- With a hilarious hit record, Afroman has good reason to smile.
From Biz Markie's pained, passing-a-kidney-stone howl to Shock G's plastic schnoz, hip-hop once made a point of balancing its fatalism with facetiousness. But then the potholes in De La Soul's lawn became the graves in which N.W.A.'s dead homiez were buried, and nowadays, hip-hop is as stern as the frown frozen upon Suge Knight's mug.
So why has hip-hop become so hardhearted, so exhaustingly mannish? Well, truth be told, rap's nuts have always been as puffy as Mr. Combs. Considering its origins in the boroughs and barrios, where folks lock their car doors when driving through, they had to be. But for those who didn't have the biceps big enough or the legs fast enough to contend with old-school rap roughnecks like Ice-T or the D.O.C., the best defense was a sense of humor. After all, anyone who's been on the short end of a good ass-whipping knows that often the best way to save your butt is to make the bully laugh. Thus, from its inception, hip-hop was imbued with a jocularity, a playfulness that tempered the tough-guy posturing.
But as hip-hop's popularity -- and profitability -- skyrocketed in recent years, ironically, so has the wrath of many of its leading artists. It's almost as if there's a guilt complex among the millionaire rappers of today; as if DMX fears that, by cracking a smile in a photo shoot, by dropping the thug facade even for an instant, he will somehow lose touch with the hardship and the struggle from which hip-hop springs.
No stranger to this impulse of unyielding masculinity is Mississippi-by-way-of-L.A. rapper Afroman. Though it would be hard to discern from his dopey reefer anthem "Because I Got High" -- a Top 10 hit that reveals the potty-mouthed, Lazy Boy rhymer to be an ill-mannered gene splice between Redd Foxx and Too $hort, with a little Chuck Berry thrown in for good measure -- Afroman was once prone to the chest-thumping that now dominates hip-hop.
"At first I was mad at the world, and I think I was at the stage where I wanted to kick everybody's ass," he says. "I was really trying to be something I wasn't. I was trying to be The Man. I thought I was tough, but when I acted tough, I got beat up really bad. This helped me put things in perspective. I'm like 'Well, I'm not a badass, so we can get rid of that. I'm not no big pimp, so I can get rid of that.' Then I found out who I was, man. I just started working from there. That was the turning point for me. I became a true person. Maybe not a right person, but I was true."
In finding a certain comfort level in his own skin, Afroman was able to part rap's veil of machismo and bring some smirk to the genre. His first nationally distributed album and second overall, The Good Times is a gleefully irresponsible lap dance of a record, in which the only thing looser than Afroman's lips are the women. There are odes to drunk driving ("Let's All Get Drunk") and malt liquor ("Tall Cans"), not to mention the album's aforementioned smash single, on which Afroman provides a laundry list of all the responsibilities he's forsaken for weed -- like paying child support and cleaning his room. The whole thing reeks of amateurism -- most of it was recorded in Afroman's garage -- almost as strongly as its lyricist's breath does of St. Ides. But for all its Kmart beats and mentally challenged, Forrest Gump-funk, The Good Times radiates with a debauched joyousness that's oddly life-affirming. In Afroman's Visine-abetted worldview, life is all about learning how to take your lumps with a smile -- an outlook that takes on added relevance in light of the recent events in this country.
"People are drawn to me in the midst of all this because they're finding laughter," he says. "I sung 'Hush' the other night, and all I seen was lighters and people hugging each other. Man, when people raise a lighter up to a song you wrote . . . I almost wiped tears. I was like 'Damn, I think I made it, dog.'"
It's been a long, bumpy ride to the top of the charts, though. Born in L.A., Afroman (a.k.a. Joseph Foreman) began making randy rap tapes in his bedroom as early as junior high.
"I made this tape in the eighth grade," he recalls. "I had got expelled from school because I used to love to sag. I was sagging back in the late '80s, when sagging wasn't cool. Only gang members was sagging. Even Run DMC wore tight pants. I was sagging too much, and my principal kicked me out of school. I went home, and my mom fussed at me a whole lot, but we made this deal that I'd be good if she bought me this DJ set. I'm on home study and I got a new DJ set, so I don't care if I can't go outside. I made up this tape about my eighth-grade teacher. I'd dub all these tapes all night, sell them for like two dollars, and these cats would play them and just fall out laughing, because I was talking about the teacher. I was like "Ms. Dobler, if you didn't have feet, would you wear shoes?" Then I mimicked her voice, "No!" "Well, then why do you wear a bra?"
But though it may have earned him a head start on summer vacation as a youth, Foreman's unflappable, perpetually vulgar wit has made him a star a decade and a half later. Buoyed by a slot on the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back soundtrack, "Because I Got High" became one of the biggest hits of the summer. Consequently, The Good Times has reached as high as No. 10 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart and is steadily working its way toward gold. Moreover, the album was recently nominated for the Short List Award -- a new music industry honor, patterned after Britain's Mercury Prize -- recognizing the 50 best albums that have sold under 500,000 copies. Much more significant than album sales or gold plaques, however, is the degree to which The Good Times has successfully brought a lightheartedness back to mainstream rap, a refreshing impudence that's a much-needed salve for all the wounds opened by the gunfire of Jay-Z.
And what does Afroman get for his troubles? Well, his recent good fortune has resulted in a cruel twist of fate. Though he's made his name with an ode to pot, he's now often too busy to smoke it.
"It sucks, man. I'm sitting there, watching everybody in the crowd get high, and I'm up there sober, singing to their asses. Back in the day, I used to roll up all the time. Nowadays, I got to be places on time. I gotta do this. I gotta do that. But if I feel like it, I'll smoke it. I'm like a pretty girl: I fuck when I want to," he concludes. With a laugh, of course.