In his new book, Why Bushwick Bill Matters, Charles L. Hughes confronts the problem of historical representation with respect to Bushwick Bill. Hughes is, like Bill, a short person (Hughes prefers that locution to the relatively common but to his mind infantilizing term “little person” [p.xii]). Unlike Bill, Hughes is white, and he recognizes that as a potential pitfall, forcing him to run the risk of “racial exoticism” [p.8].
Throughout the book, Hughes plays out a contradictory trajectory of identification and disidentification with Bill. He claims that he wants to address the problematic elements of Bill’s life and career (for example, the violent misogyny in the lyrics, interviews, and, to some extent, his personal life) while avoiding discussing Bill’s work as a mere “expression of his lived experience”, which Hughes deems ableist and racist.
And yet, the condemnation of the misogynist rhetoric is underplayed and generally eschewed (a 1993 panel discussion in which Bill openly insults female journalists warrants less than two pages of discussion [pp.78-79]). More troubling, Hughes does seem to depict Bill’s career as an expression of his lived experience as a short person. It’s difficult to imagine how Hughes could do otherwise, given his approach to that body of work. He acknowledges that Bill often had a ghostwriter but then reads the work as though it were Bill’s own creation, having to do with his own experiences (exaggerated and filtered through horror film aesthetics, to be sure, but still his experiences).
Thus, in this telling, “Size Ain’t Shit”, written for Bill by Willie D (who, again, thought it a novelty to have a “midget” rap) and relying on notion that a short man can still have a large penis, manages to establish “a theme, tone, and language that he used to defy ableist stereotypes, assert his masculinity, and generally hype himself” [p.42]. The subject of that sentence is Bill, not Willie D, and it clearly insinuates that the authenticity that Hughes reads into the song derives from its subject/rapper, rather than its author.
Matters are made all the worse by Hughes’ seeming inability to write coherently about the music as such. His entire analysis involves lyrics. He barely touches on Bill’s manner of delivery (his flow), and he refers to so many tracks as “clattering” that the adjective becomes entirely meaningless.
There is no attempt to get at the sonic qualities of these songs and, to be clear, we are dealing here with popular music, not simply street poetry (even if poetry is a component of the music). What matters here—a big part of “why Bushwick Bill matters”—is the sounding presence of these tracks. By not addressing that sounding presence, Hughes ignores how meaning is produced in song.
But even when restricting our interest to the lyrics, Hughes falls short. He cops out on the ghostwriting issue by merely claiming (without proof) that Willie D based his poetry on Bill’s reflections on being a short person [p.42]. He offers a weak and ineffectual comparison with Randy Newman’s satirical “Short People” that amounts to negating authorial intent and design to ground the song’s significance in a misunderstanding audience’s reception [pp.44-45]—something he avoids altogether with “Size Ain’t Shit”, which had its share of negative reception.
He sidesteps the, as he puts it, “not unproblematic” nature of the lyrics, with their emphasis on penis size and sexual violence, by insisting that the song “offers not only a uniquely detailed description of life from the perspective of a short person but also, crucially, the perspective of a short person who doesn’t give a fuck what you think about it” [p.46].
The question becomes: on what basis are these judgments being made? Why does Bill’s lack of authorship not prevent this song from being an expression of his experience (which, we might recall, was the kind of oversimplification Hughes claimed to have wanted to avoid)? Why does the satire work in “Size Ain’t Shit” but fail in “Short People”? Why does the audience reception trump intent in one song but not the other? Why is the problematic misogyny ameliorated by Bill’s refusal to “give a fuck”? No justifications are forthcoming; they are merely implicit.
If we see “Size Ain’t Shit” as the ableist, big-dicked fantasies of Willie D foisted onto Bill, then Bill is a victim as much as (or more than) he is a disruptive hero and then the song can hardly be said to “defy ableist stereotypes”. Rather, in this view, the song indulges in them alongside the male braggadocio. Bill’s status as non-normative in stature vouchsafes the authenticity of “Size Ain’t Shit”, whereas Randy Newman’s six-foot stature undermines the ironic edge of “Short People”. The fact that so much of the narrative of “Size Ain’t Shit” involves violence toward and the denunciation of women is “justified” by the song’s ability to stake out a place for Bill as a defiant short person.
It seems to me there is a far more interesting story to tell concerning “Size Ain’t Shit”. It is a story that grapples with the exploitative context of the song’s creation as much as the provocative emergence within rap of a non-normative figure such as Bill. It is a story that challenges the typical anti-ghostwriting narrative in hip-hop, that makes space for authenticity of performance alongside authenticity of composition. It is a story that questions why so often a disparaged group bids for acceptance by piling invective upon another disparaged group. It is a story that asks why it seems to be that so many artists “defy” certain stereotypes by succumbing to and indulging in others. It is a story that balances artistic intent and audience reception without special pleading on behalf of one artist over the other. Moreover, it is a story that pays attention to the music and the manifestation of musical meanings—meanings that may reinforce and may collide with the meanings of the lyrics.
That story isn’t told by Hughes. Rather, he provides a thin biography of Bushwick Bill alongside some borrowing from disability studies and a bit of the “new journalism” foregrounding of the author himself, with his concerns and values sometimes occluding those of Bill’s. The discussion of disability should be one of the book’s selling points but it too rather misses the mark. Perhaps most surprisingly, Hughes barely discusses Bill’s onstage presence and comportment. And yet, it was as a dancer that he got his start. For a book so concerned with Bill’s status as a short person, it skirts the issue of embodiment.
The contextualization of reactions to people of non-normative stature reaches back to P.T. Barnum, circus sideshows, and Tom Thumb. There is nothing wrong with this per se. It might be a useful starting point for a narrative concerning disability in the United States. The problem is that the contextualization more or less ends there, in the 19th century.
Hughes jumps directly from Joice Heth (the supposedly 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington, displayed by Barnum in the mid-1830s) and Tom Thumb (with Barnum in the 1840s) to Bushwick Bill. There is an all-too-brief discussion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 [pp.62-63] but it gets far less attention than Tom Thumb, even though this legislation and the political environment that created it inarguably had a greater impact on Bushwick Bill than 19th century carnival practices.
The reason for this becomes clear at the end of the book when Hughes discusses his rancor at Gracey’s 2017 film, The Greatest Showman, about P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and featuring Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) as the vehicle for the main character’s redemption. This narrative frame, shunting Tom Thumb to the side to serve as the disabled helper of the normative hero, rightly rankles Hughes. But this is also the problem with the authorial feint. It all has so little to do with Bushwick Bill.
For all the attempts to get at the character created and embodied by Richard Shaw, very little of Bushwick Bill manages to appear within these pages.
Additional Work Cited
Sarig, Roni. Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, and How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing. Da Capo. 2007. p. 47