The Pimp Book: Justin Gifford’s Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim.

Get to know the man who would change culture forever, Robert Beck a.k.a. Iceberg Slim
By    September 8, 2015


by Eric Corson 

In 1988, the actor Leon Isaac Kennedy introduced the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson, to Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim. At the time, Beck was the best-selling black author in the United States, and had helped spawn the literary genre of “street fiction,” blaxploitation movies, as well as gangster rap. Tyson was a devoted reader of Beck’s work and, upon meeting his idol, “sat down and talked with him for seven hours straight.”

Tyson started making regular trips to Beck’s apartment in South Central Los Angeles. At one point Beck told him, “You’re going to leave here and have women problems all your life, because you’ll just fuck anything. (…) And that’s very dangerous. Dangerous to yourself.” A year later, Tyson’s wife Robin Givens accused him of assaulting her. A few years after that, Tyson was convicted for raping Desiree Washington. “I wish I would have met him before I married Robin,” Tyson later said. “He would have set my ass straight.”

Robert Beck knew “women problems” all too well himself. For 25 years of his life he was a pimp, exploiting, demeaning and abusing women in the most abject fashion. Starting in the late 1960’s Beck started writing about his experiences in the criminal underbelly of black America under the pen name Iceberg Slim. He published Pimp: The Story Of My Life in 1967, a “legend in print” that sold millions of copies, defined urban cool, reverberates in hip-hop culture to this day and cemented Beck as the most influential African American writer of his time, and arguably still today.

Yet, mainstream America mostly ignored Beck and his writings (the New York Times refused to run an ad for Pimp because of its title), and although he briefly flirted with Hollywood success after his novel Trick Baby was turned into a film, he died impoverished at Brotman Medical Center in Culver City, CA, as the Rodney King Riots flared up a few miles to the South.

Now, Justin Gifford, professor of American literature at the University of Nevada, Reno, presents us with the first biography of Robert Beck, entitled Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim. More than to simply exhaust biographical bullet points of Beck’s life, the book excels at contextualizing how its subject was shaped by a repressive, insidiously racist environment that first ghettoized black communities and later decimated them under the guise of “urban renewal.” As Gifford puts it in the introduction, “[Beck’s] life story, which spans from the start of the Great Migration to the Rodney King Riots of 1992, provides a dark reflection of black America’s urban development and decline in the twentieth century.”

Beck was born on August 4, 1918 in Chicago. His parents emigrated from Nashville to Chicago’s Black Belt as part of the Great Migration. Beck’s first encounter with pimps was at his mother’s beauty parlor in Rockford, Illinois. Pimps, hustlers, and prostitutes were a large part of her clientele. Beck was so “mesmerized by their flashy clothes and their jewelry” that “he decided he wanted to become a pimp.” Even though Beck grew up in a grounded middle-class family (his mother married a respected business man in 1922), the Great Depression severely limited his choice of legitimate work, and pimping seemed like an attractive alternative to him.

There were also larger forces at work that made it more likely for Beck to come into contact with the sex profession than his white counterparts were. As Gifford puts it, “one unintended result of the Great Migration and the reform movement was that many sex industries became predominantly African American enterprises during the formative years of America’s urbanization.” As vice reform movements sought to wipe out prostitution and gambling across the country in the 1910’s, “vice moved into African American communities, where white police didn’t bother to enforce the laws as strictly.”

Later, in the 1940’s, when “Beck emerged as one of the South Side of Chicago’s new top pimps,” he felt for the first time like he was free from racism thanks to his profession. He later reflected, “I didn’t have to be bruised and wounded in my efforts to make a living by coming into contact with white society. I was never reminded I was a nigger. My environment didn’t include that. The only white men I saw were white men riding in cars looking for black pussy.” And as his mentor Albert “Baby” Bell (a notorious gangster and pimp in his own right) professed to him 10 years earlier, black pimps were merely a necessary evil, who helped black women rip off white men. (“At best,” Gifford comments, “a self-serving delusion; at worst, it is an outright lie used to justify the exploitation of black women.”)

It is this interplay of certain structural realities in the emerging American inner city and Beck’s own twisted psychological impulses that make his story so fascinating, and Street Poison such a compelling read. Just before Beck was about to enter eighth grade, his mother fell for one of the hustlers that frequented her business. She followed him to Milwaukee and took Beck with her, a decision he perceived as a deep betrayal. Through restrictive covenant the Milwaukee Real Estate Board sought to limit the expansion of the Black Belt, exacerbating derelict housing and lamentable living conditions. Yet, theaters, dance halls, and Jazz clubs thrived, and flamboyant hustlers and pimps held court there. They fascinated Beck. He later recalled, “We lived across the street from a ho’ house. I’d sit in my room and watch the pimps, in silk shirts and yellow toothpick shoes, come to get their money with satchels. Damn! I’d get excited when they’d pack their hoes into Duesenbergs, Lincolns, and Caddies and cruise away on joy rides. I ached to be a pimp.” And elsewhere: “I wanted that thrill, that voluptuous sensation of controlling a stable of women.”

Through various prison stints he met several mentors and allies who helped him develop and refine his pimping game, until he finally found success and temporary wealth in the 1940’s. But it became clear to Bell that he wasn’t merciless and sociopathic enough to sustain his criminal empire over any length of time. While he was incarcerated, a prison psychiatrist gave him a copy of Karl Menninger’s The Human Mind, in which the psychoanalyst argues that many criminal inclinations and behaviors can be explained, at least in part, by the absence of parental affection. “I am convinced that most pimps require the secretly buried fuel of Mother hatred to stoke their fiery vendetta of cruelty and merciless exploitation against whores primarily and ultimately all women,” he later explained.

While Beck used his insights into psychology to manipulate his prostitutes further, he also knew that however ambiguous his feelings towards his mother were, they weren’t feelings of deep-seated hatred, as he diagnosed in other pimps. In fact, he had a horrific recurring dream in which he would violently whip a woman’s back that turned out to be his mother’s. Beck was aware that this dream was the result of a guilty conscience, and while he was still actively pimping, he used drugs to pacify his mind and keep his guilty conscience at bay. Later, one of the main reasons he quit pimping, according to Gifford, was to get back his mother’s approval: “Beck needed her to forgive him so he could be relieved from the terrible guilt that he had been carrying for decades; absolution might even end the terrible nightmares that still plagued him nightly.”

Two months after Beck moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his mother, she died. Beck was devastated but by then he had met Betty, who would become his wife, and was living with her, which provided him with stability. He was working as an exterminator during the day and at night would tell Betty stories about his former life as a pimp. It was mostly a confessional and cleansing practice for Beck, but Betty, after getting over the initial shock of learning about her husband’s past for the first time, had the idea of writing the stories down. When they had about 20 pages of what would later become Pimp: The Story of My Life, Beck went to the offices of Holloway House, a publisher of paperback novels that, after the Watts Riots, specialized in black-themed fare, and they were so impressed by the vividness of his prose that they offered him a contract on the same day.


“In this book I will take you the reader with me into the secret inner world of the pimp,” reads the legendary first sentence in Pimp. “The account of my brutality and cunning as a pimp will fill many of you with revulsion, however, if one intelligent, valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by that individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner.” To that end, Beck made deliberate literary choices. He kept the writing simple so that everyone could understand it. He also refused to cater to literary standards of the white establishment. Pimp didn’t only describe the dark corners of modern urban America the white mainstream chose to ignore, but it directly addressed the people living in the margins Iceberg Slim himself came from. Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver published similarly radical autobiographical books for black audiences around the same time, but it was Pimp and Iceberg Slim that activated a pop-cultural revolution that continues to this day. “Pimp was a form of literary insubordination,” Eddie B. Allen, Jr. writes in Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines. “Not only that, but it directly challenged notions, stereotypical and otherwise, about the American image of black men and sexuality.”

Pimp and the seven other books Beck published with Holloway House during his lifetime (novels, short stories and a volume of essays) went on to sell millions of copies. Despite these sales figures and his enduring influence on popular culture, Beck never attained any measure of wealth with his writing. As Gifford sees it, “Beck had ironically become the victim of a system of exploitation he had once imposed on sex workers. Although the sex trade and the book business are clearly not equivalent, it is also apparent that from Beck’s point of view, Holloway House was making massive profits from his work without paying him his due compensation.” He had found his calling as an author, but he would struggle financially for the rest of his life.

The writer Iceberg Slim gave a voice to the marginalized and ignored, and maybe that’s where his legacy can be felt the strongest to this day. After all, the Ice-Ts and Ice Cubes of the world didn’t choose the first part of their moniker by accident. They were the product of dysfunctional inner-cities whose shaping and decline Beck witnessed first hand, and their verve and social militantism was made possible thanks to Beck’s “new and original visions of black underworlds that few had seen and lived to write about.” Without Iceberg Slim, we would have no “6 ‘N The Mornin’ ” or “Fuck Tha Police.”

Ice-T, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Too $hort, Jay Z, and even Chris Rock all cite Iceberg Slim as a huge influence on their work. Before he was a rap superstar, Tracy Marrow would memorize passages from Pimp and recite them for his friends. “Say more of that Iceberg stuff, T,” his friends would implore him. “Drop that Iceberg stuff, T.” From there, it was only a short step for Marrow to call himself “Ice-T.” Beck’s tales of street pimping in the 1940’s and 50’s must have seemed somewhat dated for kids growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. But the marginalization of black people and the structural racism of America remained the same. With Pimp: The Story of My Life, those same kids had a compelling template of how to address their peers on contemporary issues and Iceberg Slim’s persona inspired the theatrical flaunting of wealth and women as a sign of success in gangster rap.

The mind reels when one thinks about the ways rap music in general and gangster rap in particular has influenced the cultural landscape in the entire world. The originators and most influential figures of the genre are known to everyone paying attention, but now, Street Poison offers us a look at the one man who influenced them all, and all the psychological and socio-political baggage that comes with it. Behind the pimp aesthetic, the ice-cold façade, the fast cars and diamond rings, was a man tormented by guilt, trying to cope with living in a hostile society, desperately seeking the approval of his peers and society at large. Think about that next time you see your favorite rapper parading around a bunch of bimbo sapiens in a video.  “Big Pimpin’ ” indeed.

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