October 08, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Funky tongue 

Street rhymes and the roots of rap

There's Pimping Sam and Konky Mohair. There's the Mighty Dolomite, Stackerlee, and Toledo Slim. There's Piss-Pot Pete "with eighteen pounds of red-hot meat." There's Mr. Shine, who fights off sharks with one hand, Cocaine Shorty, and even a black-skinned Jesse James.

            They swagger endlessly. They fight and swear and use their sex appeal like a deadly weapon. They live on in folk rhymes, told again and again. The names shift and the exploits mutate each time the story is told. But as long as someone remembers these loud, vulgar, hilarious word-of-mouth poems, the heroes will live on.

            Before there was rap, there were street rhymes. Before there were millionaire bad-boys bragging from countless boom-boxes, before half the teenagers in America copped the MTV sag, swagger, and pout, there were toasts.

            These folk rhymes were told anywhere: hanging around on the street, in bars, at parties, out in back lots. Toasting was an oral tradition. You didn't go to the library to read up on toasts. You found someone who knew the latest ones and hung around to absorb the wild rhymes. Usually, folks would hear a toast over and over, each version a little different. As the words seeped into the listener's brain, various versions would mix and mingle. Every time the toast was performed --- and there's no question this is a performer's art --- some new plot twist or obscenity might be added.

            A cold misty rain fell on Spokane

            the red-light city of the coast,

            Where the whores get high on cocaine

            and stand on the corners and boast.

            About pimps and chumps from back-alley dumps

            that made their rise to fame.

            And the parties they threw, which was quite a few

            in the life they call The Game.

                                                            --- "The Ball of the Freaks"

Poet bobby johnson grew up on Clarissa Street, and remembers in the late 1930s sessions of toasting "on street corners, pool rooms, and sometimes at parties." Usually this was an all-male activity.

            He also recalls seeing copies of the rhymes, some in long-hand and others reproduced by mimeo. They were "private property for their own use and amusement," Johnson says. "It wasn't exactly underground," but the copies certainly weren't for widespread distribution.

            Johnson's book, The Clarissa Street Project, was written in part to preserve the old, lost neighborhood in memory. His poems still exist on the printed page, but they were far more alive when Johnson stood in front of an audience and read, at the old Jazzberry's, Writers & Books, and stand-up poetry venues that flourished in the '70s. Some echoes of the old toasts could be heard in his poetry: strong images, old rhythms, an earthy directness.

            Former Kodak employee Walter Cooper also grew up hearing these rhymed tales of power and rebellion. As a kid in the 1930s, Cooper was exposed to many of the most famous rhymes. "Since employment wasn't that good," he says, "people made their own entertainment. In the evening, after finishing your chores, you'd sit around on the corner and people would provide entertainment. It was a contest to see who could be more creative."

            Cooper, over 50 years later, can still reel off the first lines of "The Hoboes' Convention" without a pause.

            The tenth of May was a hell of a day.

            All the counts and no-accounts were gathered.

            There was Dead Eye Dick from Hickory Stick

            and Little Lou from Kalamazoo.

            "Not everyone could sing the blues. But within your group," Cooper says, anyone could perform the toasts. "We'd sit on the curb and try to take some real historical fact like the sinking of the Titanic, recreate around it a mythical black hero, and put it in a rap context."

            Cooper remembers men almost as legendary as the subjects of their toasts, who'd try to outdo each other trading rhymes. There was Cherry Red and Homestead, Hatchet and Van Penn. But it was a toaster named Douglass whom Cooper seems to remember best.

            Douglass had come from the South and he knew all the rhymes. "We'd see Mr. Douglass coming and we'd say 'what's new?' What kind of poems can you share with us this evening?' He knew them all: Stagger Lee, Mr. Shine, the Signifying Monkey."

            To "signify" is to use words as a weapon. Clever turns of speech, jokes, brags, wild insults, verbal tricks to confuse and humiliate the enemy: These are all part of the signifying art. What the hero can't do with muscles, he might accomplish through his skill as a master of verbal kung fu. In "The Signifying Monkey," probably the most popular black street rhyme, a jungle ape uses his wits and his tongue to defeat a lion. In one version the monkey wears a Zoot Suit. In another he ends up driving away in a Cadillac full of "monkey bitches." In all of them he defeats a far-stronger foe with wit and words and slightly crazed courage.

            Another hero, Cocaine Shorty, brags he can "line ninety-eight whores up against a wall" and satisfy them one and all. And then he boasts:

            You get me fifteen cents of pork chops

            and a dime's worth of rice.

            And I'll crucify them all

            like the Jews crucified Christ.

A toast first transcribed in 1964, "Derringer Youngblood," also looks forward to the ultra-violent, oversexed heroes of rap. The first lines run this way: "Derringer Youngblood, the jet-black nigger, strong as a jackass and quick on the trigger."

            And there's Dolomite, whose mastery at sex, fighting, and drinking is unparalleled. Even in the womb, he's the toughest one around, ripping his way out of his mother's belly and smacking his father on the face, yelling "I'm takin' over this place." This king bad-ass ended up on the movie screen, as the alter ego of stand-up comic Rudy Ray Moore.

            Moore is an important transitional figure, bridging the gap between '70s-era toasting and '80s-era rap. He made some screamingly funny-bad movies, (check out Petey Wheatstraw: the Devil's Son in Law and Avenging Disco Godfather) which combine kung fu, pimps, coke dealers, and plenty of signifying. Before he became the uncrowned king of Blaxploitation, he had a nightclub act that often included toasts.

            "These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer-joint and liquor-store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit," Moore says in an interview with Darius James, author of That's Blaxploitation! "What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me these tales. And then I'd take them and freshen them up."

            Hearing about Dolomite from a wino who used to hang around a record store where he worked, Moore improvised around the story. In his nightclub act, Moore spun out increasingly wild, wicked, and obscene versions of the tale. Another of his favorites was Shine, whom he made into a Black Power hero.

            It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind

            April the four was a hell of a time.

            When the news reached a seaport town

            that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.

            Now up popped Shine, from the decks below

            and said "Captain, captain, don't you know.

            there's forty feet of water on the boiler room floor."

            But the captain said, "Never mind Shine, just do as you're told

            and go back down in that deep black hold."

            Shine said, "That's funny, that's mighty fine,

            But I'm gonna save this black ass of mine.

            There's fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea

            this is one time when white folks ain't gonna bullshit me."

            So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim

            and all the people on the deck is lookin' at him."

            The toast goes on to tell how this lowliest worker on the Titanic escapes from the wreck. The captain offers him money, the captain's wife and daughter offer him sex, if he'll save them. Unlike the Signifying Monkey, Shine has both verbal and physical power. He rebuffs all the white people's offers with obscenities and straight-forward advice. "Get your ass in the water and swim like me." Then he fights off sharks and swims all the way back to the US.

            In the world of toasting, heroes gain power in two ways: from raw physical force and from verbal ability. Traditional bad men trust in their physical prowess. Signifying Monkey depends on his verbal skills to best his enemies. In Shine, we find a hero who can combine both.

            Chicago-based poet Calvin Forbes has taken some of the Shine persona and added to it a quieter, more subtle intelligence. His latest book, The Shine Poems, is not rap. There's far more of a jazz influence here than coke-and-cash street swagger. Still, his work emerges from the same deep sources. His Shine poems are more like a cousin than a brother to rap.

            Forbes grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where he heard toasts on the street. "I learned about Shine as a kid," he says. "There'd be rhymes we'd play off each other. We'd exchange rhymes about Shine, The Signifying Monkey, and other folk figures. Of course, I didn't know they were folk figures until later on." Folklore still surrounds us, he believes, but the new black heroes are troubling to Forbes. The old ones were "mischievous, not thugs." The Signifying Monkey might have come out on top. But it was through brains and guts, not crotch-grabbing and cruelty. Though some of the old elements remain, there's "definitely been a shift from traditional black folk culture to hip-hop," Forbes says.

Before hip-hop, elements of the toast began to show up in black popular music. Louis Armstrong did a tune called "Willie the Weeper," named after a folklore figure. Bo Diddley claimed some of the hero's bravado in "Who do You Love?" and even stole some lines directly from an old toast, with his "tombstone hand and a graveyard mind." Chuck Berry's "Jo-Jo Gunn" is a cutesy rewrite of "The Signifying Monkey." And "King Heroin" was a toast long before James Brown put his name on it.

            In the early days of reggae toasting, some Jamaican performers took on mythical names to give a little juice to their bad-man swagger. There was Dennis Alcapone and Nigger Kojak and Lee Van Cleef (named after the great spaghetti western gunfighter). Cowboy legend may have been shaped by white Hollywood, but blacks still took the gunfighter materials for their own uses. The toast known as "Stackolee" shows how Hollywood hokum, cowboy machismo, and black rage came together:


            Back in forty-nine when times was hard

            I carried a sawed-off shotgun and a marked deck of cards.

            I stumbled through the rain and crawled through the mud

            to this bad bad town called The Bucket of Blood.

            I asked the bartender for something to eat.

            He gave me a muddy glass of water and a rotten piece of meat.

            I said, "Mister, you must not know who I am"

            And he said "Frankly, son, I don't give a damn."

            So I shot him six times through his motherfuckin' head

            and his wife went off screaming, "My husband is dead!"

            The level of obscenity in current rap is really not much higher than it was in street corner rhymes of the 1930s. But its nature is different. There was considerably less dull-witted rage. The obscenity, Walter Cooper says, was "an outlet for the frustration, a healthy venting of frustration due to the reality of segregation and discrimination." The 1930 black rhyme hero may have been crude and violent, but his struggle was about race and class, not merely against sexually resistant women. The obscenity was there a half century before, but "you did not discuss it with your white friends," Cooper says. "You'd put on a different face for whites."

            There's no question that toasting served blacks as a secret weapon. Before the great Blaxploitation heroes such as Superfly, Shaft, and Sweet Sweetback, blacks were rhyming stories of their triumphs over The Man. In one version of the toast bemoaning the all-white Titanic disaster, blacks often would shout "Hallelujah!" after the standard refrain of "It was a sad day when the great ship went down."

            "It was a compensatory way of elevating your self-esteem by mythologizing real events with stories of black valor and bravery," Cooper says.

            It's important to keep in mind that toasting was largely an oral tradition, below the notice of mainstream culture. When scholars became interested, in the '70s, the place where they could collect the most rhymes was in county jails.

            Rapper Ice-T once said, "You want to hide something from the black man? Put it in a book." This was on National Public Radio, in a nice safe little interview with Terry Gross. It's an ugly thing to say. And given that NPR's audience is mostly white, mostly middle class, and mostly quite literate, it probably served to confirm what his listeners were already thinking.

            Frederick Douglass would not have put it quite that way, but still, there's no question that mastery of the written words led to his liberation. Literacy was, quite simply, "the pathway from slavery to freedom."

            No such claim can be made for the toasts. Frederick Douglass was a fighter, but he was also a gentleman. The cursing, the lewdness, the barbaric violence would have appalled him.

            Still, toasts gave some sense of power to the teller, some feeling of mastery. No one got rich toasting. No one got famous. Indeed, the secretive nature of the rhymes may have contributed to their force. Once pop culture got hold of them, they became either quaint little bits of folklore or Hollywood soundtracks. Once 14-year-old white suburban kids began to ape the toasters' swagger and sneer, it was all over.

            So now the great black heroes are tame pop culture icons. One-time bad boy Ice-T (who gained great fame with his cop-killer rap) now plays a cop on TV. Rhymes are used to sell Coke and Pepsi. 50 Cent is no more a threat to The Man than Garth Brooks. A genuine weapon of rebellion has become just one more drawer in the big cash register.

            A genuine, vital element of folk culture has been swallowed up. Or perhaps folk culture itself has just withered away. And to make it worse, there's not even a gravestone where we can stand and mourn. Books and movies only give a glimpse of what we've lost. Oral culture, true folklore, dies with the last practitioner. And the generation that learned the toasts by ear --- and knew them by heart --- is fast disappearing.

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