Toasts, Signifyin(g), and the Roots of Rap

Shine surviving the sinking of the Titanic.

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 Oklahoma-born writer George Milburn, who spent time on the road 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.

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:

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:

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.

The lyrics

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.

Yo mama’s so fat, she jumped in the air and got stuck.

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.

Etc.

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.

What is Hip?

A playlist/watchlist/reading list to accompany your reading by Scott Saul from his book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties.

  1. Oscar Brown, Jr.: “But I Was Cool”
  2. Lenny Bruce:
  3. Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” published in Dissent in 1957.
  4. One of the “jazz” excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s beat novel, On the Road:

    Boom, kick, that drummer was kicking his drums down the cellar, and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom! The pianist was only pounding the keys with spreadeagled fingers, chords, at intervals when the great tenorman was drawing breath for another blast – Chinese chords, shuddering the piano in every timber, chink and wire, boing! The tenorman jumped down from the platform and stood in the crowd, blowing around; his hat was over his eyes, somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn, and blew high, wide, and screaming in the air.

    Dean was directly in front of him, with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed, and laughed in his horn a long, quivering, crazy laugh, and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.

    kerouac

    (Kerouac in 1959.)

  5. A cinematic portrayal of the same scene from the 2012 film On the Road:
  6. A Youtube playlist of all the music mentioned in the book.
  7. Cab Calloway singing “Minnie the Moocher’:
  8. Mezz Mezzrow, “Blues in Disguise”:
  9. More on Mezzrow: “The Original Rachel Dolezal was a Jew Named Mezz Mezzrow.”
  10. Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool complete album:

Identity and Transformation

19544_242s

Detail from Synecdoche by Byron Kim, a series of oil paintings that are “portraits” of racial identity.

As we all know, Rachel Dolezal was by no means the first white American to take on aspects of African-Americanness in her persona — calling Elvis, is anybody home?. . . But blackness has always been an integral part of American identity, and has only grown more so with the passage of time (think of white-rap pop star Eminem and black President of the United States Barack Obama for two recent mirror-image examples), so that for any American, it’s nearly impossible not to take on some degree of Afritude without even trying.

Do you agree?

More:

But for all her efforts at “crossing the line,” including attending Howard University, changing her name, and becoming an official of the NAACP, [Rachel] Dolezal might not merit the crown from the all-time champion of race-crossing. That honor still and forever may belong to jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, born Milton Mesirow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1899. . . . Milton Mesirow fell in love with the music of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, learned to play clarinet and saxophone well enough to become their peers if not their equals, and determined that the only way he could really be a jazz musician and interest the white world in jazz was to “become black.” So he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, adopted a “jazz jive” lingo, and declared himself a “voluntary Negro.” . . . what separated the colorful Mezz Mezzrow from a host of other white musicians playing black music was that “in his belief that through his immersion in African American musical culture and his participation in the life of the black community in Harlem, he had definitively ‘crossed the line’ that divided white and black identities.”

Can race — or, more accurately, racial identity — be fluid, just as gender is said to be fluid? In art, can the artist perform another identity? Can s/he even become another identity?

merlin_139126047_7b2d4bba-b975-4b85-a4e4-ed47fefacd03-superJumboThe dancer on the left is a man. Not a transwoman, but a self-identified man who is attempting to make a career dancing female roles in ballet. Read more here.

On the other hand, this baritone, born male and singing male roles in opera, is a self-identified (trans) woman.

Is identity — racial, sexual, gender, ethnic, religious, etc. — something that can be performed? Does the artist get to choose his/her/their own identity, at least in performance?

Adele singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

The Queen singing it (the song’s composer, Carole King — a Jewish girl from Brooklyn — is in the audience, along with a few other people you may recognize).

What do you think?