On swaggering exaggerations and crowing overstatements, on drum beats and tweets and paragraph-long diatribes. From the Mississippi Delta to Trump Tower, Richard Grant writes a history of American grandstanding, eloquence and excess
In west London, where I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the idea of boasting about yourself was almost unthinkable. Any attempt at ‘showing off ’ was brutally demolished by sarcasm. It was poor form to express self-satisfaction after taking an exam, winning a prize, or really for doing anything at all.
Apologising for the inconvenient fact of your existence, on the other hand, was accepted British self-deprecation. Sorry, would you mind… Sorry, do you think I might… Sorry, but you’re standing on my foot. There was a lexicon for people who showed insufficient modesty. They were full of themselves, they were putting on airs, they were posers, wankers, flash gits, show-offs, bigmouths, know-it-alls.
Americans, by contrast, were known to be loud and boastful and, worse, to take themselves seriously. A theory circulated among my peers that all Americans were wankers, and that was the reason they found it so difficult to under- stand the meaning of ‘wanker’.
Then the first hip-hop records crossed the pond, and we discovered that American boast- ing could be highly entertaining when rhymed by an MC over a beat. Half of my schoolmates knew all the lyrics to ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang (1979), and it was fun to violate English modesty codes by reciting them. (“Well, my name is known all over the world/ By all the foxy ladies and the pretty girls …”) As teenagers, we were particularly amused by Big Bank Hank’s brag about wooing Lois Lane away from Superman: “He can’t satisfy you with his little worm/ But I can bust you out with my super sperm.”
As hip-hop progressed out of its good-time beginnings, the boasting became more skillful and inventive, the verbal flows more dexterous. Rakim was the first master of the clever lyrical brag (“My intellect wrecks and disconnects your cerebral cortex…”). Roxanne Shanté was the brassiest female rapper of the era – “I’m conceited, never beated, never heard of defeated – and Kool G Rap could destroy all-comers: “You can’t replace me, ice me or ace me/ Bass me, face me, slice me or race me/ Bite me or taste me/ I’ll show you I got force./ My rap burns your mouth like hot sauce./ Run for water while I break your tape recorder/ Server to sucker: the order is manslaughter.”
While I was supposed to be studying history at University College London, I was spending most of my time getting high and immersing myself in African-American music, working my way back through hip-hop, funk, soul and jazz, to the blues. Bragging would crop up regularly on this musical journey. James Brown was a sex machine who could jump back and kiss himself. Bo Diddley walked 47 miles of barbed wire and used a cobra snake for a necktie. Muddy Waters was drinking TNT and smoking dynamite, hoping some schoolboy would start a fight. Bessie Smith, betrayed by a cheating man and toting her razor and gun, went up to Black Mountain, where the babies cry for liquor and people use gunpowder just to sweeten their tea. She declared: “I’m gonna shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs.”
In my mid-20s I gave up on England – the class system, the nanny state, the gloom – and started travelling around America. I soon found out that the humour was completely different. In London, comedy was founded on irony, sarcasm, self-deprecation, cutting people down to size, and a fine appreciation for absurdity and silliness.
In America, a rich strain of humour flowed in the opposite direction: colourful exaggeration, swaggering rhetoric, blowing things up to outrageous proportions. If a woman had a talent for oral sex, she could suck a golf ball through 30 feet of garden hose. If she had buck teeth, she could eat corn-on-the-cob through a chainlink fence. If she was “squirrely eyed”, she could stand in the middle of Wednesday and look at both weekends. People down South got so hungry that they could eat the ass out of a rag doll, or the south end of a northbound mule.
Americans seemed obsessed by rear ends. The word ‘ass’ was often used as a synonym for ‘self ’, as in, “Get your ass out of here,” or, “I’m taking my ass home.” Going fast was “hauling ass”, going slow was “dragging ass”, and working hard was “busting ass”. The word was also used as an intensifying suffix. Big was bigger when it was big-ass. Old people were closer to the grave when they were old-ass. Poor people could be broke-ass, or, in Mississippi, “so broke they didn’t have eye-water to cry with.”
There was a vast vocabulary of kicking ass. This could be an enthusiastic compliment, “Dude fucking kicked ass on guitar!” More commonly it referred to a particular act of physical violence that aspired to mythic proportions: “Kick your ass right out of your pants… kick ass and take names… stomp a mudhole in your ass… kick your ass so hard your ancestors will go dizzy… stick my foot so far up your ass that the sweat from my socks will quench your motherfucking thirst!”
American fighting talk was deliberately over the top and largely used for entertainment purposes. When they weren’t kicking your ass into the next county, they were ripping off your head and shitting down your neck. “I’ll knock your head so far up your ass you’ll have to part your hair to take a shit,” was one I heard from an ex-marine; and there was an ornithological variant: “You better hide in an eagle’s ass and hope it never has to shit.” The classic London threat of violence, by contrast, was subtle, understated, a little bit clever: “Do you like hospital food?”
Because I had first heard it in music and from Muhammad Ali – “I’m the greatest! I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived! I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!” – I had assumed that colourful hyperbolic bragging was an African-American thing. As I rambled around America, I learned that it was a white thing too, especially in the South and the West.
At a rodeo in Weatherford, Texas, I asked a cowboy how he was doing and he answered, “I’m hornier than a three-peckered billy goat and twice as thirsty.” I was working on a magazine story about professional rodeo cowboys at the time. Cowboys tended to fall into two categories: good Christian boys or almighty hell-raisers. I ended up spending nearly a month on the road with three men who fitted the second category.
On one 500-mile drive from El Paso, Texas, to the next rodeo in Yuma, Arizona, they drank three cases of beer, smoked weed, snorted hits of meth from the tip of a Bowie knife and blasted holes in highway signs with a .38 pistol. The radio was broken so they chanted braggadocious cowboy poetry to while away the miles: “We’re rough and tough and all that stuff, we piss through leather britches/ We drag our cocks on ragged rocks, we’re hearty sons of bitches.”
In Willcox, Arizona, one of them came bolting out of a convenience store with two cases of stolen beer, bandy-legged and wild-eyed. He leapt into the passenger seat yelling, “Wooohah! Haul ass and drive like Jesus!” On average, they drove 90,000 miles a year and seldom spent more than a few days in the same town. They thought nothing of driving a thousand miles to risk their necks for an eight-second adrenaline rush on the back of an enraged animal and the hope of a paycheque to keep them going. It was a life of constant motion – short bursts of high velocity in the arena followed by long smooth stretches of highway, while simultaneously soaring and crashing on various combinations of drugs and booze.
I was struck by their nomadism, because I was living as a nomad myself. It also echoed the nomadism of the original cowboys, who drove herds of Longhorn cattle from South Texas to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska in the late 1860s and 1870s. Many of them were former Confederate soldiers, inured to violence and hardship, bitter about losing the Civil War, reckless, foul mouthed and drunk whenever possible. A sizeable minority, perhaps 20 per cent of the men, were African Americans. They all shared a fondness for competitive bragging. Some of that talk has survived.
“I was born full-growed with nine rows of jaw teeth and holes bored for more. They was spurs on my feet and a rawhide quirt in my hand. I come out a-riding a panther and a-roping Longhorn whales. I’ve rode everything with hair on it and I’ve rode a few things that was too tough to grow any hair. I’ve rode bull moose on the prod, she-grizzlies, and long bolts of lightning. Mountain lions are my playmates. When I feel cold and lonesome, I sleeps in a den of rattlesnakes. The Grand Canyon ain’t nothing but my bean hole.”
To which another cowboy might respond, “Raised in the backwoods, suckled by a polar bear, ten rows of jaw teeth, a double coat of hair, steel ribs, wire intestine and a barbed-wire tail, and I don’t give a dang where I drag it. Whoop- ee-whee-a-ha!”
This style of comedic tall-tale bragging, in which the speaker claims the powers of dangerous wild animals and kinship to natural disasters, seems to have originated in the Appalachian backcountry in the early 19th century, and then spread west with the frontiersmen. The buckskin-clad fur trappers known as ‘mountain men’ held bragging and lying contests at their annual rendezvous gatherings in the Northern Rockies in the 1830s. Travellers reported similar brag-offs among scouts, teamsters, hide hunters, lumberjacks and river boatmen.
Comedic bragging was a way to make light of the hardships and dangers on the untamed American frontiers – tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme temperatures, grizzly bears, alligators, rattlesnakes, smallpox and cholera, scalping and torture. Bragging showcased your linguistic skills, entertained your fellows, staved off negative thinking and boosted your confidence. It also embodied the exuberance and individualism of a young nation. Although there were some formidable women roaming the frontiers (Calamity Jane was renowned for her filthy cursing, Annie Oakley for her marksmanship), competitive bragging seems to have been a male preserve.
The most famous frontier braggart was Davy Crockett, an Appalachian backwoodsman who rose to the Tennessee legislature and the US Congress, died at the Alamo, and passed into legend as the King of the Wild Frontier. Here he is in full flight: “I am a real ringtailed roarer of a jawbreaker, from the thunder and lightning country down east. I make my breakfast on stewed Yankee and pork steak, and, by way of digestion, rinse them down with spike nails and Epsom salts […] I can out-eat, out-drink, out-work, out-grin, out-snort, out-run, out-lift, out-sneeze, out-sleep and out-lie anything in the shape of a man or a beast, from Maine to Louisiana.”
One of his speeches before the US Congress began, “Mr Speaker, who-who-woop! Bow-wow- wow! I’ve had a speech in soak this six months, and it has swelled me like a drowned horse. If I don’t deliver it I shall burst and smash the windows. The gentleman from Massachusetts talks of summing up the merits of the question, but I’ll sum up my own. In one word I’m a screamer, and have got the roughest racking horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle and the ugliest dog in the district […] I can walk like an ox, run like a fox, swim like an eel, yell like an Indian, make love like a mad bull…”
A young Samuel Langhorne Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, while working as an apprentice steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, heard a great deal of bragging and bluster. Most of it came from the tough characters who muscle-powered keelboats and flatboats up and down the river. Years later, in his memoir Life on the Mississippi, Twain wrote an immortal satire of two raftsmen threatening terrible violence to each other. First came the “copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw”, leaping three times and cracking his heels together before launching into his declamation:
“Sired by a hurricane, dam’d by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the smallpox on my mother’s side! […] I take nineteen alligators and a bar’l of whiskey for breakfast when I’m in robust health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I’m ailing.”
Then the “pet child of calamity” stepped up: “When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch my head with the lightning and purr myself to sleep with the thunder! […] The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life!”
After this ferocious exchange, the two raftsmen slowly edge away from one another, neither of them striking a blow. Nearly a century later, the American journalist and humourist PJ O’Rourke revived and modernised the form during a trip to Europe, a continent that he found dull, tired, annoying and insufferably pompous. The last straw came over dinner in London, when for the umpteenth time someone pointed out that America had never been invaded. “I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try,” he said, in the course of a ranting brag. “We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France and Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars. We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d’Antibes […] We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of […] We eat little countries like this for breakfast and shit them out before lunch.”
The African-American bragging tradition has its own archetypes and slang, with more explicit sexual references and a greater use of rhyme. Scholars have traced these boasting rhymes back to traditional songs of self-praise in West Africa. Yoruba hunters, for example, would sing ijala lines, like: “I am physically sound and in great form, I will speak on, my mouth shall tell wondrous things.” In ‘Sundiata’, the epic poem of the Mandinka people, two princes have a verbal battle. “I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit,” says one, to which the other replies, “I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.”
Some scholars claim exclusively African-American origins for rap’s tall tales and braggadocio. But if you look at the early precursors of hip-hop, it seems clear that black culture also absorbed the influence of the frontier style. In the 1960s, black power activist H Rap Brown (now called Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) had a rhyming self-introduction in which he described himself as “the deerslayer, the buckbinder, the woman-finder/ Known from the Gold Coast to the rocky shores of Maine”. Muhammad Ali, hailed by LL Cool J and others as a key pioneer of rap, also used frontier tropes: “For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators, I’ve tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail.”
The earliest examples of African-American bragging come from before the Civil War. While white men were blustering on the frontiers, some black Americans were secretly celebrating bold deeds within the far more menacing regime of slavery. The song ‘Wild Nigger Bill’, first written down by a folklorist after the Civil War, depicts a hero who refused to submit to enslavement, exacted murderous revenge and got away with it. To modern ears, it sounds like a deep taproot of gangsta rap.
I’se Wild Nigger Bill / From Redpepper Hill, / I never did work, an’ I never will. / I done killed the boss / I knocked down the hoss / I eats up raw goose without apple sauce! / I’se Runaway Bill / I knows they might kill / But ole Massa hain’t catch me / And he never will.
Wild Nigger Bill was the forerunner of Railroad Bill, Two-Gun Charlie Pierce and other braggadocious badmen who swaggered, screwed and murdered their way through African-American folklore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pimping Sam was “the world’s wonder long-dick buck-bender, all-night grinder, womb-finder, sheet-shaker, baby-maker and money-taker”. The baddest man of all was Stagolee, aka Stackolee and Staggerlee, who appeared in folk poems and ballads with variations on the same basic story: In a saloon called the Bucket of Blood, he shot and killed a badman named Billy Lions. In some versions he has violent sex with Billy’s woman.
A woman run out the back screamin’ real loud, / said, ‘I know my son ain’t dead!’ / I said, ‘You just check that hole in the ugly motherfucker’s head.’ / She say, ‘You may be bad, your name may be Stack, / But you better not be here when Billy Lions get back.’ / Now me and this broad we started to tussle / And I drove twelve inches a dick through her ass before she could move a muscle […] / When the lights came back on poor Billy had gone to rest, / I had pumped nine a my rockets in his motherfucken’ chest.
In another version, Stackolee goes to hell, where he shoots the devil in the heart and rapes his wife. The song ends, “Well he fucked St Peter and he fucked St Paul/ He’ll be a fuckin’ motherfucker time the roll is called.”
These kind of raunchy rhyming folk poems, where the heroes are badmen, tricksters, hustlers and pimps, were typically recited on street corners, at parties, in bars and prisons. They’re called ‘toasts’, and they’re part of a rich oral tradition that includes tall tales, rhyming jokes and jive talk. Also the short insults known as ‘snaps’ and their use in ‘the dozens’, a kind of verbal duelling in which young people disparage each other’s parents. “Your father’s so dumb, he leaves his fly open in case he has to count to eleven,” for example, or, “I don’t play the dozens, the dozens ain’t my game, but the way I fuck your mother is a goddamn shame.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, as H Rap Brown was using street rhymes to promote black power and Muhammad Ali was bragging in couplets, the comedian Rudy Ray Moore created the character of Dolemite, a badman who dressed like a pimp, spoke in rhyme, revelled in obscene sexual slang and made preposterous claims about himself. He was a crucial figure in the evolution of hip-hop, sampled by Dr Dre, idolised by Snoop Dogg and recently portrayed by Eddie Murphy in the film Dolemite is My Name. Here is Moore on stage in Buffalo, New York, in 1970:
Some folks say that Willie Green was the baddest motherfucker the world ever seen, / But I want you to light up a joint and take a real good shit and screw your wig on tight, / And let me tell you about the little bad motherfucker called Dolomite. / Now Dolomite was from San Antone, / A rambling skip-fucker from the day he was born. / Why, the day he was dropped from his mammy’s ass, / He slapped his pappy’s face / And said, ‘From now on, cocksucker, I’m running this place.’ / At the age of one he was drinkin’ whiskey and gin, / At the age of two he was eatin’ the bottles it came in.
By the time hip-hop emerged in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, insults, brags and rhymes were an integral part of the street culture. As the pioneering DJ, Grandmaster Flash, put it, “If there’s one thing black folks in the ghetto know how to do, it’s talk shit. Been talking shit, singing shit, chanting shit, rhyming shit, and mumbling shit since day one.” It was obvious to him where rapping came from, but he never expected the beats and rhymes to reach downtown Manhattan, let alone revolutionise music, fashion and marketing trends all over the world. You can now hear rappers boasting about their prowess in Iceland, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Burma, Lapland and Tibet.
Who does it best? Impossible to say, though it’s hard to out-brag Kanye West, who compares himself to Jesus and Einstein, and spits out rhymes like, “I can see a thousand years from now in real life/ Skate on the paradigm and shift it when I feel like.” Among the hundreds of other contenders, I’d have to include Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang MCs, and the Jamaican-born rapper Canibus. Here he is freestyling on a radio show: “My brain consists of twin Pentium chips/ That’s double the clock speeds of a 5-86 […] I make tightrope walkers in the circus/ Lose they balance when I kick the planet.”
Although hip-hop is a male-dominated world, it has always had a space for braggadocious women. In the 1980s and 1990s, Queen Latifah extolled her own magnificence and skewered the genre’s rampant misogyny, embodied in the Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg song ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’: “Lick on these nuts and suck the dick/ Get the fuck out after you’re done.” In response Queen Latifah came out with ‘U.N.I.T.Y’: “I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for […] Who you calling a bitch?”
In 1996, the Brooklyn-born rapper Lil’ Kim took a different approach and proved that female rappers could be just as crude and sexually boastful as their male counterparts: “I leave him solid as a rock, turn his dick to stone/ You know that kind of pussy that break up happy homes.” This type of bragging is now well established among female rappers. Lady, who began rapping as a teenager in Talbotton, Georgia, weighed in with: “Tight pussy, right pussy, fuck-me-all-night pussy, make-you-leave-your-wife pussy […] Make ya cum once, twice, maybe-even-thrice pussy.” It’s probably no coincidence that the most successful female rapper of all time, Nicki Minaj, loves to brag of her “presidential cooch”, as she sometimes refers to it.
Since the most powerful man in the world today is an American braggart, and a Twitter junkie, it seems impossible to conclude without mentioning Donald Trump. His bragging is compulsive and relentless, but strikingly unsophisticated. Time and again, he falls back on the same childish formulations, as the following montage of quotes illustrates.
“I know words, I have the best words. Nobody builds walls better than me. There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am. Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had. I’m the king of banking. I know more about courts than any human on earth. I know more about drones than anybody. Nobody knows more about the system than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
It took a perfect storm of present-day circumstances and long-term trends to get this man elected. Among them was an old American enjoyment of hucksterism, boastful claims and ostentatious wealth; also, the rise of social media has provided a powerful new forum both for bragging and for political manipulation. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Donald Trump, the most boastful man ever to occupy the presidency, is the culmination of the American bragging tradition. As an admirer of that tradition – for its inventiveness, spiciness and verbal artistry – I find this a difficult thing to celebrate. Trump just sounds conceited and dishonest, whereas a skilled bragger sounds mythic – even if you can’t believe it, you want to believe it. It’s the difference between Trump’s, “I’m a very stable genius, ok?” or, “Nobody has better toys than I do,” and Mike Tyson in his prime:
“My power is discombobulatingly devastating. I could feel his muscle tissues collapse under my force. It’s ludicrous these mortals even attempt to enter my realm.”
Or Inspectah Deck, from the Wu-Tang Clan, taking the art of bragging to new levels, mixing Greek philosophy, nuclear war and crime metaphors into his unstoppable flow:
“I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses / Can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries / Lyrically perform armed robbery / Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me.”
This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here