When I saw the title of Elijah Wald’s new book, The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, I kind of dropped whatever else I was reading and downloaded it, stat. Why? Because I expected the book to be a hilarious overview of mother-centric insults and a play-by-play retrospective of some of the historic feuds in the rap arena.
This was not a good assumption. With all due respect to Wald, who appears to be a top-notch researcher and scholar, this book was pretty much just a bunch of research and scholarly stuff. Not that that’s a bad thing, but prospective readers need to set their expectations accordingly.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with The Dozens, it’s essentially a game customarily attributed to the African-American community in which combatants take turns insulting their opponent, with jabs typically targeted at the opponent’s mother and other family members; the duel typically takes place in front of a crowd and ends when one of the participants fails to top the most recent salvo delivered by the other or, in worst cases, actually resorts to physical attack.
To Wald’s credit, there really isn’t a whole lot of documented history of The Dozens, for a number of reasons relating to record-keeping priorities, censorship, and some other less-than-flattering aspects of history. So Wald explores what there is out there regarding the game’s origins, and he drops footnotes like a Cleveland Browns receiver drops passes. And while I give him kudos for his painstaking research and analysis, the belly laughs I was expecting were few and far between.
The book culminates with a brief overview of how The Dozens and the concept of “yo mamma” jokes made its way into the world of rap music, citing some of the biggest players in the field and how skilled they were (apparently LL Cool J was the best), but it really wasn’t the payoff that I was hoping for.
A well-written treatise, but be sure to file it under “research” and not “comedy”.