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“The Dickens, reminiscent of Charles”: Boz and the language of hip-hop

“As the plot thickens, it gives me the dickens, reminiscent of Charles…”

So unfolds the narrative in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”, from OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, a cornerstone of late 90s southern hip-hop and one of my favorites. Last week, I listened to Andre utter these lyrics once again, and I wondered, what does it really mean to give someone the dickens, and does it have anything to do with Charles?

The OED shows that dickens cropped up in English as far back as the late 16th century. At that time, dickens found work as a substitute for ‘devil’, a PG-rated alternative when a speaker wished to avoid swearing. A classic example would be Mistress Margaret Page in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, when she complains, “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is.”

The dickens take ye!

In the 1600s, dickens crept into imprecations like “the dickens take ye!” as well as phrases such as “to go to the dickens” (to go to ruin) and “to play the dickens” (to cause mischief). Much like deuce, another minced-oath mainstay (“what the deuce!”), dickens outlived the Early Modern era, thriving well into the 18th and 19th centuries. It was a 200-year old chestnut by the time Charles John Huffam Dickens entered the world on that fated Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

Considering the 17th and 18th century evidence, it’s clear that Charles wasn’t the source for the use of the word dickens in English, but I can’t help suspecting that his success and popularity had some influence on the latter-day usage of dickens. After all, Boz’s surname and dickens are homographs, and at the very least, that allows for clever wordplay of the ilk we see in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”.

Dickensian reprimands

That brings us back to my original question: what does it mean “to give someone the dickens”? I’ve found a number of quotations for this idiom, some dating as early as the late 1800s, and from what I can surmise, “giving the dickens” seems to be roughly the same as a verbal reprimand, i.e. telling someone off for some reason. Most of the evidence reads like this early 20th century example:

“The sheriff did give me the dickens. He says, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself going to the Mayor to borrow $100.”—  from The National Provisioner (20 Sept., 1919)

Simple enough, right? The idiom survives into present-day English, and structurally, it seems very similar to what’s going on in “SpottieOttieDopaliscious”. I’m having trouble reconciling the two, though. Something about Andre’s lyric doesn’t ring true with the business-giving sheriff in The National Provisioner. Perhaps it’s that OutKast’s lyric doesn’t feature a human agent doing the dickens-giving. Rather, there’s the pronoun ‘it’, presumably referring back to the thickening plot, which seems to afflict him somehow. Could this difference signify a different meaning then? Maybe Andre’s is a new usage altogether.

Devils and ghouls

It’s possible that Andre’s reference could be a modern extension of the ‘devil’ sense, suggesting he’s tormented (as if by devils), bothered by the complexities of this particular tale. Admittedly, the prospect of that connection is a bit of a stretch. Alternatively, perhaps what OutKast were conjuring up derived from one of Dickens’s most famous works, A Christmas Carol. Could ‘Dre have been drawing on the haunting that Ebenezer Scrooge endures from the spectre of his former business partner, Jacob Marley? After all, the lyric does continue ‘reminiscent of Charles’.

Intrigued by this puzzle, I grew curious about whether I’d find Andre’s usage anywhere else in hip-hop. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t recall any other songs featuring a dickens, so I undertook a bit of research.

Dickens is no outcast

Upon searching and listening, I didn’t come across any other uses of dickens in hip-hop music just like OutKast’s. As is often the case, Big Boi and Andre were in a class of their own. However, my quest did yield at least one interesting discovery, namely that rappers have been name-checking Charles Dickens since hip-hop’s golden age.

The Beastie Boys, for example, situate themselves squarely in the canon and cash in on Boz’s cachet:

“I’ve got more stories than J.D.’s got Salinger . I hold the title and you are the challenger. I’ve got money like Charles Dickens, Got the girlies in the coupe like the Colonel’s got the chickens.” — “Shadrach”, from Paul’s Boutique (1989)

And one of the Beasties’ contemporaries, Q-Tip, from A Tribe Called Quest, illustrates his storytelling prowess by equating himself to the pre-eminent author:

“I’m such a damn Dickens, if you step to this, then the plot just thickens.” — “Hot Sex”, from Midnight Marauders (1993)

Like those of the Beasties and Tribe, many of the mentions I found seemed rhyme-based, capitalizing on the ease of pairing ‘Dickens’ with everyday vocabulary that serves to move the narrative along. And it’s probably no coincidence that one of the most popular pairings is with a ‘plot’ that ‘thickens’: hip-hop MCs are poets and raconteurs, so finishing a verse with an allusion to the great genius of Victorian storytelling reminds us to consider these lyrics as part of a literary tradition.

Iller than most

Some rappers pushed the creative bounds a bit further, as in the following rhyme by Mac Miller. He plays on the present-progressives of the verbs politic and finger-lick, and then nods to Dickens’s wordsmithery by turning the plural ‘words’ into ‘word to’, an expression of esteem:

“Bob O’Connor, we just politickin’, finger-lickin’ on my chicken, Got a way with words, words, words, word to Charles Dickens.” — “Willie Dynamite” (2011)

A number of hip-hop artists invested their rhymes with further Dickensian references, delving into his literature for lyrical fodder. Peep this one by Ras Kass, who sets up his narrative of hardship by comparing it to Boz’s Bildungsroman:

“The story begins like a Dickens novel, David Copperfield, ‘I am born.’” — “Ordo Abchao (Order out of Chaos)”, from Soul on Ice (1996)

Or check Tek, who features as a guest artist in this Heltah Skeltah track, identifying with Jack Dawkins, Dickens’s pickpocket from Oliver Twist:

“When I jump in the Porsche, hop in the Charger, fans can’t catch the boy, I’m an Artful Dodger.” — “WMD”, from D.I.R.T. (2008)

Oliver Twist was also the inspiration for one of the more inventive gems I discovered in my Dickens dig. On this Clipse track, Ab-liva features as a guest artist and spins this rhyme about the wheels (HREs) on his ride:

“HREs on it, mami, see it glisten, when I make Oliver Twist like Dickens”. —  “Ride Around Shining”, from Hell Hath No Fury (2006)

What at first sounds like a left-field reference to Dickens’s second novel is actually a play on the similar pronunciation of ‘Oliver’ to the phrase ‘all of her’, the feminine pronoun referring back to his Ferrari, the wheels of which he makes ‘twist’ as he rolls down the street.

Brothers in arms

These lyrics represent but just a few of those that I found shouting out Charles Dickens and his creations in the oeuvre of hip-hop music. Considering Dickens spent much of his career exploring poverty and crime, his works share a number of thematic elements with hip-hop lyrics today, which so often concern the inner-city and its bottom-lines. Dickens is a natural port of call for storytellers looking to represent this milieu. Combine that shared interest with a common penchant for word slinging (hip-hop is a hot bed for neologisms, and Boz was no stranger to coinage), and Dickens’s popularity in hip-hop music should really come as no surprise.

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