Back in the Saddle

After 35 years, the James Gang rides again.

That's right: Before hip-hop was even conceived — before Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, or 50 Cent — Stagolee was big pimpin,' baby.

All the elements of pimp/playa/hustler rap existed in the African-American oral tradition a century ago, though some aspects of the game have changed. It hasn't always been hard out here for a pimp, as the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia has claimed. Pimping was once "respectable in places like St. Louis, where it was legal for ten to 15 years," Brown notes. He says that Lee Shelton — the real-life inspiration for Stagolee — was not only a pimp but an entrepreneur, owning both a tavern and a livery stable, where he maintained a fleet of horse-drawn carriages (the precursors to today's limos).

I, Stagolee portrays the protagonist as a true gentleman of leisure, a charismatic charmer who seduces attractive women with his verbal skills and turns to violence only as a last resort. The modern-day pimp is thought of as an exploiter of women, but Brown says that wasn't always necessarily the case. "You gotta understand too, the pimps never looked down on the women who were whores," he explains. "It was the Irish cops, it was the people in their own neighborhoods, their own families, who looked down on them."

The parallels between the ragtime era and hip-hop, Brown says, are fairly obvious ones: "There was a new music called ragtime, a new dance called the cakewalk, a new era around the turn of the century. And you can compare it to hip-hop in a way because, again, hip-hop brings a new dance, a new music, so forth and so on." Verbal game-spitters like Ice-T, Kingpin Skinny Pimp, and Mac Dre (to name a few) embody Stagolee's legacy — whether they realize it or not. Eric K. Arnold

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