|Nasty As Ever, and Not Yet Through|
|Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor|
Miami’s Blowfly is the oldest, dirtiest rapper around -- a new film tells how he got that way
The Weird World of Blowfly is a documentary that will have a special screening at Wynwood’s O Cinema at the end of this month. A generic, straight tagline for the film would read something like this: “On tour with an original rapper and underappreciated R&B composer who has made Miami his home and who has become a cult hero.”
But that would be an understatement, to say the least. A viewer following that loose description might not be prepared for the very first scene, in which Blowfly raps into a microphone about how he is “the master of the class,” with a male member so large he “can’t f**k a human ass.” Then he turns to his manager and says he needs to make sure he includes former President George Bush in his dirty ditty. That is a better summary not only of the film, but of the weird double life of the man born Clarence Reid.
The 71-year-old, who has worked and lived around North Miami almost since he left his native Georgia (before he was ten), rhymes about raunchy sex, race, and politics. He’s also pretty funny.
In the opening minutes of the film, we see local star DJ Le Spam talking 1960s music in Reid’s living room, rapper and Law & Order actor Ice T reminiscing about how his dad listened to Blowfly’s foul party lyrics, and the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra saying he has never heard a sense of humor with such a “deliciously degenerate attitude toward the world.” Indeed, Reid might be the most interesting entertainment story out of Miami that most people have never heard.
The film traces Reid’s beginnings and the emergence of his alter ego at a tender age. Dressed in a trademark outfit that includes sequined cape, jumpsuit, and a glittery blue super-hero hood, Reid remembers that, as a seven-year-old, following the death of his grandfather, he set out to make some money for the family. According to Reid, he told the family’s white landlords: “I could plow a mule. And they said. ‘Get your little nigger ass over there and sit down and shut the f**k up.’”
So he sang a dirty tune instead. The white folks loved it and, rather than paying him a measly buck for plowing, they gave him $30. When his grandmother wondered why anyone would do that, Reid told her they said, “Oh, he’s a nasty little bastard -- but he’s funny.” His grandmother replied, “You’re a disgrace to the human race. You’re no better than a blowfly.”
That’s one version of the story.
But it’s a revealing and poignant one. The little nasty rapper started changing lyrics to pop songs to make people laugh and to hold an audience. But the man behind the Blowfly persona never drank, took drugs, or lived anything like a hip-hop lifestyle. To this day, Reid reads the Bible regularly, as is shown in one scene in which he pulls out a small, torn, well-worn edition.
That incredible contradiction is what made Jonathan Furmanski want to make a film about him. He had been listening to Blowfly’s music since he was in high school, but the filmmaker didn’t know about Clarence Reid. When he finally encountered him, Furmanski fell for the gentle man without the cape, and decided he wanted to follow “both” of them on an upcoming tour.
The results are humorous, and revealing. In a Seattle hotel room, Furmanski captures Reid alone in bed smothering a McDonalds breakfast in grape jelly and syrup, before making the sign of the cross. The very next scene: A masked Blowfly is singing what he says is one of the first raps ever, his own from 1965, “Rap Dirty.” His hand is making very different gestures this time. And, make no mistake, these are X-rated lyrics.
“That’s what is so completely unexpected,” says Furmanski, speaking by phone from New York. “He is not a one-note character.”
No, indeed. In the 1960s and 1970s, Reid wrote some seriously good soul songs, including “Rockin’ Chair,” and hits for Sam and Dave and KC and the Sunshine Band. But like so many musicians of his day, especially black ones, Reid ended up selling the rights to the moneymaking hits for, well, a song.
As Blowfly, Reid’s music found a cult following, but never mainstream acceptance, and
certainly it never made millions for anyone. Yet that’s the persona Reid most seems to love, as does a dedicated following.
After writing an article for Miami New Times on Blowfly back in 2003, writer Tom Bowker quit being a scribe and decided to manage the singer, play the drums in his band, and take him back out on tour, years after he had quit the road.
Director Furmanski filmed several of these tours, including one through eastern Germany, with German alt-rock band Die Artze. Talk about contradictions. Non-English-speaking revelers, some of whom could be Reid’s grandchildren, dressed in black with pierced faces, are jamming and laughing at the graphic yet silly lyrics being sung by a man in a mask and cape, while the female backup singer, wearing tassels on her naked breasts, shakes a fleshy, decidedly un-South Beach body. It’s campy, and more reminiscent of a cabaret than a rap concert.
Onscreen, Reid, who never got a high-school education, appears philosophical. He says that maybe he wasn’t really trying to make the white farmers laugh when he added profanity to their favorite songs -- he wanted “to piss them off.” The man who follows the Bible claims he shouldn’t go to heaven, as it “would be boring to me.”
Back in Miami, with the tour over, the costumes stored away, and the hip members of the headline bands nowhere in sight, another poignant and funny moment unfolds. Reid sits at an admissions desk at Jackson Memorial Hospital, telling the administrator that he makes about “$600 and something” in Social Security per month, that he lives with his mother, and that he needs to get treatment for the arthritis in his knee.
Then Reid says he wants to sing her a little song, but he guesses “it should be clean.” As other women in the room turn around and start to giggle, he decides against a clean number, and changes the lyrics of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to the time he gets something else. They all love it.
During the four-day film run, special events will be held at O Cinema, including live sets by DJ Le Spam and Blowfly himself. From Thursday, September 29 to Sunday, October 2, with four screenings on the weekend days; 90 NW 29th St., Miami, 305-571-9970, www.o-cinema.org.
Volume 14, Issue 11, January 2017
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