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Those Dirty, Dirty Dozens

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Long before rap, there was “the dozens” – the African-American street rhyming tradition that author Elijah Wald defines as “halfway between ‘yo mama’ jokes and rap freestyle battling.” He joins us to share the surprising musical history of the R-rated comedic insults.


Elijah Wald

Comments [13]


For a music version of the dozens, check out "Gabbin' Blues" as sung by Big Maybelle and the talking part is songwriter Rose Marie McCoy.

Jun. 01 2012 03:13 PM

In the book I do deal with the fact that the dozens was not all fun and games, and hurt a lot of people while amusing others.

As for the song Cielito Lindo in relation to the dozens, it does not have that relationship in Mexico, just in the US, in English. But there is a deep dozens tradition in Mexico and throughout Latin America, and in the book I discuss the relationship of those traditions to both Spanish traditions and the African diaspora.

Jayne--thank you very much for your comment, which is both interesting and eloquently phrased. I hope you don't mind if I quote you in the future.

Jun. 01 2012 12:48 PM

i remember, goofing,sounding,snapping. the dozens, was not a term familiar to me. i grew up in the chelsea section of manhattan[NYC]. [pre-gentrification or development if you will]

Jun. 01 2012 03:17 AM

to jayne from detroit

i hate going here, but i don't think you told us your ethnic backgound. my experience was,if you were not af/amer, you were not usually allowed to, or expected,to indulge in the dozens. in other words,its was a one way form of abuse. in that scenario,the only exception,that would be given,would be to a white kid, who was either very tough physically, or, who could assume a sort of "white chocolate" afro-centric white guy role. and btw- i don't think all black kids are eventually welcomed into the fold either. school violence today,has lot more to do with many other diverse and complex factors, than the simple availability of guns,or the lack of contrived insult, as presumptive relief valve.

Jun. 01 2012 12:25 AM


i meant NYC schools,not NYV.

May. 31 2012 11:26 PM

it was also aggressive and nasty. this was often used as a weapon by meanspirited kids,to taunt and be cruel. lets not leave that part out. it's integral to the whole picture. i think it's black folk letting off steam, for being treated badly by the larger society,so i get that. but, those of us on the receiving end of this, [black and others], did not always have such a grand old time. this was at times all over the place in NYV public schools. i don't know about today.

May. 31 2012 11:21 PM
Jayne from Detroit, mi

I'm from Detroit and when I grew up in the 80's we played the dozens but we called it Capping or High Capping. It was a game and a spectator sport, but it was also a form of bullying. I remember getting dragged into capping contests by girls who wanted to pick on me. So, yes girls did participate. The difference between this and bullying though is you could earn respect and fans if you could hold your own. I would love to see this come back on the playground rather than guns because after I win a few times my bullies backed off me and some became my friends. Also I became less sensitive. I'm still sweet natured but I'm not defenseless and I know how to use my mind and observations to get out of situations. As for its influence on rap, I can see how it lent itself to the evolution of battle rap (which I also participated in when I got older) because of the spectator nature and ability to get fans for your punchlines. Any rapper worth their weight in salt has punchlines.

May. 31 2012 02:52 PM
David from San Juan, PR

Regarding the song "Cielito Lindo" and its connection to "the dozen" may be related to the African diaspora in Mexico and its influence on that culture.

May. 31 2012 02:40 PM
Rita Williams-Garcia from Jamaica, Queens

The dozens figure into my 6th grade heroine's woes and punishment in PS BE ELEVEN (2013). This story is for readers ages 9-12 so we keep it clean!

May. 31 2012 02:26 PM
ANINA KARMEN from nyu nabe

Elijah! Rick Franklin's "doin the dozens" album is GREAT! echoes of the memphies minnie lyrics. Give him a shout out?

I got to know Rick (and you ) at Blues Week at Augusta (early 'oughts or 2008 or 2009)

May. 31 2012 02:20 PM
Peter from New Jersey

Be careful with "yo mama" jokes. People have been shot/stabbed or worse over insults to my mama.

How's your mama and my kids?

May. 31 2012 02:19 PM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

There is a long, rich musical history of insults and "1upmanship" in the black diaspora, outside of America as well, as heard in old school reggae and calypso music.

May. 31 2012 02:14 PM
Platypus Daron from Astoria

Three golden platypus eggs for you!

Yo mama smells so bad, she made Right Guard hang a left!

Yo mama like Comcast, I haven't paid her in like 3 months

Yo mama so fat, she generates her own gravitational field

May. 31 2012 02:14 PM

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