New York Ten years ago, it seemed as if every rapper wanted to be a gangsta. Now, everyone wants to be a pimp.
50 Cent and Snoop Dogg strut in full pimp regalia, surrounded by a bevy of beauties, in their new video "P.I.M.P." Rappers like Lil' Jon bounce through their videos holding jewel-encrusted chalices popularized by pimps.
Even old-school soul veteran Ronald Isley personifies the pimp style with his alter-ego, "Mr. Biggs," right down to his elaborate cane.
Modeling yourself after figures most people consider among the degenerates of society might not seem like the most respectable path to follow -- but no one ever accused rappers of wanting to be respectable.
"Rappers just always want to be something bad," said producer-rapper Jermaine Dupri, who's touted himself as a "young pimp" in his own lyrics. "Just the same way rappers want to be gangstas, rappers want to be pimps."
Yet the self-proclaimed king of pimps, Bishop Don Magic Juan, would disagree with the sentiment that pimping is a bad thing. Although he's given up the pimp business for preaching -- he's an ordained minister -- he's still a proud playa who sticks up mightily for his former profession.
"It's been portrayed negatively through movies and television," says Juan, who despite his new profession has not forsaken his pimp wardrobe. "Now people are seeing it for what it is."
'Cool to look good'
Snoop Dogg -- perhaps the biggest pimp purveyor in today's rap game -- agrees.
"It's cool to look good, it's cool to have girls on your arm, and get money from them, and that's a good feeling, you dig? There ain't nothing wrong with it," he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
"We're teaching people how to hustle and how to look good," he said. "I'd rather be a pimp than a gang-banger, because I grew up being a gang-banger, and I tell you, you live longer being a pimp."
Yet others point out that pimping is actually the business of procuring women and girls as prostitutes for profit.
"It's just like gang-banging and doing drugs," says the singer Monica. "I think it's one of those things that people have started to glorify, and really don't give the real situation of what really happens, the real outcomes.
"People still go to jail for that for long periods of time. People get killed behind that. So the unfair part is our audiences don't get to see the real side of it. They hear it on records and see it on TV and they glorify, and it's totally backwards."
Chris Rock was appalled by "Lil' Pimp," a cartoon movie in the works about a child pimp.
"That's where I draw the line. That's where I get corny. My daughter will not be at the kid pimp movie," says the comedian, whose movie "Pootie Tang" was akin to a pimp fashion show. "I want to meet the white executive who said, 'Yes! Lil' Pimp!"'
History of glorification
The pimp game has been rapped about for more than 20 years. Oakland native Too Short and Los Angeles pioneer Ice-T celebrated it in the early '80s. Brooklyn's Big Daddy Kane talked about it in the late '80s. In the '90s, The Notorious B.I.G. rapped: "Pimpin' ain't easy but it sure is fun." And one of Jay-Z's most popular songs remains the 2000 anthem "Big Pimpin'."
Such popularity is due partly to a generation of rappers who grew up watching the glorification of pimps in blaxploitation flicks such as "Dolemite," "Superfly" and "The Mack." Sharply dressed, dripping with money, in control and draped with ladies, pimps were portrayed as the ultimate hustlers.
"When I started seeing those movies in the '70s, like 'The Mack' and 'Superfly,' that helped me to more of less pick who I wanted to be in life, how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to represent me," said Snoop.
Recently, though, pimp appeal is peaking. You'd be hard-pressed to find a rap song these days without at least some passing reference to pimps. 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." is a Top 10 hit on the Billboard chart; rapper David Banner idolizes the lifestyle on "Like a Pimp"; and rapper Nelly pays tribute with his hit song "Pimp Juice." Even the seemingly innocuous rap greeting "Chuuch" has pimp origins.
Not that all these rappers are actually selling sex. Like much of rap music, almost all pimp lyrics are just talk.
Thanks largely to documentaries like HBO's "Pimps Up, Hos Down" and the Hughes brothers' "American Pimp," real and former pimps have become celebrities themselves, appearing in videos, even rapping on songs. None more so than Bishop Don Magic Juan, who's even currently in talks to star in his own reality series.
Then there's the ghetto-fabulous pimp fashion -- the canes, the gold-encrusted chalices, the hats, and the fancy threads.