Living in Harlem in the early 1970s, my father’s apartment on 7th Avenue and 123rd Street was upstairs from an infamous Harlem bar known as The Shalimar. Glancing out of daddy’s fourth-floor window on a Friday or Saturday night, it wasn’t uncommon to see rows of brightly hued Cadillac’s lined-up from corner to corner with their equally flashy owners hanging in front of their rides before parading inside the lounge. In the beginning I had no idea who these dudes were, but after seeing the blaxploitation classic The Mack when I was ten, I realized that the rainbow coalition of sharp dressed men were pimps.
In addition to providing the world with an underrated Willie Hutch soundtrack album, The Mack provided a window into a world of vice that regular folks (i.e. squares) knew little about and inspired more than a few wayward souls. Still, a few years would pass before I realized that The Mack, as well as other pimp films The Candy Tangerine Man and Willie Dynamite, were partly inspired by Iceberg Slim’s bestselling memoir Pimp: The Story of My Life.
Originally released in 1967 from Los Angeles based pulp publisher Holloway House, the book’s author, whose real name was Robert Beck, was a former gentleman of leisure, a devilish man from Chicago who relocated to the city of angels to restart his life and spend time with his mother in her dying days. Working as an exterminator by day, he and his wife Betty (he dictated as she typed) worked on Pimp at night and sold it to Holloway House for the small fee of $1,500. Pimp would go on to sell millions, though it wasn’t sold in bookstores, but was instead marketed in urban candy stores, gas stations, record shops and head shops throughout Black America. In 51-years, the book has never gone out of print, and has served as an influence on varied creative artists including artist Fab Five Freddy, rapper Ice-T and author Irvine Welsh.
However, since Slim wasn’t making much loot from his gritty literary efforts, in 1976 he teamed-up with his saxophone playing buddy Red Holloway, whose band performed nightly at the Parisian Room. Holloway helped him get a record deal with Ala Enterprises, a subsidiary of the African-American comedy album folks Laff Records. The end result of their collaboration was the album Reflections, recently reissued from Modern Harmonic, a strange, but aurally enticing one-off that featured Iceberg reciting what is known as hustler toasts, a type of ghetto poetry that was popularized on street corners and prison yards, two places Slim knew a lot about from his hardcore life.
Although some critics think that Reflections inspired gangta rap, truthfully it was the toasting tradition itself, as well as Slim’s books, that inspired the genre more so than that record. On Reflections, Slim dropped lyrical jewels about wicked whores (“The Fall”), his own dying mother (“Mama Debt”) and a sharp dressed pimp who becomes a shabby heroin addict (“Broadway Sam”), Holloway’s quartet supplied the laidback grooves of easy listening soulful jazz that blends perfectly with the rhythm of Iceberg’s velvety voiced speech patterns. On “Broadway Sam” we hear a hint of the Drifter’s 1963 hit “On Broadway” played on guitar while on the “The Fall” we get a taste of Holloway’s smoky sax, but the musical solos on Reflections only last a few beats before Iceberg slides in and starts talking about sin again.
Reflections sounds a little dated, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. A natural born shit talker, Slim’s voice is hypnotic, but he doesn’t rush through his words as he patiently schools us lames about the pimping game that he never tries to glamorize. “You know the price when you’re dealing vice,” Iceberg says coldly on the opening track. But certainly if you don’t, you going to learn tonight.
Bio: Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales has published short fiction in Brown Sugar (Random House), Bronx Biannual (Akashic Books), Crimefactory and Needle: A Magazine of Noir. He lives in Brooklyn.