The school of Chris Rock

On the eve of a world tour, Chris Rock talks to Julian Hall about Barack Obama, kinky hair and the search for the next great black stand-up

Before my interview with Chris Rock, his PR tells me that "he does a good interview". As it turns out, the time allotted is enough for me to understand the disparity between the comedian on-stage and off. Performing, Rock growls and hollers through material that is sharp, charged and challenging. In conversation, he's measured, unassuming and, sometimes, vague.

"I was hanging out during Live Earth and I went to the Comedy Store, that small club, and got on stage and it was so good. People were going crazy and the jokes were working so I thought, 'OK, let me come back'." That's how Rock, rather modestly, explains his world tour, which will finally end the long wait for British fans for a proper sight of the 42-year-old comic.

In the mid-Eighties, when that small club, the Comedy Store, was solidly part of the comedy establishment, an 18-year-old Rock was spotted at New York's the Comic Strip Live by Eddie Murphy. Rock has eventually taken Murphy's mantle of the US's highest-profile comedian, first paying his dues on Saturday Night Live and surviving a career hiatus.

One of Rock's jokes from his early years was about a woman who accosts him in the street and says that, for $200, she will do anything for him: "Bitch, paint my house," comes the reply. It's practically the Stateside version of a Northern working men's club joke, and while Rock hasn't become any more subtle, his routines have developed in to something that can shock but also provoke thought, as in his "niggas vs black people" routine from his 1996 HBO special set Bring the Pain: "There's like a civil war going on with black people. And there are two sides. There's black people, and there's niggas. And niggas have got to go. Every time black people wanna have a good time, ignorant-ass niggas mess it up... Can't go to a movie the first week it comes out. Why? 'Cause niggas are shooting at the screen. What kind of ignorant shit is that?"

It was a much-vaunted routine, and one that garnered as much criticism as praise, some believing that Rock's proclamations gave ammunition to racists. "I never really felt like I was doing that material to, um... It was a joke I was doing at the time, was it big over [in the UK]? Right, wow... I've got other routines... I hope I'm not a one-joke wonder - never anything more than this joke. It represented a sector in the African-American community. I never really had to explain it that much. I guess I was smart, but I didn't really know that I was being smart, because I told it in front of an all-black audience."

The routine is a reminder that Rock's voice is that of middle-class black America. There's a moralistic tone to his work; for example, on the album Bigger and Blacker (1999), on the subject of single mothers, he says: "You could do it without a man, but that means it's going to be done shit. You can drive a car with your feet if you want to; don't make it a good idea."

But if Rock is conservative about family matters, he's been equally bullish about race-relations. "It's always going to be bubbling under. It's like a bad relationship. You're always waiting for something to break you up, know what I mean? Anticipating something bad. That's how racial relations are. It could be good - it's good right now - but we're all kind of waiting for the bad."

Rock believes that things have changed, however, even though "a black man still has to work twice as hard to get the better thing that's out there". He illustrates the change by turning to Brooklyn, where he grew up (and still lives), a childhood celebrated in the acclaimed sitcom Everybody Hates Chris and successfully exported to the UK. "Brooklyn is very gentrified. I always say: 'White people leave a will and white people leave a won't', but now there's black people who inherit houses and stuff and that never happened in my generation - no one's ever inherited anything. When my dad died, I inherited a debt of $300,000 because of the mortgage and the loans he co-signed. For the first time, black people are inheriting wealth - if we do the right thing and hold on to the stuff."

While "walking tall" is important for his community, Rock's routines have naturally dealt with those who have come in under the bar, such as OJ Simpson. However, Simpson's recent arrest and the release of his controversial book If I Did It can't tempt Rock back to an issue where guilt and racial bias pulled in opposite directions: "Nah... I've kind of left it alone... He got arrested again and that was kind of funny, but it seems like I did the best OJ I could possibly do and I moved on from 'The Juice'."

Rock may have put distance between himself and "the Juice", but he will always be associated with the man, especially as the inaugural sketch of The Chris Rock Show - which ran for three seasons until Rock decided to call it a day - began with a sketch where Rock uncovers a video entitled: I Didn't Kill My Wife (But If I Did, Here's How I'd Do It): "I don't wanna say it was luck; stuff like that happens. I don't even know what to make of that, it was my Nostradamus moment."

Beyond the tour, the future for Rock includes a film project called Good Hair, which he describes as "a kind of Michael Moore expose on black hair, like a Hoop Dreams for hairstylists. Part of it is about competing in the biggest hair show in the world. The other half is me travelling round the word dealing with the products. I just came back from India, where they make the best weaves in the world. I am gonna make it funny, trust me, even though it sounds insane."

The strange premise may not do much to assuage the detractors of Rock's film career so far. He's scored few critical hits or box office smashes; in fact, it could be argued that his most lasting impression on the world of cinema was his lively stewardship of the Oscars a few years ago. It must have been this feeling of "potential on the bench" that was in the back of his mind when he told The New York Times, in advance of his New Year's Eve Madison Square Gardens gig, "It's a great life, I wouldn't trade it with anybody. Except maybe Will Smith."

"I'm trying to choose stuff that I can be proud of," explains Rock. "You want to be an artist about it. You can offer me a lot of money, I'm not saying that you are gonna get me to play a transvestite or anything, but you might get me in a blockbuster that I didn't think was that good, that I wouldn't have done before - I have children now. But I want to have fun and be proud of my work, and I want to know why I did it. I don't want to be in a position where you do a movie so you can buy a Bentley, or a new house, or whatever."

Meanwhile, Rock has come to the UK a few days early to warm up for the tour in a few small clubs: "I'm just sitting down now and going over references, and trying to work out what's gonna work and what's not. The show will be a mixture of some greatest hits and new stuff - I guess some of the Barack stuff."

Like Oprah Winfrey, Rock has publicly endorsed Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful; he introduced him to an audience at the Apollo in Harlem as the next US President. When it comes to anointing fellow comics, however, Rock has been less forthcoming. In an interview in 2000, he said: "Nobody's good. I hate it. I truly hate it. I mean, there's a lot of guys doing stuff I admire but, stand-up-wise, I feel very alone. I really miss [Bill] Hicks... I really miss Sam [Kinison, whose ranting style was very influential on Rock]... I feel like the guy who finally got into Studio 54, three years too late. 'Duh, where are all the famous people?'"

Seven years later, Rock is still less than enthusiastic. "There's some guys. I like what Katt Williams is doing, Dane Cook's a decent guy, Jim Norton is pretty funny. [Dave] Chappelle would be my brother; more than anybody else he's the guy that actually puts fear in my heart and I go: 'Oh boy, I dunno if I want to go on after him.'"

Of the British comics, he is enthusiastic about Ricky Gervais, whose DVD poster is adorned with a quote from Rock describing Gervais as "one of the funniest comedians I have ever seen". "With Ricky there's some kind of weird honesty, sort of like Tourette's, very controlled Tourette's. I like Eddie Izzard a lot, and that young guy, Russell Brand's pretty good. Yeah, I've definitely been checking out the scene in the UK."

As far as doing his homework on the UK goes, Rock has only the brief Comedy Store and Live Earth experience to go by, but he feels that the omens are good: "I've no expectation for the good or bad, but I was passing through Heathrow on the way to India the other day and they had a book machine, which is something that you would never find in America. That was very encouraging."

Chris Rock tours to 26 January (www.chrisrock.com)

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