David Drozen wears a gold chain and speaks with the gruff directness of a showbiz veteran. He’s the CEO of Uproar Entertainment and he’s been producing comedy albums since the late 1960s, for old-schoolers like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx as well as modern greats like Margaret Cho, Brian Regan, Dana Gould and the late Richard Jeni.
He’s recorded more than a dozen albums at Seattle’s Comedy Underground, and he returns this weekend to produce Jen Murphy’s latest release. I asked Drozen a few questions about his epoch-spanning career.
You’ve been recording performances for almost 50 years. How did you get into the business?
My father was the founder of Laff Records, which was comedy records with naked women on the front cover where they’d put stickers over their nipples and you could buy the record and take the off cellophane and peel the sticker off if you wanted to. It was also older Jewish women playing the piano, knocking out bawdy songs, like Belle Barth and Pearl Williams. I became part of Laff Records in 1969. I walked into the Comedy Store one night and saw a young black comedian onstage whose name was Richard Pryor, and the rest is history.
What was it like growing up with a father who recorded dirty albums?
Well, he didn’t really record them. I don’t even know where he got some of those. He was a jeweler by trade. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Cassius Clay before he was Mohammed Ali, but it was my dad’s store that Cassius Clay used to stand in front of on 5th and Broadway in downtown LA and say “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!” How my dad came into that, I can’t even tell you.
Most of the early albums you recorded were for black artists, including some pretty big figures in the African-American arts community, like Iceberg Slim and the Watts Prophets. How did you get into that scene?
That’s a really good question. Iceberg Slim, there was a jazz man named Red Holloway who brought this to us. The Watts Prophets was something that I found, and that was actually the first rap album. It was really a poetry album, but the title was Rappin’ Black In A White World.
They were contemporaries of the Last Poets, whom more people have probably heard of.
It was the Last Poets era. The Watts Prophets were part of that, and they used to compete in competitions between
the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets onstage, and they’d take turns, one right after the other.
Would there be a winner?
I don’t think it was so much a winner as it was a show.
It was basically a rap show, then.
It was really a poetry show with some rap included. They were rapping a lot of the poetry. If you’ve ever heard the album then you’d know what I’m talking about.
So you’re this young Jewish kid who grew up the son of a jeweler, and you’re recording some of the hippest stuff—you’re like the ultimate hipster Jew at this time.
I really never thought about it before, but I guess so.
You also recorded Redd Foxx. What was he like?
Yes, Redd Foxx, Lawanda Page [who played Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son]. The one that you didn’t mention was George Foreman. I recorded George Foreman preaching in the streets of Houston, Texas. The album was called Thank You Jesus. I read this article in People Magazine about how, after the Jimmy Young fight in 1977 in Puerto Rico, George died and was born again, and then I said, What a great gospel album this could make! It took me about a week to put the deal together, and he and myself and my recording guy and George’s publicist flew to Texas and recorded George preaching in the streets of Houston—in the Fifth Ward, the worst projects in the entire country.
Half of the album was him preaching in the streets of Houston and the other half was him in his home. We sat there and he told the story of how he died and was born again. This is the only album I’ve ever written the liner notes for.
I imagine it’s out of print and really hard to find.
I initially thought it was gonna be this major gospel album. I printed 500 copies and never had to reprint.
Do you still have some?
I’ve released it on CD.
What was Redd Foxx like to work with?
He was Redd Foxx.
Did he call you “dummy”?
No, he didn’t. He didn’t call me dummy. (laughs)
“Hit record, dummy!”
No, he didn’t. I recorded Pryor’s first album in the Redd Foxx club on La Cienaga in Southern California.
A lot of people know you for Richard Pryor. Some of those albums are considered the best comedy albums of all time. How did you hook up with him?
I walked into the Comedy Store one night and there he was onstage. I had never heard his name, and I approached him, and there we were. It was that simple. He had nothing going for him.
He was pretty new and unknown at that point?
Sure, he was a young kid like I was.
What was he like as a person? Were you guys actually friends?
He was not a good person and no, we were not friends. We weren’t enemies, but there were no feelings between us. And what was he like as a person? I’ll give you an example: After he burned himself up [in an infamous freebasing accident], I called to offer to donate blood. His friend, Jim Brown, the football player, hung up on me. One: white. Two: Jewish. What was he like? That’s it.
He just didn’t like white dudes.
He didn’t like white guys. He didn’t like them at all.
There was just no way to break though with that, he just—
He went with the flow. We worked together for 15 years, 12 record albums, six Grammy nominations, one winner.
So it was just a strictly business relationship there.
Strictly business relationship.
Did you have to deal with any crazy drug shenanigans?
The craziest thing was the first album, which was Craps (After Hours), which is an album that actually has a cult following. When I went to get him at his apartment to go shoot the album cover, he was so coked out I had to put him over my shoulder and carry him down the stairs from his apartment. If you look at the album cover, and you look in his eyes, you can almost see it.
You can see him kind of gacked out.
Yeah. But his drugs were probably one of the reasons we weren’t friends, because there were so many vials of cocaine passed in front of me that I never partook, and I think he always felt I was judging him. I was never judging him. I mean, I wasn’t an angel either, I just didn’t want to put that stuff up my nose.
After Richard Pryor, you recorded a lot of big names early in their careers: George Lopez, Brian Regan, Margaret Cho, Dana Gould, Doug Stanhope, Richard Jeni. All comics that are huge now. Could you tell that they were going to become great when you were recording them?
You know what? I felt then and I continue to feel that when I record young people as I’m doing today, I’m recording people that I believe in. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
So for you to record them, there has to be some sort of personal connection?
Absolutely. One of my greatest faux pas is Lewis Black. They tried to sell me Lewis Black 15 times. And he was on the Jon Stewart show at the time, but you know, when I listened to the tapes, if you didn’t see Lewis Black, he wasn’t funny. And I said no.
On audio he wasn’t as funny.
Right. Do I regret it today? Yes I do. You can’t win ‘em all, right?
How do you think comedy has changed in the time that you’ve been in the business?
You know, a lot of people think it’s changed. To me, it’s just: Are you funny? Funny, funny, funny. That’s what it’s all about.
You’ve said that the Seattle Underground is your favorite club to record. Why is that?
The sound that I get out of the room. Really, I love the room.
Do you think it’s the old bricks? Do you think it’s the age of the building, that it has certain resonances, or…?
You know, I can’t answer you. All I know is what I get.
You just hear what you hear in the headphones and it’s good.
Yup. That’s really it.
You’re in Seattle to record Jen Murphy’s new album, and you’ve said that she’s your one of your favorite new comics.
I think she’s the funniest gal to come along since Margaret Cho. I recorded Margaret in ’97.
Any particular reason? You just kind of connect?
I just connect, mentally. I hear it. Jen is gonna be a star. And I hope I’m right.
That’s high praise from someone who’s worked with some of the biggest stars in comedy. That’s got to be a big boost for her, to hear that.
Well, I don’t even know if she knows some of the things that we’ve just talked about, the Richard Jenis and the Margaret Chos. She knows the Richard Pryor, because that’s always been my calling card if I want to get someone’s attention in the comedy business.
Do you keep your Grammy in the house?
Actually, the Grammy goes to the artist. I have a plaque and I keep that in the house. They send you a parchment that my wife had laminated for me.
I imagine it’d be kind of a thankless task. You just faithfully record the sound. You don’t get the big trophy.
No, but that’s okay. I get the checks. Checks are good. I don’t need trophies.
Drozen will be recording Jen Murphy’s new album at the Comedy Underground this weekend, with shows Thursday-Saturday. Buy tickets here.