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EW

Elijah Wald

Elijah Wald is a writer and musician who has published thousands of articles and ten books on blues, Mexican drug ballads, U.S. and global pop styles, and hitchhiking. His latest work, The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, is due from Oxford University Press in June 2012.

 

Abstract:

"The Dirty Dozens: From Mississippi Blues to Gangsta Rap"

A century before gangsta rappers took dirty rhyming to the top of the charts, Mississippi barrelhouse pianists were singing lyrics as hardcore as anything in the rap canon. In fact, they were singing some of the same lyrics—the nasty insult rhymes known as “the dozens.” A form of verbal dueling popular in rural fields and on urban streets, the dozens is one of the basic building blocks of African American vernacular virtuosity, and has overlapped into pop songs, comedy routines, instrumental cutting sessions, and rap freestyle battles.

Some popular rhymes have endured in oral culture since the nineteenth century, a single couplet turning up in the work of artists as disparate as Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man. Nasty rhymes have traveled from Mississippi teenagers to the lyrics of Flavor Flav in New York and the Pharcyde in Los Angeles—and that’s not to mention the deep influence of the dozens on legions of “dirty South” rappers, or the virtually identical verses collected in the English-speaking Caribbean.

Tracing back to African ritual poetry, the dozens is part of a vast tradition of unashamedly sexual verse that consistently flourished in African diaspora communities but rarely surfaced on record or in print, except in heavily censored or bowdlerized versions. Thanks to rap, those influences are now circling yet again, with African-American dozens battles mimicked and reshaped by African youth across the Atlantic.

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Friday, March 23
 

4:00pm EDT