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Blowfly

Cover of Blowfly’s Superblowfly (Henry Stone Music, 2006).

THERE’S A 99 PERCENT CHANCE that you and I could never be friends if you were not a Blowfly fan—if you weren’t one of the underground legion of “freaks,” as he called them, who loved and appreciated his outlandish and genius musical vision. The insect antihero of nasty rhymes known as Blowfly was created when Clarence Reid, a successful soul singer and songwriter who penned dozens of radio hits in the 1960s and ’70s, came out of his cocoon disguised in a costume and wearing a crude superhero mask, complete with pipe-cleaner antennae, to hide his identity from his bosses at the record labels where he wrote mainstream songs. I can’t think of any artist more Kafkaesque than Blowfly, who literally metamorphosed into the character of an insect for existentialist reasons. With his passing in January, the world of performance art lost one of the greatest artists, humorists, singer-songwriters, and popular music appropriationists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

During the ’80s, I was on a constant personal quest for music that was not of this earth; music that was just downright weird, forgotten, or outside of normative categories and histories. One day I struck gold, spending just ten cents on my first copy of a Blowfly LP at the local used-record store where I worked on weekends during my teenage years.

When I listened to the album at home, it immediately struck me as the funniest LP ever recorded. I had never heard anything like it: This mysterious “Blowfly,” who sang filthy soul ballads, could actually sing his songs beautifully and straight. It was a pure comedy album, but far from anything other stand-up comics such as Redd Foxx, Rudy Ray Moore, or Richard Pryor were doing.

Blowfly was the musical prankster I was always looking for. He was more outrageous than any hardcore-punk singer without having to scream. He simply sang his explicit poems of filth with the utmost sincerity, which made his music genuinely radical and extreme.

Race, gender, class, sexual orientation, sexual preference—none of this mattered to Blowfly; he truly saw no barriers constraining the topics of his uninhibited songs and albums. For Blowfly, it was all good, because mixing everything up in his own self-described “weird” style was how he spiked the punch bowl for his audiences.

Blowfly’s specialty was appropriating and parodying pop songs and radio sensations. He took no prisoners, even butchering hits by Reid, his own alter ego. His hilarious, sexually explicit lyrics reflected a surreal and iconoclastic yet profound approach to popular anthems. They were also some of the earliest examples of rapping and rhyming. Ironically, both his original works and his appropriations were eventually reappropriated and resampled—by Beyoncé, Big Daddy Kane, Ice Cube, Jurassic 5, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Wu-Tang Clan, among others.

The images of Blowfly wearing his insect/superhero costume on his LP covers stand as some of the most outrageous album artwork ever designed. They offer wild, distorted homages to popular film and television programs, horror flicks, zodiac astrology, and oldies but goodies. Blowfly’s music was the filthy answer to the masterful appropriations of Spike Jones and his City Slickers, but while Jones was broadcast all over America, Blowfly could never be cleaned up for family-friendly radio airplay. Throughout the ’70s, he released his albums on his own label, Weird World, to make sure his work would only exist on his own terms.

After Blowfly’s albums were pressed, they were distributed in record stores—sometimes despite law-enforcement opposition—where I would often find them filed not in the rap, soul, funk, disco, R&B, or comedy sections but rather under the category of “miscellaneous,” which always intrigued me, because it seemed to acknowledge his absurdist anti-aesthetic pop language as wholly its own “other” category. Radical comedic performers such as Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, and Frank Zappa had similar objectives. But while Blowfly’s music was positioned within popular culture, he also defied that culture to a perverse level. And unlike Sun Ra and George Clinton, who were spreading their otherworldly Afro-Futurist gospels to the inhabitants of planet Earth, Blowfly was specifically foretelling the future of urban music, dressing up in character and playing the abject storyteller of fantastic and juvenile tales of the city.

Other antihero characters would later appear in hip-hop, such as Rammellzee, Bushwick Bill, Dr. Octagon, Brotha Lynch Hung, and MF Doom—all surreal urban storytellers in their time. But Blowfly always existed in a parallel universe that time forgot: While he was out of sync with the masses, his music was actually in time with the future.

As Blowfly continued to produce albums out of his home base in Miami during the ’80s and early ’90s, rap and hip-hop were evolving along with the controversy surrounding explicit lyrics. When local Miami act 2 Live Crew went to court over the graphic content in their lyrics, it seemed surprising that Blowfly had somehow managed to dodge the censorship bullet for all those years.

I once asked Blowfly why his music had never been the target of fundamentalist groups, such as the Parents Music Resource Center, in Florida. He joked, “The judge and those people screaming and com-plaining about dirty language all know me and my music. And the reason they leave me alone is because they all wear masks just like me, because they’re secretly Blowfly freaks.”

Cameron Jamie is an artist based in Paris.