The Dozens: A History of Rap's Mama by Elijah Wald; Oxford University Press, 244 pages ($24.95).
Here is a groundbreaking book that probably took much too long to finally appear in definitive form. Elijah Wald, author of the conceptually audacious (and sensationally titled) "How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll," originally began this as a "roots of rap" book but took a sharp left turn away from commentary on rap and blues and into the largely uninvestigated history of the African-American street tradition that flows freely into everything.
"The Dozens," essentially, is a pseudo-competition in which African-Americans (as a 1934 article on "Negro Slang" put it) "speak slanderously of one's (or another's) parents." "Yo Mama" jokes, then, taken to the nth degree of obscene invention, from past to future or, as Zora Neale Hurston put it in 1942 "if you have no faith in your personal courage and confidence in your arsenal, don't try it. It is a risky pleasure."
A game, then, best left alone by the underqualified. Think of the prominence of the 12-letter "muthah" obscenity in African-American raillery and you've got one starting point of The Dozens.
Or, as Wald begins his book, "The Dozens can be tricky, aggressive, offensive, clever, brutal, funny, inventive, stupid, violent, misogynistic, psychologically intricate, deliberately misleading – or all that at once, wrapped up in a single rhyming couplet."
"Part of the linguistic code of black America," says Wald, and "like so much African-American culture, outsiders often encountered it in connection with music." It's an improvised verbal art form, he says, akin to blues on one end and rap on the other. In 1956, Ralph Ellison wrote a short story in which a trombonist sounded like "he's playing The Dozens with the whole world."
The 1979 record "Rapper's Delight" is full of it, as well as references to former Buffalo deejay Frankie Crocker ("who was sound-checked in the lyric"). Fascinating and groundbreaking all the way through.