"American Pimp"

A recently released documentary stars Rosebudd, a 47-year-old exemplar of the genre who tells it like it is.


Stephen Lemons
July 26, 2000 11:20PM (UTC)

Here I am at a Sizzler just down from the Great Western Forum and the Hollywood Park racetrack, kickin' it with a real, live pimp.

Well, actually Rosebudd ("spelled with two D's for a double dose of this pimpin'") has been retired from "the game" for about 10 years now. Sitting across from me with pictures from his glory days of being a pimp in Hollywood spread out on the table, the 47-year-old father of two looks like any L7 you might meet on the street. Dressed in a blue FUBU sweatsuit with what's left of his hair strictly on his chin (and gray at that), he's a square businessman on a lunch break from Tay's Playas Tattoos, the tattoo parlor he co-owns not far from the steak house. There's nothing to hint at his notorious past, except maybe his talent for "talkin' shit and swallowin' spit."

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"Let me tell you, when I stopped pimpin', I was real negative about quitting," Rosebudd says. "I thought I was giving up being a motherfucker. Now to a hustler, being a motherfucker is what you strive for. So when someone says 'Rosebudd's a motherfucker,' that's the highest compliment you can get because they've run out of adjectives. I was depressed until I realized that I was not stopping being a motherfucker, I was stopping pimpin'. I just had to become a motherfucker in another arena."

The other arena in which Rosebudd, aka John Dickson, is aiming for motherfuckerdom is writing. And thanks to his starring role in the current Hughes Brothers documentary, "American Pimp," he recently scored a deal with the radical Chicago publishing house Frontline for his self-published memoir, "Master of Pimpology." The 382-page tome breaks down the rules of pimping through Rosebudd's experiences as a dynamite mack in the '70s and '80s, running a crew of up to seven or eight "hos" on L.A.'s Sunset Boulevard. As with the Hughes Brothers' flick, wherein the makers of "Dead Presidents" and "Menace to Society" present an anthropological examination of "the game," Rosebudd's book peels back the layers of a subculture most squares know only through old, worn-out caricatures, like Huggy Bear from "Starsky and Hutch" or the blaxploitation heroes of films like "The Mack" or "Superfly."

"It's like trying to explain astrophysics to a wino," Rosebudd tells the Hughes Brothers in the film. And indeed, much of what goes on between hos and pimps seems, gulp, hard to swallow. The way the Hughes Brothers and Rosebudd lay it out, a pimp is a fella who has any number of women on the street working for him. He sets a ho up with an apartment, advises her on the rules of "the stroll" where she works and provides her a minimal amount of protection. In return, the ho gives the pimp all of the money she earns.

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Wait a second, Rosebudd -- all of the money?

"It's not about money with a ho and a pimp," explains Rosebudd. "See, a ho has completely detached herself from money. That's why she has no problem giving the money to the pimp. What the pimp offers the ho is someone she can communicate with honestly. Any other man is going to see her as a ho first. A pimp is the only one who can accept this woman having sex with someone else and still see her as a desirable woman."

But don't they even get an allowance? How do they live without money? It sounds incredible, but a ho does not get a cut of her take for the night. Every penny goes to her man, the pimp.

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"Check it out," says Rosebudd. "She comes home with $480 a night, and I take all of it. And I don't even spend the night with her. Tomorrow, if I didn't do it before I left, I got to come over and give her $25 or so because she needs it for hamburgers, rubbers, whatever. That's mad money. That's not 'her percentage.' Just money for her to take care of business.

"After a certain amount of time, say seven or eight months, I might give her $200 every now and then to go shopping. If she doesn't agree with my rules, she has no leg to stand on, because I'm not changing. She can either straighten up and be cool, or she can leave -- go and choose somebody else to get with."

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According to Rosebudd and the other various pimps and hos interviewed by the Hughes Brothers, this is pretty much the system. Hos "choose" a pimp to work for, and in the process they are choosing a combination employer/lover/money manager/tutor. If the ho no longer wants to be with a certain pimp, she can chose another one, usually without violence. At least that's the street life "American Pimp" presents to viewers, challenging the assumption made by many that pimps are a class of exploiters and abusers who rule by force and intimidation.

Rosebudd states that a certain amount of "kicking ass" is necessary, but a pimp's control of his hos is mostly mental. They are not his slaves, though this may seem to be the case to the uninitiated or those prejudiced by what they've heard of pimps from popular culture.

"It's not a slave relationship," says Rosebudd. "It's an 'agreed' relationship. You have to understand that there's a certain mentality involved. For example, a warrior cannot totally understand clowns. You have to want to be a clown to understand wearing those big shoes and the nose and all that stuff. Know what I mean? That's his mentality.

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"Now when a girl chooses to become a ho, that's her mentality. But they're women before they're hos. And most women want a relationship, a heterosexual relationship. When it comes to that she's only going to be able to trust a pimp."

As for the threat of violence, Rosebudd asserts it's all part of the game.

"Hey, man, if they charge, handle and manipulate men of all backgrounds every single day, then it's only natural that they're going to come in and try to manipulate me. If I allow it in any regard, I am a punk to them. I'm a little dude. I'm soft. They start imagining a whole lot of weak shit because of my weakness. Then they leave. So what I'm saying is you can't represent any weakness. If she comes home and challenges you, you got to stand up. That could mean slapping the shit out of her or whatever.

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"You could try to do it verbally. You could say, 'Bitch, don't do that no more.' Some of them are going to say, 'Fuck that.' What are you supposed to do, listen to her? While she's sassin' you? You have to establish who you are, otherwise she's going to leave you. If she does stay, she's going to take your money and make you have only her. Why? Because you're a punk. She's going to tell everybody and ruin you."

The one Hollywood film Rosebudd cites as being accurate in its portrayal of pimpology is the 1987 film "Street Smart," in which Morgan Freeman gives a chilling performance as a New York pimp who brooks no dissent within the ranks, if you get my drift. It's a strange choice because Rosebudd seems nothing like Freeman's character -- a hard, brutal man of whom his hos are genuinely afraid. Rosebudd cuts a more laid-back, jovial figure, and no doubt that's why the Hughes Brothers spend more time with him than any of the other pimps in the film. Also, he has the ability to drop knowledge in a particularly entertaining manner.

Perhaps time has tamed him. Certainly the avuncular figure before me has come quite a distance from the high-rolling player in the photos laid out before us. They show a grinning Rosebudd with a huge Afro, fine white women on his arm and thick gold jewelry all over that would turn Bob Guccione into a "player hater." There's even one of Rosebudd riding in a burgundy-and-lavender Rolls Royce, with a Motorola phone in his car -- back when a car phone was still a privilege of the very rich.

Those photos show the pimp legend -- one still glorified in countless rap songs, like Old Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money," Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'" or just about anything by Oakland, Calif., rapper Too $hort. Growing up as a pool hustler in Vallejo, Calif., just outside of Oakland, Rosebudd aspired to be a pimp of renown. This he achieved. But after 20 years on the street, he grew dissatisfied with the game. His favorite ho got killed one night, her throat cut -- according to Rosebudd -- because she was mixed up with some corrupt cops and was planning to testify against them in court. Then another ho got pregnant with his first daughter, and he had to wage an extended, costly battle to gain visitation rights.

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The game was changing too. Cocaine and weed had always been around as recreational drugs, but crack entered into the picture in the '80s, making life more difficult and dangerous. AIDS, too, was making a debut. Rosebudd kept pimpin' until he was left with just one ho. He married her and she became the mother of his second child, now 4 and a half years old. Slowly, Rosebudd began thinking like a square -- worrying about providing for his family, buying Pampers for his little girl and earning scratch like a real 9-to-5 Howdy Doody.

Today Rosebudd is again a man in demand, with full magazine spreads in glossy magazines like Gallery and While You Were Sleeping. He's also done a ton of press for the Hughes Brothers, speaking to reporters on almost a daily basis for outlets like CNN and ABC. With a movie adaption of Iceberg Slim's autobiography "Pimp" (starring Ice Cube) due in 2001, and rap music's persistent idealization of the pimp, Rosebudd just may be able to parlay his 15 minutes of fame into a substantial career as an author. Interest in his former profession is high, and why not? It is one of the oldest professions, even if not the oldest.

"Every major city in the United States still has pimpin' going on, just like in the '50s, '60s and '70s," says Rosebudd. "You see, not everyone in the ghetto can sing or play sports or act. There are kids that grow up looking for glamour, and they don't have any avenue for it except street shit. They start out playing dice or whatever. But in the course of making that money they run into different types of hustlers. Mostly they gravitate toward the pimp because of his cars, his diamonds, his girls. All this means excitement to a young dude.

"The pimp is the mightiest hustler of all in the ghetto. Because you know a gambler, a pool hustler, a car thief -- anybody will do anything for some pussy. And the pimp is the guy who's selling it -- getting paid before he gets some himself." As Fillmore Slim, a grand old San Francisco pimp, says in "American Pimp," "Pussy gonna sell when cotton and corn won't." Like it or not, pimpin' and hoin' are here to stay, even after the legendary macks like Rosebudd pass away.

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Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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