OK, so maybe Afroman isn't the first guy who comes to mind when you think about Sept. 11, but Ted Koppel could do worse than to have the straight-outta-Palmdale rapper on Nightline to talk about airport security. That's because Joseph Foreman, Afroman's laid-back, spliff-smokin' Clark Kent, used to be airport security.
Yep, this bearded, smiling latter-day Biz Markie, whose 'fro is vintage ABA and who's become a hero to a generation of Zig-Zag enthusiasts, used to check luggage in Los Angeles at LAX for guns, knives, explosives and, yeah, box cutters. That, of course, was a couple of years before Afroman, now 27, blew up beyond all expectations with the hit single "Because I Got High," the theme song for Kevin Smith's sleeper comedy hit Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and the best-known lick from his debut album, The Good Times, on Universal Records.
"Man, I worked, like, two weeks at each company at the airport," Afroman laughs by phone from Hattiesburg, Miss., where he now lives with his two kids, ages 8 and 4. "I was a real screw-up, Dog."
Knowing what he knows, how does he view airport security now in light of all that mess at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Afroman pauses, his voice turning serious as he answers:
"For stuff like box cutters, it just needs to be tighter, know what I'm saying? We could detect bombs, but things definitely needed to be microwaved more. Sometimes you wondered, 'What if?', you know? People have a lot of what-ifs. And you wonder where to draw that line on a what-if. Well, what if a frog had wings on his back? Then he wouldn't bump his ass when he jumps.
"See, I used to sit and think, 'What if? What if? What if?' If you sit there in an airport, you'll trip out, and that's what the government is doing right now. They're adding up all those what-ifs and tightening things up," he says.
Afroman's recent success ensures that he doesn't have to worry too much about the fallout in the airline industry, but that doesn't mean he was unaffected by what happened. His appearance on The Late, Late Show With Craig Kilborn took place on Monday, Sept. 10. After singing "Because I Got High" for the studio audience and getting out at about 7:30 p.m., he and the band hung out until late that night so they could watch themselves on TV. They then hit the sack, expecting to catch a 9 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to New York the next day for a scheduled interview with Spin magazine. But history intervened while they were sleeping, and the Sept. 11 flight would never leave the runway.
"Believe me, I was just happy and grateful to be alive," Afroman says. "This is one time I was glad to take a deep breath and put humanity first. I went to my homeboy's house, got in his car and drove back to Mississippi, me and my man. This is when they had the airplanes parked, and I really wanted to see my kids. I didn't know what was goin' on, know what I'm saying?"
It took Afroman and his partner 30 hours of straight driving before he was safe in the arms of ol' Miss. ("And of course we did the speed limit," he says, laughing.) The journey was sort of emblematic of Afroman's life and his escape from what he refers to as the "chaos" of LA to the tranquility of bucolic Hattiesburg. It may seem like an odd place for a music maker to take up residence, being so far from the bicoastal media capitals. But considering the unprecedented madness of the attack on the WTC and the ordinary insanity of living in a concrete labyrinth, Afroman's escape is enviable. He even has a song on The Good Times named after the Magnolia State; it begins with a babbling brook and emphasizes the refrain, "Please take me back home to Mississippi."
But that joint's sentiment quickly turns to comedy. Afroman informs listeners that Mississippi has "small towns, small cities, but they still gots big ol' asses plus titties," and he tells us how he now "rolls Phillies with the hillbillies.... Never thought I'd see the Ku Klux Klan buyin' front-row seats for the Afroman." The occasional rooster's squawk punctuates a stripped-down bass line and light drums sure to get you bumpin' -- Afroman is, in his own words, "flowin' on the mike like the Mississippi River." His secret weapon is a little Palmdale persiflage, the buffoonery born of an adolescence playing the clown and making a virtue of necessity.
"I used to wanna be tough and shit," says Afroman. "Like Ice Cube and N.W.A. It pissed me off because no one wanted to take me seriously; they just laughed really hard. If you're a rapper, you want them to react to what you're saying and then maybe dance. But you're in an awkward position if they laugh, because you don't know if they're laughing at what you're saying or at you. That's a trip."
Afroman started playing guitar when he was 8, was rapping when he was 12 and was hawking tapes of his hip-hop doo-wop at 14. By the time he was at Palmdale High, he was the most popular guy at every party -- and they still haven't invented a party that Afroman won't attend.
"Wherever I went, there was always that moment when everybody would turn off the music and request me to rap. I was a real big show-off, so of course I was down to jump up on top of something and do it. Then people would laugh and kick and shake their heads or whatever. I always went to party just to show clout. I mean, I'll walk to the damn party. But you gotta understand, I'm the kind of dude that everybody wanna associate with some kind of way," he says.
It was while Afroman was selling those self-made tapes and dreaming about success that he picked up the chronic habit as a major time-killer, hence the overwhelming Cheech and Chong vibe. But nowadays, he says, he's so busy making paper that he doesn't need to get high. Plus, he's happier than Marlon Brando at a Tony Roma's all-you-can-eat rib buffet -- high on life, as they say. And hey, who are we to doubt the word of Afroman?
"I used to smoke weed like it was a pacifier," says Afroman. "It's funny, now that I'm doing all this stuff and got all this adrenaline goin', I honestly don't need it. If I still wanted to, I would. You remember when we were little kids and ice cream was a big thing? But then you get diarrhea two or three times and you can drive by Baskin-Robbins without having a fit. It's like that. Who knows, Dog? I guess if someone caught me at the right time and I didn't have anything to do, I might smoke it. But it's like there's nothing that depresses me. I'm happy. I'm doin' cartwheels. Know what I'm saying?"