New Book Links the Dozens and Rap

This review was originally published in NEPCA Journal and is republished by author permission.

The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama. By Elijah Wald. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-19-989450-3

What do you think of this/What do you think of that/Saw your mama’s picture in the dictionary/Beside the word “fat.”

That little snippet of doggerel is all I recall from childhood battles in which the choice was put up your fists or shoot off your mouth. The rule was that if someone bested you verbally, you weren’t allowed to beat them up. That was good news for a scrawny brat such as I, who was better at quick wit than a fast left hook. When I got to college and read folklorist Roger Abrahams, I learned I had been playing a sanitized white version of the Dozens, an African-American insult duel. I probably picked it up from the black kids at my elementary school.

As Elijah Wald, a Los Angeles-based musician and writer, shows, the Dozens are in lots of places you might not expect. Modified versions show up in the poems of Langston Hughes, the novels of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, and in the black comedy routines of Red Foxx and the white ones of George Carlin. You find the Dozens in the blues repertoires of artists ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Big Bill Broonzy to Lonnie Johnson and Rudy Ray Moore. And, as Wald’s subtitle suggests, it’s alive and well in contemporary rap and hip-hop.

Lesson one: Don’t assume that surfaces are depth. Remember when Tipper Gore crusaded against obscene music lyrics? She wasn’t the only one. Gangsta rap, in particular, has come under fire for its lascivious language and messages of violence. Gore was right to think that a lot of street prose is painted blue, but she (and other critics) badly misunderstood how rap lyrics function. The surface messages are aggressive, provocative, and salacious, but remember: If you bust a rhyme that can’t be answered and you resort to physical retaliation, you lose. Rappers often defame each other in verse, but these slams seldom result in actual violence.

Wald draws upon the works of anthropologists, folklorists, and music scholars, but he also mines his own extensive knowledge and collection of blues recordings. Adding the latter might well make his book the new standard for studying the Dozens. If it fails on that level, it’s because Wald doubts that one can definitively trace the origins of the Dozens. He suspects it’s a holdover from African traditions, but he’s also aware that his sources have been bowdlerized by both collectors and by community members uncomfortable the content of the Dozens. Wald is on stronger turf when documenting the myriad ways verbal jousting has expressed itself in the African-American community.  Second lesson: Don’t leave this book lying around where young prying eyes can peruse it. The Dozens Wald documents are ribald and raw. One can readily see why the Family Values crowd turns crimson—the imagery is sexually graphic, demeaning, and veers over the edge of a misogynist precipice. But remember lesson one: It’s not meant to be taken literally. The Dozens, whether a schoolyard boast or a rap bust, might be assertions of hyper-masculinity or the cultural coping mechanisms of repressed social groups, but quite often they’re nothing more than a particularly naughty game.

Lesson three: Comedy isn’t pretty. Do the Dozens or rap lyrics make you uncomfortable? Does the answer to that question even matter? Personal views don’t alter the reality of a cultural tradition that’s been around for centuries, whether in the PG-13 versions of childhood bouts such as mine, or in the NC-17 raps of 2 Live Crew. Jay-Z astutely observed that rap shouldn’t be compared to other genres of music because “it’s really most like a sport. Boxing to be exact. The stamina, the one-man army, the combat aspect of it, the ring, the stage…” (185).

Wald’s study has blind spots. He’s open to the charge of being so enamored of the “dirty” Dozens that he sacrifices clever wordplay in favor of the graphic stuff. Folklorists might also take umbrage with eliding the Dozens—which are usually rhymed—with other insult games (snaps, retorts, one-liners). It’s not clear, for example, that “Yo Mama” jokes are truncated versions of the Dozens. (Indeed, I used to steal Groucho Marx zingers if I needed a quick one-and-done snap. Verbal jousts were longer, more complex, and involved more audience engagement.) One also longs for Wald to offer conclusions more substantive than an admission that he isn’t sure why the Dozens have endured. In like fashion, Wald’s downplay of surface content seems overly apologetic in the face of feminist assertions that rap is misogynist. It’s simply hard to ignore that the Dozens often target females and female bodies.

But credit Wald with connecting the dotted notes when it comes to music. If you want to do more than lament the content of hip-hop and rap, you need to learn how to play the Dozens.
Rob Weir 

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