The first biography of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, (1918-1992), builds a compelling case that the pimp-turned–popular author provided the foundation for gangsta rap, Blaxploitation movies, and so much of the underground culture that became mainstream.
Gifford (English/Univ. of Nevada; Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, 2013) transcends the opacity of academic writing in this lively account of a subject he even admits “might at first glance seem like an appalling choice for a biography…he abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime, and he is practically unknown to the American mainstream.” Yet his autobiography, Pimp, has sold millions of copies since its publication in 1967, though it was never reviewed in the literary press nor widely available in bookstores. Pimp and Slim’s subsequent novels and essay collections could be more commonly found in inner-city newsstands, taverns, and barbershops. Such seminal rappers as Ice Cube and Ice-T took their names to honor him, and Mike Tyson considered him a father figure. To Gifford, he’s an exemplar of the ambiguous complexity of the pimp in ghetto mythology, a flashy man who has been corrupted by a racist society and who has been able to triumph over white prejudice by exploiting black women who had too few options. The “Street Poison” of the title was the term favored by Slim to describe the insidious effects of ghetto life on an impressionable young man attracted to the worlds of sex, drugs, and glamour and who would deaden his soul to attain all of them. It shows complicated relationships with his mother and a series of father figures, accounts occasionally at odds with Slim’s own writing, and it shows how he transitioned from a life of crime to pulp literature.
“This is not a story without tragedy….But it is a story of redemption and breathtaking creativity, too,” writes Gifford, who not only tells the story well, but shows why it’s so significant.