The Rap on Rudy Ray Moore: How ‘Dolemite’ Became as Much a Soul Musical as Comedy

Among the other things Eddie Murphy’s rapturously received new comedy has going for it, “Dolemite Is My Name” might be the movie musical of the year, in spirit, if not wholly in form. At least, there are a few sequences where its real-life protagonist, comedian/musician/actor Rudy Ray Moore, breaks into a kind of proto-hip-hop performance mode. The rest of the movie has nearly wall-to-wall music, whether it’s the ‘70s hits of Marvin Gaye and Sly & the Family Stone or an original score that harks back to the blaxploitation era’s funk-filled glory days.

Marrying music and movies comes naturally to director Craig Brewer, who offered a more contemporary take on hip-hop with “Hustle & Flow,” and his house composer, fellow Memphis native Scott Bomar, a founder of the neo-soul group the Bo-Keys. Plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find screenwriter-producers who know their ‘70s music better than Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the instigators of “Dolemite Is My Name.” Variety spoke with these four music buffs (in three separate conversations, blended here) about how the Netflix film celebrates Moore’s musical legacy … as well as how its Stax-influenced music tips its hat to John Williams as well as Isaac Hayes, and what James Ingram’s got to do with it.

How seminal an influence on hip-hop is Rudy Ray Moore?

Scott AlexanderHe’s pretty seminal, at least according to the guys who started it. Snoop and Eazy-E always tipped their hat to Rudy, as the guy who paved the road for them.

Larry KaraszewskiWhat I hear from people a lot of times is that (Moore’s movies) “Dolemite” and “Disco Godfather” are standard tour bus entertainment — that when you’re traveling on the bus for 12 hours between cities, they put on “Human Tornado” and have it run a bunch of times. … Once it got out that we were making a Rudy Ray Moore movie with Eddie Murphy, everybody really wanted to be in it. And Snoop gives props to Rudy as being a gigantic influence; if you Google, there’s video of Snoop and Rudy together. He wanted to be a part of it, and it seemed a perfect way to open the movie, with a guy who is a rapper who claims to be influenced by Rudy, who is actually a pretty good actor as well.

Is what Moore was doing in the mid-‘70s with his Dolemite persona something we can really call a prototype for rap?

Karaszewski: Definitely, in that he was rhyming to a beat. I know it doesn’t sound that crazy when you say it that way, but Rudy’s records were sort of spoken-word that just added a little tiny bit of funk behind it. And just that little bit, I think, pushes it into the beginning of hip-hop. I think also the X-rated nature of it, and the gigantic, boastful braggart that he created on top of that, definitely went well with particularly the beginning of gangsta rap, because that was all about creating these characters that were bigger than life but of the streets, and as bad as they want to be.

Craig Brewer: I would say that it goes even deeper than just the fact that he’s rapping in rhyme and being a bad-ass. I think also why he’s the godfather of rap is because of how he kept going. Look, I know so many rap artists that they’ve got a day job. They’re making deliveries or they’re working as IT tech people, but the passion is in making music, and so they’re making recordings in their living rooms and homemade studios, printing up their own CDs and going to swap meets and selling out of their trunk. That to me is really the same spirit that I see in the movie with Rudy Ray Moore, where I see a direct connection to a lot of people in the rap game that I know. There’s so many more people that are moving their units themselves and hyping themselves, as opposed to the famous people that we know that have a whole label behind them or something like that. To me, that’s really the connection: It’s even more about the hustle than it is really the — God help me! —  flow. [Laughs.] That’s the first time I’ve said that, and I’m already regretting it.

Rudy’s first moment of triumph is when he first tries out the Dolemite character, doing “Signifying Monkey” in a club. It’s kind of this movie’s “Shallow”… its star-is-born moment.

Brewer: I love that. I don’t think anyone’s ever said that, but I now believe it. [Laughs.] Having lived with “Hustle & Flow” over the years, I’ve seen what people responded to. I remember Larry and Scott and me talking about the moment that Rudy gets up on stage and performs for the first time. I remember saying this has to be a “Whoop That Trick” moment. If you’ve seen “Hustle & Flow,” there’s this moment where they rap for the first time, and it’s a little raw, but it’s exciting — they’re moving around and the beat is hitting and you’re like, “Oh, am I in for this now? I didn’t know it was going to be this cool. They’ve been talking about rapping for a long time, but now they’re doing it.” So that moment when he gets up on stage for the first time and the drummer comes in behind him and starts doing that beat, and then the band starts coming in and playing with them, that’s an important music moment, because the music is helping him with his delivery. Every time I watch it, I get excited.

Alexander: In that scene, Eddie starts doing the routine, then there’s a beat from the percussionist, and then Craig Robinson just sort of strolls in (on piano). It turns out Craig Robinson is actually a pianist and a singer, so he could sit down behind Eddie and start banging out some chords — and so on screen you see it evolving organically right in front of you, which is really cool.

Karaszewski: When we were writing the script, and you’re just typing that Rudy will do (his breakout number) “The Signifying Monkey,” there was worry in the room, like: Someone getting up and doing “The Signifying Monkey” in 2019 — is that still going to be funny? Eddie can sell it. Once you saw that that first take where Eddie got on stage and did it, all our fears went away.

Eddie Murphy and Craig Brewer. Eddie Murphy, right, star of the film "Dolemite Is My Name," with director Craig Brewer at the Shangri-La Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival in TorontoFilm - Eddie Murphy, Toronto, USA - 07 Sep 2019

CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The idea of Rudy rhyming comedically over music — were there other guys who already did that, or was it a weird stroke of genius?

Karaszewski: Well, it always existed. People talk about, “Oh, he took his act from the hobos.” But those hobos did not come up with the act. Those hobos were telling the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. “The Signifying Monkey” is a rather old toast. What Rudy did was simply crank it up an extra notch, make it a little bit more professional, and add his own personality to it. I’m equating it almost to the way a Pete Seeger would go listen to a hobo and sing their folk songs and then figure out how to make them into an album that he could play at Carnegie Hall. The way Muhammad Ali would rhyme and brag, a couple years before Rudy started doing this, that definitely comes from the same tradition.

Alexander: Yeah, but I think we can give Rudy credit as the first guy to put it on vinyl — and to say, “Okay, I’m going to go charge money for this. For this oral tradition, I need four dollars!”

Are there any of Rudy’s records you’d consider most essential?

Karaszewski: I don’t know if you can name them in Variety. Although we’re very proud that the Variety review of the movie (by Owen Gleiberman) began with “’Dolemite is My Name’ is a total motherf—in’ blast.”

Alexander: “This Pussy Belongs to Me”! [That was the title of Moore’s second album as the Dolemite character.] The first two albums have most of the greatest hits. If you want to keep things clean for your publication, “Eat Out More Often” [the first of them] is the album you see the guys hand-making in the film.

Karaszewski: I think whatever record you heard the most of, the humor of Rudy Ray Moore wears you down a bit, so actually it’s like on the eighth listen that you’re actually laughing harder than on the first. Because the first listen, you’re like, “what is this?” And then at a certain point you’re laughing your head off from repetition.

Larry and Scott, this follows somewhat in the tradition of “Ed Wood” for you, where you have these sad-sack characters who are down on their luck before it then turns into this “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” enthusiastic backstage story. In this case, unlike “Ed Wood,” you get to have high-energy musical numbers as well as film-within-a-film sequences to propel that.

Alexander: There’s a definite meta thing going on, in that Rudy was this compulsive ex-vaudevillian. If you look at Rudy’s movies, it’s like he’s trying to put on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s like the movies will just sort of stop for a juggler and then a shake dancer and then another stand-up comedian, and then a lady will come out and belt a ballad — it’s just this cornucopia of nightclub entertainment. So our movie is sort of having fun with the way Rudy liked to make movies: “And now, all right, here’s a funny scene, and now here’s a touching scene, and now here’s some dancing, and now someone’s going to sing a number. And we’ve got a ventriloquist coming out later!”

Karaszewski: It gets very meta. There are times, I believe, in “Dolemite” where he’s playing Dolemite, but as he leaves the stage, Lady Reed says, “Give it up for Rudy Ray Moore!” It’s a fine line between Rudy and Dolemite. … And every one of Rudy’s movies stops cold for 15 minutes and you go into a nightclub and there’s this nightclub performance.

Alexander: I always say it’s as if the movie’s giving Rudy time to go backstage and change his clothes and take a shower, so someone else has to come out in front of the curtain to entertain for a while.