The Greatest Language Hits Of Black Music

A lexical mixtape

From Big Band to Big Sean, a history of American popular music is very much a history of Black music. It’s also, in so many ways, a history of slang.

Consider one of slang’s greatest hits: cool. This catch-all for “excellent”—today as common as Cardi B on the Hot 100—was spread by hip-hop’s forerunners, jazz artists, in the 1940s.

June is African-American Music Appreciation Month, also known as Black Music Month. It's a time to commemorate the continuing legacy of Black music on American life, and, for our part, we’re celebrating the lingo, spanning Louis Armstrong's blues to City Girl's drip, that Black musicians helped take platinum in our lexicon.

And, you can listen along! In partnership with Universal Music Group’s urban catalog imprint: Urban Legends, we are featuring Black artists whose music helped popularize a lot of our slang terms in the past century.

Words plus beats? That’s our jam.

Kelsee Thomas

the blues | Louis Armstrong

A descendant of spirituals sung by slaves, the blues is a genre of music that developed in the South in the late 19th century. It takes its name from the expression the blues (“depressed spirits, melancholy”) for the woes its singers soulfully wail.

While the blues is recorded as early as the 1740s, the term took off in the early 20th century, thanks in part to its prominent use in such song titles as “St. Louis Blues.”

A 1929 version of this song became a staple of the American songbook by trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong, a giant of jazz (which grew from the blues). What’s causing his blues in St. Louis? An all-too familiar tune: a man leaving a woman. "Got the St. Louis blues, as long as I can see / Oh, my guy's got a heart like a rock in the sea."

Stream some of that Louis blues here.

Kelsee Thomas

hound dog | Big Mama Thornton

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton had enough of the shenanigans in her 1952 hit “Hound Dog,” famously covered by Elvis in 1956. On it, Thornton growls:

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' 'round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more


The song was written by legendary songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who in part chose hound dog in lieu of some … stronger slang.

Hound dog is also a colorful metaphor for a man mooching off a woman. Act like a hound dog today, and you may find Cardi B dog-walking you tomorrow.

Stream some soulful Big Mama here.

Kelsee Thomas

killing floor | Howlin' Wolf

Canines, metaphors, and relationship troubles all come together in the 1964 single “Killing Floor” by electric guitar bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, who laments: “I was foolin’ with ya baby, I let ya put me down on the killin’ floor.”

Also called the slaughter floor, killing floor is 1960s slang for a place used … to have sex. Sometimes it acted as a double whammy: occasionally used as slang for a breakup too. 

We don’t think we need to spell out the analogy here, but, linguistically speaking, killing floor is a slang trifecta: 1: It concerns a taboo topic (sex) by 2: talking around it (euphemism) 3: in a vivid, exaggerated manner (hyperbole).

Killing floor makes a more recent relationship slang term seem mild: cuffing season, which is when a couple is figuratively handcuffed together during winter.

Feeling blue? Stream Howlin' Wolf here.

Kelsee Thomas

rock | Chuck Berry

Today, you rock is a casual way to tell someone they’re great or awesome. But, this meaning of rock has become so familiar ... many may not remember its roots in rock music and the long history of the genre’s name.

Rocking and rolling was sexual slang in the 1920s. Over the next decades, these very, um, descriptive verbs lent themselves to music—like blues, jazz, and their 1950s offspring, rock-'n'-roll—that got people on the dance floor.

Putting his sizzling electric guitar front and center, Chuck Berry is hailed as the “Father of Rock and Roll.” You don’t have to listen any further than his 1957 classic “Rock and Roll Music” to see why:

Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music
Any old way you choose it …
It’s gotta be rock and roll music
If you wanna dance with me.

Thanks in part to Berry and his high-energy, edgy sound, rock rolled on as slang for “to be full of life and excitement” and “to be great,” more generally.

Stream some rockin' Chuck Berry here.

Kelsee Thomas

grapevine | Marvin Gaye

“I heard it through the grapevine …” We dare you to stop singing along to this Motown masterpiece—about that perennial source of the blues, infidelity—famously performed by Marvin Gaye in 1968.

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” brought new attention to the slang grapevine, or “gossip.” It's much older than many would guess, dating back to the Civil War.

Grapevine is shortened from grapevine telegraph, a creative metaphor for an informal network that spreads rumors or secret information. In his 1901 autobiography Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington discussed “the whispered discussions” of grapevine telegraphs as important sources of news about Civil War battles and the emancipation of slaves.

Today, you might hear a different plant used for "gossip": tea, a slang term steeped in Black drag culture.

Kelsee Thomas

funkentelechy | Parliament

The band Parliament never missed an opportunity to be funky. Not in their music, funk (a genre that emerged from Black popular music in the 1960s), nor in their words, such as on their 1977 “Funkentelechy.”

Funkentelechy riffs on entelechy, a philosophical concept of "realization or actuality as opposed to a potentiality," aka "being real." For Parliament, that could be achieved through the down-to-earth-ness of funk.

Parliament, though, was often far out. Their aesthetic drew on science fiction and is an important part of the tradition of Afrofuturism, as recently explored in the Black Panther superhero franchise.

Stream that funky Parliament sound here.

Kelsee Thomas

phat | Salt-N-Pepa

Hip-hop queens Salt-N-Pepa open their 1993 track “Groove Me” admiring the song's beat: “Got that phat groove on the reel.”

This line helped bring the slang phat, or “excellent,” to the masses. And, the word is an incredible showcase of many of the sociolinguistic dynamics of slang:

 

  1.  Phat is older than you may think, as is often true of slang terms we think are the latest thing “kids are saying these days.” It's recorded in the 1960s for “an attractive woman.”
  2. It features a deliberately altered spelling (phat for fat). Compare thicc, a contemporary slang term also used of attractive women.
  3. Phat deals with ideas of attractiveness and greatness, common topics in slang, from drip to dope.
  4. It isn’t in fashion anymore—the fate of many slang terms once they go mainstream. On fleek, anyone?

Stream those Salt-N-Pepa phat grooves here.

Kelsee Thomas

G.O.A.T. | LL Cool J

In 2000, LL Cool J wasn’t mincing his words when he released the title track of his album G.O.A.T. He was abbreviating them.

G.O.A.T. stands for the greatest of all time, as LL Cool J makes plain on the track: “I’m the G.O.A.T. / The Greatest of All Time.” While previously used as an acronym for boxing’s Muhammad Ali in the 1990s, LL made it certified cool.

Since then, other rappers have boasted the title, and other sports stars, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, have worn it. G.O.A.T. has shape-shifted, too, with users cleverly substituting the goat emoji, 🐐, for the expression.

Kelsee Thomas

guap | Big Sean

Clamsbones. Cheddardough. Bands, the bag. Moola. Slang loves playing with terms for money, and guap is no exception.

As is often true of slang words, the origin of guap is obscure. It may have been shortened from guapo (“handsome”) or guapa (“pretty”) in New York city, à la “handsome sum” or “pretty penny.” Also spelled gwop, some have creatively proposed it stands for George Washington on Paper (dollar bills).

While used by Nelly as early as 2004 on “Grand Hang Out,” Big Sean made guap big on his 2012 “Guap.” On the chorus, he and Kanye West tout their successes: “OK, this to all of my enemies that see me gettin' guap right now / See me gettin' guap right now, see me gettin' guap right now.”

Need more guap? Stream Big Sean here.

Kelsee Thomas

boujee | Migos

In 2016, red-hot hip-hop trio Migos—who helped make the dab go viral, continuing the long tradition of dance moves and names in Black music—also introduced many of us to the slang boujee on their track “Bad and Boujee.”

Boujee can signify something luxurious in lifestyle but still humble in character. On “Bad and Boujee,” for instance, Migos’ member Offset raps about how his “bitch is bad and boujee.” That is, his love interest is (or aspiring to be) materially successful (boujee) but still down to earth (bad). 

As is true of many other slang words, boujee is ultimately an outgrowth of an older concept—bourgeois, shortened by the 1970s as bougie and meaning “pretentious and consumeristic.”

Feeling bad ... or boujee? Stream Migos here.

Kelsee Thomas

skrrt | SZA

Skrrt, also spelled skrt and skrr, imitates (onomatopoeia) the sound of a car speeding away or turning a corner.

Several hip-hop artists use skrrt as an ad lib, which, in hip-hop, is a signature interjection artists often issue at the end of a line for style and emphasis. Remember "Bad and Boujee"? It features skrrt when Offset raps about taking off in his Porsche, nicknamed frog: "Hop in the frog, whoo (skrrt)."

On her acclaimed 2017 track "Love Galore," soul singer SZA steers skrrt to the next level by using it as a metaphorical verb for speeding away from a man who isn't worth her while.

Skrt down, you acting like me
Acting like we wasn't more than a summer fling

We can almost imagine her in a convertible, top down, peeling off with a laughing smile on her face. Skrrt!

Skrrt, skrrt. Stream SZA here.

Kelsee Thomas

drip | City Girls

Let’s go out on rap duo City Girl’s 2018 “Drip,” which drops its hook over a beat inspired by one of hip-hop’s hottest new subgenres, trap. It also features one of the slickest slang terms of the cultural moment: "Drip-drip-drip on a hundred / Y'all hoes hate."

City Girls aren’t talking about liquid dripping on money. They are emphasizing their success (and the envy it causes), a pretty common theme in hip-hop lyrics.

Spreading in the 2010s and further popularized in 2018 (by the likes of Cardi B), drip is slang for “(wearing and looking attractive in) fashionable or expensive clothing or jewelry” as well as a “swagger, style, cool” more generally implied by that.

One can have drip or be dripping, suggesting an origin in figuratively dripping with money, luxury goods, or even confidence, which explains its popular associations with success and fame. 

Stop dripping. Stream City Girls here.

Trap beats and drip feats have come a long way from Louis Armstrong and his "St. Louis Blues," but the through-line is clear: the boundless energy and creativity of Black music and Black language on American life and culture is real. 

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