an "English teacher from Minnesota" who "looks so bad she reminds me of Yoda."

"I got expelled, and teachers was comin' by my house to buy the tape," remembers Afroman, who says he sold about 400 copies.

That success propelled the fledgling rapper. Inspired by the sounds, humor, and hustle of California hip-hop entrepreneurs like Too $hort, he sold his tapes at swap meets and car shows, and eventually released a debut album dubbed Sell Your Dope in 1999. Tired of the tribulations of living in Los Angeles, he would eventually find his way to Hattiesburg -- where he'd frequently stayed with family, growing up -- and began working on a follow-up, well off the radar of the hip-hop world.

But when he penned the verses that would become "Because I Got High," Afroman had little inkling of just how high he could go.

"I wrote it to make my homeboys laugh. I expected to be a gas-station superstar -- big in three states, tops," he says. "But it got Spice Girl big. I was talkin' to my buddies, and the whole world heard it."

In the summer of 2001, it certainly seemed that way. The song, which got a huge boost from file-sharers on Napster, was adopted as an anthem by shock jock Howard Stern and wound up on the soundtrack of the Kevin Smith flick Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Everywhere you went, in those last few months before 9-11 sobered up a nation, Afroman's silly, singsong classic seemed to follow, like a puff of ganja smoke.

On September 10, Afroman was back in Los Angeles, performing his hit on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. He remembers the appearance as being so good that "I knew I was gonna be in the headlines the next day." Instead, he woke up to footage of the first tower of the World Trade Center in flames and witnessed the terrorist strike on the second tower minutes later. The experience convinced Afroman that his Good Times would never have quite the same appeal.

"Before 9-11, the world was in a mood for a crazy guy like me," he says. "But I try to write music for the times."

That means the somewhat more reflective Afroholic, although it's hardly a party-killer. Between meditations like "Ghetto Memories" and "Leaving California," which tells the story of his rural relocation, there are plentiful odes to weed, women, and whimsy among the double album's 33 autobiographical tracks. And the songs bounce along to the same infectious, one-man synth-and-808-backing that fans will expect, with a few guitar interjections.

Afroman admits that his intent is always to make music "a celebration. That's the way it's always been for black musicians. The cotton was high, so break out the violin. When you buy my disc, you buy a good time."

Still, the major obstacle Afroman believes he faces now is winning back the notoriously fickle black listenership. "I love black people, dog, but they gonna throw you away," he says, mentioning a Sir Mix-A-Lot concert he recently attended amid an almost exclusively white audience. "As long as I can still talk, I can still rap. Don't throw me away like that!"

He knows his return to the indie world will make connecting with listeners of any color tougher, but remains assured he can give "Because I Got High" fans the musical munchies again.

"If somebody's making good barbecue," he says confidently, "people's gonna come eat."

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