Kendrick Lamar’s last album is called To Pimp a Butterfly. Jay-Z has a song called “Big Pimpin’,” Future has “Long Live the Pimp,” and 50 Cent has “P.I.M.P.” Kramer was a pimp once on Seinfeld. The radio series This American Life did a pimp episode. We’ve had movies ranging from American Pimp to Frankenpimp.
Everyone knows how to do a pimp walk and what a pimp hat looks like. There’s a pimp name generator. (Mine is Dollar Slick.) There are more references to pimps in American pop culture than you can shake a pimp stick at.
How did pimps become cool? Iceberg Slim.
Robert Beck was an actual pimp for 25 years before he became writer in the ’60s and ’70s who went by the name “Iceberg Slim.” Ice-T considers Slim a major influence. Dave Chappelle has talked about him in his stand-up routine. At the wrap party for all of his movies, Chris Rock gives out Slim’s book Pimp, one of the best-selling books ever written by a black author.
A new book called Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim is packed with details about the under-appreciated cultural figure. We caught up with author Justin Gifford to talk about Beck, Slim, and the power of the pimp.
Some of your research for Street Poison involved giant boxes of porn and sleeping in your car.
Right! [Laughs.] A lot of the research involved tracking down books and magazines that don’t exist in places like the Schomburg Library in New York or in bookstores. I had to track down books and magazines at second-hand bookstores and vintage shops. I live in Reno, which is pretty close to San Francisco, and I caught word of a magazine store in San Francisco that had Players magazine, which Holloway House started publishing in 1973. It was kind of a black Playboy and ran for 25 years.
I was hoping to find a few issues — I had not been able to find Players anywhere — and I went to a shop called The Magazine. The guy behind the counter said, “You’ll never believe it, but a guy came in yesterday and sold us his entire collection.” I bought it all, which consisted of four giant boxes of black porn. At that point, I was on a pretty meager salary of a starting professor and didn’t have any other money. So I just slept in the back of my Explorer with four giant boxes of porn. I tell my students that this is the kind of thing you can do if you become an English professor.
Was there any good material — I mean, besides the obvious?
I was reading it for the articles. [Laughs.] I had spent a few years prior interviewing a bunch of editors from Players who are now deceased or in their 70s. What they told me was that they had tried to make the magazine an interesting mix of erotica and black political issues for the time. As you go through them — which I did, painstakingly — it’s absolutely true. It was a really interesting combination of political writing and fiction and nude photographs.
Plus, there were personal ads and all sorts of stuff that you could not find in a black publication at the time like Ebony or Jet. This was much edgier, much more transgressive material like the books that Holloway House was publishing.
How much of that intersected with Iceberg Slim?
He wrote a lot for Players. He was often commissioned to write articles and short stories for the magazine. The whole style of the magazine itself which trying to capitalize on the pimp, the hustler figure of the early ‘70s when you have blaxploitation films like Cleopatra Jones and Super Fly.
Was Slim a small-time pimp or a kingpin?
He ran with the crowd of bigger-time criminals in Chicago when he moved there. He hung out with a guy named Albert “Baby” Bell, who was an enforcer for the Jones Brothers, who were reputed to be the richest black men in the world. Slim was a mid- to upper-level pimp.
He would have a stable of women. He would have what was called “bottom woman,” who was the foundation of the stable who recruited and controlled the other women. He would have between five and 10 girls working for him at any one time.
Pimps were a prominent reference in hip-hop culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Was that partly attributable to Slim?
I think he pioneered it. If you look at the trickle-down of his influence, you have Pimp inspiring a number of writers in the street fiction genre and with African-American writers more broadly about prostitution and gangsterism. There are now thousands of these books, and you can pinpoint Iceberg Slim as a big part of that.
Further, hip-hop artists like Ice-T will tell you straight up that they read Pimp in high school and listened to Slim’s spoken-word album and created their art directly in response to that. If you look at everyone from Jay-Z to Notorious B.I.G. to Ice Cube to Ice-T and you see Iceberg Slim’s influence directly.
I filmed an interview for the Iceberg Slim documentary (Portrait of a Pimp, which is available for streaming on Showtime and Amazon Instant Video) the same day as Chris Rock, and he told this fantastic story about how at the wrap of all of his movies he gives a copy of Pimp to people on the set and tells that that all of life’s questions can be answered in the book. Dave Chappelle has a bit where he talks about Pimp as a capitalist manifesto and a metaphor for America itself.
Why was Pimp popular?
The first thing is the language. The vernacular is so beat and twang that there’s actually a glossary in the back to translate for the uninitiated — words like “crumb-crusher,” which means baby, and “bottom woman,” which is the pimp’s main prostitute. These are words that people hadn’t seen before in literature, and they show up all over Pimp. So rappers and artists and stand-up comics can look at that book and really draw from a rich vocabulary.
The other thing is that the pimp figure in that book is this symbol of defiance against white authority, defiance against racism, defiance against police brutality and incarceration. That had a lot of popular appeal for young black men and more specifically for entertainers.
What’s the story in the book? What’s it actually about?
The book is shockingly close to Robert Beck’s life from the age of three in the 1920s when he was molested by his babysitter to his quitting the pimp game in 1962. At one point, he goes to Tuskegee Institute and ends up getting kicked out for bootlegging. As he fails to achieve the traditional American Dream, he pursues this darker American dream by emulating the pimps in his neighborhood, the pimps he meets in prison, and the pimps he meets in the main scene in Chicago. There are some places where he fudges the facts, but it’s basically a memoir.
And it got popularized on black radio stations and by word of mouth?
It was truly an underground book. The publisher didn’t run any ads in the New York Times, and there weren’t any reviews in mainstream newspapers. It was sold mainly in black neighborhoods in places like barbershops and liquor stores. It became incredibly popular in prisons and on military bases and other marginal spaces in America. It was an underground success that stayed almost completely off the mainstream radar.