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The origins of hip hop: Iceberg Slim

Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. In this series, we’re exploring the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic. Today we’ll look at one of the literary forerunners of the hip hop revolution, Iceberg Slim – with his entry from The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature.

Iceberg Slim (1918–1992); novelist, autobiographer, essayist, and most prominent author of the street genre, which emerged in the 1960s.

Born in Chicago, Iceberg Slim (the street and later pen name of Robert Beck) spent the happiest years of his childhood in Rockford, Illinois, where he lived between 1924 and 1928 with his mother and stepfather. Abandoned by her husband, Slim’s mother had supported her infant son in a variety of jobs, including door-to-door hairdressing. Slim’s stepfather, a kind and loving man, lifted his new family to economic security until Slim’s mother left him for a violent gambler.

For the three and a half years that they lived together, Slim hated the new man in his mother’s life and resented her betrayal of his stepfather. In his book of essays and vignettes, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (1971), he asserts his belief that the drive to become a pimp derives from a disturbed mother-son relationship: “I am convinced that most pimps require the secretly buried fuel of Mother hatred to stoke their fiery vendetta of cruelty and merciless exploitation against whores primarily and ultimately all women.” The name Iceberg Slim reflects his ability to be emotionally frigid and physically brutal to the women who worked as prostitutes for him.

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Image Credit: ‘Prison Cells: Alcatraz Prison’, Image by miss_millions, CC by 2.0, via flickr.

Although Slim’s adolescence was strongly influenced by his involvement with street hustlers, his superior intelligence allowed him to graduate from high school at fifteen and to win an alumni scholarship to Tuskegee Institute. Interestingly, he attended Tuskegee in the mid-1930s, the same time that Ralph Ellison studied there, although they were not acquainted. After two years at college Slim was expelled for selling bootleg whiskey to other students. Back in Chicago by the time he was seventeen, he began his career by convincing his girlfriend to prostitute herself. The twenty-five years that followed were spent either pimping, taking drugs, or serving time in jail.

After his return to straight life, Iceberg Slim married, fathered four children, and began writing the books that assured his reputation as the most-read practitioner of the African American street novel. Between 1967 and 1977, Slim authored seven books including his autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life (1967). One novel, Trick Baby (1967), chronicles the adventures of a light-skinned African American who chooses not to pass. This story was subsequently made into a movie and released by Universal Studios. Of all his fiction, Mama Black Widow (1969), a sensitive portrayal of a tortured, cross-dressing, gay male, is considered his most masterful book.

Slim’s works are marked by their deep criticism of the American justice system, devotion to the politics of the Black Panthers, very frank language, and a combination of violence and sexuality. These books as well as Airtight Willie and Me (1979), The Long White Con (1977), and Death Wish (1976) have gained popularity on college campuses. Between 1985 and 1995, his books were translated into both German and French. The works of Iceberg Slim have their greatest readership in prisons, where they are admired for their recognition of the plight of the criminal.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Prison, Jails, Detention’, Image by babawawa, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. preston

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    In our society today, although used out of their original context, the words “Pimp” and Pimpin’” have been embraced whole-heartedly by today’s Hip Hop generation, moreover, frequently used in terminology to describe the motif of a newly set standard of flamboyant living.

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    Not since Robert Beck [aka—Iceberg Slim] revealed to the masses the vivid street REALITIES of a Pimp’s life in his book “Pimp: The Story of My Life, By Iceberg Slim” has the entrenching truth behind the lifestyle—termed Pimpin’ been exposed to this degree. Thus, the primary title… “PIMP: THE 2ND COMING…”

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  2. Peter Muckley

    Is there any reference made in the COMPANION to my Iceberg Slim: The Life As Art?

    Just interested as I see nothing here. Cheers.

  3. Kinohi Nishikawa

    Referring back to Peter Muckley’s post: ICEBERG SLIM: THE LIFE AS ART was not included in the COMPANION because the latter was originally published in 1997, well before Dr. Muckley’s book came out. His book is definitely worth checking out, though, as it provides the most illuminating discussion of Slim’s life and writings to date.

    Now about the COMPANION’s reference to MAMA BLACK WIDOW’s Otis Tilson as a “tortured, cross-dressing, gay male.” Reducing Otis’s character to a singular sexual identity (“gay”) comes from the fact that he at turns consents and “succumbs” (under force) to having sex with men. But Slim’s portrait of this conflicted figure is much more complex than this tag would allow. Otis is ultimately confused about his sexual identity because he can’t detach desire from the ill-will he feels toward his mother. In this regard, we can’t write off his sexual experiences with women (i.e., Dorcas, his long-term love-interest) as so much “false consciousness” but must take care to understand them as expressions of his psychic grappling with sexual and familial matters. Thus, rather than definitively “name” Otis’s sexual identity, I wonder if we can try to think about the very complexity of Otis’s sexual practices. This shift in emphasis might lead to rich, new readings of MAMA BLACK WIDOW and the nexus of lower-class black masculinity that it represents.

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