“I sing the body electric.” – Walt Whitman
“You say no to ratchet pussy, Juicy J can’t.” – Juicy J
In the year 2452, when historians excavate buried tablet computers preserved in KY from the caves just outside of Magic City, they will deem 2012 the year of the ratchet. Search “ratchet” on YouTube and you will get 151,000 results — most posted in the last twelve months. The top page includes Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson’s “Ratchet Girl Anthem (SHE RACHEEET!),” “Ten Signs She’s Ratchet,” “Ratchet Roommate,” LL Cool J’s “Ratchet,” Tyga’s remix of “I Do it for the Ratchets,” “How to Tell if You Ratchet 101,” “Ratchet Fight,” and “Ratchet Hunters.” The last is a World Star-produced reality show waiting to happen.
It’s unclear what triggered the renaissance of ratchet. The word has been used colloquially throughout the South since at least 2004. That’s when a guy named Mandigo from a Shreveport rap crew called Lava House invited Lil Boosie to appear on the remix to “Do Da Ratchet.” If you really want to understand the essence of ratchet, you should watch the video, faithfully filmed on the “ratchet cam.” The pixel quality makes grainy Super 8 movies from the ‘60s look like The Hobbit. This, in itself, is ratchet.
As Mandigo rolls a blunt in a dingy backstage green room, he explains to a bemused Boosie about how “ratchet” was Shreveport’s response to Baton Rouge’s “jigg.” The latter was an ecstasy-addled uptempo blend of gangsta rap and dance music, the sort of thing that inspired fistfights inside clubs and gunplay outside. The video features strippers, a pregnant woman dancing while clutching a bottle of vodka, and enough pussy popping and twerkery to fill Diplo’s Instagram for the next six months. Boosie claims that George W. Bush is ratchet for sending troops to die despite being a draft dodger. Bill Clinton is called ratchet too. Sticking a cigar into your 21-year old intern and smoking it later is quintessential ratchet behavior.
Until two years ago, you rarely heard the word “ratchet” outside of Louisiana rap, save for its occasional usage as slang for a gun. But while Boosie’s music never cracked the mainstream, it went platinum in every hood. That’s where Compton rapper YG first heard it and appropriated it as one of his few preferred adjectives. Ratchetdom also implied that being gangsta didn’t preclude your music from being fun. So during the jerkin’ era, functions from South Central to Ladera Heights bumped YG’s mixtapes, most compiled by his DJ, Dijon McFarlane, who called himself Mustard. A little over 18 months ago, DJ Mustard started making beats, and when YG passed on “Rack City” and gave it to Tyga, ratchet started to go worldwide.
When I asked Mustard this summer to define ratchet, he said, “Ratchet has a lot of meanings. You can be a bad ratchet or a good ratchet. You can have fun, be ghetto and get ratchet. Or it can be bad, where a ratchet is a ho.” A ratchet can be male or female, hard or just reckless. Getting ratchet is usually fun — ratchet is essentially a synonym for hoodrat. The time is ripe for someone to do for ratchet what Jeff Foxworthy did for rednecks. Easy money. In the meantime, there is YouTube.
Sometime in late spring, Mustard realized that “ratchet” was good branding and started applying the label to his music. It’s a formula: same Zombie-funk snare, same snaps, same BPM (high 90s) and more empty space than an avant-garde art gallery. It’s basically a slightly more menacing version of jerkin’ music, leopard-printed for the strip club and after-hours party. Once “Rack City” reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, Mustard’s ratchet became an essential sound of spring and summer. He also produced the beat for “Do it for the Ratchets,” the mission statement of West Coast Bricksquad affiliate Joe Moses.
Other factors in the zeitgeist played a part in America’s unknowing belated embrace of Lava House. The one-two thrust of Diplo’s “Express Yourself” and French Montana’s “Pop That” made twerking the most popular dance move since the Dougie. Twerking does not make one ratchet, but if you survey twerk teams across America, you will inevitably find a preponderance of ratchets.
But all parties must come to an end. Enter 44-year old LL Cool J, who released a song called “Ratchet” this October. Yet another Nerf arrow to revive his career, “Ratchet” includes a Craig Davidian R&B hook and rhymes “cute son” with “fun.” It’s like watching your dad try to adopt a word to look cool and mispronounce it in a way that makes you feel embarrassed for having used it in the first place. We are one step away from sitcom grannies using “ratchet” for cheap laughs, the way that they bludgeoned “bling bling.”
Every year, culture adopts a new slang that it will proceed to abuse until it is deader than “dilznick.” Last year, it was “swag” and “trill.” This year, it is “ratchet.” Even Mustard told me that he knew people would eventually get sick of the sound and move on. Sometimes it’s best not to stay long enough to get her real name instead of her stripper name. With 2012 coming to an end, it’s time to let the ratchet rest — in the hopes that it may one day rise to twerk again.