How 'pimp' got pimped

Pimping used to be a bad thing. Now everyone does it

May 7, 2006
Toronto Star
By Andrew Chung

When Three 6 Mafia, a rap group, wrote this year's Oscar winner for best original song for the acclaimed movie Hustle & Flow, they probably weren't aware of the song title's tidy double entendre.

"It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" encapsulates the movie's plot, but the fact is it is hard for a pimp nowadays — the word "pimp," that is, because its meaning in our cultural lexicon has changed so much and so quickly that some people have missed its evolution altogether.

For the past two decades, the dominant stereotypical image conjured up by the word was that of a slick and flamboyant, most often African-American, man, heavily jewelled and clad in Technicolor suits under lavish fur coats and gaudy hats, standing on platform shoes astride his Cadillac, keeping close watch on the prostitutes in his employ.

He was vulgar, abusive and dangerous, yet, through the movies, hilarious and larger than life.

But that has all changed. "Pimp" has gone from noun to verb. Today, most people, especially young ones, know it to mean "to stylize," "to make fabulous," or "to accessorize."

"It has entrenched itself as a canon in the vernacular, particularly for youth, far more than, say, 15 years ago," says Stephen Muzzatti, 38, a sociology professor and expert in popular culture, the media and youth at Ryerson University.

"And it has shifted from being something bad and frowned upon to something that is, if not celebrated, then thought of as acceptable and even complimentary."

"Pimp" is absolutely everywhere.

Most famously, it was popularized in 2004 by MTV's hit series Pimp My Ride, in which rap star Xzibit transforms someone's sad state of a car into a "pimped-out" street-stealer with, as examples, mag wheels, racing seats, cup warmers, makeup stations and at least one television screen.

But that's just the start. Now you can buy "pimp"-style floppy hats and flashy jewellery at websites like http://www.pimpdaddy.com.

For help designing your personal Web page, there's PimpMySpace.org.

In the U.S., there's an energy drink called Pimp Juice.

Just a few days ago, a former American skateboarder launched a children's clothing line called "Pimpfants." Now, babies can wear "Jr. Pimp Squad" jerseys.

The word is of unknown origin, according to the authoritative Oxford dictionary, but it possibly began in the 17th century from the French word "pimper," to coax or wheedle.

By the 1970s, the modern stereotype had solidified. Hollywood took notice of street pimps, and a series of "blaxploitation" films popularized and romanticized them.

In the mid-'80s, the term began to be used once again in a pejorative sense. People who dressed like throwbacks to the '70s, or whose home décor remained in that era, were disparaged for adhering to an outmoded sensibility.

"It was not cool. It would have been thought of as flashy, crass or vulgar," Muzzatti says.

Now "pimp" has been turned 180 degrees, he says.

"It's flashy and ostentatious, but it doesn't hold the pejorative connotations that it once did."

The heavy jewellery of the 1970s TV pimp has become the bling bling of the hip-hop artist. The ostentatious cars and clothing of rappers like 50 Cent, who has a hit called "P.I.M.P.," are also relics of the '70s.

Muzzatti thinks the change in meaning is part of the "mainstreaming of hip-hop, which comes with the kind of whitewashing or neutralizing of `radical' messages."

This makes it palatable to "white, middle-class kids in Aurora or Oakville," Muzzatti says, by "stripping the substance from the style so all you have left is the style, without the class markers or racial markers."

But some people still don't get it. The Sunday Star's "Pimp My Garden" contest, in which one winner will get a professional garden makeover, was met with some hostility last week.

One woman called the editors "idiots" for using the term.

"Do you know what a pimp is?" another man wrote. "How does this apply to gardening? One can only expect that you are of the same slovenly, repulsive, sleeze bag (sic) class."

Yes, brothers and sisters, it's hard out here for a pimp.