At Bishop Don “Magic” Juan's cramped Mid-City Los Angeles apartment, nearly everything is green and gold: the doormat, the couches, a neon sign that displays his name, even the building itself, which the owner had painted in his honor. “Green for the money, and gold for the honeys,” quips the former Chicago pimp.
He calls his pad the Honeycomb, and on this early February day, two comely young ladies listen to old R&B tunes and pass around a blunt. One introduces herself as “Paradise.” From his small kitchen he extracts a bottle of Champagne, which he pours before showing off his proudest pimping accoutrements. There's the large, bejeweled hat resembling those worn by bishops, a bedazzled cane and a collection of waist-high trophies, including one for “legendary lifetime achievement” as a pimp.
Though as a hustler he went by Don Juan, nowadays most people call him Bishop, an honorary title reflecting his religious conversion and ordination a couple decades back. Perhaps his greatest legacy symbolizes both his hustling and his religion: pimp cups, ornate communion chalices decked out in rhinestones and crystals. Though the goblets often hold bubbly or cognac, these days they're as much hip-hop fashion accessory as beverage receptacle.
Bishop has hundreds of them, and helped bring them into the pop culture mainstream by giving them to celebrities, including Mariah Carey, Mike Tyson and, of course, Snoop Dogg, a self-described former pimp himself, who brought Bishop into his inner circle and considers him his “spiritual adviser.”
“You are feelin' like … nobody can do nothing to harm me while I am drinking out of this,” Snoop later tells L.A. Weekly. “This glass is a symbol of who I am, and it also looks good while it's in my hand.”
Bishop reaches into a top cupboard shelf and pulls out some of his favorites. One is shaped like the midsection of a curvaceous woman. Another has images of $100 bills on it. Then there's the one he had made for Hillary Clinton, whom he supported in her 2008 presidential run. It features her rhinestone-bordered picture against a blue background. He'll give it to her, should they ever cross paths.
To folks like Bishop and Snoop, pimp cups are not just about blinging out; they're quasireligious artifacts — and only authentic if handcrafted by a churchgoing Chicago woman called Debbie the Glass Lady, who prays over each one she makes. “When she pray over the glass, it's going to do much for those who receive it,” Bishop vows.
Others say God has nothing to do with it. By their very name, detractors insist, pimp cups glamorize a lifestyle that celebrates violence and the exploitation of women.
But even as feminists and moralists complain, pimp culture flourishes. As knockoff pimp cups proliferate, and white college kids increasingly appropriate them as accessories for their “pimp and ho” parties, what's a player to do?
To Bishop and Snoop, the answer seems clear enough: Cash in.
The uninitiated might believe blinged-out chalices are as old as pimping itself — or at least as old as Dolemite, the '70s-era movie character played by Rudy Ray Moore, who helped to establish the archetype of the colorful, over-the-top modern pimp. But the glasses have been mainstream for only about a decade, most passionately embraced by rappers as video-ready symbols of their street savvy, style and facility with the ladies.
In the beginning the cups came from a single source: Deborah Harrison, better known as Debbie the Glass Lady. From her home on Chicago's South Side, the former dialysis technician remains a veritable pimp-cup institution, responsible for almost all of the chalices toted by celebrities.
Now 60, with bleached-blond hair, Harrison began making the cups in the early 1980s along with her mother, a former glass-factory employee, and selling them to fellow congregants at the Spiritual Church of God in Christ. Inspired by her faith, Harrison says, she had a premonition that she would spread the cups to preachers and other holy folks and, in fact, she did end up making one for Bishop Arthur Brazier, a prominent civil rights leader who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The original chalices were simple, made from gold-painted glass and lacking jewels. Harrison also gave them to favored customers at a bar where she worked, as a way to increase sales. “My clientele was really building up because they had their own glass,” she says. “[Everyone] wanted to drink out of the golden glasses.”
Her wares eventually caught Bishop's eye, and in 1983 he approached her to acquire a green goblet for himself. He suggested she add some jewels; the piece cost him $150, he recalls, and he eventually christened Harrison “the Glass Lady.”
Then at the height of his pimping fame, Bishop found that the glass accentuated his flamboyant image, one he'd developed after studying the urban fiction of authors such as Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, as well as characters in films like Super Fly.
Born Donald Campbell, he was just 7 years old when his father, who ran a soul food restaurant, died from a blood clot in the brain. Raised by his mother on the mean streets of Chicago's South Side, Bishop had a distaste for poverty rivaled only by his antipathy for actual work, so after going AWOL from the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, he left his wife and began plying his trade as the pimp known as Don Juan.
He accrued a stable of 11 women, whom he wouldn't hesitate to violently assault if they violated his command. Once, he brutally pummeled a prostitute named Angel because she refused to put a snake he owned into his car. “Blood was all over my wall,” writes Bishop's sister Ann Bromfield in their co-written memoir on Bishop's life, From Pimp Stick to Pulpit. “I have never in my life seen a man beat a woman like that.”
Somewhere along the way he also fathered 27 children.
Managing to stay mostly on the right side of the law, Bishop became known for his lavish parties; his harem, called the Juanettes; and his growing circle of high-profile friends, including Mr. T and R&B singer Tyrone Davis.
But in 1985, a PCP-induced vision — which he believes came from God — convinced him to give up pimping. He immediately ordered his women to cease streetwalking and enrolled in a Chicago Bible school. Some eight years later Bishop was ordained as a nondenominational minister, whereupon he founded the Magic World Christian Kingdom Church. He ministered there, until the early '90s, to a congregation of a couple hundred, he says.
Later that decade he moved West to try his hand in Hollywood, taking bit roles in such movies as Starsky & Hutch and Friday After Next, often playing characters fashioned after his image. Bishop also was featured in the Hughes brothers' documentary American Pimp.
Indeed, despite giving up hustling more than a quarter-century ago, Bishop continues to project the air of a pimp, from his smooth-talking, self-confident charm to his outfit. One could say he adheres to each and every sartorial pimp stereotype, had he not helped create the stereotype himself. When he hits the town he outpeacocks them all, with capes, suits decorated in gold or dollar bills, bow ties and matching hats. Then there's his gold teeth and the rings that stretch across three fingers: “Magic” on one hand and “Juan” on the other.
Bishop is somewhat repentant when it comes to his former profession; he doesn't believe it was God's plan for him, and he presumably has ceased abusing women. But at the same time he's done more than just about anyone to glamorize the lifestyle. He's as devoted to looking like a pimp now as he was to pimping back then. In fact, after a blood clot in his leg nearly took his life last year, Bishop even brought his act to the infirmary. “I was blinging all the way through the operation room,” he notes, adding that he gave the doctor a bedazzled stethoscope for his troubles.
Though Debbie Harrison's construction technique remains proprietary, each of her chalices is custom-made, using everything from black onyx to Swarovski crystal to topaz. They sell for about $200 each. Of course, if you want your glass plated in 24-karat gold or platinum, that's going to run you well over $1,000. She takes her orders over the phone; her advertising consists mainly of her Facebook page.
Her artistry was inspired, in part, after viewing one too many tacky rap videos. Appalled by the gauche receptacles formerly favored by hip-hop stars, she sought to upgrade them. “They had this expensive jewelry and their expensive wine and Champagne, and they were drinking it out of those nasty little red cups,” Harrison says. “So I got the idea to start blinging the glasses out with precious stones.”
Despite her strong religious devotion, Harrison saw nothing contradictory about selling cups to foulmouthed entertainers. In fact, that was the whole point, in a way. Blessing each chalice with an individualized prayer, she sought to bring a bit of grace to society's sinners, anybody from “the president to the mayor to teachers and preachers and pimps, prostitutes and hos.” She adds: “If they drink from my cup, they're getting a prayer that I give to them.”
Of course, they also were helping her do a brisk business, particularly after Bishop gave a cup to Snoop in the late '90s. The Long Beach MC was so inspired that he felt compelled to meet Harrison, and made a special stop in the midst of his tour. Harrison vividly recalls his pot smoke–spewing caravan pulling up in front of Harrison's house. It was quickly surrounded by neighborhood kids.
“You've got a million-dollar business on your hands,” she recalls Snoop telling her. Soon after, he coined the term pimp cups to describe them.
“I felt like every pimp that was really pimpin' had to have a cup, to symbolize that's what he stood for and that's what he was about,” he explains now.
Snoop spread the word to his influential friends, and soon Harrison began receiving calls from luminaries like Atlanta-based producer and hype man Lil Jon, whose cultural influence would swell as he popularized the aggressive rap strain known as crunk. In his breakout 2003 video with the East Side Boyz, “Get Low,” he brandishes a different cup with each outfit.
Soon, along with his platinum grills and long dreadlocks, the chalice became an indelible part of Lil Jon's image; Harrison says he now owns more than 700 of them.
Jon's cup was often full of something called Crunk Juice, a mixture of Hennessy and his own Crunk energy drink.
Nelly, another popular hip-hop artist from the era, also came out with his own elixir, called Pimp Juice, though it was widely boycotted by black activists who objected to its name on grounds that it promoted negative racial stereotypes. “What's next?” a pastor named Paul Scott said to USA Today. “Sambo ham sandwiches and Ku Klux Klan juice?”
The latest generation of rap fans, however, has widely embraced the term pimping, redefining it to describe excelling at one's craft, whatever that may be. It also can mean “to make something flashier,” à la MTV show Pimp My Ride. In fact, the word pimp itself should be considered an acronym for “Player Into Making Progress,” Snoop says, while others in Bishop's circle suggest “Power in My Prayer” and even “Public Intellectual With Moral Principles.”
The pimp as moral standard-bearer? It may sound far-fetched, but Bishop contends that in the disadvantaged neighborhood where he was raised, the pimp was a respected member of the community. When Bishop himself wasn't exploiting young girls and smacking women around, he earned the nickname “Magic” for his efforts to provide school supplies for poor local kids and food for the homeless.
In any case, no one could have predicted how strongly pimping and pimp cups would become embedded in mainstream culture. In 2006, Memphis outfit Three 6 Mafia became the first hip-hop group to win an Oscar, for their song “It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from Hustle & Flow, while celebs like Ben Stiller and Paris Hilton began toting chalices. Even Ellen DeGeneres got in on the action, giving a pimp cup to Modern Family's Sarah Hyland for her 21st birthday.
But Bishop and Snoop still believed there was a wee bit of difference between wannabes like Paris Hilton and real-deal players such as themselves. It was in this spirit that Bishop established the Famous Players Club in 1999. Lacking a facility of its own, the association is more grand idea than fraternal organization, one based on the holy trinity of fellowship, worshipping God and hustling. Bishop says it boasts a few thousand members worldwide, including rappers Ice T and Too $hort.
The club's main event is the Player's Ball, an annual gathering in Hollywood, deejayed by Snoop. There, the nation's finest pimp cups are on display, heavyweight glass goblets big enough to hold a Big Gulp. Awards also are handed out for “Player of the Year,” judged on such criteria as the quality of one's women, cars and clothes. Past winners include Diddy, Owen Wilson and, in 2010, a rapper calling himself Black Heff, who won his title primarily on the strength of his self-titled online reality show, which depicted him co-habitating with three attractive white women and their children.
The general public is invited to the soiree, but not just anyone can tote around a pimp cup. “You gots to be official,” says one attendee at this year's event, a decked-out white guy with a cane.
“A real playa playa cup cost a real playa playa price,” Snoop seconds. “You going to have to put some work in on the streets to get that.”
But any pimp worth his salt is concerned primarily with profit, and so Snoop has compromised his principles somewhat to spread the word about an Orange County company called Serious Pimp, which is poised to begin selling cups to the general public. Founded in the late 1990s by mortgage-industry alum Damian Kutzner, the outfit manufactures ostentatious sunglasses, hats and shirts. Its celebrity pitchmen include MMA fighters and Ice Cube; Bishop was brought on to add “legitimacy” to the company's pimping image, Kutzner says, and Snoop became its president in 2009.
In person, Kutzner smiles widely to reveal whitened teeth. A fast talker who calls himself a “rookie pimp,” he has something of a checkered past: His former company Global Mortgage Funding was accused of committing telemarketing infractions and in 2009 faced $6 million in Federal Trade Commission penalties before filing for bankruptcy. Today, clad in a pinstriped suit, as he leads a tour of the outfit's still-under-construction Lake Forest base, he pauses to point out his bright green Lamborghini parked out front. Nearby is an armored SUV (once owned by Snoop, he says) that will be used for Serious Pimp's marketing — that is, after it is “pimp-wrapped,” i.e., decorated in a hood-to-floor advertisement.
From the outside, Kutzner's warehouse and office facility could be mistaken for a storage space, while inside workers prepare a studio where promotional videos will be filmed and a showroom where celebrities and retail buyers can view the business's products.
Serious Pimp's wares currently are available only online, and today it has prototype pimp cups on display, which, Kutzner says, will go on sale this spring. Ranging from oversize goblets to skinny beer steins, they will be made by the Glass Lady herself, with prices starting at $50. Customized cups will go for as much as $5,000.
Naturally, the standard ones won't be as ornate as those owned by Bishop; the prototypes come mainly in neutral colors and are covered with silver and gold rhinestones. But they look like quality products. Having Harrison's signature alongside the Serious Pimp logo was extremely important to Kutzner, he says. “The Deb signature is like Gucci. Everything else is a knockoff.”
Though he doesn't mention them by name, Exhibit A in the knockoff category are glasses made by a San Fernando Valley company called Iced Out Gear, which has been mass-producing chalices for more than 10 years. Co-founder David Levich says his business sells more than 20,000 cups annually, which go for as little as $5 and often are quite kitschy. Monochromatic and typified by gaudy colors and simple designs, the top sellers have messages like “Queen Bitch” and “420.” Iced Out Gear specializes in personalized wedding sets for bridal parties and bachelor parties; mall retailer Spencer Gifts places a lot of orders as well.
Like Serious Pimp, Levich's establishment operates out of an unglamorous facility: Its Chatsworth warehouse, surrounded by a chain-link fence, sits behind a trailer park. But its philosophy diverges sharply. Iced Out Gear's best-selling merchandise includes sunglasses with attached, ironic, fake mustaches, and its pimp cups are designed with a similarly tongue-in-cheek attitude.
“It is more of a gag gift than anything else,” says the genial and portly Levich. He adds that the “hipster movement” has helped the cups take hold in the mainstream.
It's clear that for the young — and, one expects, largely white — people buying them, the cups have become just another black cultural symbol ripe for appropriation. (For the record, it's not always clear if these customers are mocking pimpdom or simply hoping for some swagger by proxy.) Still, one thing's for certain: The literal act of pimping couldn't be further removed from Levich's product. “I don't think it is any longer affiliated,” Levich says. “It might have been at one point, but now it's more for 16-year-old girls.”
Back at Bishop's apartment, he opens a sliding glass door to let the swirling smoke and heat escape. A hungry squirrel jumps onto his balcony, and Bishop quickly produces a bowl of almonds to feed him by hand. Turns out the two of them are well acquainted; Bishop has even named him Chuuch, an acronym he coined, which can be heard frequently in rap songs. It stands for “Can't Hate, U Can't Hate” and, he says, roughly means “God bless you.”
Snoop finds their friendship particularly touching. “Who say that playas can't raise animals?” he asks. “He done raise a squirrel straight out the wilderness.”
The scene presents yet another side to Bishop's character; it's a tender moment from a man who has committed great violence in his life. In his effort to bridge the street corner and the pulpit, Bishop has worn a lot of hats (literally), and one can't help but wonder what's next for him. The spoils of his pimpdom seem well in the rearview, his Hollywood career doesn't seem to be gathering much steam, and even his collaboration with Serious Pimp seems unlikely to prove artistically fulfilling. “I don't have input on anything that he doing,” he says of Kutzner.
But Bishop's certainly not worried. “You always want to move into bigger and better things,” he says. “God don't judge us where we start but where we finish.”
Just as his beloved cups have been blessed, he believes, so has he.