August 4, 2015
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.
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.
“Mr. Gifford’s taut biography is important and overdue. The author . . . is a dogged researcher who arrives at a somewhat unexpected conclusion: The stories in “Pimp” are mostly true. Mr. Gifford does many things well. He situates his subject not merely as an anti-establishment writer who influenced dozens of others, but also as the literary godfather of gangsta rap. (Ice-T and Ice Cube took their stage names from him, Mr. Gifford notes.) Iceberg Slim laid the groundwork for the Blaxploitation film era. He was a paragon of a certain kind of outlaw black style.”
Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Writing the life of a celebrated memoirist can be a daunting and thankless task, but Justin Gifford handles the job with aplomb in his new book, Street Poison. A decade’s worth of research allows him frequently to correct the record where Pimp and Beck’s other autobiographical writings may have fudged the facts. But Gifford’s greatest achievement is placing Beck’s life within the context of larger social, political and economic changes . . . It is a fascinating read.”
Jon Michaud, The Washington Post
In “Street Poison,” Gifford patiently crafts a narrative that shows how Beck, a Chicago pimp, became the godfather of hip-hop, an integral cog in Hollywood’s Blaxploitation era and one of the most-read black authors of the 20th century. In addition to providing phenomenally researched material into the life and writings of Beck, including FBI files, unpublished fiction and letters written from Beck to his publisher, Gifford provides us with robust historical, pointed political context for new and seasoned readers of Beck’s novels.
Kiese Laymon, The Los Angeles Times
The new book “Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim,” by Justin Gifford, is an exercise in demystification. We learn that Beck’s oft-quoted claim of having an I.Q. of 175 was false, and that “Iceberg” was just a nom de plume that Beck invented while writing “Pimp” (his actual street name was Cavanaugh Slim). Having conned, cajoled, and terrorized his way through the underworld, Beck ironically proved to be a perfect mark for Holloway House, his longtime publisher, whose miniscule royalty checks never matched their extraordinary sales figures. The great story in “Street Poison” is not about the making of a pimp but about the making of a writer and self-styled political prophet.
Robin D.G. Kelley, The New Yorker
“The first biography of Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, (1918-1992), builds a compelling case that the pimp-turned-popular author provided the foundation for gangsta rap, Blaxploitation movies, and so much of the underground culture that became mainstream. Gifford transcends the opacity of academic writing in this lively account… ‘This is not a story without tragedy….But it is a story of redemption and breathtaking creativity, too,’ writes Gifford, who not only tells the story well, but shows why it’s so significant.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Gifford’s dramatic, hard-core, contextually dynamic, and powerfully affecting biography is sharply relevant to today’s civil rights struggles.”
Booklist, starred review
“[A] thoroughly engrossing biography . . . In addition to lucid critical assessments of Beck’s published and unpublished works, Gifford offers a flavorful account of African-American cultural and social history. He makes an entertaining, informing and most persuasive argument that a writer ‘practically unknown in the American [literary] mainstream is arguably one of the most influential figures of the past fifty years.’”
Gifford writes that “as a master teller of tales, [Beck] also occasionally embellished the truth.” That would make him a challenge for any biographer, but Gifford meets it with a combination of solid research and genuine compassion for this complex, often troubled man. He’s especially skillful at placing Beck within the context of his times.
Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
“Iceberg Slim codified a unique American subculture, transforming it into popular culture in the process. Ultimately, Street Poison is a compulsively readable story of an unseemly man, whose legacy was as unforeseeable as it was impactful.”
One of the particular strengths of Gifford’s work is his setting of the action’s surrounding circumstances: crisply informative without being dry. Here you will come to understand the motivating factors of northern migration, the evolution of the neighborhoods known as “Black Belt,” the forces that brought certain industries to the ghetto.
Barnes & Noble Review
Just because you’ve never heard of Iceberg Slim, who died in 1992, doesn’t mean he isn’t famous. Justin Gifford sets out to accord Slim his due with a deeply researched new biography, Street Poison, published in conjunction with the recently discovered Slim novel Shetani’s Sister.
Los Angeles Weekly
“Gifford has written a remarkably researched, fascinating life story of popular writer Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck (1918–92). The author’s material is not high literature, and his life can be difficult to read, but Gifford makes a strong case for the enormous popular appeal and the continuing widespread influence of Iceberg Slim.”
“Gifford, an academic attuned to the vernacular, assesses [Iceberg Slim’s] wild life story with clear eyes and an understanding of its true cultural scope.”
New York Magazine
“Gifford’s thoroughly researched but smoothly written book offers a remarkable amount of detail on Beck’s time in the penal system. In prison, Beck not only studied pimping and criminality but also read widely, creating an eclectic foundation for his later books, which blend explicit, unflinching pulp tales with a militant skepticism of white capitalism.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel