When rapper Method Man delivered the lines “Yo’ mama don’t wear no drawers/ I saw her when she took them off/ Standing on the welfare line, eating swine’’ on his 1994 track “Biscuits,” few fans of the Wu-Tang Clan member probably realized that he was treating his listeners to a sample of “the dozens,’’ an African-American game of insults that has existed for hundreds of years.
Elijah Wald attempts to connect the dots between that folk tradition and the creation of hip-hop music in “The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama,” an entertaining if not entirely cohesive examination of the profane insult duels.
Despite the book’s title, Wald, a blues historian, discovers that he cannot draw a straight line from historical trash talking to musical form, providing readers instead with a chronicle and catalog of examples of the dozens and apparent allusions and instances of influence. He writes, “I am fascinated by the links between rap, blues, and minstrelsy, but perhaps it is deceptive to frame the discussion that way, because it suggests that each commercial style evolved and borrowed from its predecessor rather than acknowledging the extent to which all of them drew on a deep, continuous tradition.”
Wald breaks up his survey into 12 chapters (clever, right?), each tackling a theme. His targets range from how the dozens earned its name (because the practice derived from an oral, rather than written tradition, it appears impossible to determine exactly where the name came from, although one theory involves “12 insults hurled back and forth’’) to how the dozens traveled from the country to the cities and crossed race lines.
Wald pulls divergent, sometimes conflicting, information about the dozens from sources including sheet music and press clippings from the early 1900s; literary references from the Harlem Renaissance; sociological studies of urban youth; blues recordings; and anthropological notations from around the globe where verbal battles similar to the dozens have been seen from Scotland to Turkey to Ghana.
The heart of his method involves seeking instances where specific cleverly constructed insults are found both in reports of dozens bouts and in songs. For instance, before Method Man rapped about mama’s lack of drawers, Wald spots the slam in academic studies observing teens one-upping each other on street corners; in folklorist reports from African-Americans entertaining themselves in work camps; and in several blues lyrics.
Wald notes that his research suggests others have discovered the origins and practice of the insult battles to be a hard topic to get their hands around. “Over the years, virtually everyone who has written about the dozens has succumbed to the urge not only to describe the tradition but to explain it. Some of the explanations have been framed as defenses, some as attacks, and some as dispassionate scholarly analysis, but in the end all are interesting as much for what they reveal about the explainers as what they tell us about the game.”
As an “explainer” himself, Wald pays closest attention to the dozens’ role in music even though his research reveals how much of the dozens existed — and still thrives — outside of music. On the plus side, Wald draws on his blues expertise to provide a fascinating explication of Speckled Red’s 1929 hit “The Dirty Dozen,” revealing how it reflects the roots of insult battles, speaks to the effects of censorship, and connects to contemporary music
The joy of discovery drives Wald’s narrative, so even though he can’t promise a definitive answer on what it is we’re exactly talking about, there is a good time simply taking this tour through some of the filthiest, foulest language turned into legitimate art.
Scott McLennan can be reached at email@example.com.