Content warning: explicit language and situations.
Although the cradle of rap is generally acknowledged to be community-room parties in the South Bronx, the genre draws from multiple threads and locations, from Jamaica to Louisiana to the hobo poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The white Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time riding the rails as an itinerant laborer, wrote in the 1930s:
Tramps and hoboes are the last of the ballad makers. Not in the Tennessee Hills, or among the Sea Island Negroes, or in any other such [isolated] community is there a more vigorous balladry than that which has been flourishing for the past fifty years in America’s peripatetic underworld . . . To relieve the tedium of dreary waits in jungle camps [i.e. work camps for migratory laborers] and long spells of incarceration in country jails . . . many extemporaneous epics, as well as the hobo classics, are sung or recited.
Milburn traces “extemporaneous rhyming,” known in today’s parlance as freestyling, to eighteenth-century England, where reciting rhymed verse made up on the spot was a popular form of parlor entertainment.
A form of folk poetry that developed in the black community simultaneously with hobo balladry is toasting. Toasting is a genre of orally-transmitted narrative recited in rhyme and in rhythm. Toasts, according to scholars of folklore, were traditionally performed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) by men for male audiences in typically male settings. As Bruce Jackson, who compiled the 1974 anthology of toasts Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me puts it:
Toasts can be told anywhere — at parties, lounging around bars and street corners, on a troopship crossing the boring ocean — but they seem to be told in county jails more than anywhere else. There is so much time to kill in county jails and so little to do with that time, and so great a portion of the population in county jails is lower-class black (they are the people without money to pay a bondsman for freedom before trial or who must serve jail time because they lack money to pay a fine) . . . As much evidence as there is for viewing toasts as the literature of the street or partying black man, there is evidence to consider it, along with the worksong of the black convict in the South, as his jailhouse testament . . . and it is just those street roles of badman, pimp, hustler, and junkie described in so many of the poems that [have landed] those jailhouse [storytellers] in jail in the first place.
In other words, the subject matter of jailhouse toasts was self-referential: tales of criminal exploits recited by men who had committed similar exploits. The toasters were performing authenticity, or, in other words, keeping it real.
You can read Get Your Ass in the Water online in its entirety here.
Listen to spoken-word excerpts here:
As clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (above) put it, in an eloquent description of signifying:
Deny the Negro the culture of the land? O.K. He’ll brew his own culture — on the street corner. Lock him out from the seats of higher learning? He pays it no nevermind — he’ll dream up his own professional double-talk, from the professions that are open to him, the professions of musician, entertainer, maid, butler, tap-dancer. . . .
The hipster stays conscious of the fraud of language. Where many ofays [whites] will hold forth pompously, like they had The Word, the Negro mimics them sarcastically. As a final subtle touch, his language is also a parody, a satire on the conventional ofay’s gift of gab and gibberish.
There are folk heroes who appear over and over in toasts across geographical areas from Louisiana to California to upstate New York: they include Pimping Sam, the murderous gambler Stagolee, the legendary pimp Dolemite, and Shine, the boilerman who survives the sinking of the Titanic and becomes a proto-Black Power hero, outwitting the standard figure of the captain.
It was sad indeed, it was sad in mind
April the four was a hell of a time.
When the news reached a seaport town
that the great Titanic was a-sinking down.
Now up popped Shine, from the decks below
and said “Captain, captain, don’t you know.
there’s forty feet of water on the boiler room floor.”
But the captain said, “Never mind Shine, just do as you’re told,
and go back down in that deep black hold.”
Shine said, “That’s funny, that’s mighty fine,
But I’m gonna save this black ass of mine.
There’s fish in the ocean and crabs in the sea
this is one time when white folks ain’t gonna bullshit me.”
So Shine jumped overboard and start to swim
and all the people on the deck is lookin’ at him.
The actor and comedian Rudy Ray Moore recorded several albums of toasts recited some toasts concerning these characters in front of a live comedy audience in the 1970s:
The great George Clinton recorded a version of “Shine and the Great Titanic” in 1997:
Rudy Ray Moore also played Dolemite, another legendary figure in the toast repertoire, in a spoof blaxploitation film of the same name in 1975 (warning: explicit language and situations and nudity):
In 2019, Eddie Murphy starred in a biopic on Netflix about Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is My Name.
The poet and musician Jalaluddin Mansur Nuriddin (1944 – 2018) recorded Hustlers’ Convention, an album of spoken-word toasts against live musical background, in 1973, with his group The Last Poets. The album, which combined funk, jazz, and poetry, would later earn him the moniker “Grandfather of Rap.” Nuriddin had learned to toast — a practice he called “spoagraphics” or “spoken pictures” during a stint in prison. Listen to the complete album here.
Chuck D of Public Enemy produced a documentary about Nuriddin’s album in 2014:
The Last Poets’ West Coast counterparts, the Watts Prophets, were equally influential:
The poet Nikki Giovanni (above), like the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets, recorded a spoken-word album in 1971, Truth Is On Its Way, which featured her reciting her poetry over a musical backgrounds that represented a variety of African-American music genres. Giovanni recites “Ego Tripping” over a background of handclaps and African percussion, and “The Great Pax Whitie” features a gospel choir, the New York Community Choir.
Listen to 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. How does she draw on the Black oral tradition?
Another frequent subject of toasts is the Signifying Monkey. As you know, “signifyin(g)” is the practice of saying something with two meanings: the obvious meaning of the words and the hidden meaning, which can only be understood by members of a shared cultural group. It is a longstanding verbal practice in African-American speech, especially when dealing with (white) authorities, and has its roots in slavery.
The Signifying Monkey is a trickster figure in African-American folklore, derived from Yoruba mythology. He often appears in toasts with his friends and adversaries Lion and Elephant. Rudy Ray Moore toasts about Signifying Monkey in a clip from the movie Dolemite:
Demonstrating the roots of rap in urban toasts, the character of Signifying Monkey appears in some early rap, like the 1980 “King Monkey Rapp” by King Monkey (Jimmy Thompson):
And the 1988 “Signifying Rapper” by Schoolly D, in which Signifying Monkey is transformed into the trickster-rapper.
You know your daddy and he’s a faggot
And your mother’s a whore
He said he seen you sellin asshole door to door . . .
He said, your granny, she’s a dyke
And your other brother, he’s a faggot
And your little sister Loo
She’s so low she sucked the dick of a little maggot
are a version of “the dozens,” the game of exchanged insults traditionally played by black children in urban areas, typically focused on “yo mama,” such as:
–Yo mama’s so poor, someone threw a cigarette in her yard & she said, “Clap yr hands, stomp your feet, thank the lord, we got heat!”
– Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back.
Of course, as children become adolescents, the taunts become raunchier:
Yo mama like cake, everybody get a piece.
Yo Mama so dirty I called her up for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection.
The dozens morphs/migrates into rap battles.
For a comprehensive library of information on toasts, black folklore, rap, and urban culture, check out this site.