Slept on Soul/Paul Mooney’s Race by Michael A. Gonzales
As a child of the 1970s, I grew-up as a fan of racy Black comedy albums. My “summer mother” Aunt Ricky had a stash of Wildman Steve, Redd Foxx and other “blue” records. These albums were marketed towards “Adults Only,” with the comedians using coarse language to rap about real life issues (especially sex) while liberally dropping f-bombs and the n-word. Meanwhile, my real mom dukes was the one who turned me on to genius Richard Pryor, the man whose classic albums and concert films inspired a generation of comics, writers, visual artists and others.
Though Pryor came out of the safe Bill Cosby tradition, performing in Las Vegas and other white resorts, instead of embracing that lifestyle, he ran away from it. In 1969, he landed in the Bay Area and became friends with other nervy Black artists including musician Gil Scott-Heron, novelist Cecil Brown (The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger) and fellow comic/writer Paul Mooney. Pryor’s new comrades gave him the courage to step-up into the vanguard and take stylistic risks.
Richard Pryor, 1964
Richard Pryor, 1970
Pryor’s new direction made him simultaneously cutting edge and highly profitable. However, while his work including Bicentennial Nigger (1976), The Richard Pryor Show (1977) and the concert film Live on the Sunset Strip (1982) was seminal, I had no idea that there was a silent partner/co-writer (Mooney) who assisted him behind the scenes. Mooney, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, not only worked with Pryor on teleplays for Sanford and Son, sketches for a classic Saturday Night Live episode and skits for albums, he also appeared regularly at Los Angeles’ respected club The Comedy Store and made cameos in various films including Bustin’ Loose (1981) and Hollywood Shuffle (1987).
Still, it wasn’t until the release of Mooney’s first album Race (StepSun Music Entertainment) in 1993 that I was made aware of the man and his mission. When it was announced on May 19, 2021 that Mooney had died at the age of 79, my first thoughts were of that album with its pointed observations about race in America and white folk’s fear, anger and ignorance.
Unfortunately many of the so-called news outlets that reported on Mooney’s death, neglected to mention the textual funk of the album that contributed to the comic’s resurgence in the ‘90s. Thirty years later, with race relations in our country at its worst since the ‘60s (I’m writing this on the first anniversary of George Floyd’s brutal murder at the knee of a white cop), Mooney’s album remains relevant.
On the cover of Race, a sharp dressed Mooney stood on an inner-city running track in South Central holding a starter pistol close to his heart. Beside him we see three white men fixin’ to make a dash as soon as the gun is fired. Shot by photographer Bruce Talamon, known primarily for his work with soul and funk artists, the image was the concept of label owner Bill Stephney. A former director at Rush Communications/Def Jam Records during the golden 1980s years as well as one of the Bomb Squad producers behind Public Enemy, Stephney met Mooney in 1991 when the executive was temporarily living in Los Angeles.
While working as music supervisor on two film projects, his wife/GM of StepSun Tanya Cepeda suggested that Stephney check out Mooney’s show. “I was staying in a hotel across the street from the Comedy Store (The Mondrian) and Tanya was already a huge fan,” Stephney remembers thirty years later. “She kept telling me how much of a genius he was. I finally went over there and I was blown away. Mooney was so focused and honest. He was a fantastic comedian.”
Of course it makes sense that one of the men behind the militant music of Public Enemy’s masterful It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) should feel an affinity towards Mooney’s rebellious banter. Unlike most comics who pace across the stage, Mooney sat on a stool like a soulful blues man and sipped on Courvoisier as he talked about race, racism, the power of Blackness and evilness of white folks. On the record, those skits were given names such as “1-900-Blame-A-Nigger,” “White Sensitivity,” “Hammer” and “Makes My Teeth White.”
Novelist Darius James, who first met the man at the Comedy Store in 1975, says, “Paul said things that didn’t always connect with the audience. He was telling jokes about the sharks in Jaws being Black or the Black maid in the White House telling folks that Nixon had syphilis.” James, who was trying to break into comedy writing, also saw Jimmie Walker (Good Times) and Shirley Hemphill (What’s Happening) at the Comedy Store, but recognized where Mooney was coming from and where he was going.
“Mooney was rooted in the era of tradition that gave us people like Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman and Lenny Bruce, with his crazed junkie ass. It’s critical commentary with a Black laff. That shit may not bring in the dollars, but it gives you respect, because it reflects personal integrity. There are a lot of successful comedians with the dollars, but very few of them will be remembered. The legends, like Mooney, are those who had integrity. He mixed that with the little known Black critical comic tradition that existed in blues, Moms Mabley and Mantan Moreland. That’s why newer generations look up to him.”
Years later, when Mooney was in New York City promoting the Race album, James gifted him with a copy of his debut novel Negrophobia, a surreal Black magic realism take down of snow white supremacy and other Disney induced nightmares. “I went to Caroline’s, gave him the book and told him how much his own work had influenced me.”
Certainly, as actor/comedian Nasser Metcalfe says, “Race was a game changer. Mooney did humor as social commentary showing that you could be funny and still talk about things with substance.” Metcalfe first saw Mooney open for Eddie Murphy on the Raw tour in 1987, but a few years later, while living in Atlanta, he got to study the master more closely.
“By that time, I was doing stand-up myself, and when Mooney came down to the Uptown Comedy Corner, the young comics would come and genuflect. He was one of few comedians filtering social consciousness through a comic lens. You can hear how much Race inspired guys like Chris Rock, who switched-up his style after it dropped, Katt Williams and Dave Chappelle.” During the three-year run of Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), Mooney was right there as Negrodamus and a segment called “Ask a Black Dude.”
Publicist/writer Bill Adler, who worked with Bill Stephney at Def Jam/Rush in the ‘80s, was one of the press agents who worked the Race project. “Mooney was well known in Hollywood and amongst other comics, but Race was his public coming out as a performer in terms of stepping into the national spotlight.”
Race was taped in San Francisco at the Punchline Club, where Bill Stephney and his engineer Steve Ett set-up shop as they recorded Mooney at a venue where he was comfortable.
“Mooney was a natural stand-up, but for the album I had to do a bit of editing and cutting down to make some bits attention span friendly,” Stephney recalls. “Overall, it was a fun experience.”
Charlotte Hunter, another publicist who worked on Race, says, “It was cool to work with the man who’d done so much with Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans while also helping to introduce him to a new audience.” Though Mooney was more than twice the age of the hip-hop crowd, (then) young Black scribe Danyel Smith from the San Francisco Bay Guardian and critics from The Source magazine couldn’t get enough. Columnist Adario Strange said of Mooney, “What he delivers is his honesty focused through a Black prism that produces laser sharp criticism, introspection, and above all, reality-based humor.” Editor Reginald Dennis wrote, “Mooney’s act is a seminar on race relations and it is not very pretty.”
Novelist Kenji Jasper was still a Washington, D.C. high school student when Race was released, but can clearly remember its impact on the culture. “Mooney took up Pryor’s mantle,” Jasper says. In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began retreating from the business. That same year Mooney co-scripted the underrated Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, a Pryor directed film based on his life. “The hip-hop community loved him, because, though he was obviously well-read, he knew how to translate that for the hood. That’s what he passed on to both Pryor and Chappelle.”
Race sold about 25,000 units, but the spirit of Mooney’s material touched many artistic lives. While some creators might not realize it, Mooney’s vibe creeps through much of Black popular culture these days that has nothing to do with comedy including the cartoons of Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) music of Childish Gambino (“This is America”), the films of Jordan Peele (Get Out), the novels of Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing) as well as television’s Lovecraft Country, Atlanta and Exterminate All the Brutes.
Beyond the thrill of working on Race, Paul Mooney and Bill Stephney became good friends. “We were both news junkies,” Stephney says. “I would cut things out of the paper and send him clips. We often had long conversations on the phone about what was going on in the world.” Two years after Race, the label released Mooney’s second joint Master Piece. There was to be a third album in 1999 called Paul Mooney for President, but StepSun and Interscope decided to mutually conclude their joint-partnership prior to its release.
While Race made Mooney a recognizable celebrity face in the Black community, he never really crossed over to the mainstream. As Jasper later joked, “Mooney is Black famous as though he was comedy’s Frankie Beverly.” In 2014, it was announced that Mooney had cancer, but he still insisted on touring, sometimes being rolled onstage in a wheelchair.
“What was great about Mooney in his later years was his fearlessness and his ‘I don’t give a fuck attitude when dealing with audiences,” Darius James concludes. “Unlike his early years, he wasn’t trying to achieve mainstream acceptance. He finally realized the only thing that was important was his own truth and his real art was in that truth.”
Special thanks to Bill Adler for research assistance. Check out the Adler Hip-Hop Archives.
Check out Paul Mooney’s Race
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.