Two Books Revive the Legend of Iceberg Slim, the Literary Father of Gangsta Rap
Best-selling Scottish crime novelist Irvine Welsh has called him "probably the most dominant writer since Shakespeare," for how his work helped define the "ghetto persona" across music, fiction and film. Ice-T and Ice Cube both derived from him not just nicknames but also attitude. Back in 1976, he helped give birth to gangsta rap with his graphic spoken-word album Reflections. By his publisher's accounting, the five crime novels and two autobiographical works published in his lifetime sold more than 6 million copies and so make him this country's best-selling black author. Just because you've never heard of Iceberg Slim, who died in 1992, doesn't mean he isn't famous.
This month, University of Nevada English professor Justin Gifford sets out to accord Slim his due with a deeply researched new biography, Street Poison, published in conjunction with the recently discovered Slim novel Shetani's Sister, in which an LAPD detective vows to take down a ruthless pimp.
Like all Slim's writings, Shetani's Sister is set in a world he knew well. Born Robert Beck in 1918 in Chicago, as a child Slim belonged to the Boy Scouts, and, at 17, briefly attended Alabama's renowned Tuskegee Institute, missing Ralph Ellison by one month. Within the year Slim would drop out, driven instead to attain the lavish lifestyle and fearsome reputation of an ace pimp. Over the next two decades, he raked in large sums of money, only to blow it on heroin and cocaine, fancy clothes and luxury cars, all the while bouncing in and out of Midwestern prisons. Finally, at 42 and in fear of falling prey to the sword he lived by, Slim left the pimping life and moved to Los Angeles to take care of his ailing mother. She died six months later, but the city bequeathed to Slim a shot at a whole new life.
"I don't think he would have even become a writer if he hadn't moved to Los Angeles," Gifford says by phone from Reno.
Slim's first stroke of luck was meeting Betty Mae Shew, a young white woman from Texas, who worked at a hamburger stand in South Central. The new couple moved in together the morning after their first date. It was Shew, Gifford writes, who first saw the literary potential in Slim's personal history and helped him shape his raw storytelling style.
It was only far from the East Coast publishing establishment that Slim could find an outlet for his unconventional work. In 1965, Holloway House was a low-rent L.A. publisher known for schlocky nudie magazines. When riots broke out in Watts that August, the two former copywriters who ran the publishing house watched the unfolding drama and saw a massive untapped readership. Looking for talent, they ran ads in L.A.'s black newspaper, The Sentinel, and scouted the Watts Writers Workshop. Slim got wind and showed up on their doorstep, with a manuscript in hand that Shew had typed and edited for him. Holloway signed him on the spot.
Pimp: The Story of My Life, bylined by the newly christened Iceberg Slim, came out in 1967. Before long, bookstores had Slim fans lining up out the door, and the couple followed with titles like Trick Baby (made into a blaxploitation film in 1972) and Mama Black Widow, plus nonfiction collection The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, which Gifford calls the writer's most L.A. book.
Deeply influenced by the local Black Panther Party and its standoff with the LAPD, Slim became the group's strong supporter in his later years. In Naked, the author details how he walked six miles a day through his neighborhood, in an effort to reach young people on the streets and steer them away from the criminal life.
Just past 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Misty Beck, Slim's youngest daughter with Shew (who died in 2009), sits at the cafe inside the Burbank Barnes & Noble. She's arrived straight from the manufacturing company for which she does accounting.
A few days before publication of the new novel and Gifford's biography, the only Iceberg Slim on the shelves here is a reissue of Pimp, in a new edition put out by Cash Money Content, a subsidiary of Cash Money Records (Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj) and an Atria imprint. Years ago, the family struggled mightily to wrest control of Slim's oeuvre from the now-defunct Holloway House, Beck says, which had his works tied up in what she calls "an I-own-you, up-the-ass contract." In Street Poison, Gifford details how Slim's frustrations with Holloway led him to cease publishing, preferring to let Shetani's Sister lie unread in a drawer all these years.
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The novel was completed in 1983, and its characters troll the rough streets of pre-gentrified Hollywood. (Beck, who attended Hollywood High in the 1980s, recalls watching hookers work the sidewalks around campus.) The book introduces Shetani — "a psychotic black master pimp" — behind the wheel of his gold-on-lavender Continental. "Sex, crime, booze and dope ruled the treacherous night," Slim writes to set the scene. "The melded odors of bargain colognes and steamy armpits rode the sweltering air like a sour aphrodisiac for gawking male bangers." Two pages later, Shetani blows away a pair of strangers for dinging his car. It's only page 11, and they aren't even the first characters to die.
Gifford sees it as Slim's most mature work, a prime example of his ability to combine social and psychological insight with a street vernacular style that "was lightning in a bottle."
"He was so influential, and the saddest thing is, Daddy didn't know it," Beck says. Slim died just as the 1992 riots were exploding across South L.A. It wasn't until Beck could Google him years later that she began to understand his reach.
It's the sort of legacy that took Beck years to get comfortable with, she admits. "Talking about my dad's writing wasn't always easy," she says. At 16, she was mostly just chagrined when she sat down to read Slim's most famous book, the autobiography that, in Gifford's words, "inspired hundreds of writers and created a genre."
"I said, 'Daddy, you're a terrible person,'" she recalls with a laugh. Later, she revised that thought. "He was a great writer that used to be a pimp," she says simply.
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