First things first. Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Maupin, aka Robert Moppins, aka Robert Beck, earned his notoriety and fame because he was, for almost a quarter century, a pimp. Over the years the pimp has achieved an almost mythological status in music, especially hip hop, and the term has even become a part of everyday vernacular, using the word pimp as verb to describe someone trying to push something on or sell something to a person or group. But let’s be real for a minute. Pimping is not glamorous. It’s not a profession one should aspire to. A pimp sells people for sex. He controls every aspect of their lives. He takes significant amounts of their money. Yes, he offers some protection from others, but that’s because he needs to protect his “property”. And while he may not tolerate someone else hitting one of his prostitutes, he won’t hesitate to use violence on them himself. It’s sex slavery, pure and simple, with the pimp as the master.
I first encountered Iceberg Slim when a friend sent me a copy of Slim’s seminal book, Pimp: The Story of My Life. My friend came to it via his love of hip hop, particularly Ice-T, who is said to have taken his name in part from Slim and who used to quote Iceberg to those around him. Ice-T has even claimed to have been a pimp himself for a brief period of time. It’s been a while since I read Pimp, but I came away with a sense that this was actually an important work on many levels. It paints a fairly direct and honest picture of “the life”, and Slim doesn’t appear to pull any punches, describing the ways he manipulated and controlled the women who worked for him, as well as the application of violence in ways that were very matter-of-fact. There are many ways a reader can experience a book like Pimp. It can be read as a more or less true crime book; it can be viewed form a deeper sociological or psychological standpoint as a valuable insight into the human condition; or, unfortunately, it can be consumed as an instruction manual. Knowing that many people read it in the last way is the most concerning part. While the book hardly glamorizes pimping, you can understand how, for someone in any environment with limited to no options other than crime, it could latched onto as a guidebook, a way out of poverty even if it is at the expense of other people.
Slim spent a number of years in prison, turning to writing after getting out and starting a straight life. Pimp was followed by some novels and political writing, and Iceberg found himself a sought-after speaker and interviewee. In 2015 The New Yorker published an excellent article about his life, which you can read HERE for more details. In addition to his writing and speaking, Iceberg also put out a sort of spoken-word-meets-jazz-funk album in 1976 called Reflections. It got the re-release treatment last year from Modern Harmonic, and that’s the version that found its way into my hands a few weeks back while I was in Chicago. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this record on a moral basis, but ultimately the artist will draw on his/her personal experiences, and this is no different. Slim was, for a period of time, clearly a bad person. But he went to prison for that, and by all accounts never went back to the criminal life after his last stint of incarceration ended in 1961. Clearly it’s the sex trade aspect of his crimes that makes me queasy; had he been a bank robber, I probably wouldn’t feel conflicted about this record at all.
Backed by the Red Holloway Quartet, the four compositions that comprise Reflections are delivered as poems in a spoken word fashion by Slim. And I have to admit, the man has a smooth voice and delivery. The musical accompaniment is subdued, the emphasis on the vocal delivery and story. The recording itself is fairly clean, though in a few places it feels like the vocals got overly hot to the point of some mildly annoying distortion.
As I sit here listening to the nearly 20 minutes of “The Fall”, I’m getting a slightly bad taste in my mouth. It’s not the music, or the delivery, but instead the words themselves, particularly in how Slim refers to women. These are street stories, told in the street-wise manner of that period. “Broadway Sam” is more intriguing, the story of a man’s descent into addiction, with nothing to sugar coat his fall. To me Reflections is more a sociological relic than something I’d listen to for entertainment – it’s more than 40 years old and comes from a time and place I never experienced, so at times it feels almost like an anachronism when in fact it’s likely quite honest. That being said, it has value, and I’m glad that it exists.