For other people named Robert Beck, see Robert Beck (disambiguation).
Robert Beck (born Robert Lee Maupin; August 4, 1918 - April 28, 1992), better known as Iceberg Slim, was an American pimp who subsequently became an influential author among a primarily African American readership. Beck's novels were adapted into movies, and the imagery and tone of Beck's fiction has been acknowledged as an influence by several rap musicians, including Ice T and Ice Cube, whose names are homages to Beck.
Robert Maupin was born in Chicago, Illinois. He spent his childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Rockford, Illinois until he returned to Chicago. When his mother was abandoned by his father, she established a beauty shop and worked as a domestic to support both of them in Milwaukee. In his autobiography, Maupin expressed gratitude that his mother didn't abandon him as well. She earned enough money working in her salon to give her son the privileges of a middle-class life like a college education, which at that time was not an option for the average person.
Slim attended Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, but having spent time in the "street culture," he soon began bootlegging and was expelled as a result. After his expulsion his mother encouraged him to become a criminal lawyer so that he could make a legal living while continuing to work with the street people he was so fond of, but Maupin, seeing the pimps bringing women into his mother's beauty salon, was far more attracted to the model of money and control over women that the pimps provided. It has been stated that he attended Tuskegee University at the same time as black author Ralph Ellison.
Slim started pimping at 18, and continued to be engaged in pimping until the age of 42. During his career, he had over 400 women, both black and white, working for him. He was known for his frosty temperament, and at 6'2" and 180 lbs, he was indeed slim. He also had a reputation for staying calm in sticky situations, thus earning the street name Iceberg Slim. When verbal instruction and psychological manipulation failed to keep his women in line, he beat them with wire hangers; in his autobiography he fully concedes he was a ruthless, vicious man.
Slim had been involved with several other popular pimps, one of whom was a man named Sweet Jones, a man born in the 1880s who had been pimping for well over 60 years of his life before shooting himself and leaving a note that said "goodbye squares, kiss my pimping ass!" Another pimp, the man who had gotten Slim hooked on heroin, went by the name of Glasstop and was a major drug figure in Eastern America.
Slim was noted for being able to effectively conceal his emotions throughout his pimping career, something he states he learned from Sweet Jones: "A pimp has gotta know his whores, but not let them know him; he's gotta be god all the way."
In 1961, Robert Lee Maupin left prison after serving ten months solitary confinement in a Cook County jail. He believed he was too old for the life of pimping, unable to compete with younger, more ruthless pimps. In an interview with the Washington Post, Beck said he retired, "because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores."
In 1961, Maupin moved to Los Angeles and changed his name to Robert Beck, taking the last name of the man his mother was married to at the time. He met Betty Shue who became his common law wife, and the mother of his three daughters, while Beck worked as an insecticide salesman. Betty encouraged Beck to write the story of his life as a novel. According to her, Beck initially considered collaborating with a white author, whom Beck always referred to as "The Professor". When Beck realised he would earn tiny royalties from this deal, he wrote the book himself in three months. Bentley Morris of Holloway House recognised the merit of Pimp and it was published in 1967.
Mark Skillz has written that when Beck began work on Pimp, "he made two promises to himself: no glamorizing his former life and no snitching." Hip hop artist Fab 5 Freddy, a friend of Beck, gave this account of the literary technique of Pimp: "Many of Bob's friends were still alive when he wrote that book. So he changed all of their names and descriptions. "Baby" Bell became "Sweet" Jones, his best friend "Satin" became "Glass Top" and he created composite characters of some of his former err um "employees".
Reviews of Pimp were mixed; it was quickly categorized as being typical of the black "revolutionary" literature then being created, and was shelved alongside the works of Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. However, Beck's vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was the first insider look into the world of black pimps, to be followed by a half-dozen pimp memoirs by other writers. In 1973, Hollie West questioned in the Washington Post whether societal changes and the women's movement would soon render the outlook expressed in Pimp redundant: "The Iceberg Slim of yesteryear is considered an anachronism to the young dudes now out there on the block trying to hustle. They say he is crude and violent, overlooking his staggering gift of the gab. Iceberg acknowledges that pimping has changed because "women have changed". The advent of women's lib, changing sexual mores, general affluence in this society and widespread use of drugs by pimps to control prostitutes have made an impact."
Pimp sold very well, mainly among black audiences. By 1973, it had been reprinted 19 times and had sold nearly 2 million copies.Pimp was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and Greek. Nevertheless, the book's audience remained predominantly black.
Following Pimp, Beck wrote several more novels: Trick Baby (Holloway House, 1967), Mama Black Widow (Holloway House, 1969), Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim (Holloway House, 1971), Long White Con (Holloway House, 1977), Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia (Holloway House, 1977), and Airtight Willie & Me (Holloway House, 1985). He sold over six million books prior to his death in 1992, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers.
In 1976, Iceberg Slim released the album Reflections, in which he recited passages from his autobiography over a funky musical backing supplied by the Red Holloway Quartet. The producer was David Drozen. The album was initially released on ALA records, and reissued in 2008 by Uproar Entertainment. Reviewing the album for AllMusic, Victor W. Valdivia wrote: "For those who aren't easily offended, this album will be spellbinding. Slim's skills as a storyteller cannot be overstated; even at his crudest, he still spins riveting yarns." Valdivia praised the record for "the mixture of street smarts and the intellectual and emotional depth shown here", which, he said, was often lacking in Iceberg Slim's followers.
In 1972, Iceberg Slim's second novel, Trick Baby, was adapted as a movie of the same name, directed by Larry Yust. The movie was produced independently for $600,000 with an unknown cast. Universal Pictures acquired the film for $1,000,000 and released it in 1973 to a considerable amount of Iceberg Slim fanfare. The movie grossed an impressive $11,000,000 at the US box office. The New York Times praised the film for its depiction of race relations and the friendship between two con men, set "in the grimier reaches of Philadelphia".
As of 2015, Mama Black Widow is in development with Marshall Tyler attached to direct from an adapted screenplay written by Tyler and William De Los Santos. Chris Hanley and Dave Mortell are producing.Mama Black Widow is Robert Beck's critically acclaimed story of a sharecropper family's migration from Mississippi to Chicago during the early 1930s.
A movie adaptation of Pimp has been in development for some time. There were announcements of a movie to be directed by Bill Duke and starring Ice Cube in the early 1990s. In 2009, television executive producer Rob Weiss of the HBO show Entourage, and Mitch Davis, purchased the film rights to produce Pimp.
According to Beck's widow, Diane Millman Beck, whom he married in 1982, Beck's final years were plagued by financial worries and deteriorating health. Beck suffered from diabetes and became increasingly reclusive. He died from liver failure on April 28, 1992; he was 73 years old. In 2005, Diane Millman Beck and Beck's three daughters, Melody, Misty and Camille, filed suit against Holloway House for back payment of royalties. They claimed In their suit that Robert Beck died penniless.
Scottish author Irvine Welsh gave this estimate of his literary merit: "Iceberg Slim did for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief and William Burroughs did for the junky: he articulated the thoughts and feelings of someone who had been there. The big difference is that they were white." Welsh adds that a Harvard University course has studied Pimp as a "transgressive novel".
Slim is an important influence on hip-hop artists and rappers such as Ice-T and Ice Cube and Pittsburgh Slim, who adopted their names in part from reading the author. Iceberg Slim's last book, Doom Fox, which was written in 1978 but not published until 1998, contains an introduction written by Ice-T. Ice-T's third album, The Iceberg, was another major homage. Most of the currently popular references to pimp culture, for example in the work of Too Short and Snoop Dogg, ultimately can be traced back to Iceberg Slim. Rapper Jay-Z has referred to himself as "Iceberg Slim" in the lyrics to his song "Who You Wit".
Author Donald Goines acknowledged the strong influence of Beck's Pimp when he created his urban fiction set in a black milieu. Goines was also published by Bentley Morris of Holloway House.
In 1970, incarcerated Bay Area pimp, Robert Poole was influenced by Beck's Pimp and proceeded to write a screenplay about his life entitled The Mack and his Pack. The film was released under the title The Mack in 1973, starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor.
Comedian Dave Chappelle has used the life of Iceberg slim and the world of his book Pimp as a parable for his own success. Chappelle has paid tribute to Iceberg Slim because: "He was cool as ice and got the name when he was standing in the middle of a shootout, his hat got shot, he removed it, brushed it back off, and put it back on while the gunfight continued."
The Eddie Murphy character Velvet Jones from Saturday Night Live has been described as a spoof of Iceberg Slim's character.
In 2003, Peter A. Muckley published Iceberg Slim: The Life as Art, a critical study of the fiction of iceberg Slim.
Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp:
Ice-T produced the documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp told through talking-head admirers, including Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Quincy Jones and others. The documentary was directed by Jorge Hinojosa and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2012.
Pimp, Novel (1967),
Trick Baby, Novel (1967),
Mama Black Widow, Novel (1969),
The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, Nonfiction (1971),
Long White Con: The Biggest Score of His Life, Novel (1977),
Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia, Novel (1977),
Airtight Willie & Me, Stories (1985),
Doom Fox, Novel (written 1978, published posthumously 1998)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license