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Twenty years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan found themselves at a crossroad. The collective out of Staten Island that spurred the resurgence of New York City hip-hop with their 1993 debut, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and planted their flag atop the mountaintop again with their sophomore LP, Wu-Tang Forever, was on the brink of watching their dynasty crumble right before their eyes. Upon inking their deal with Loud Records as a group, the contract included a clause that allowed each individual member to release solo albums on competing labels. These groundbreaking terms resulted in a succession of classic albums from Wu, including Method Man's Tical, Ol’ Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., GZA's Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah's Ironman, all of which were released within a two-year span. The commercial success of these albums establishing each member as individual stars, as well as Wu-Tang Forever's international acclaim, brought Wu-Mania to unprecedented heights, bringing RZA's five-year plan for supremacy to completion.
However, following Wu-Tang Forever, their hot streak began to simmer, as the second wave of solo albums from the crew brought back diminishing returns, commercially and otherwise. While RZA (Bobby Digital in Stereo), Inspectah Deck (Uncontrolled Substance), and U-God (Golden Arms Redemption) all unleashed their solo debuts, those releases, as well as sophomore efforts from Method Man (Tical 2000: Judgement Day), Raekwon (Immobilarity), GZA (Beneath the Surface) and Ol' Dirty Bastard (Nigga Please), were given underwhelming reviews and deemed disappointing in comparison to their previous work. And with a new class of stars like Jay-Z, DMX, Master P, Ja Rule, The Hot Boys and others backed by burgeoning movements of their own, the Wu's reign was threatened to end prematurely, their time as the undisputed top dogs in rap having passed them by. As whispers about the Wu's ability to return to form began to become a real question in rap circles, Ghostface Killah silenced that noise with his sophomore release, Supreme Clientele, an album that ushered the Wu sound into the new millennium and established him as one of the most captivating wordsmiths of all time.
Co-starring on Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... and earning a platinum plaque off the strength of his own 1996 solo debut, Ironman, Ghostface Killah had become a budding star. Initially donning a ski mask during live performances while on the run from the law, the Stapleton Projects native was a capable emcee, as evidenced by his appearances on 36 Chambers, but rough around the edges and seemingly lacked the commercial appeal of groupmates like Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. However, Ironman, which included the Mary J. Blige-assisted hit single "All That I Got is You," as well as the fan favorites "Daytona 500," "Winter Warz" and "Camay," was hailed as a quality body of work, peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. The following year, in the wake of Ironman's release, Ghostface Killah, a lifelong diabetic, made a trek to West Africa to seek out alternative healing methods to help cope with his bouts with high blood pressure.
In addition to the organic treatments he received, Ghostface, who was joined by RZA during his stay, also gained inspiration from the culture of Benin, where happiness was a way of life, in spite of the impoverished conditions its natives were subjected to. Years later, the rapper would touch on how his visit to Africa left a lasting impact, altering his view of the world around him and giving him a sense of spiritual clarity. “F**k all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo…all this sh*t…they don’t give a f**k about none of that over there. Everything is the same,” he said. “But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one…They might be f**ked up, money-wise, but trust me, them muthaf**kas is happy, man. Them ni**as in harmony ‘cause they got each other.” Upon his return stateside, GFK arrived with the lyrics for "Nutmeg," the first song written for his then-untitled sophomore album, as well several other songs that ultimately wound up on the album. However, in the midst of this burst of creativity, more pressing matters, of the legal variety, awaited him at home.
Charged with robbery, stemming from a 1995 incident outside of Manhattan nightclub Palladium, during which a valet attendant was allegedly assaulted and robbed of $3,000, Ghostface was facing the possibility of a prison sentence of five to fifteen years if convicted. Making matters worse, in December 1997, he was arrested in Harlem for weapons possession and wearing a bulletproof vest after being stopped by police for a traffic violation. Continuing to record amid the drama, Ghostface spent much of 1998 hunkering down in the studio recording material for Supreme Clientele, with a tentative release date slated for early in the following year. "Mighty Healthy," the first song liberated in support of Supreme Clientele, hit radio soon after, with the Mathematics-produced cut serving as a slice of the zany brand of rap GFK would be delivering soon enough. However, Ghostface's decision to take a plea deal in the 1995 robbery case in February 1999 resulted in the rapper receiving a sentence of six months in prison and five years probation, delaying the album indefinitely.
Released in May, after serving four months of his sentence, GFK got back to work, putting the finishing touches on the album in various studios in New York and Miami. RZA., who had taken a backseat in terms of his contribution to the production on Wu albums post-Wu-Tang Forever, worked closely alongside Ghostface in curating the sound and direction of the album, overseeing the mixing process and adding additional wrinkles to tracks supplied by other boardsmen. This proved to be a major selling point, as RZA's absence from Immobilarity, Raekwon's anticipated follow-up to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., was duly noted and attributed to the album’s failure to live up to its predecessor. With RZA in the fold and Ghostface as creatively invigorated as ever, Supreme Clientele was gearing up to be a seismic undertaking, with Ghostface positioned as the unlikely hero tasked with saving the day and restoring the rap world's faith in the power of the Wu.
On February 8, 2000, after a year's worth of anticipation, Supreme Clientele, the first Wu-Tang release of the new millennium, hit shelves. Executive produced by RZA and Ghostface Killah, the album includes tracks from a mix of producers, including known commodities like Carlos Broady, JuJu, Mathematics, and Inspectah Deck, as well as relative newcomers Black Moes-Art, The Blaquesmiths, Carlos Bess, Choo the Specializt, and Hassan. Appearances by Wu members Cappadonna, GZA, Masta Killa, Method Man, Raekwon, Redman, RZA, and U-God, as well as affiliates Redman, Solomon Childs, Chip Banks, Hell Razah, and Lord Superb helped add additional flavor to the proceedings.
Supreme Clientele begins with an intro sampling audio from the Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, which leads into dialogue lifted from the “Iron Man Theme” by Jack Urbont, a contrast from Ironman, which saw RZA incorporating samples from the blaxploitation film Education of Sonny Carson to compliment Ghost's rhyme spills. Known for his unconventional brand of lyricism, GFK stretched the limits of listeners' imaginations out of the gate with "Nutmeg," the first song on the album and one that finds the rapper stringing random words together with no regard for coherency.
"Scientific, my hand kissed it," he raps, before littering the Black Moes-Art produced track with enough slang and non sequiturs to make E-40 blush. Powered by an interpolation of "Ain't No Sunshine" by Bill Withers, the track is the perfect theme for a ghetto superhero tasked with demolishing sucker emcees with futuristic flows and kicking truth to the young black youth. Joined by RZA, who makes the first of multiple appearances on the project with a visceral verse of his own, Ghostface Killah marks his return with a big splash via "Nutmeg," one of the most inventive rap songs to come out of the Wu-Tang camp. After touching the sky, Tony Starks levels back to earth on "One," produced by Juju of the Beatnuts, who builds a drum loop atop elements lifted from “You Roam When You Don’t Get It At Home,” by The Sweet Inspirations." Rhyming "Ayo, the Devil planted fear inside the black babies/Fifty cent sodas in the hood, they going crazy," Ghost's observations of poverty and despair in the black community are sprinkled in between carefree stanzas, a reminder that for all of the colorful couplets, knowledge always reigns supreme in his chamber.
Touching on his constant run-ins with the law on "Saturday Nite," Pretty Tone goes rogue on "Ghost Deini," which accounts for one of the most sobering salvos on the tracklist. Written in Miami, on the beach during a torrential downpour, "Ghost Deini'' finds its host passing down jewels while raging against the machine, proclaiming, "It's me against housing" atop a murky backdrop, courtesy of The Blaquesmiths. In addition to GFK's recollection of high-stakes jewelry heists, "Ghost Deini" is notable for guest star Superb's endearing performance, which finds the American Cream Team member mourning a fallen comrade and attempting to make sense of the madness of the world around him during a drunken rage. Raekwon doesn't join Ghostface for the whole ride this time around, but makes good use of his airtime on "Apollo Kids," the first of The Chef's pair of contributions to Supreme Clientele. Produced by Haas G of the U.M.C.'s, "Apollo Kids" finds Tony Starks comparing his rhyme style to baked ziti and scraping more food for thought on the plate to enhance our sonic palette. The second single released from the album was a moderate hit, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard's Hot Rap Singles chart, and is notable for its accompanying video, which see Ghostface rocking mink coats and barking rhymes while eating a golden ice cream cone in all his splendor.
Dialogue from Kung-Fu flick Shaolin Rescuers sets the tone for "Mighty Healthy," a standout offering that reasserts Ghostface and his fellow Wu Gambinos' dominance over the rap landscape. Boasting "The world can't touch Ghost, purple tape, Rae co-host" and anointing himself as the rap game's version of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, his mettle under pressure in the face of doubter's of his crew's staying power is unwavering, as evidenced by his virtuoso performance on this Mathematics-produced outing. Supreme Clientele finds Ghostface flying solo on more occasions than not, but the moments that do include costars double as some of the most riveting moments on the album. The tension between Bad Boy Records and Wu-Tang now in the distant past, Hitman Carlos "6 July" Broady constructs a soulful composition in "We Made It," which features Superb, Hell Razah of Sunz of Man, and Chip Banks, who passed away shortly after the album's release. Future Theodore Unit rapper Solomon Childs pops up for an impressive appearance alongside Ghost and RZA on "Stroke of Death," a brain-melting cut that constitutes as cosmic slop at its finest. However, the most potent collaborative efforts on the tracklist find the Wally Champ locking in his Wu brethren, as Method Man, Redman and Capadonna collide on the raucous number "Buck 50," and "Wu Banga 101," which pairs him with GZA, Raekwon, Cappadonna and Masta Killa.
As engaging a storyteller as any artist next to Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah spins plenty a tale on Supreme Clientele, the most lucid being "Malcolm." Produced by Choo, the song, which begins with dialogue from Malcolm X's "After the Bombing" speech plastered atop a sample hijacked from "Going In Circles" by Isaac Hayes, blurs the lines between fiction and reality and touches on an alleged incident between Ghostface Killah's entourage and Ma$e, which reportedly left the Harlem World rapper with a broken jaw, during the second verse. Painting a vivid picture of the scene in painstaking detail, GFK brushes with broad strokes, the outcome being a cinematic offering that leaves you doubling back for more and covering your tracks any tidbits missed. In an era where contrived club bangers were standard fare, Ghostface throws his hat into the ring, albeit orgnaically, with "Cherchez La Ghost," a catchy mid-tempo ditty that reworks the '70s hit “Cherchez La Femme” by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. Featuring U-God, who delivers one of the most popular performances of his career, "Cherchez La Ghost" saw Pretty Toney beckoning the ladies to the dance-floor and was a breakout single, peaking at No. 3 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, his best showing as a soloist at that point in time.
In the wake of its release, Supreme Clientele garnered stellar reviews, with fans, critics, and even fellow rappers pegging it as a resurrection of sorts for the Wu-Tang Clan. Peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 with 134,000 copies sold in its first week, Supreme Clientele was certified gold within two months of its release, further cementing Ghostface as one of the most consistently viable members of the Wu. Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and RZA were initially predicted to lead the Wu-Tang Clan to the promised land, however, Ghostface Killah put the crew from Shaolin on his back at a time when many had begun to count them out, a feat that afforded him a newfound level of cache and respect as one of the leaders of the Wu in the eyes of the people. Controversy surrounding the album's creation occurred in 2004, when Superb claimed to have written Supreme Clientele in its entirety, which Ghostface Killah vehemently denied.
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Happy 20th to One of Creations !!! Blessed Hip Hop and the World with This Gem .... food for thought # 20thanniversary #supremeclientele #wutangforever #ghostfacekillah #wutang #wutangclan #tonystarks @rza @methodmanofficial @raekwon @mathematicswu @redmangilla @officialcappadonna @s_childs @ins_tagrams @ugod_zilla @therealgza @mastakillamusic
"'Perb (Superb) is Rae's (Raekwon) man," Ghost later explained in an interview with Rhapsody Music. "He been in the studio a few times while we're doing shit. He ain't write shit. All 'Perb contributed was a couple of lines that you could put in the air. When we write, we all do that. ‘Say this one right here" or "Put this one right here.’ We all catch lines with each other 'cause you in the studio. You got niggas around you that write. Even if he did write a verse, he could never make an album of mine. He couldn't make an album, you feel me? I made Supreme Clientele what it is. Those are my stories, based around what they're based upon. It's me. I can't see what songs 'Perb wrote. He ain't write ‘Mighty Healthy’ or ‘One’ or ‘Apollo Kids’ or ‘Cherchez LaGhost’ or ‘Saturday Nite’ or ‘Malcolm.’” While Superb has never backed down from those claims, Ghostface's output following the release of Supreme Clientele, which includes close to a dozen solo studio albums and multiple collaborative albums, and the quality his music has sustained casts a heavy cloud of doubt over the validity of those allegations.
Ghostface Killah went on to release multiple albums that are considered classics in their own right, but Supreme Clientele remains the crown jewel of his solo career and one of the most brilliant rap releases of all time. Influencing the likes of Kanye West, who initially honed in on his sample-driven sound in hopes of working with GFK after hearing his work on the album. While those tracks ultimately wound up in the hands of Jay-Z and were included on The Blueprint and elsewhere, Kanye's affinity for Ghostface and Supreme Clientele is well-known, with Yeezy sampling "Mighty Healthy" in 2012 on his song "New God Flow," which included an appearance by GFK himself. Even more recently, Griselda/Shady Records rapper Westside Gunn has sung the album's praises, titling his own 2018 mixtape Supreme Blientele in honor of the original. With 20 years having passed since it first touched down, Supreme Clientele's place among the holy grail of rap albums is secure as ever and serves as a friendly reminder that while ebbs and flows come and go, the Wu-Tang Clan is indeed forever.
There’s been a lot of talk about Black comedy over the last couple of years; about impact, talent, and value. Mo’nique sued Netflix, while Kevin Hart lost his long-coveted Oscar hosting gig and turned his road to redemption into a Netflix check. Tiffany Haddish has faced accusations of nae nae’ing her way to the top too quickly, Dave Chappelle made a long-awaited return to the screen with his most controversial special yet, and Eddie Murphy began a comeback as well. There’s a lot of chatter about who’s worth what, who’s done what, who’s earned what, who owes whom what, and what exactly the role of a comedian is in responsible social discourse. But in all this chatter, there is one unnamed career that shadows the rest: none of these ni**as would have jobs without Richard Pryor, and we don’t talk about him nearly enough.
I understand why Pryor isn’t mentioned in current conversation often; at this point, he’s a grandfather of comedy. He’s the second generation of Black celebrity comedians, the first generation of integrated entertainment, and the first-ever winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He passed away 14 years ago, and he would have been 79 on December 1. He missed the opportunity for his interviews to go viral, for Jerry Seinfeld to talk to him about his craft on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which I highly recommend everyone watch, even if you just watch the episodes with Black comics), and God forbid, for Vlad to somehow yoke him up for a chat. Two recent specials, ABC’s The Last Days of Richard Pryor, and The Paramount Network’s I Am Richard Pryor Uncensored (2019) serve to finally place Pryor in the GOAT conversations, where he belongs. As a kid who grew up with mainstream, movie star Pryor -- post-set-himself-on-fire-freebasing Pryor -- I didn’t have a full understanding of his career evolution; the steps that had gotten him to that point. But now, as comedians and social commentators navigate the #MeToo movement, “Cancel Culture,” the absurd political landscape, and this faux post-racial, talking-about-racism-is-racist climate, it’s easier to see Pryor’s impact on modern comedy. His boldness in subject choices, his brilliance in translating them to a wide audience, and his struggle to find his place in a time when Black comedy was still fighting to be authentic in the white-controlled entertainment space still resonate today.
Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III is overdue for a proper celebration. He was acutely aware throughout his career that he was undervalued and underutilized, and it pissed him off. So, consider this a “Give Pryor his Things” primer; these are the reasons we owe him more credit and acknowledgment as a comic great and a game-changer.His Talent Was Versatile AF
As a kid growing up in brothels, around situations that were too grown even for some adults, Pryor developed and adaptability that included a gift for performance and entertainment of any kind. Magic tricks, half-playing some instruments, acting, and singing, which he played around with early in his career. He may not have been as good as Jamie Foxx, but he was at least as good as Eddie (no shade).
When Pryor filled out his discharge papers from the army, he listed his occupation as “actor,” even though he was on his way back to Peoria to work in a plant. Richard wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and creative, and was always frustrated that he wasn’t.
In the below clip from Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Pryor took 12 seconds of silence and packed it with years of pain. Over-the-top acting is easy. Doing a lot with a little is talent.
“(After) Lady Sings the Blues, I should have been one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood,” Pryor lamented in his autobiography. “There was talk of an Oscar nomination in the press. People knew that I’d co-written (Mel Brook’s) Blazing Saddles, one of the funniest pictures ever. I had ideas and talent. I deserved the type of multi-picture deal that... Spike Lee and Robert Townsend would get fifteen years later.”
There were pain and earnest vulnerability just beneath the surface of a lot of Pryor’s roles, like the titular character of The Wiz. His brilliance was the ability to let just enough of it through to make his characters real. He even held his own next to Cicely Tyson in Bustin’ Loose, a comedy about a bunch of ragtag Philly foster kids, a bougie social worker and a grumpy bus driver, which in retrospect had some heavy moments.
Had his height come a decade later, or had he been healthy longer, maybe Richard would finally have had the chance to show the full range of his ability.He Was Woke, Early
When Pryor first started in comedy, he wanted to be one of the few who could do TV shows and white clubs – that was the money route. So he did a clean-cut act, borrowing his style heavily from non-threatening favorite Bill Cosby.
But there was none of him in the act; none of his life, none of his childhood growing up in Peoria, Ill. in brothels with prostitutes, gangsters, and hustlers. His star ascended, but he felt lost, creatively. In 1970, burnt out by the excess of LA and facing a failed marriage, he moved to Berkeley, Calif. There, in the epicenter of counterculture, Pryor experienced an awakening. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions, Richard calls his period in Berkley “the freest time of my life…a circus of exciting, extreme, colorful, militant ideas. Drugs. Hippies. Black Panthers. Antiwar protests. Experimentation... I was like a lightning rod.” He spent time with Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton, mingled with Black artists and intellectuals, read Malcolm X speeches, listened to Marvin Gaye, worked on his act, worked on himself (but still did coke), and by the time he went back to LA, “I understood myself…I knew what I had to do. I had to go back and tell the truth.” Pryor started putting real rap about the world he came from and life as a Black person in America into his act. Live and Smokin’ (1971) was full of material he’d worked on in Berkeley, but the audience was expecting the old, more whitewashed Pryor. It’s an awkward routine to watch unless you keep in mind that you’re watching a career evolve in real-time.
He started moving into more of a conscious space. When we think of Black comedic activists, Dick Gregory is the first name on the list. But Gregory was older and of a different ilk than Pryor and Paul Moony – The Civil Rights Movement vs the Black Power Movement. Richard had activism in his heart, and he felt a responsibility for telling “the truth,” but he didn’t want the responsibility beyond the stage.
After the enormous success of Pryor’s Grammy-winning albums,1974’s That Ni**er’s Crazy (we’ll get to that in a bit,) and 1975’s Was it Something I Said?, NBC nervously gave him a sketch comedy show. The Richard Pryor Show (1977) was the 20+ year precursor to Chapelle’s Show, and like Chapelle featured Pryor’s creative partner Paul Mooney as a writer and cast member, along with future comedic stars Jim Belushi, Robin Williams, John Witherspoon, and Sandra Bernhard, but Pryor’s form of social commentary was too real for early ‘70s prime time television.
And like Dave, Richard dipped because network brass was pressuring him with censorship, rewrites, and notes. In his case, however, it happened much sooner (and without the show garnering nearly as much fanfare). “The things that I have to do in order to be on (television) just destroy me too much,” Pryor shared with Rolling Stone three years earlier. “It’s really weird, like they make me feel like thanking them for letting me degrade myself.” Pryor shut down the show after just four episodes.He Normalized Using "Ni**a" For Entertainment...
For better or worse, everyone who wants to blame rappers for “ni**a” being used so much in the mainstream needs to start with the original rappers: comedians. Specifically, Richard, who titled his third comedy album “That Nigger’s Crazy.”
Richard decided to reclaim the word while in Berkeley: “I repeated the most offensive, humiliating, disgraceful, distasteful, ugly and nasty word ever used in the context of Black people,” he said in Pryor Convictions. “I decided to make it my own…I decided to take the sting out of it.” In fact, if Pryor had a calling card, besides cocaine (and I think he’d be perfectly okay with me saying that,) it’s the word “ni**er.” He brought it out of the chitlin’ circuit and Black-only clubs and back rooms and onto The Dinah Shore Show and into illustrious award forums. “Saying it changed me,” he explained. “It gave me strength, let me rise above sh*t.”
The most incredible, and also most infuriating thing about Pryor’s “Ni**ers vs The Police” bit from this album is that he could walk on a stage today (whatever day you’re reading this), and it would still work, because it’s still true. Forty years later.But He Was Also One Of The First To Say He Would Stop Saying It
In 1979, Pryor went to Kenya, his first time in South Africa, and similar to all our friends and cousins who just came back from the Year of Return (I’m still salty), he had a cultural epiphany. In his 1981 special Live From the Sunset Strip, his first after his accident, he declared he wasn’t using “ni**a” in his material anymore (but I’m pretty sure he did in Harlem Nights. I think there a “Ni**a” quota per comedian in Harlem Nights. I’m gonna check.).He Created The Live Stand-Up Film
Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979) was the first stand-up comedy movie. Not the first stand-up act that was taped or broadcast, but the first stand-up that was shot and edited with the intent to release it as a motion picture. Without Live in Concert, there’s no Delirious, there’s no You So Crazy, there’s Bigger & Blacker, there’s no Kings of Comedy.
It’s considered the bible for stand-up comedy. In an interview about his own legendary stand-up film, Delirious, Eddie Murphy praised the standard: “If you’re studying the art form…if you want to be a stand-up comic, you want to see what the art form is,” he told interviewer Byron Allen, “you take Richard’s In Concert... that’s the single greatest stand-up performance ever captured on film.”
The genius and tragedy of Pryor’s material is realizing just how much of his bits came from his real life, and how unfunny the real-life situation was. Pryor was indeed arrested for assault at his house in 1978 after his wife tried to leave him (because he was high, drunk and abusive), and he shot up her car so she couldn’t. He’d be “canceled” today. But through his combination of physical comedy, warmth, and openness, he channeled it into one of his most memorable bits.
Also covered in Live in Concert: police using attack dogs and putting Black people in chokeholds (Time also named the live concert one of their Top 25 Movies on Race), rescue animals who’ve been abused, his father dying while having sex with an 18-year-old, and what it feels like to have a heart attack. And the crowd is rolling. That’s Richard.He Felt Under-appreciated
Despite his childhood, circumstantial and systematic odds, and his own self-sabotage, Pryor was the highest-earning Black actor in Hollywood by 1983, paving the way for Eddie Murphy’s rock star-level superstardom behind him. But what conversations with those who knew him, interview clips and his own autobiography reveal is a soul that was never completely settled or content. Pryor knew exactly how brilliant he was; he compared himself to friend Miles Davis (Robin Williams compared him to Miles’ protégé John Coltrane), and it pulled at him to not be recognized as such.
He admitted in an interview with Barbara Walters around 1979, “I’m angry because I’m talented. There’s nobody I’ve ever met in the business of comedy who’s any more brilliant than me, and I will never get the recognition for the talent in my lifetime.” When she asked him why not, he answered simply, “Because there’s one bad seed in America. It works for economic reasons. It’s called Racism. Racism keeps a lot of talented human beings underground.”
This anger was never far from him. In 1974, Rolling Stone reporter David Felton wrote about Pryor breaking down in quiet tears, unable to fully articulate his frustration at not being appreciated. It was the cause of his consistent drug use, and his eventual freebase episode (or suicide attempt, if you believe Richard’s later interviews). And the reason why, even after surviving damn near burning himself alive, Richard often appeared to not give a damn about the success other comics would kill for. In this infamous interview on the set of 1980’s Stir Crazy, Pryor is clearly high, and clearly over all pretense of professionalism. “They’re paying me a million and a half dollars! I didn’t earn it. I don’t even know what a million dollars is.”
Richard Pryor was complex, unpredictable, and generally what we would have called in my day “off the chain.” He was self-destructive, violent and paranoid, but also warm, relatable and genius. These dichotomies came together to produce the seemingly effortless characters and story-weaving style Richard bequeathed to comedy. As race and popular culture professor Dr. Todd Boyd explained in “The Last Days of Richard Pryor,” “Hoes, pimps, drugs, poverty, racism -- Richard took all that dark sh*t, and made it light.” So the next time you evaluate Kevin Hart’s impact vs Mo’nique’s earning potential vs Dave Chapelle’s realness vs Eddie Murphy's talent, keep in mind that Richard made it all possible.
I am in shock and I am traumatized. Any death hurts you, if you have any sense of humanity, and especially if it is not expected, out of the blue, and clocks you with a ferocious uppercut, between the eyes, in such a way that the tempo of your day, month, year, is completely concussed, knowing that you will never—never—forget this particular passing of a life. It was the Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G. who said, like the prophet he was, “Sometimes I hear death knockin’ at my front door.” It was the English poet John Donne who said, like the church cleric he was, “death diminishes me...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Well, as we used to say in hip-hop, let the poppers pop and let the breakers break and, my Lord, let the grievers swoon and let the choirs sing sad spirituals because the bell is tolling for Kobe Bean Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and the seven other passengers aboard the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas, California, into hilly, rough terrain, after trying to steer its way through a syrupy fog on a West Coast Sunday morning. When I awoke home in New York, I did what I normally do: I scanned both my cell phone and my laptop for news of the day. It was amazing to see that LeBron James had just passed Kobe to become the third-highest scorer in the history of the National Basketball Association—after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at number one and Karl Malone at number two. It was doubly amazing to note that the top four scorers in NBA history had all played, at some point, with the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe’s the longest tenure, at 20 years, from his debut in 1996 to his retirement in 2016. I next read Kobe Bryant’s tweet congratulating LBJ publicly for surpassing him. Little did I know, little did any of us know, that that would be his last tweet ever. I assumed it would be just another mundane Sunday until the evening when I was set to watch Lizzo and Billie Eilish and others at the Grammys.
But then I got an urgent text from a trusted friend and fellow journalist, asking me if I had heard about Kobe. I gasped; I was speechless; the tears came, and I wanted to shove them back into my eye sockets. I did not dare believe Kobe Bryant, born on August 23, 1978, was dead, at the still tender age of 41. My first social media post could not utter the words; I simply said I had heard distressing news about him. Then I texted back and forth with several others, hoping, praying, for some sort of miracle. It is not that I am celebrity-obsessed. I am not. But the reality is that stars, be they entertainers or athletes or politicians or “The Royals,” take up space in our collective mental, in our collective soul—if they are around long enough—like blood relatives, like a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, an uncle, an aunt, a cousin. They become parts of us, and we are a part of them. Be they James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Dr. King or John Lennon or Natalie Wood or Princess Diana or Aaliyah or Amy Winehouse or Kobe Bean Bryant, when they go, pieces of us go with them. We rise and fall with them, we laugh and cry with them, we win and lose with them. So when a person with the level of global recognition of a Kobe Bryant dies and dies so tragically, we feel as if we have lost a beloved family member. We are immediately in mourning, as everything about us has faded to black, as black as the lethal Black Mamba snake Kobe channeled as his alter-ego on the court. We are there at the funeral or memorial service, a-hootin' and a-hollerin’, as parts of our being attempt to climb into the coffin, the way Kobe climbed into the heads and over the outstretched hands of helpless opponents. We double over in pain as our bodies slump to the floor, the way Kobe’s did when he shredded his Achilles near the end of his career.
And what a career it was. I first learned of Kobe Bryant when he was a high school phenomenon in a suburb of Philadelphia in 1995, 1996. I learned that his father was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, a journeyman athlete who once played with the legendary Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-1970s. I learned that Joe never became a star player, so he bounced around a lot, in Philly, where Kobe was born, to places like Italy, where the only boy of three Bryant children would pick up Italian and other languages along the way. I learned that he was named after the famous beef in Kobe, Japan, and his middle name, a cosmic chopping of his Dad’s nickname. I learned that Kobe worshipped NBA superstar Michael Jordan, who was then in the middle of his six championships with the Chicago Bulls. Indeed, Kobe fanned out on MJ so much that he would stick out his tongue in a similar manner when going for a shot, and also wore a wrist band high up on a bicep just like Mike, too.
It was hard to say what Kobe Bryant would become in those first years, particularly since he was only 17 and straight outta high school when drafted. Kobe took soul-pop princess Brandy to his senior prom and even made a hip-hop record that did not do much. He was a teen idol project of Mr. NBA logo himself, Jerry West, acquired in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets on draft day, pairing Kobe with the league’s reigning big man, Shaquille O’Neal, and eventually Michael Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson.
As Kobe morphed from close-cropped hair to a wild and angled afro to nearly bald during his 20-year career, I cannot say that I always understood or appreciated him, at least not in the beginning. It was obvious he was a gifted natural scorer, but there were also his nasty feuds with Shaq and Coach Jackson, and allegations that he was a selfish, just-give-me-the-damn-ball player in a team sport. No matter, because first came three straight championships with Shaq, then two more with Pau Gasol, proving the point that Kobe, the most dominant alpha male hoopster of his times, could win without O’Neal. Wedged in there are two Olympic gold medals with Lebron and company in 2008 and 2012; a regular-season MVP; two scoring titles; the second-most points in an NBA game ever (81); four All-Star game MVP awards; a slam dunk contest title; 18 All-star game appearances in his 20 years; and the dizzying epilogue to it all: 60 points in his very last game.
Indeed, there is an ancestral baton-passing from Dr. J, to Michael Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James. Unbelievable and unapologetic work ethic, stunningly fearless leadership, and a charisma coupled with a killer instinct that defined each of their eras. While Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player ever, fact is Kobe Bryant is the bridge from MJ to LeBron, a top-3 to top-5 player, easily, and also the player most like Mike that NBA players of recent times have seen, as many were too young to have witnessed Jordan, and regard MJ as an unreachable and mythical God. While Larry Bird and Magic Johnson retrieved basketball from the trash-bin of late-night tv reruns, and Michael Jordan made it crazy, sexy, and cool and an international religion in that Jesus sort of way, I would argue that Kobe Bryant took the sport to the promised land of becoming the national past-time that baseball once was, paralleling the sped-up society America was becoming because of the tech revolution. Put another way, Michael Jordan was crisp, after-work R&B with massive pop appeal while Kobe was defiantly hip-hop, a Negro with an attitude and a gigantic boulder on his shoulder.
He came into the league the same year as Allen Iverson, who was selected number one overall, and of the twelve picks ahead of Kobe at number thirteen, it’s only Iverson and Ray Allen that are Hall of Fame level, like Kobe. Kobe Bean Bryant simply outworked and out-hustled every single player of his class, stretching his mandate from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, from Tupac and Biggie to Drake and Meek Mill, from SkyPagers to iPhones, from CDs to Spotify, from MTV to Netflix.
Scrape and strip away all of that, and there Kobe Bryant was, the Black Mamba I saw play in person on more than a few occasions: a six-foot-six specimen of a humanoid who came into the NBA as a teenager, tall and lanky and wide-eyed, and left it muscled and statesman-like, having willed his frame from every manner of finger and hand and shoulders injuries, including his miraculous return from that torn Achilles. He had the encyclopedic IQ of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the Cirque du Soleil flexibility of Michael Jordan and Dr. J, and the insatiable appetite to win of Bill Russell and Jerry West. Watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching The Nicholas Brothers tap and contort and leap through the most brilliant dance routine in film history in “Stormy Weather,” defying gravity and common sense in spite of the many ways Black men had been told to stay in their place. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like being there when Langston Hughes spit blood poetry from his Harlem veins, putting to words what the eyes and heart done seen, carrying the dreams of an entire people across rivers, with no shame. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like James Brown live on stage singing, scatting, screaming, dancing, splitting, freestyling his Blackness in mid-movement as if he were an ordained Yoruba priest refusing to be stuck at the bottom of a slave ship. No, watching Kobe Bryant play basketball was like watching African ballet, except with a basketball and baggy shorts, where Black male minds and Black male bodies like Kobe Bryant’s acted as if they, not a White man, had invented this game, cutting, slashing, hanging on rims, up on their toes, back on the heels of their feet, basketball representing a freedom for Kobe that could not even be explained by a Langston Hughes poem.
I saw Kobe drive past people for lay-ups. I saw Kobe dunk. I saw Kobe shoot mid-range jumpers. I saw Kobe hit three-point daggers. No matter what you, I, anyone thought of Kobe’s way of playing basketball, you simply could never take your eyes from him. He whipped his chiseled body, the way we colored folks were whipped on those steamy Southern plantations, except he had full control of his brain, and his body, and understood that he was going to be a different kind of man, a different kind of Black man, one where sports was merely a means to the prize, not the prize itself. And the big prize for Kobe Bryant was to be his own boss for the rest of his life—
But, if there is one major blemish on his public record, it is the sexual assault allegation by a young woman who worked at a resort in Eagle, Colorado in the summer of 2003. Kobe had at this point been married a few years to Vanessa and was the father of a daughter. The case damaged his reputation at the time badly, ended several corporate endorsement deals, soured many from him, and foreshadowed the #MeToo movement. But, interestingly enough, Kobe Bryant remains one of the only famous accused men to say words like these in the aftermath of such an allegation, and after the accuser had refused to testify:
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
The accuser filed a separate civil lawsuit against Bryant, which the two sides settled privately, and Kobe apologized, something which is rare for most men to do, particularly with that kind of allegation. But I thought of the incident when, two years after he had retired, his movie, “Dear Basketball,” was both nominated for and won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Was Kobe Bryant given a pass because of his celebrity and status and long allegiance to the Los Angeles community, which included Hollywood? Or did someone take note of that admission and apology made around the sexual assault case and believed Kobe had learned from that horrible mistake?
I do not know, I am not here to judge, and I think about the fact that Gianna and two other daughters would be born to Vanessa and Kobe after that incident. I think about the ultimate alpha male living in a female-centered household and what that must have done for him, for his growth as a man, as a father, as a husband. And I think about the many photos I have seen of Gianna and Kobe at basketball games, the obviously beautiful and effortless love between father and daughter, and what it must have meant to Kobe to be able to mentor Gianna’s clear passion for the sport that had made her Dad a world-wide superstar, a filmmaker, an author, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a millionaire several times over, an ex-athlete who was sprinting full speed ahead into the second act of his life. A mentorship that led to their being on that helicopter together when it crashed.
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I ache for this loss, for our loss, for Kobe, for Gianna, for the seven other human beings on that ill-fated copter ride. Ash is to ash and dust is to dust, and the physical being of Kobe Bryant has been snatched from us, forever. I ache for his wife, Vanessa, I ache for his three remaining daughters, Natalia, age 17, Bianka, age 3, and Capri, not yet 1, and whose middle name happens to be Kobe. Forget what Kobe Bean Bryant means to us as a champion athlete. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, in such a cruel and barbaric way. There is just something very perverted about experiencing this in real-time. There is just something very maddening about the fact that there is nothing we can do to bring him, her, them, back.
Finally, I think of a song Simon & Garfunkel wrote long ago called “Mrs. Robinson,” where they ask whatever happened to a once-great athlete who represented the spirit of an entire people. As America and the planet mourns the passing of Kobe, as we cry tears for a person who was trying to do the right thing in a time of many doing wrong, I reimagine those lyrics for the Black Mamba and I end it here because I have no other words—
Where have you gone, Kobe Bean Bryant
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
Woo, woo, woo
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson
Kobe Bean has left and gone away
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey
Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, civil and human rights activist, public speaker, and author of 14 books, including his autobiography, 'The Education of Kevin Powell.'