THIS PROBABLY sounds familiar: A mid-1960s memoir, of a former petty black crook who reforms himself in prison, becomes one of the landmark nonfiction works about the pre-civil rights African American experience. A couple of decades later the author inspires the pioneers of rap music, who not only invoke his name, but also consciously transmit his character. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m referring to Malcolm X’s Autobiography, but this description is actually of a book called Pimp: The Story of My Life. The author was Robert Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Slim, the Ur-gangsta rapper, or as the scholar Justin Gifford describes him in his new biography, Street Poison, “the godfather of hip-hop.”
Gifford makes some other big claims at outset: that Beck is “one of the most influential renegades of the 20th century”; that “a strong case can be made that more than any other cultural figure of the past 50 years, Beck transformed American popular culture and black literature”; and that Beck “invented the figure of the pimp that is now an ever-present fixture in hip-hop songs and videos.” He describes Pimp as “one of the most important pieces of American literature of the 20th century, but one that is still widely overlooked by the American mainstream.” Okay – Mr. Gifford has our attention. But supporting his case is a tall order, especially in such a slim (no pun intended) volume. The beauty of this book is that he almost succeeds.
It isn’t difficult to see Beck’s story as the B-side of Malcolm X’s, both men reborn — after intense jail-time reflection and reading — as revolutionary black knights, informed and haunted by a brutal past. Like Malcolm, Beck/Slim can be assessed on two fronts: as a writer, and as the figure he’s writing about. Poetically, the beginning and end of his life coincided with two key episodes in the African American experience: the Great Migration of the early 20th century, and the Rodney King riots in 1992. Around the time of his birth in 1918, Beck and his mother, Mary, became two of the six million black people who would leave the Jim Crow south for northern industrial cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and, as in the Beck’s case, Chicago, dramatically changing “black America’s social, political and cultural lives in the 20th century” and “the very composition of the American city.” The First World War, and eventual US involvement in it, was a lucky break for African Americans, as white males ended up in military service while their European counterparts suspended westward migration across the Atlantic, leaving American factories, meatpacking houses, and rail yards in need of new labor. The southern sharecropper turned into the black factory worker, a life perhaps no less humiliating, but at least slightly better paid. More important, cities like Chicago and New York offered relief from the constant threat of lynching, and a generally better standard of citizenship — better educational opportunities, stronger voting and civil rights, and far less restricted access to public spaces.
Nevertheless, violent racism and de facto segregation confined African Americans to particular neighborhoods, colloquially known as Black Belts. Excluded from the commercial amusements their white neighbors enjoyed, blacks established their own nightclubs and cabarets and other fora that became watering holes not just for racial minorities, but for others not accepted by the mainstream: homosexuals, mixed race couples, prostitutes, and others. Crackdowns on gambling and prostitution in the red light districts in the “white” side of town squeezed those vices into the Black Belts, which law enforcers treated like a no-man’s land. Unsurprisingly, those neighborhoods became havens of petty crime, including sex workers and pimps. They also became breeding grounds for new forms of artistic expression. According to Gifford, “[w]ith the exception of upper Manhattan, home of the Harlem Renaissance, Chicago’s Black Belt was the most vibrant and prosperous African American city during the 1920s.”
In 1930, Beck’s mother opened a beauty parlor, and her clientele was comprised predominantly of “whores, pimps and hustlers from the sprawling red-light district in Rockford.” Like Billy Bathgate enamored from a distance by Dutch Schultz, like Goodfellas’ Henry Hill watching the neighborhood gangsters as a child from his window and always wanting to be one, little Robert yearned for the sham glamour of the pimps, “decked out in all their finery with all their diamonds … and of course their women,” he wrote. “I was so impressed.” Flashy clothes, diamonds, and lineups of women were the visions that, in the term that gives Gifford his title, “street poisoned” the seventh-grader.
Mary married a man named Henry, who Beck describes in Pimp as “a tall black angel,” for whom he fell just as hard as Henry fell for Mama. But in 1931, Mary left Henry for a brutal hustler named Steve, and moved the new family unit to Milwaukee. Beck never forgave her. In Pimp he writes how he “wished to Christ, in four penitentiaries, that the lunatic lovers had left me in Rockford with Henry when they split.” It didn’t take long for Steve’s violence to become too much for Mary, and Steve disappeared soon after sending her to the hospital with a broken jaw. Mother and son were now alone in a new city, renting an attic room in a small black neighborhood where Beck would spy on the pimps and hustlers operating at a “ho house” across the street. From there he would eventually enter the petty underworld he’d dreamt of in Chicago.
The prevailing motif in Pimp’s early chapters is of questing, an excruciating hunger to be on the make, which translates into an over-eagerness for and vulnerability to charismatic mentors with kitschy monikers like Party Time, Sweet Tooth, Diamond Tooth Jimmy, from whom Beck learned that the body, specifically the black body — including one’s own — was a commodity that should never be shared for free. Those older pimps were apostles of the gutter. They were also artists of a kind, creating personas through flashy dress, yes, but more importantly through the medium of speech. Their strength was not just their force of will (about which more in a moment) but also their lyricism. The streets were constantly testing their mastery of language and its quick deployment, as in the well-known game of dueling insults called “playing the dozens,” a game, Gifford writes, that privileged “outrageous humor, clever turns of phase, and raunchy poetics.” The profession of pimping itself had an oral rulebook, passed on from street corner to street corner, from generation to generation.
Pimp alternates between the lyricism of the street and a literary style that enriches the writing with a constant contrast between high and low. The reader can’t get too comfortable in either register. The shifts can occur within the same paragraph, from sentence to sentence —
It was like I’d stabbed him in the butt with a red-hot poker. He turned his shocked face toward mine. His silky long-lashed eyes were popped wide in alarm. He had panicked like maybe a cute nun caught in the Priest’s bedroom by the Mother Superior.
Most vivid is the esoteric idiom of the street, for which the reader is helped with a glossary at the end to decipher, if one wants, a beautiful sentence like, “He would know where to cop C, and probably gangster for the runt.”
The oral tradition is alive in Pimp’s substance as well as its form. The book can be read as mid-20th century retelling of the Stagolee myth, which dates back to an incident in 1895 when a black hustler from St. Louis named Lee Shelton, also known as Stagolee (and other variations of the nickname), shot and killed a friend following a frivolous argument. Shelton became a symbol of defiance for African Americans, a guy who didn’t obey rules written by others, and could kill at the smallest insult. If Stagolee wasn’t the first of this type of anti-hero, he fast became the most indelible example.
This figure — the black badman, as he was called in the scholarship — appears in different forms throughout African American literature and popular culture. As Walter Mosley once wrote, “Survival is a dirty business and heroes are not saints.” Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels have a supporting character, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander (played to perfection by Don Cheadle in the 1995 movie adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress) who never hesitates to pistol-whip or kill, and who becomes a shepherd to his community and friends, including Easy himself, in whom he inspires fear but also veneration: “I know that freedom is possible as long as there’s a man like Mouse on the streets,” Rawlins says, in one of Mosley’s stories. The violence of a character like Mouse is not an embrace or glorification of immorality, but the creation of an alternative moral standard based on the rejection of the falsely just and falsely sacred.
Long before writers like Mosley, Richard Wright acknowledged the pull of a figure who rejected “what is decent, holy, just, wise, straight, and uplifting … because from the Negro’s point of view, it is the right, the holy, the just, that crush him in America.” Native Son’s Bigger Thomas kills as a way to maintain his dignity. Twenty-five years later, in a chapter titled “Hustler” in his Autobiography, Malcolm X describes himself as “nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.” He begins the chapter boasting about dropping his pistol in the face of an old crook who “tried to be slick” while dealing a game of black jack:
As is the case in any jungle, the hustler’s every waking hour is lived with both the practical and the subconscious knowledge that if ever relaxes, if he ever slows down, the other hungry, restless, foxes, ferrets, wolves, and vultures out there with him won’t hesitate to make him their prey.
Hustling, he says a little later, is not for kicks — it’s the way of keeping “body and soul together.”
Gifford tells us that one of Beck’s most indelible memories was watching his father being shouted at and shoved by the notorious Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson. Thomson was drunk and angry that Beck’s father, who worked as a chef on his yacht, was late with his meal. In describing the scene, Beck directly addressed the father he barely knew:
You, Papa, nigger from a plantation outside Nashville, Tennessee, had the courage, had enough raw heroism left in your battered black balls to clench your fists and scream out to the feared Croesus of Chicago’s corruption and crime, “Don’t you never put your hands on me, sonuvabitch. Don’t you never call me no boy. You get your big fat red ass out of my kitchen before I go plump crazy and whale the shit outta’ you.”
For young Beck, the old man’s chutzpah “in that ultra-repressive era and circumstance [was] the purest heroism.”
And such heroism is all the more necessary in the pimp game, where the capacity for violence is the key to wealth and success. Here’s Iceberg’s sketch of the senior pimp, Sweet Tooth:
I sat there studying Sweet. He had to be six feet six. His face was like a black steel mask. Not a flicker of emotion played over it. He kept smashing the heels of his brute-sized hands together like he was crushing an invisible throat. Even at a distance it made me edgy. I guess it kept his whores on the brink of peeing themselves … He sure proved pimping wasn’t a charm contest.
But the badman is also an act, and the main source of pathos in Pimp has to do with the psychological toll of that performance on the author. “The best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions and I was one of the iciest,” Beck writes. Yet, maintaining that icy exterior is a Dorian Gray-like operation, distorting the warm-blooded and fragile soul underneath. Through all Beck’s gloating about his ruthless mastery over his stable, the reader should make no mistake: Pimp is a book of suffering and self-recriminating anger. And the difference between Pimp and Malcolm’s Autobiography is that at the end Beck is still desperate for salvation, whereas Malcolm found his. The exercise of writing was an attempt at purging the soul; it’s also a peace offering to his dead mother, for whom he felt an “unconscious hatred” that, by his own assessment, was what drove him to the brutal life of the pimp.
Both Gifford’s and Beck’s account of the way Beck treated the women in his pay makes for very uncomfortable reading: contemptible, impossible to defend, this was the product of a twisted ecosystem in which Beck believed he needed to emulate Steve’s cruelty rather than Henry’s decency to survive in the pimp game.
A long stint in solitary confinement in a Chicago correctional facility ultimately forced Beck’s journey to redemption, beginning with repairing his relationship with his mother and, then, at her request settling into married life. Beck wrote Pimp at the urging of and in collaboration with his first wife, Betty, who began noting down his endless descriptions of the trauma of the hustle. Published by the new and obscure Holloway House in 1967, before long this scathing book about what might be the second oldest profession was selling in the millions, and made its author a significant African American writer. It was followed by Trick Baby, an account of a black conman passing for white, which did similar business and was turned into a movie in 1972. The books condemned rather than romanticized the pimp and the hustler. In 1976, he would produce a spoken word album, Reflections, essaying in that same language of the streets against a background of quiet jazz, which would prefigure the arrival of rap by several years. Beck also became more militantly political in the 1970s, embracing the philosophy of the Black Panthers and making well-attended speeches admonishing “counter-revolutionary” blacks who exploited their own and thus prevented a revolution for black freedom and dignity.
Beyond consulting a wealth of sources to give us a full account (including unpublished manuscripts and prison and court records) — and while maintaining a healthily skepticism of many of Beck’s boldest claims — Gifford intersperses and enriches his book with concise and vivid contextualizations of Beck’s life, offering brief histories of almost every major setting and institution that affected his subject: the, development of the Black Belts of the urban north into not just mini cities of sin but also of black entrepreneurship, artistic expression, and the beginnings of a black pride; the penitentiaries of middle America, where Beck repeatedly served; the literary and entertainment industry that would initially ignore and then embrace Iceberg Slim. That he’s able to do so in such a short book is all the more impressive.
But what to make of his claim of Beck’s influence in American culture? Certainly, both Pimp and Trick Baby sold in the millions and inspired the black street fiction and the blaxploitation flics of the 1970s. But was he as influential as Nella Larsen, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison? Maybe. Maybe not. But to the extent that Iceberg was, as Gifford says, “the godfather of hip-hop,” his reach was global. His were perhaps the butterfly wings that engendered a storm.
Having attended American schools in Morocco and Pakistan in the 1980s, I was mesmerized by the States even before I set foot in North America, knowing that it was where the goodies came from: tortilla chips, Sports Illustrated, Ronald Reagan, and, above all, the movies, with heroic cops who always bent the arc of American history back toward justice. By the late 1980s, there was a new import to traffic from the US: gangsta rap. My American School friends and I couldn’t get enough: we would buy pirated rap tapes from Islamabad’s Jinnah Market and pass them in exchange for other tapes, to be copied and recopied. The selection was limited, so when the American kids would return from summer break, word would spread that they’d brought back precious originals of the latest albums, with the exciting parental advisory stamp on the cover. They wouldn’t part with them easily: one had to bargain for weeks, offer something worthwhile in return — another album, a spot on a sports team, a debt write-off. I recall one event in particular, when during a school soccer tournament, my friend Norris Jorsling’s team was down one goal with little time left. To motivate him from the sidelines, his older brother hollered that if they managed to tie the game, he would lend Norris his Big Daddy Kane tape. That Norris managed to score in literally the final seconds was a testament not just to his athletic talent, but to how precious that music was to us. Amid the celebrations, I still remember an exhausted Norris gloating, “Big Daddy Kane! Big Daddy Kane!”
It wasn’t just the beats. Along with movies like Do the Right Thing and Boyz n da Hood, these songs were saying something very different about the America I had, at a distance, grown up with. Here, the cops were the ones on trial. “The jury has found you guilty of being a redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker,” said Judge Dre to the LAPD in N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” The sound of police choppers overhead, of cops pulling over or beating up young black men, was often in the background.
The self-lionizing gangsta rapper was proud, dangerous, a sexual predator. In “Gangsta, Gangsta,” N.W.A.’s Ice Cube boasts that he “never shoulda been let out the penitentiary.” Reducing all this to glorifying violence and misogyny, as many a critic has, misses the point. More so than grunge, the other major musical movement of that era, gangsta rap was an explicit anti-establishment challenge. As Hua Hsu wrote in his August 2011 Grantland review of the album Watch the Throne, “The way grievances could be transferred through song: That was power.” Yes, it had a dark — very dark — side. In the extreme, grunge had suicide and overdoses, and rap had black-on-black gang-like killings. Like pimping, this was never going to be a charm contest.
Malcolm X was a central — if not the central — figure of that time. His “X” was on T-shirts and sports hats worn by the icons of the day like Jordan and Magic; Denzel Washington played him on the silver screen; his autobiography with Alex Haley was required reading. Malcolm’s spirit, more than Martin Luther King’s, suited the demands of the times. As Marshall Frady wrote in an October 1992 New Yorker essay, “it can sometimes appear that Malcolm’s flat, blank anger has carried the day.” And it certainly appeared that in the era of the Rodney King beating, he was the more compelling figure for a generation that was lamenting the bounced checks of the civil rights movement. “No Malcolm X in my history text/Why is that?” queried 2Pac.
Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks/Why is Martin Luther King in my book each week?/He told blacks, if they get smacked, turn the other cheek.
“Now you wanna know how come/I got a gat and I’m lookin’ out the window like Malcolm,” hollered Ice Cube. Public Enemy warned,
Malcolm X said send them to the cemetery if they touch you/A revolutionary virtue, a dull blade’ll hurt you/I'm up early workin’ my machete/In war, it ain’t no warning, you just got to be ready.
And yet it turned out it was Beck from whom all of these artists drew their deepest inspiration. Gangsta rap’s reigning kings in the early 1990s, Ice Cube and Ice-T, named themselves after Slim. Ice-T’s “Iceberg” was one of my favorites, but only 25 years later did I realize that it was not a lyrical piece of navel gazing, but homage to “a pimp and a player and a hustler and kinda/A mack and a poet, impressive, I know it.” (Ice-T would also executive produce a beautiful documentary on Iceberg Slim in 2013, in which he and many others including Chris Rock, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Quincy Jones, would attest to Pimp’s profound influence.) While Malcolm was the one being celebrated explicitly, Beck’s spirit was invoked at a more fundamental level. Without us kids knowing, there he was throughout, in the rhymes, the outlook, the very names of the rappers we idolized.
From around the mid-to-late ’90s, rap turned inward. Snoop’s 1994 classic Doggystyle had much of Beck’s emphasis on the personal style and wealth of the pimp, but little of his anger. Hsu wrote in 2011 that “the tensions are no longer between friends and enemies but within the individual — why not, in an era of customization? There’s no war going on outside; it is within each of us.” But that was four years ago. Now the war is out in the streets again. The decent and holy and just are being interrogated once more.
Capturing the mood in a recent Atlantic essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that growing up he “feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give police a reason.” Those rules, and the institutional network meant to enforce them, are being challenged through phrases that have assumed great moral force: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “We Can’t Breathe.” The current generation of rappers appears to be stepping up to the plate, Fergusson and Eric Garner being for them what Rodney King was for their predecessors. Gangsta rap’s old power could, therefore, be restored. And the legacy of a 20th century pimp — and hustler and storyteller and activist — could continue to grow.