[10 September 2012]
Picture a roomful of unsupervised 12-year-old boys with nothing on their hands but time.
Why the shop teacher was away from class for so long was a mystery. We had no interest in solving it, preferring to fill the space with idle wisecracks and banter, as unsupervised 12-year-old boys are wont to do.
Eventually, though, the wisecracks changed in tone. They grew more pointed, nastier… and cleverer, and funnier too. And the participants changed, the moment moving from person to person like a virus seeking a host, finally landing on me and a guy named Greg.
Two more unlikely players in this budding conflagration could not have been found. I was book-smart, wore glasses, had a nickname about my excess weight I intend to take to my grave, and generally unpossessed of whatever passed for coolness among unsupervised 12-year-old black boys in 1971. And Greg was white.
But there we were, center stage in a drama not of our making. Literally: other kids were feeding us our lines, because we had no idea what we were supposed to say in a situation like this. Lines like “does your mother cut your meat?” and “yo mama’s like a doorknob, everybody gets their turn.” Maybe I came up with a few variations on that theme of my own, and maybe I thought they were actually original. However they got there, the things that came out of my mouth seemed to draw favor with the crowd. Greg was undergoing the same sensation.
I started feeling tense and uncomfortable about this increasingly caustic exchange. I wanted to stop and continue sitting there waiting for the teacher to get back from wherever he was, but the other kids would not have it. It was about defending my honor, and not backing down from a challenge. And as the one-liners escalated in tone, the impulse to fight built up inside me, and I imagine Greg too, prodded enthusiastically as he was by some of by the other boys.
Eventually, the tension exploded. Greg and I – who had never spoken to each other in class, or out of it, before that day – came to blows in the front of the room. At that very moment, the teacher returned, in a scene straight outta the Teensploitation Film Cliché Database, to end the fight. We combatants earned ourselves a week of in-school detention, while the cheering crowd got, presumably, some laughs and a few cheap thrills.
Thus was I introduced to what I thought was not much more than some silly thing boys did called the dozens.
I reckon that none of us in that moment realized that we were writing our own little chapter in a long, long history of blue invective. Nor would we have been astute enough to recognize the fascinating tradition of this subset of black oral culture we had tapped into, one with its own codes and mores. Indeed, each part of the scenario – the antagonists, the eggers-on, the cutting-to-the-core of the remarks, the competitive juices, and even the swift transition from verbal to physical battling – had long ago been documented by writers and scholars trying to capture and represent this slice of black male life.
It would take someone with a deep interest in the roots of black pop expression to suss out such complexities. Someone like Elijah Wald, a blues musician and historian whose previous books have taken on myths surrounding the music of Robert Johnson, Mexican drug runners, and the Beatles. Wald got bitten by the bug to discover the connection between blues and rap, and while on that journey latched onto a treasure trove of naughtiness. While The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama doesn’t tell the blues-to-rap tale in full, it does bring to life the special pride of place bawdy insult humor has enjoyed in black music, comedy and literature, and elsewhere to boot, down through time.
And I do mean down through time: Wald tracks the existence of ribald ancestor-insult humour as far back as the 1600s, quoting an especially rich passage from King Lear, and across Europe and Asia. He also looks for signs of the dozens’ roots in Africa, and finds them across numerous tribal cultures, extending into the Caribbean as part of the broader diaspora.
But it was within African-American oral culture where the dozens as we know them today took root. Not surprisingly given the slippery, undocumented nature of such things, there seems to be no definitive first sighting, although evidence of the dozens exists throughout the earliest forms of black entertainment, and even in some Harlem Renaissance-era literature. But Wald does specify when the dozens went pop: 1929, with the smash hit “The Dirty Dozens” by blues piano player/comedian Speckled Red:
(That track, by the way, should suffice to dispel the notion that rappers invented foul-mouthed discourse in black pop music. If it doesn’t, goodness knows there are many more, some of them even fouler.)
One of the most surprising things about the dozens is that there has been so much academic interest in it. Researchers have been writing papers on the subject as far back as 1939, Wald notes. Most of this work carries an anthropological flavor, and Wald calls attention to what must have been a wildly ironic scene: a white researcher asking young black boys to recreate a round of the dozens, a fleeting street amusement, for all seriousness and posterity.
Wald writes that various observers have seen them as a rite of passage for black males, and maybe even a chance to learn how maintain one’s cool in the face of the realer, nastier insults doled out by a racist society. But he also makes the dozens seem fun, or at least wildly entertaining. The richness of language, and the rituals within the tradition, make the dozens a unique part of black male (and it’s almost always male, according to Wald) culture. Artistically, the heritage Wald illustrates is so complex and colorful, even at its basest, it makes today’s most common manifestation of them, “yo mama” one-liners, seem shallow and tacky.
The Dozens is less successful at one of its central premises, that the dozens helped birth rap. There’s certainly more than a little bit to that, as spelled out in the chapter on the dozens-rap link. A central connection is Dolemite, neé Rudy Ray Moore, whose hilarious and supremely NSFW canon (including 1971’s The Rudy Ray Moore House Party Album: The Dirty Dozens Pt. 1; Wald laments the absence of a Pt. 2) helped popularize talked rhyming over a funky beat in the ‘70s. Wald goes on to show how the dozens’ competitive nature lives on in MC battles, even when the barbs and jokes aren’t directed at the opponent’s relatives.
But rap’s spoken-word heritage—and all of black oral culture for that matter—includes much more than cracking wise on somebody’s mom. Rappers tap into a deep tradition when they rhyme, drawing from and extending not only insult culture but also tall tales, testimony, street-corner sermonizing, radio DJ patter and other strains of jive talk, generations of black comedy performances from the tent show to the party record, garden-variety braggadocio, and much more. The dozens cuts across all that, and Wald makes its influence on rap clear, but it would be awfully reductive to read this book and think you’ve discovered the motherlode of insight into hip-hop’s linguistic roots.
What The Dozens does achieve is the uncovering of a teeming subculture that seems to have traces everywhere among all peoples, but has its deepest artistic expression and personal resonance in the lives of black American men. It doesn’t offer much in the way of essential truths about black men, or precisely what it is about black American male lives that has made the dozens such an enduring presence in them. But it tells its story in perceptive detail and with personable wit, even while examining all the scholarly and historical findings.
So give Wald credit for producing a consequential dip into one tributary of a far deeper and mightier river (even if it feels like the last two chapters, on the rap thing and a “what does it all mean?” summation, should have been switched in order). And let’s hope he keeps his eyes on his original prize, mapping the places where rap got its blues.
In the meantime, this book may well provide the perfect retort should some unsupervised 12-year-old boy ever suggest something naughty about your mother’s private parts.