Why Chris Rock’s 1991 Debut Standup Album Is as Relevant Today as Ever

Chris Rock’s first standup album, Born Suspect, was recorded in 1991, but it seems like it could have been recorded last month. Sure, comics are always kind of mining the same big issues in the human condition and that’s why we get lots of “black people are like this, white people are like this” “women vs. men” jokes. But seriously, both in overall tone and specific cultural references, this album is like…you know…relevant and stuff.

Background: Born Suspect was recorded in Atlanta in 1991 and came out I think only on cassette, although the internet kind of makes all that irrelevant. It was recorded in a black comedy club in Atlanta, which I mention only because this was during Rock’s tenure at SNL, where he was doing characters like Nat X, who he referred to in a 2008 interview with Creative Screenwriting Magazine as “a watered down Eddie Murphy bit” and “cute.” This was his real shit. Standup in a comedy club with glasses clinking and a low ceiling and the kind of hoarse voice you get from doing shows every night before you’re a rich guy who drinks honey tea all the time and lives in Connecticut.

The first thing that makes you double check when this was recorded is just the topics he talks about. Minimum wage (“you know what they’re saying when they pay you minimum wage? They’re saying ‘I would pay you less, but it’s illegal.’”), the Washington Redskins’ racist name (“That’s like the New York Ni**ers or the Denver Dykes”), white kids’ entitlement (“Allowance? I was ‘allowed’ to go outside.”), and how the old men in the Supreme Court fuck over women (“I wouldn’t want a bunch of women voting on my balls or nothing.”)

But maybe the most jarring thing is just the tone and vocabulary he uses to talk about race. The title refers to how the experience of being a black person in America is like being born a suspect. Like how whenever old white ladies see him they dial 9-1 and then just wait for him to do something. Or how black people can’t just eat at a restaurant and leave and say the money’s on the table. “You better believe they’re gonna check that table before you leave that restaurant.” Chris Rock invented white privilege before it was White Privilege!

Or, I guess I should say, calling out white privilege. And look, I know he’s not the first comic to talk about race in America. But he is the first comic I can think of that frames the discussion in these contemporary terms – the terms of how the racism is just baked into the system of American culture. Like he talks about how his mother never gives money to white bums because, she says, “there’s no reason for that.” And he points out how poor white people are extra dangerous because they’re not used to being poor. They’re like “I have no money! But I’m white!!!” whereas black guys are just like “shit, I’m broke. Guess I’ll go hang out or something.” I mean to me that works as a joke because it doesn’t make sense at all, but still rings true. If he was just less funny and 20 years later he could turn that observation into a blog post about white entitlement.

Of course, there is overlap with his later albums, both in terms of general themes (race) and specific topics (Marion Barry, white kids are crazier than black kids), but I’d go as far as to say this album came before a gradual shift in his career from pointing out how fucked the system is to the more palatable self-deprecating “personal responsibility” explanation that the Race Realist crowd loves so much. Case in point: on 1997’s Roll with the New, one of his Marion Barry jokes is “Marion Barry at the Million Man March. Marion Barry at the Million Man March. Even in our finest hour, we got a crackhead on stage.” On Born Suspect the Marion Barry joke is about Barry’s crack dealer recognizing him in the park and being like, “damn, you’re the mayor. You gotta clean up these streets.” The drug dealer doesn’t want there to be drug dealers either. Again, it’s a situation that doesn’t make sense, but rings true in some way, like a zen koan or something.

Now this is analyzing comedy way too much, which I realize is literally the worst thing in the world, but there you go. I think it was Sinbad who said “comedians are funnier when they’re riding the bus.” Well, this is when Chris Rock was riding the bus. He even talks about it in his bit about minimum wage: “I used to be a bus boy. You know what that means? That means you ride the bus home. Cus they don’t give a fuck about you.”

So anyways, this album is still really relevant and good. You could say that’s because we still haven’t addressed these problems in society that comics were talking about a quarter century ago, or you could dismiss it as like “ah well, there are only so many angles you can take on these big cultural subjects.” I just think it’s good to remember that Chris Rock did do the “young black men: if someone steps on your shoe, let it slide. It’s not worth spending the rest of your life in prison because someone scuffed your Puma” joke. But he also used to go onstage all the time and point out that America was built by people like Joe Kennedy, who was a cop killer who sold drugs to kids.

There’s also a funny song at the end called “Your Mother’s Got A Big Head” about how a guy’s mother has a big head.

Eddie Brawley is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn

Why Chris Rock’s 1991 Debut Standup Album Is as […]