I was driving through some black neighbourhoods on Chicago’s South Side this Spring, with American writer Don De Grazia, en route to a White Sox game. Our destination was Bridgeport, an old Irish-Italian enclave in the city’s ethnically divided zones, where we planned to stop off for some food prior to taking in the baseball at US Cellular Fields. Chicago has changed a great deal since Don wrote American Skin, his acclaimed novel about the city’s white working-class skinheads. The youths that hung around the Bridgeport corners were now dressed indistinguishably from the black kids we’d passed on the other side of the overhead bridge.
This phenomenon is ubiquitous. From inner London housing estates to mainstream Hollywood, the influence of black American ‘street’ culture is –perversely- almost hegemonic. Don, our friend Marty and myself were musing at the irony that the global culture wars have been won by the most dispossessed and maligned section of western society: black youth in America’s ghettos.
My interest in African-American culture began after reading Soul on Ice, the biography of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. There was something about the writing, its irreverence, anger and downright sass, (despite how close Cleaver flirted with sexual violence as a supposed compliment to black liberation), that instantly chimed with me. At the time, being a white, working-class youth from one of the most monoethnic places in Europe, I didn’t recognise his style as something that I grew up around. But it slowly dawned on me that I had heard versions of the same thing in the school playground, the street corner and the local boozer.
Despite being angry, restless and politically conscious in my youth, I was always ambivalent with regard to revolutionary politics. To me this seemed to be about middle-class people using whatever fringe party as a personal forum for the same kind of hysteria and self-righteous moralising prevalent in the pages of their parent’s Daily Mail. Eldridge Cleaver was certainly no middle-class kid playing out some psychodrama, he and his ilk came from places where people were directly hurt and disadvantaged by the politics of the system. Through him I got into Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and eventually, Malcolm X.
But on my personal journey, far more significant than any of them would be autobiography of a Chicagoan I picked up in a used bookshop in Soho. The author’s name, Iceberg Slim, was arresting enough, and the book bore the stark but evocative title: Pimp. How could you not pick up a book called Pimp written by a guy named Iceberg Slim? As the subtitle indicated, it was the story of the author’s life. The inside pages backed up the cover’s promise: this tale was recounted without compromise but with the wit, verve, rage and humour that characterised the black revolutionary writing that had capitvated and enthralled me.
Later I learned that Slim had produced bona fide novels too; I obtained a tatty old copy of Trick Baby from another second hand bookshop, it had long been out of print in the UK. I’d formed a belief that one of the ambitions of any real writer should be to speak the truth to power and orthodoxy, but do it in the most entertaining way the imagination can devise. After reading Trick Baby, I was convinced that Iceberg Slim was a writer with a mission, rather than just an entertaining street racounter. I relentessly hunted down the rest of his fiction.
Prior to being known as Iceberg Slim, or Robert Beck (which he would subsequently become), he was Robert Lee Maupin, born in Chicago on the 4th of August, 1918. Much of his childhood was spent in Milwaukee’s poor North Side and the industrial town of Rockford, Illinois -consistently ranked as one of America’s most blighted and depressed cities- before he returned to Chicago as a teenager.
Abandoned by his father, Robert's mother supported the family through working as a domestic and operating a beauty shop. He would later -somewhat uncharitably- credit her in having prepared him for the pimp lifestyle by pampering him during his childhood.
As a teenager, Robert briefly attended Tuskegee Institute in the mid 1930's, his spell co-terminus with that of Ralph Ellison, the author of the Invisible Man, although the two moved in different circles, each oblivious to the presence of the other.
Robert was a tall, lithe youth, (his looks would be retained into his late middle age, despite a fondness for cocaine, heroin and whisky) and with his gift of the gab, women were drawn to him, and a certain type of woman in particular. He commenced pimping at 18, and plied his trade until he was 42, adopting the moniker ‘Iceberg Slim’ along the way. It was said that he obtained the nickname through standing at a bar unflappably drinking whisky as a shoot-out raged around him. This wild-west saloon bar cliché perhaps represents a somewhat mythologized account of events, but the very fact that it has been attached to him is instructive in itself. The greater likelihood is of a more mundane reference to his pimp’s cold ruthlessness and his slender physical build.
Slim was, and has probably shaped, the archetype of every blaxpolitation movie pimp and/or street hustler from the violent and edgy to the benign form of Antonio Fargas’s Huggy Bear in the original Starsky and Hutch, updated with added ‘ice’ by Snoop Dog in the remake. He operated on Chicago’s unforgiving streets, and in conjunction with his activities, several periods of incarceration followed. He did a stretch in Leavenworth and then spent the best part of 1960 languishing in solitary confinement at Cook County House of Corrections. For such a naturally exuberant and garrulous man, this proved to be an onerous burden and it was this last stretch that finally motivated Slim to reject earning a living through crime and to attempt to write about his experiences.
He moved to California in the 1960's to pursue a writer’s life, changing his name to Robert Beck, the adopted surname belonging to his mother’s then husband. It was a strange tribute, reflecting the ambivalence in what was probably the most significant of all his relationships.
Pimp: The Story of My Life, described as an ‘autobiographical novel’, was published in 1969 by Holloway House and marked his most significant transition: from pimp to artist. The New York Times decided the subject matter too rich for their blood, and refused to print an advert for the book. Nonetheless, Iceberg Slim found Pimp being shelved next to work by other black authors of the turbulent 60's, like Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, Bobby Seale’s Seize The Time and Malcolm X’s Autobiography. As the more militant black political movements in the 1970's began to gain ascendancy in African-American communities, Slim met Huey P. Newton and other members of the Black Panther Party, whom he admired greatly and regarded as kindred spirits. He had initially, either through political naivety or perhaps hustler’s self-justification, considered his success as a pimp as striking a blow against white oppression. The Black Panthers, however, had little mutual regard for him, considering his former profession as little more than the exploitation of his own people for personal gain.
Yet Slim's books were successful, immediately garnering widespread attention amongst black youth. Even Hollywood got interested; following the success of The Godfather, gangster chic was in vogue. Universal Pictures snapped up the film rights to Pimp, only for the project to be considered too contentious and put on indefinite hold. For many years persistent rumours have abounded that a film is about to be produced, with the rival Slim-inspired “Ices”, T and Cube, vying for the lead role. However the ‘blaxploitation’ era cinematically spawned Trick Baby, which made it onto the screen in 1973, directed by Larry Yust.
For a man who made his money as a ruthless, brash, smooth-talker, and despite his justified but often boastful regard for his own intellect, Iceberg Slim possessed a paradoxical honesty and a genuine humility as writer. He always saw himself as a work-in-progress, a man who was learning, hoping eventually to become a positive force in the black community, like the Panthers. It is regrettable that the warm approval he accorded them was seldom reciprocated, because Slim was worthy of respect, due mainly to the fact that he was more concerned with understanding his life rather than allowing himself to be pulled into the manipulation game of either self-flagellating or trying to exonerate himself from his past deeds.
His writer’s candour is as boundless as his sharp mind, and his insights help us to understand pimping (and therefore prostitution and the darker side of male sexuality) as a phenomenon. For example, his theory that the power of the pimp archtype in ghetto culture is a direct by-product of slavery, of the white man being able to gain forcible access to the ‘stable’ of black women, while enslaved black males were treated basically like stud animals, now has universally recognised validity.
Least we forget (and too often we do), slaves did not have a choice in whom they married or had long monogamous relationships with. They were essentially like livestock, the purpose of their sexual activity being to breed strong slaves. This was exacerbated by vast quantities of religious and ‘scientific’ discourse that constantly reiterated the animal status of Africans, the ‘naturalness’ of their slavery, and the necessity of severe torture and punishment for blacks (it was claimed that their skins were thicker and less sensitive so more violence was needed to draw blood). Even Emanuel Kant, from a village in Germany, felt moved to pontificate on the most effective way to beat slaves. The psychic effects for the African-American community on sexuality and racialised gendered experiences cannot be underestimated (and possibly never totally comprehended by white people), nor the fraught relationship between men and women when black masculinities had historically been physically or even literally castrated by male white patriarchy. Michael Eric Dyson, the African-American theorist and activist in Know What I Mean: Reflections On Hip Hop, explains the impact of this legacy in terms of the pimp.
The symbolism of the pimp in black American culture is tied up with notions of upward mobility, especially when the pimp is viewed as an escape hatch for the economically degraded working-class man…in brutally direct fashion, the pimp seizes control of the female’s reproductive organs to make money and generate status for himself. Pimping, in certain ways, both simulates and replicates chattel slavery, or the owning of bodies for generating wealth. Pimping is the plantation in motion.
Rehabilitation from a gangster’s life, particularly one mired in the foulest of gender politics, takes a great deal of moral courage and soul-searching. In his post-pimp life in LA, Slim had to psychologically reconfigure himself, in order to sustain a satisfactory relationship with his wife and become a proper father to his daughters. The honesty about his failings in his relationships with the women in his life is compelling. Despite an avowed love of his mother, he posits, in an LA Free Press interview, the proposition that pimps must, on a subconscious level, hate their mothers and women in general:
The best pimps that I have known, that is the career pimps, the ones who could do twenty, maybe thirty years as a pimp, were utterly ruthless and brutal without compassion. They certainly had a basic hatred for women. My theory is, and I can't prove it, if we are to use the criteria of utter ruthlessness as a guide, that all of them hated their mothers. Perhaps more accurately, I would say that they've never known love and affection, maternal love and affection. I've known several dozen in fact that were dumped into the trash bins when they were what?.... only four or five days old.
In response to this, the interviewer, Helen Koblin, alleges that Slim claims to have loved his mother in the book.
Of course, but underneath the threshold of consciousness, I know that I must have hated her, as demonstrated by my neglect of her through the years.
Iceberg Slim would go on to revise his weak view of pimping as a revolutionary act. He came to concur with the perspective that it was the responsibility of the black artist to destroy the glamorous image of the pimp, and his victims.
It is counterrevolutionary for black people to prey on other black people, or upon poor white people. I recognize the necessity for crime in black America. I understand why, for survival, black people must steal. But I don't condone crime. I feel that what it takes to be a successful criminal could be used in a more constructive way. Like if the pimp has enough circuitry going in his brain to control nine women, surely, he's got no business being a pimp. So if you're black, and you must be a criminal, don't steal my stuff. Go over there. Steal from affluent white people.
In the same LA Free Press interview Slim candidly responded to the claim that as former pimp, he had made his fortune through the total degradation of the black woman in this society:
That's true. And the tragedy there is, that the black woman is the bedrock of the black family unit. This is what is under direct assault. It occurred under the structured racism of America. When a black man turns out a black woman, he is denigrating the bedrock of family life in his community. Again, this is counterrevolutionary.
But I feel that Helen Koblin missed the mark when she pressed the point that Slim had conceded, namely, that he had therefore assisted in the degradation of his own race. Assisted whom, was surely the bigger question being skirted. As a writer Slim has encouraged more people to pick up the pen and microphone than the gun or the bag of powder. It will always be social conditions that generally inspire the latter, not some artist’s observations of them.
But why are pimps invariably black? The answer is that they aren’t, it’s simply because black street culture has embraced that particular term into its lexicon. In Slim’s words:
The pernicious white man, instead of pimping, shoots for one mark, one victim and he takes that broad and spends it on flashy young broads and makes the Vegas scene. If he's really a top-notcher, he makes the French Riviera. They are called ' players '. Most white guys became players because they've got the prey. They don't really have to come down to street level to get their bread. White widows with $80,000 or $90,000 are not uncommon. They don't even cause a social ripple. You know- some white woman with $90,000- she ain't got no money according to this country's standards. If a black widow or a black woman has $90,000, man, my God - she's rich. You know these food places that are really busy like barbecue joints where they give you a ticket. Well, that's what she'd have to do. She'd have to interview niggers because they'd be playing for that 90 grand. Here again the same old opportunity and plethora of opportunity. Who wants to pimp? Why would a personable, attractive young white guy have to get down on the street level? It ain't worth it if you're white. All right, so you're getting a grand a week from all three girls- that's $3,000 a week. Then you got your nut- the police. All of the convoluted thinking that it takes just to keep a stable together and move from one posh watering and feeding spot to another and rip 'em off.
This debate is shrouded in hypocrisy. Al Capone, who ruled Slim’s home city, and particularly its South Side, has been given the Hollywood and heritage treatments, and his Chicago is now something of a sanatized tourist attraction. But with his control of prostitution as well as racketeering, he too was a pimp, and a bigger, more brutal and successful one than Slim could ever have been.
In contrast to Capone’s blood-soaked demise, the latter years of the California-based Iceberg’s life seem to have been bookish and contented. As well as writing, he was a popular figure on the American lecture circuit. When times were lean (as they usually for writers, at least at some point), Slim took work as a janitor, his ability and willingness to do a ‘proper job’ another indication that the life of crime had grown to hold scant appeal. Outside of this, he lived a family life, before passing away on April 28th, 1992, at age 73.
But now it’s time to crave the reader’s indulgence, as I strive to put into context how important Iceberg Slim was to me. Like many people from a ‘non-bookish culture’ I was probably always a writer, but I didn’t know to become one. In the housing scheme where I grew up, books were passed around. Often not brilliant books, (ocassionally yes), but nonetheless they circulated. In small systems-build flats, there was scant room for bookcases. So books were never artifacts, they always had a utility, even if that was sheer pleasure, and they were generally passed on rather than being hoarded or displayed.
My own writer’s journey probably started with Evelyn Waugh via my Uncle Jack, a fireman, who was taking an Open University degree course. Waugh’s Guy Crouchback trilogy ended up in my hands, through him and via my father. This was to be a life-changing experience for me. Waugh, so different from my background, became and remains, one of my favourite writers. These were the books that took me into literary fiction. I recall, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, telling a somewhat surprised, and perhaps not entirely delighted Auberon Waugh, about his father’s influence on my writing.
So I wrote, or rather doodled, in small spidery script that nobody would be able to decipher, as writing was a guilty pleasure for me. I was insecure about it and hated to tell many friends that I read, let alone wrote. Basically, from my social milieu, it seemed quite an indulgent pastime, for effette, rich ponces only. The Ernest Hemingway and Jack London cult of the macho writer pretty much passed me by. That was all very well for the wild frontiersland’s of America, but writers in Britain were people like Evelyn Waugh, not Irvine Welsh. So Waugh was inspirational in his own way, but he was also prohibitive – it confirmed to me that you had to be posh and wealthy to be a writer. This, of course, was nonsense, and I can see now that I was relentlessly looking for reasons to fail, as one does when failure becomes the norm and the overwhelming cultural expectation. To get past this means that significant invisible barriers have to be broken down. I found the inspiration to do that under my nose, where I came from, in Scotland.
William McIlvaney was a revelation. He was writing about a place and people I could identify with and they were the central characters, the stars of the show, not wheeled on as villians or comedians. James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, in their different ways, would come along and take this to new levels. Kelman’s insistence on the importance of voice in the narrative was particularly liberating. Then I moved backwards, through Hogg, Stevenson, Scott, Grassick-Gibon and Burns. But wherever I travelled in literature, through Becket and Joyce and Ireland to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy in Russia, Iceberg Slim remained one of my biggest influences.
Why should this be?
One way I can describe it was when my American wife, white and from Chicago’s suburbs, on meeting my friends at a party in Edinburgh for the first time, informed me, “you don’t really get white people like you and your friends in America. Culturally and socially, you are a lot closer to working-class Black Americans in the projects.” And by this, she didn’t mean that we greeted each other with a cringeworthy ‘yo’. (Yet it should be emphasised that one would obviously wince even further if this analogy were taken too far. Many Europeans, particularly those from Celtic nations, have often been guilty of overplaying this ‘brothers in misery and oppression’ conciet. No white European tribe, whether Irish peasants after the famine, or Scottish Highlanders following the clearances, have had to face the recent horror and continuing cultural and psychological legacy of kidnap, transportation and slavery.)
As liberating as the likes of McIlvanney and Kelman were (and still are), back then they were writing about my place but not my time. In seventies Britain there was still a welfare state and a strong trade union movement, a Labour Party who at least espoused (if never delivered) some form of wealth redistribution. This was lain to waste in the eighties, when Thatcher’s policies ripped up the postwar consensus, destroyed the welfare state and the notion that the wealthy in society had any responsibility for its poorer members. There was, in her own words, no such thing as society.
So by the end of the miners strike, I took it as given that the class war was more or less over. It had been won - by the other side. The schemes I grew up in, had, through sale of higher amenity council housing, mass unemployment and the introduction of drugs as the key element of the developing underground economy, been reduced to the ghetto level of the black American projects. I took this social landscape as given: we were not, under New Labour, going back; there would be no attempt to rebuild the social fabric, and even the moderate social democratic policies of Europe would be rejected in favour of a basic neoconservative ‘enterprise economy’ model of development. There would be resistance, of course, but it would not prevail. But I was less interested in the politics, and more intrigued, in a novelistic sense, about the type of society we had created. To me Iceberg Slim’s view of the relationships of the black American ghetto; the hustling, scamming, pimping, drug-dealing, stealing and the rampant aspiration towards wealth, suddenly seemed more relevant than ever.
Basically, Slim, and writers like him, gave me the confidence to write in my own voice. If I hadn’t picked up Pimp, I doubt I could have gone on to write Trainspotting or Glue.
In his transition from pimp to writer, Slim became some exotic hybrid between the flash, stylish politically consciousness Mohammed Ali and a reductivist money machine Michael Jordanesque breadhead. In that way he lived the dilemna faced by almost any aspirant who hails from a dispossessed culture: personal social mobility or radical/revolutionarty political change?
One of his most endearing features was that Iceberg Slim never sought any insincere exoneration for the life he led. His writing is characterised by a scrupulous honesty to both the social reality and the hypereal theatricality of street life, which has been the template for the hip-hopers and rappers that followed him. Slim candidly admitted that one of reasons he became a writer and stopped pimping was due to a fear of being exploited by younger prostitutes, as would inevitably have happened. In Slim’s works, the hookers are seldom simply victims of the pimps, just fellow ghetto strugglers with the same grifter sensibility.
Iceberg Slim did for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief and William Burrough’s for the junky: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who had been there. The big difference is that they were white.
Unlike them, and despite one Harvard study of Pimp as a ‘transgressive novel’ Slim was, and still is, marginalised as a writer. It’s ironic and indicative of the institutionalised racism of English-speaking society that someone whose influence on western culture is now probably greater than any touted (white) writer of all post-war generations finds himself in this peculiar position. Literature, always the most culturally hegemonic art form, has basically shut Slim out, in a way the music industry tried (unsuccessfully) to do with black artists for years.
This begs the question: just how good a writer was he?
Stylistcally, his novels are a treat, his eye for the psychology of a character sharper than just about anyone you’ll ever read. His prose style is that adjective-rich mix, with the constant lookout for the telling phrase that is often favoured by many self-taught writers. By the time his last novel Doom Fox was published, he had honed and developed his craft, still using his own street experiences as the foundation for his novelistic imagination, but moving outside the ghetto box into the realm of conspicuous LA wealth. Thus he also foreshadowed the rapper’s cribs features on MTV, where the fast money music millionaires from poor homes drown in the luxury of the most gaudy American consumerism, often for a short while, before the unheralded repossesions take place.
Back in 1973, Hollie West wrote in the Washington Post: “The Iceberg Slim of yesteryear is considered an anachronism to the young dudes now out there on the block trying to hustle. They say he is crude and violent, overlooking his staggering gift of gab. Iceberg acknowledges that pimping has changed because "women have changed. The advent of women's lib, changing sexual mores, general affluence in this society and widespread use of drugs by pimps to control prostitutes have made an impact.”
Even at the time, this may have been wishful thinking on her part, but it certainly no longer holds true. In the age of Jordan before Ali, the “Get Rich Or Die Trying” philosophy of the projects, the growth of an African-American middle-class and an often regressive post-feminism, all occurring within a globalised entertainment market that devours everything, Slim’s continued resonance and resurgence with the poorest youths in black ghettos may often seem to be a reactionary force – especially when they identify with the pimp, rather than the artist.
Slim was aware of this. When asked about the success of his avowed aim of saving youngsters from the same kind of life he lived (as stated in the preface to Pimp), he was characteristically transparent and forthright:
No. They rationalize. They think they'd be slicker than I. It's almost impossible to dissuade young dudes who're already street-poisoned because almost without exception they have no recourse but to think they're slicker than Iceberg.
Much of the sensibility of modern rap and hip-hop, makes Slim’s words seem sadly prophetic. Many of the young rappers (often ludicrously) see their (commercially and socially driven) mission being about trying to project cooler, harder and more ruthless personas than Slim. But there are exceptions to this. The brilliant rapper Nas, who following on from the success of his Untitled album, and backed by over half-a-million petition signatures, launched an attack on the Fox Network’s racist and sexist smears of Michelle Obama, the wife of the US Presidential candidate. Fox broadcasters referred to her as the Illinois senator’s ‘baby mama’ and deployed terms like ‘lynching parties’ when discussing her. Nas would perhaps be an example of the persona Slim the writer strived towards- the ‘positive force’ who admired the radicalism of the Panthers, and rejected the hustler route. Another might be Jay-Z, who marries ‘gangsta’ rhetoric and posturing with consequential warnings of what this behaviour actually does to black people and the African-American community.
So this intoduction ends with a plea to not just check out Pimp, but also the backlist of Iceberg Slim’s fiction. The hip-hop street code of ‘keepin it real’ was practically invented by him. Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, in terms of his impact on shaping our global cultural landscape, is probably now as essential reading as William Shakespeare. Black and white alike, we have to get beyond his life as a pimp, and accept him as one of the most influential writers of our age.