Charlie Murphy was a master of the black oral tradition. His "Rick James" sketch is proof.
Charlie Murphy — who died Wednesday of leukemia at age 57 — was most famous for his "True Hollywood Stories," a pair of comedy sketches that aired as part of Chappelle's Show in February 2004. The first of these detailed Murphy's numerous, violent run-ins with Rick James, the notoriously drug-addled R&B superstar, during the 1980s.
"I had to fight that motherfucker, like, four times," Murphy claimed, according to the program's co-creator, Neal Brennan.
The anecdotes that followed would generate some of the most iconic TV moments of the past 25 years — a rollercoaster of outlandish, duel-like encounters between Murphy and James, which at one point featured the singer, played by host Dave Chappelle, punching Murphy in the face so hard it left a ring imprint on his forehead.
Not to be outdone, Murphy retaliated by kicking James in the torso, causing him to fly backward — levitating, at one point — into a glass hotel mirror.
"I think I'm bleeding inside my chest," Chappelle, as James, quips, after offering Murphy marijuana as a truce.
The sketch worked so well, in part, because Chappelle's unhinged portrayal of James elevated the singer to the level of myth. But Murphy was the real star: His sincere, authoritative account of these absurd events, all of which are ostensibly true, exemplifies the best of the black American oral tradition — a medium of which Murphy was an undisputed master.
Thirteen years after the fact, the Rick James sketch remains perhaps the most famous example of this form of storytelling packaged for television — even though it had animated black art, music and folklore for centuries prior. The black oral tradition remains unique due to the conditions that created it. When Europeans trafficked millions of enslaved Africans to the United States, they forbade them from reading and writing, cutting off a vital means of historical preservation.
As a result, black history was passed down verbally. But the oral tradition was more than just a method of preserving the past. At its best, it also supplemented, clarified and elevated that past. During an address he gave at the University of Iowa in 1990, the late Darwin T. Turner — an English professor and authority on black American literature — described how Alex Haley, author of the black genealogy epic Roots, had exhausted all written records of his family while doing research, only to find their village of origin when he met an oral historian who knew the region's history by heart.
"The written records of civilization had guided Haley only into the dim past," Turner said. "It was oral history that illuminated that past."
Oral histories have long been dismissed as too subjective and unreliable to be trustworthy records. But as Turner explained, they are equally important for reminding us that "history is the story of the lives of human beings — not merely the record of great battles, changes of authority and momentous discoveries." And human beings have always best related to each other through stories — whether those stories told of precise historical events or cast those events in a more imaginative light through folklore, myths and tall tales.
Charlie Murphy's stories about Rick James bear all the hallmarks of a good tall tale. Their disputable veracity comes second to their storytelling value and lionizing their subjects as larger-than-life folk heroes and villains. Even Murphy's friends question how much of their content is actually true.
"I don't think that's gravitationally possible," Neal Brennan said of Murphy's chest-kick that allegedly caused Rick James to go flying through the air. "But Charlie believes it."
The real Rick James, who appears as an occasional co-narrator in the Chappelle's Show sketch, scoffs at the idea of Murphy whupping his ass.
"He'll tell it like he gave me some kind of Bruce Lee cross-kick or something," James chuckled dismissively, bedecked in gaudy jewelry and a loose-fitting, floral print shirt.
But it's Murphy — the storyteller — who gets the final word: "I kicked the shit [out] of him, man," he boasted, while slow-motion images of James flying backward through the air play on loop.
Told by any other person, Murphy's encounters with James may have come off as absurd bullshit. In Murphy's hands, they became the stuff of legend. And that he was able to shape these experiences into such an indelible cultural moment was a testament to what a special talent he was.