Pioneering gangsta rappers Ice Cube and Ice-T both took their names from him (as did Jay-Z initially, as Iceberg Slim was one of his early handles). Comedians Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have declared him an essential influence. Author Irvine Welsh calls Slim, in terms of that influence, “probably the most dominant writer since Shakespeare.”
His name was Robert Beck, a k a Iceberg Slim, whose 1967 memoir, “Pimp: The Story of My Life” became a template for countless hip-hop songs and blaxploitation films.
Justin Gifford’s “Street Poison,” a new biography named for Slim’s frequently used term for the hurtful impact street life has on one’s soul and psyche, shows us how Beck became Slim and doesn’t sugarcoat the evil aspects of his life before he (supposedly) changed his ways.
Slim was born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. on Aug. 4, 1918. When he was a few months old, his father suggested to his mother they “leave [him] on a church doorstep.” When she refused, the senior Moppins, Beck later wrote, “hurled [him] against the wall in disgust.”
Beck’s mother, Mary, opened a beauty parlor when he was 12, and the area’s pimps and prostitutes were “the only ones who always had the money to spend on their appearance.” Beck was “mesmerized” by the sight of them.
Mary, meanwhile, “fell for one of the smooth-talking hustlers from her beauty shop, a man Beck names ‘Steve’ in his autobiography. Much like her son, Mary was bewitched by the counterfeit glamour and dangerous charm of the street criminal.”
She left her husband, Henry, an upstanding man who had given her the beauty parlor, took her son and moved away. His mother’s betrayal cemented in Beck a hatred against women. “Beck theorized that the pimp’s relationship to his mother,” writes Gifford, “defined his approach to the profession.”
By 18, with eight arrests for various crimes to his name, Beck cfme under the tutelage of colorful Milwaukee pimps with names like Diamond Tooth Jimmy and Weeping Shorty. They taught him “secrets from the legendary ‘pimp book,’ ” the unwritten code for pimps that had evolved since just after the end of slavery.
“They adapted the physical and mental cruelty of the slave system in order to control a stable of women,” Gifford writes. “These strategies were handed down to younger pimps through oral storytelling and instruction.”
Beck learned that being a pimp was the ultimate exercise in mind control. “What he does is keep [prostitutes] conned, confused, bamboozled and fascinated so that they will continue to hump his pockets fat with greenbacks,” Beck wrote. “Life for a whore if she’s got a pimp is around-the-clock pressure, terror and constant fear of death traps in the streets.”
Beck, using the handle Cavanaugh Slim, would pimp women in “a dozen states.”
By the ’60s, civil rights and the post-World War II economy had increased economic opportunities for African-Americans, and television made the pimp’s illusion of glamour less impressive to young girls. Beck, meanwhile, nearly went mad during 10 months of solitary confinement. He decided to leave the criminal life.
Around the time he was released from prison, Beck learned that his mother was dying. He moved to Los Angeles to make amends, and the two spent her final months lying “side by side on twin beds,” talking “far into the night.” When she died, Beck “sobbed uncontrollably” for days.
He married a woman named Betty, with whom he would have three children, and became an exterminator. She encouraged him to collect the stories of his former life into a book. A later interview showed how much his attitude changed over time.
“Pimps and whores today are anachronisms in the face of the kind of thing that has occurred in black America since Malcolm X,” he said. “He defined our enemies . . . and our enemies are both within and without. Malcolm X defined the atrocity that pimpin’ is. That the exploitation of the black woman is.”
Beck didn’t want to use his pimp handle for his books. During one conversation about his main character, Beck described his pimp self to Betty as “cold from top to bottom.”
When she replied, “Like an iceberg?” Iceberg Slim was born.
“Pimp” was published in March 1967, selling slowly at first, but gaining a following in 1968 after Beck appeared on an LA talk show in a mask “made of black fabric sewn over a pair of dark goggles” as a publicity stunt. The next day, bookstores across the city were besieged, and Iceberg Slim became a phenomenon. By 1971, he was “the best-selling black author in America.”
The last two decades of Beck’s life — he died in 1992, the week of the Rodney King riots — were spent as a literary icon and popular lecturer.
He was approached by aspiring pimps, and tried to explain to them the evils of his former profession. The question is how much they listened. Though Beck rejected his old ways, his glorified tales of criminal life and over-the-top misogyny resonated with a generation.