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The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the fir The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the first and still the greatest of "street lit" masters, whose vivid books have made him an icon to such rappers as Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg and a presiding spirit of "blaxploitation" culture. You can't understand contemporary black (and even American) culture without reckoning with Iceberg Slim and his many acolytes and imitators. Literature professor Justin Gifford has been researching the life and work of Robert Beck for a decade, culminating in Street Poison, a colorful and compassionate biography of one of the most complicated figures in twentieth-century literature. Drawing on a wealth of archival material—including FBI files, prison records, and interviews with Beck, his wife, and his daughters—Gifford explores the sexual trauma and racial violence Beck endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and '50s. From pimping to penning his profoundly influential confessional autobiography, Pimp, to his involvement in radical politics, Gifford's biography illuminates the life and works of one of American literature's most unique renegades.


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The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the fir The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the first and still the greatest of "street lit" masters, whose vivid books have made him an icon to such rappers as Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg and a presiding spirit of "blaxploitation" culture. You can't understand contemporary black (and even American) culture without reckoning with Iceberg Slim and his many acolytes and imitators. Literature professor Justin Gifford has been researching the life and work of Robert Beck for a decade, culminating in Street Poison, a colorful and compassionate biography of one of the most complicated figures in twentieth-century literature. Drawing on a wealth of archival material—including FBI files, prison records, and interviews with Beck, his wife, and his daughters—Gifford explores the sexual trauma and racial violence Beck endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and '50s. From pimping to penning his profoundly influential confessional autobiography, Pimp, to his involvement in radical politics, Gifford's biography illuminates the life and works of one of American literature's most unique renegades.

30 review for Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim

  1. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    “The best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions…” At a time when white folk are finally hearing what black folk have been telling us for decades, this biography of pimp-turned-writer Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford rewards the reader by underlining the major lessons one complicated, flawed, and talented black man learned in his life: that his choices were the constrained by his options. Life on the streets was very hard, but Beck excelled, if only for a time, living a life of glitz and glamour “The best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions…” At a time when white folk are finally hearing what black folk have been telling us for decades, this biography of pimp-turned-writer Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford rewards the reader by underlining the major lessons one complicated, flawed, and talented black man learned in his life: that his choices were the constrained by his options. Life on the streets was very hard, but Beck excelled, if only for a time, living a life of glitz and glamour and cruelty. Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck was a pimp for twenty-five years. He was jailed over and over in his younger years, mostly for trafficking in young women, and in jail he learned much about how to improve his street game. He practiced in jail the rap he’d give to his stable of hookers when he got out again. His introspection and uncommon ability to apply lessons he learned from reading psychology texts gave him an edge on the streets that rocketed him high, only to land him back in prison until he feared he was too old to pimp any longer. Beck’s street chic and verbal storytelling was so good that he was encouraged to write the stories down, thus beginning his career as author of novels of the street, influencing a generation of black youth, their music, literature, “blaxploitation” movies, style, and attitudes, which, if you have been paying attention in the past thirty years, is not always pleasant to hear. But the pleasure of this book is reading the ‘how.’ A description of who Iceberg Slim was and what he accomplished does not give a reader the insights this book carries: how life for black people in cities across America was a litany of limited opportunities for meaningful, lucrative work and advancement, how crime and vice became institutionalized as a means to escape poverty, how the lack of access to bank loans for decent housing or small businesses, and discrimination in real estate markets, meant ghettoization in crime-ridden cities. Then those ghetto homes were chosen again and again to be razed when cities needed renovation, roads, upgrading. Especially thrilling for book critics to read was the beginning of Slim’s writing career: how a small ad in the newspaper looking for “black writers” led to the collaboration of Slim and his then-wife Betty Mae Shaw on acting out, then writing down, vignettes of the street. The novel’s language carries the graphic tenor and tone found among folks in “the game,” and was among the first to use the vernacular to speak directly to the black experience. Iceberg Slim’s most influential work was Pimp: the Story of My Life, published by Holloway House in 1967. ”He approached writing with the same principle he had used for pimping; both were essentially acts of strategic storytelling. Beck reasoned that the narrative had to be entertaining and fascinating, but it also had to be logical and tightly organized. ‘And, you had to answer, just as you do the whore, all the questions before they are asked. And, you can’t be heavy-handed with it. You have to do it in a casual way. But I didn’t know this was what they call painless exposition that the writing craft speaks about. For every principle I used in Pimp, there is a literary name.’…Beck’s first person confessional followed in a long African American autobiographical tradition, from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to the recent memoirs of Malcolm X and Claude Brown, in addressing the racial inequalities of American society. Beck narrates in gritty detail his life as a pimp both to warn young blacks about the dangers of a criminal life and to hold American society accountable for producing the pimp in the first place.” The recently announced 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction went to Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ twenty-first century search for his Dream of living peacefully in a quiet, leafy suburb is not so distant from the twentieth century experience of Iceberg Slim: "Ain’t it a bitch? Ninety-eight percent of the black people back there in Hell will be born and die and never know the joys of this earthly Heaven. There ain’t but two passports the white folks honor. A white skin and a bale of scratch. I sure got to pimp good and cop my scratch passport. Well at least I get a Cinderella crack at Heaven." Iceberg Slim went on to act out, then write, several other novels of the street, among his most famous Mama Black Widow and Trick Baby, as well as a collection of essays, vignettes and thoughts called The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, modelled on W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Beck’s books sold millions of copies, though allegedly Holloway House scammed his contract, enriching themselves while shortchanging the author. Slim liked his life on the streets with black folk, and lived there to the end, receiving gifts from admirers and letters from fans. As he got older, he liked to watch conservative television talk shows "so that he could see what the enemy was thinking." He blamed Reagan and the New Right for subjecting black life to ever more vigilant police and state control. Beck died April 30, 1992 of a heart attack, brought on by complications from liver disease and diabetes. The author of this biography of Iceberg Slim is Justin Gifford, an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State University. In the statement on NSU English Department’s page introducing staff, Gifford writes, "I argue that the crime fiction of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Nathan Heard, Clarence Cooper, and Roland Jefferson provides a privileged window into the social, spatial, and racial cleavages that emerge at the pivotal moment of America's postwar 'urban crisis.'" Below I attach a longish excerpt from the biography which gives some historical context to Robert Beck’s environment. I do not reproduce the included footnotes, though indicate with an asterisk where additional materials are cited. "[Beck’s] next destination was Cleveland. Much like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit, Cleveland had developed its own distinctive black community adjacent to downtown. During the first Great Migration, the Cleveland Real Estate Board started the widespread practice of using restrictive housing covenants to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods.* Because of these restrictions, African Americans were crowded into a Black Belt that was located in the city’s Central District. It was bordered on the west by the Cuyahoga River and bordered on the east by Fifty-Fifth Street; Euclid Avenue enclosed it to the north, while Woodland Avenue was the main dividing line to the south. In this small rectangular expanse of the city, African Americans often slept in overcrowded kitchenette apartments,, storefronts, garages, and even train boxcars that were divided up to accommodate multiple families.* As in other Midwest industrial cities, blacks had initially come to Cleveland for the plentiful jobs. In the early twentieth century, it was the fifth largest industrial city in America, producing metals, automobile parts, varnishes, and garments. Black men were for the most part excluded from unionized labor and skilled trades; they were employed as barbers, servants, porters, elevator operators, and laborers on construction projects. They did the rough work in railroad yards, foundries, blast furnaces, and iron works factories. Much of this work was temporary and insecure; black men were often the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Black women were typically employed in household service, laundry work, and occasionally in box-making factories, where noxious fumes and dangerous machines made for unsafe and unpleasant work.* As a result of these geographical and economic conditions, Cleveland’s Central District developed a thriving vice scene. Brothels, saloons, gambling houses, and speakeasies operated all over the black section. Among city leaders and police, there was an unspoken agreement to allow these vice industries to operate with impunity, as these criminal enterprises reaffirmed racist assumptions about the connection between blacks and immoral behaviors. It was also a way for civil authorities to monitor closely prostitution, gambling, and drinking without allowing them to spill over into “respectable” white neighborhoods.*” Gifford’s thesis about the early-to mid-twentieth century has echoes today in the twenty-first century, if we would only hear it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia

    I wasn’t sure what to expect with the biography about the legendary pimp Robert Beck. On the surface it would look like our world views, his and mine, would have no meeting place. Wrong. Beck lived in many of the key cities in the ‘30’s through the all important for counter culture ‘70’s when black Hollywood’s exploitation was at its peak; Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles. These cities were abuzz with racial unrest. During these times but most importantly during his childhood he grew up i I wasn’t sure what to expect with the biography about the legendary pimp Robert Beck. On the surface it would look like our world views, his and mine, would have no meeting place. Wrong. Beck lived in many of the key cities in the ‘30’s through the all important for counter culture ‘70’s when black Hollywood’s exploitation was at its peak; Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles. These cities were abuzz with racial unrest. During these times but most importantly during his childhood he grew up in the only sections of town designated for African-Americans to live as dictated by white society. As he looked around Beck saw that it was the pimps who always seemed to have money and status so that is the ‘profession’ he decided to study and pursue. For obvious reasons that career choice didn’t work out so well but along the way he began to reflect and write about his experiences on the streets. The pimp tradition included the pimps gathering on corners and talking smack about one another in rhythm and rhyme. Through his writing this tradition became the key to Slim’s fame. The pimp toasts led to our current day rapping. An art form is born. Robert Beck is a tragic but interesting writer and so is his life. Thank you to the publisher for providing an ARC.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Oakes

    the brief version; you can look to my online reading journal here for more. First, thanks so very much to Doubleday for my copy. Having no idea who the hell was Iceberg Slim, I was in no great hurry to read it, but I'm so glad I picked it up. It took author Justin Gifford over ten years to research and put together this book, and right up front he says that at "first glance" writing about a guy who'd been a pimp for twenty-five years might seem to be "an appalling choice for a biography," since the brief version; you can look to my online reading journal here for more. First, thanks so very much to Doubleday for my copy. Having no idea who the hell was Iceberg Slim, I was in no great hurry to read it, but I'm so glad I picked it up. It took author Justin Gifford over ten years to research and put together this book, and right up front he says that at "first glance" writing about a guy who'd been a pimp for twenty-five years might seem to be "an appalling choice for a biography," since we're talking about someone who "abused hundreds of women throughout his lifetime;" he also describes him as "one of the most influential renegades" of the past century. On the other hand, even though "he is practically unknown to the American mainstream," Beck went on to write a number of novels as well as his autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life. Robin D.G. Kelley, an historian whose work I respect, also notes in the New Yorker that it's not just in the mainstream where Iceberg Slim's work remains relatively unknown -- he states that he's "amazed" that "well-read people" are unfamiliar with Beck's writing as well. As Gifford notes, Beck is a "mess of contradictions," -- "student at Tuskegee Institute, Chicago pimp with connections to the black mafia, amateur scholar of psychoanalysis, pulp paperback writer, family man, Black Panther Party sympathizer, Hollywood darling of the blaxploitation era, and godfather of hip-hop...all these things and more..." and that this book "attempts to make sense of these seemingly incongruent identities." Gifford moves chronologically through Beck's life, using Beck's writings as well as other primary sources to present his readers with a picture of this man, at times testing what Beck writes about himself "against the historical record." Readers also get a view of the huge number of challenges faced by African-Americans in America's cities from the time of the Great Migration up through 1992 and the Rodney King Riots; the author also takes his readers into the growth of African-American activism and politics in general, but more importantly, directly into how events shaped Beck's politics and his writing. If you want nice-nice and sugar-coated life story, you are NOT going to get it here. Nor is it exactly "true crime," as I see that some people are regarding it. It is downright gritty, mean and in a lot of places, just plain ugly -- not solely in terms of the abuse of women, but also in white America's racist policies and tactics that kept segregation and the realities of Jim Crow an ongoing reality. Highly highly recommended; this is the sort of book I just love.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chris Roberts

    Back to real time, this exploiter Robert Beck chose to cash-up... on the backs and knees of women, it's cowardly and he is no man... The book publisher whore's itself by putting this ode to victimization of young women on book shelves... The impromptu rhyming session with his fellow miscreants... Nothing new there, Doo-wop streaked mad American verse, unrehearsed... Beck's prose reads like fourth-grade, left-back-twice-writing... If he had run his "pimp" action in the South Bronx, Pimp Daddy Slide... w Back to real time, this exploiter Robert Beck chose to cash-up... on the backs and knees of women, it's cowardly and he is no man... The book publisher whore's itself by putting this ode to victimization of young women on book shelves... The impromptu rhyming session with his fellow miscreants... Nothing new there, Doo-wop streaked mad American verse, unrehearsed... Beck's prose reads like fourth-grade, left-back-twice-writing... If he had run his "pimp" action in the South Bronx, Pimp Daddy Slide... would have taken everything he had and Cadillac trunk him to the East River... Chris Roberts

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly Brown

    Ive been struggling to find something to read for a few months now, so when I saw this book while browsing on Amazon, I had to read it! My knowledge of Iceberg Slim started when I was very young, I wanna say 11-12. I can remember finding his book Pimp at the Morrisiana New York Public Library. It was one of the most beautiful paperbacks I had ever seen...shiny and silver, with PIMP blazoned across the front, I had to read it! And my little naive mind was blown away...that started me on a quest t Ive been struggling to find something to read for a few months now, so when I saw this book while browsing on Amazon, I had to read it! My knowledge of Iceberg Slim started when I was very young, I wanna say 11-12. I can remember finding his book Pimp at the Morrisiana New York Public Library. It was one of the most beautiful paperbacks I had ever seen...shiny and silver, with PIMP blazoned across the front, I had to read it! And my little naive mind was blown away...that started me on a quest to read everything written by the man, White Con, Black Mama Widow...the books featured in the back lead me to Donald Goines, which is a whole nother post! This biography written by Justin Gifford took 10 years to write and it's clear why. Not only does he go deep into the life of Robert Beck (aka Iceberg Slim), touching on every chapter in his life..from his adolescence which features the event that turns his love of his mother into the hate that he would use to exploit black women in the pimp trade, to his early years on the streets of Chicago and Milwaukee, the stints in prison, the women who helped him achieve his success in writing, to his later years. But what I loved so much about this book is that it wasn't just the history of Iceberg but every city he stepped foot in, the racial segregation, oppression, reasons for the mass amounts of black imprisonment, the use of pimp toast as a foundation for what we know now as hip hop...this book features so much historical data on black history in this country, it's amazing! I could go on and on about this book, but I won't instead I'll say if you've read the books of Iceberg Slim and want to know more about the man, his background, and what was going on in the world around him, definitely check out this biography. It was easy to read, informative, surprising, and made me appreciate the man even more...I might end up reading Pimp again because of it!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Llew

    Impeccably researched, and I loved reading the old Iceberg Slim books, but how this tries to paint Beck/Slim as a kind of a victim of circumstances is just....gross. He lived a horrible life as a sadistic abusive pimp with a flair for language. Captivating character, but trying to make him into an ethical ideologue is just creepy.

  7. 4 out of 5

    J37

    This book is completely fascinating for the history it contains. I've yet to read any of Beck's books but regardless of your familiarity with the author's work the historical tidbits of a not much examined aspect of 20th century history make this a compelling page turner.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Derek Shouba

    Essential reading for fans of Iceberg Slim or black fiction in general. The book provides useful corrective to pimp mythology while respecting Robert Beck’s literary talent and cultural importance.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

    Street Poison by Justin Gifford is a free NetGalley ebook that I read during a lazy, won't-get-out-of-bed morning in early June. I had seen the documentary about Iceberg Slim that Gifford references in this book's introduction, so I eager to read a biography to refresh this information in my head before picking up one of Slim's books. The way that Gifford frames Slim's life with of-the-time detail and historical rendering is like the setting of a brassy, tacky ring around bright, glittering, sens Street Poison by Justin Gifford is a free NetGalley ebook that I read during a lazy, won't-get-out-of-bed morning in early June. I had seen the documentary about Iceberg Slim that Gifford references in this book's introduction, so I eager to read a biography to refresh this information in my head before picking up one of Slim's books. The way that Gifford frames Slim's life with of-the-time detail and historical rendering is like the setting of a brassy, tacky ring around bright, glittering, sensuous jewels. Slim's voice almost stands up on tiptoes over Gifford's yammering prose and that's what warrants this book a 4-star rating, instead of a 2, which is what Gifford's writing would earn on its own.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Carmen

    Ha, so this is where I am in my life. I totally enjoyed this academic approach to a biography of a pimp, because it took me back to reading Pimp: The Story of My Life, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, Long White Con, et. al. and how it felt so risqué and fresh and interesting, and now looking at social movements and institutional racism and communities in different points in time is just as interesting to me. Ha, so this is where I am in my life. I totally enjoyed this academic approach to a biography of a pimp, because it took me back to reading Pimp: The Story of My Life, The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, Long White Con, et. al. and how it felt so risqué and fresh and interesting, and now looking at social movements and institutional racism and communities in different points in time is just as interesting to me.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    Thoughts coming shortly.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    This is a slightly strange read, given that it tells the life story of a writer who I mostly know through his own autobiography-- seeing Robert Beck's words from _Pimp_ used to help Gifford tell the story is kind of strange. Which is not to say that Gifford doesn't add anything to the story; while there aren't a lot of revelations here about Beck's life, Gifford is thoughtful and smart about the broader social context that allowed Beck to become Iceberg (Kavanaugh) Slim. So there's some really s This is a slightly strange read, given that it tells the life story of a writer who I mostly know through his own autobiography-- seeing Robert Beck's words from _Pimp_ used to help Gifford tell the story is kind of strange. Which is not to say that Gifford doesn't add anything to the story; while there aren't a lot of revelations here about Beck's life, Gifford is thoughtful and smart about the broader social context that allowed Beck to become Iceberg (Kavanaugh) Slim. So there's some really smart stuff about the great migration(s) and what black culture was like in the cities Slim works in. There's a lot about redlining, but also about labor shifts, from Roosevelt's decree that opened the defense industries to black workers and other shifts in the manufacturing base that changes things for African-Americans again. And Beck doesn't tell his own story as a writer, which Gifford does well. In a lot of ways, Gifford's book puts Beck into the historical record in a way that makes him available to our times. Nearly. The one thing that Gifford didn't do in 2015 when this book came out but which I think you could avoid in 2018 is talk to any of the women that Beck trafficked. Gifford is clear about what Beck was doing, but the voices of women from that period in Beck's life are silent. Maybe it's impossible to find those women at this historical distance, but it definitely makes a noticeable absence.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jodi Sh.

    Less a biography of Bobby Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, than it is a history and study of the racial divide in pre-urban sprawl American and the growth of a subculture, the ghetto, and black urban culture with Iceberg Slim as the through-line. I skipped large sections of repetitive dry statistics and academic references in an attempt to just follow the story of Robert Beck's rise to his own vision of king pimpdom and then to that of literary icon. The most interesting thing about Robert Beck's story is Less a biography of Bobby Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, than it is a history and study of the racial divide in pre-urban sprawl American and the growth of a subculture, the ghetto, and black urban culture with Iceberg Slim as the through-line. I skipped large sections of repetitive dry statistics and academic references in an attempt to just follow the story of Robert Beck's rise to his own vision of king pimpdom and then to that of literary icon. The most interesting thing about Robert Beck's story is not his life as a pimp, which he has written about and has been talked about and filmed and rewritten to death, but it's Beck as the unintentional father of street lit and how that changed the literary community. That would be an interesting essay to read, or write. This? This was tedious, chronologically confusing, smoke being blown up a dead man's ass.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Marlene Sanders-Jones

    This is a riveting and compelling biography. Gifford's tireless research efforts resulted in a fascinating look not only at Robert "Iceberg Slim" Beck's life, but also at the turbulent times through which Beck lived. I look forward to revisiting the works of Iceberg Slim that I read as a teen: PIMP and MAMA BLACK WIDOW. I remember the latter book as haunting, and I read it at least twice.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eddie Smith

    Hardly insightful and barely informative. It does, nonetheless, give a better understanding of who the real Slim was. For once, it tells Slim lied and misrepresented himself plenty in his autobiography. And that the book was more of a novel meant for commercial success, and not as it claims, for veracity.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Valþór Halldórsson

    A fascinating insight into the real life of Iceberg Slim, one of the godfathers of Hip-Hop, but also an interesting glimpse into the history of working class black Americans in the 20th century. A must read for any Hip-Hop aficionado

  17. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

    I enjoyed the history, context, and connections more than the biography. Worth my two days listening.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Chad Montabon

    A very good read. There are a few quibbles to be made about some strange tangents, but overall a very entertaining read and an objective look at a man who was no saint.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tarik El

    It's a bit repetitive when he's telling certain stories.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Craig Randall

    Incredible history of black America from early to end of 20th century.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Robert (Iceberg Slim) Beck seems like an unlikely subject of a scholarly biography. A pimp for 25 years in the middle of the 20th century, he turned his life around in the 1960s and went on to publish a memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, followed by other pulp-fiction books and movies. But in Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, African-American literature professor Justin Gifford takes a thought-provoking look at a hard-living man who influenced many to step up and speak out. Starting i Robert (Iceberg Slim) Beck seems like an unlikely subject of a scholarly biography. A pimp for 25 years in the middle of the 20th century, he turned his life around in the 1960s and went on to publish a memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, followed by other pulp-fiction books and movies. But in Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, African-American literature professor Justin Gifford takes a thought-provoking look at a hard-living man who influenced many to step up and speak out. Starting in 1918 with Beck's early years as a young boy in the Midwest, Gifford focuses on the complexity of his childhood, from childhood sexual abuse by a babysitter to abandonment by his mother. In 1931, Beck's mother left his stepfather to follow a pimp from Illinois to Milwaukee, taking 13-year old Robert with her. Beck became enamoured with the style and flamboyance of the people on the street, and fell into a more criminal lifestyle: " 'Street poisoned' was the term Beck used again and again in his writings and interviews to describe this crucial transition from childhood to young adulthood." Gifford blends information from Beck's autobiographical writing, first-hand interviews with family members, information from government records and archival research with historical context to better inform Beck's story. Beck went from small-time criminal to his first stint in prison, all the while hanging out with veteran pimps to suck up their experiences, patter and knowledge, and to sort out how he could put it into practice. He thrilled at the power he felt in the role, a power he didn't have in his day-to-day life as a young black man. Gifford doesn't shy away from the significantly unsavoury parts of the story, including the rampant misogyny, violence and ritual abuse of women. He describes how Beck recruited and ran the women who worked for him, and how his experience grew over the 20 years he was an active pimp. While disturbing, it chronicles a way of life rooted in time and place, deeply influenced by systemic racism, privilege and poverty. Gifford finds it impossible to look at Beck's life in absolutes, but doesn't try to excuse Beck's actions; rather, he presents information and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. After getting out of jail for the last time in the early 1960s and following the death of his mother, Beck went straight. He met his common-law wife Betty and started a family, but found it hard to make ends meet. Eventually, he and Betty wrote down his stories of the pimping life and had them published by a company specializing in pulp fiction. The stories received great acclaim in the African-American community, as did followup books with other gritty themes. One book, Trick Baby, was made into a movie in 1972, part of the blaxploitation movie trend in the early 1970s. Gifford highlights how Beck "has had an enormous influence on contemporary black music, film, literature and popular culture." He asserts Beck remains relevant today through his influence on the development of gangsta rap, noting Ice-T, Ice Cube, Jay-Z and Chris Rock all cite Beck as a significant influence in their lives and careers. Despite the acclaim, success and the notoriety he cultivated in his south-central Los Angeles neighbourhood, Beck failed to break through to mainstream audiences. He died during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992. While it's not pretty or comfortable, Gifford has recognized the importance of Beck's story. Street Poison brings one man's life of shadow into the light, showing how a single voice can speak for many.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    I stumbled across a positive review of Street Poison in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/boo.... Having only a slim knowledge of urban fiction/street lit, I thought I should learn more. Iceberg Slim (i.e. Robert Beck) is considered to be one of the greats....both Ice-T and Ice Cube pay homage to him in their names. His novel, "Pimp" sold over 2 million copies, which is remarkable, considering it never made it into mainstream bookstores, and was primarily purchased in grocery stores I stumbled across a positive review of Street Poison in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/boo.... Having only a slim knowledge of urban fiction/street lit, I thought I should learn more. Iceberg Slim (i.e. Robert Beck) is considered to be one of the greats....both Ice-T and Ice Cube pay homage to him in their names. His novel, "Pimp" sold over 2 million copies, which is remarkable, considering it never made it into mainstream bookstores, and was primarily purchased in grocery stores and barber shops. Robert Beck was born in Chicago, and was exposed early to life on the streets. He was mesmerized by women, pimps, and the possibility of easy and fast money. He briefly attended college, but was lured back to the streets, and was determined to become the best pimp ever. When he got incarcerated, he became a self-taught man, reading copious amounts of books in prison libraries. He also studied pimping from his fellow inmates, gleaning knowledge from an oral tradition, known as the pimp book. To succeed at pimping, one must utilize a mixture of psychological manipulations, violence, and maintain control at all times. Gifford does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the mindset of the pimp, and how one can become "street poisoned." Beck spent years alternating between the high life of pimping - leisure suits, fancy clubs, lots of cash, and then spending years behind bars in some of American's hardest prisons. When he retired from pimping, he settled down, had children, and that's when he began to write. His writing is honest, brutal and crude, and opened people's eyes to the dark underside of urban cities in the 40s and 50s. Gifford does a fascinating job of revealing Iceberg Slim's life, both from historical research, Slim's own biographies and interviews from people who knew him. While Slim was pimping and serving time, America was still full of racial segregation, and Gifford does a good job of illustrating racial inequalities and what opportunities were available to young black men. Full of language and violence, but what book about the most famous pimp wouldn't be?

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chin

    Uses the story of Iceberg Slim as a channel to explore the greater issues of Urban Development leading to black segregation - and other racist stuff done by the American govt. Yet, somehow, the most interesting aspect of the whole book is this idea of redemption - and Slim's story is indeed one of redemption, even though he had a 'fall-back' after he became famous, leading to his split with Betty. Yet, despite all that, he was indeed a human being who managed to change his ways through sheer stre Uses the story of Iceberg Slim as a channel to explore the greater issues of Urban Development leading to black segregation - and other racist stuff done by the American govt. Yet, somehow, the most interesting aspect of the whole book is this idea of redemption - and Slim's story is indeed one of redemption, even though he had a 'fall-back' after he became famous, leading to his split with Betty. Yet, despite all that, he was indeed a human being who managed to change his ways through sheer strength of will - when falling into the cycle all over again is so often what occurs to many people. Slim's story is a story of trauma, dreams, youthful indiscretion, triumph, dissolution, and a final peaceful resignation to life. To try and place a moral on his story, to attack him for his abuse & all that - would be an act of simplification that undermines the complexity of the man. In a world where abuse is so often the easy path, and people are steeped in the chaosium of living - his rejection of such a life is ten times more realistic and inspiring than so many others who are born in a better position, and then proceed to do good. As a contrast, one of the most intriguing parts of the biography was his relationship with Mattie Cooper - a female crook who was just as 'street-poisoned' as he was. Even when told factually & briefly, her story is one of a person who failed to be redeemed, despite falling into what seemed like the same trajectory - being imprisoned and trying to change her ways through learning. But eventually violence overtook her and we no longer hear of her after she gets arrested for murder. If Gifford was a fiction writer rather than an academic biographer, he would probably have been able to use that element as a crux to create a strong parallel with Slim's main story.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    A well-researched biography of the sordid life of peripatetic pimp Robert Beck, who flashed and fronted in the swank clubs, dive bars, and streets of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. And with several prison stays, big and small, along the way. Ultimately settling in LA and closing out in the wake of the Rodney King riots, his life was in many ways a reflection of the effects of deeply ingrained, often institutional, racism. And of the self-destructive strategies many have fallen into A well-researched biography of the sordid life of peripatetic pimp Robert Beck, who flashed and fronted in the swank clubs, dive bars, and streets of Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. And with several prison stays, big and small, along the way. Ultimately settling in LA and closing out in the wake of the Rodney King riots, his life was in many ways a reflection of the effects of deeply ingrained, often institutional, racism. And of the self-destructive strategies many have fallen into to circumvent that oppression. In the end, he disavowed the "pimp book" and turned to writing stories based on his experiences while educating LA youth on the dangers of "the life", giving his own bio a literary redemptive quality. His influence on blaxploitation films and on hip-hop/rap was entirely unknown to me prior to reading this book. And it whet my appetite for tasting the real thing... that is to say, his works like "Pimp".... and some of those blaxplo- films like "Trick Baby".... not to mention "Straight Outta Compton" by NWA.... so little time....

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tyler

    Robert Beck was completely unknown to me but I can see how influential he was after reading this. Solid bio, hard to go wrong with such interesting source material. He came from a time and place that was basically bulldozed out of existence so it makes this history of AA urban America in early 20th century that much more intriguing. Beck comes off pretty well in this as he apparently wise-ed up to what he was doing to his community. It's an interesting book to read beside Satchel: The Life and T Robert Beck was completely unknown to me but I can see how influential he was after reading this. Solid bio, hard to go wrong with such interesting source material. He came from a time and place that was basically bulldozed out of existence so it makes this history of AA urban America in early 20th century that much more intriguing. Beck comes off pretty well in this as he apparently wise-ed up to what he was doing to his community. It's an interesting book to read beside Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. They explore very similar times though the vocations couldn't be more different.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lydell

    A former pimp gets pimped by his publisher; only in America. Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) didn’t earn much money off his books. Gifford suggests that Beck’s contract with his publisher Holloway House Publishing probably wasn’t fair re: royalties, given the books’ popularity and sales. Back then (the mid-60s to 70s), few mainstream publishers would’ve touched this type of material (hard-boiled/pulp-fiction aimed at working-class African Americans). It’s ironic that after his death, his second wife/ A former pimp gets pimped by his publisher; only in America. Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) didn’t earn much money off his books. Gifford suggests that Beck’s contract with his publisher Holloway House Publishing probably wasn’t fair re: royalties, given the books’ popularity and sales. Back then (the mid-60s to 70s), few mainstream publishers would’ve touched this type of material (hard-boiled/pulp-fiction aimed at working-class African Americans). It’s ironic that after his death, his second wife/estate starts to challenge the terms of the contract, which allowed Grove Press to publish posthumous Beck’s Doom Fox in 1998 and may have played a role in W.W. Notion reissuing Mama Black Widow under its Old School Books Series that same year.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tom Schulte

    This is a fascinating, well-researched biography of Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim, the American pimp that captivated a paperback audience with his autobiography and autobiographical novels. As can be expected, that entertainingly distorted autobiography gets analyzed for factuality. As interesting is the Iceberg tie-ins to the start of rap, his friendship with a surprisingly literate Mike Tyson, predilection for solitude, and deeply ingrained narcissism. There are a lot of details in This is a fascinating, well-researched biography of Robert Beck, better known as Iceberg Slim, the American pimp that captivated a paperback audience with his autobiography and autobiographical novels. As can be expected, that entertainingly distorted autobiography gets analyzed for factuality. As interesting is the Iceberg tie-ins to the start of rap, his friendship with a surprisingly literate Mike Tyson, predilection for solitude, and deeply ingrained narcissism. There are a lot of details in here about his contentious relationship with publisher Holloway House and a fascinating tidbit that his daughter Misty Beck is at work on her own autobiography.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kristen Lans

    I love reading about subcultures, and their norms and icons. This is a well-paced and constructed glimpse into the life of a man who is a pimp subculture icon with a big but little known impact on mainstream culture. Iceberg Slim's story was interesting, but even more interesting to me was learning about some of the cultural and social forces that set the stage for urban pimp culture in African-American communities. I recommend this if you can stomach the tales of exploitation and misogyny and a I love reading about subcultures, and their norms and icons. This is a well-paced and constructed glimpse into the life of a man who is a pimp subculture icon with a big but little known impact on mainstream culture. Iceberg Slim's story was interesting, but even more interesting to me was learning about some of the cultural and social forces that set the stage for urban pimp culture in African-American communities. I recommend this if you can stomach the tales of exploitation and misogyny and are interested in the cultural dynamic that led to pimp culture, blaxploitation films, and the birth of rap music.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Boo Dick

    Disguised at first as a semi-dry, empirical, historical, chronological biography of the arguably "reformed" pimp, Iceberg Slim; Street Poison not only provokes critical intellectual analysis of the figure pimp but also, and surprisingly, morphs into a valiant effort to humanize an icy individual. An effort in which Dr. Gifford beautifully succeeds. I gave a 4-star rating because of the Slim spoilers.

  30. 4 out of 5

    University of Chicago Magazine

    Justin Gifford, AM'99 Author From our pages (Fall/15): "In 1967, after decades as a pimp and criminal, Robert Beck released a gritty memoir, Pimp, that launched him as one of the best-selling and most influential black writers of the 20th century. University of Nevada associate professor Justin Gifford presents a nuanced biography of the man known as Iceberg Slim, from his life on the streets to his subversive writing to his wider impact on'street,' and American, culture."

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