Who You Calling Ratchet?

From LL's new song to Issa Rae's Web series, the word is the new "ghetto," and it's everywhere.

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By 2007, A&R directors from outside the area were salivating at the prospect of putting out the Next Big Thing after crunk. Bryan Leach, a former TVT executive who had launched his own Polo Grounds label, signed a teenager named Hurricane Chris (of "A Bay Bay" fame) to a deal and released a full-length album called 51/50 Ratchet, which debuted at No. 24 on the Billboard 200 charts.

"People try to categorize the term 'ratchet' and try to make it something ghetto or something negative, but I just think it's letting loose a little bit," says Charlamagne Tha God, co-host of New York's Power 105 radio morning show The Breakfast Club and a Southern native. "Anything young, wild and free. 'Ratchet' is an old term that I first heard from Lil Boosie and Webbie and that whole camp. The word was kind of like 'crunk,' and before crunk music, there was the term 'crunk.' "

Charlamagne often talks about "intelligent ratchetness" on The Breakfast Club. "Just like Kanye [West] coined the phrase 'sophisticated ignorance,' I think there is intelligent ratchetness and ignorant ratchetness," he says. "The fighting on WorldStar[HipHop.com] or getting a tattoo of a pit bull on your face -- that's ratchetness, but ignorant ratchetness. Intelligent ratchetness is going out, getting drunk on Remy Martin, but taking a car service home. There's nothing too crazy going on.

"I think everybody has to have a little ratchetness in them," he adds. "The yin and the yang between ratchetness and righteousness. I think when you have just the right amount of both, it's a great balance. Last night is a perfect example: I went from a strip club to a charity event called Girl Power, all in the span of two hours."

Rae gives the wild videos posted with the word "ratchet" to WorldStarHip-Hop.com 70 percent of the blame for popularizing this term in its current context, but she also points a finger at VH1. "Flavor of Love enabled so much ratchetivity to go down, it's ridiculous," she asserts, citing Flavor Flav's notoriously uncouth reality dating show.

Her Web series concentrates on ratchet music, which she calls "inappropriate, ignorant, disrespectful music" even as she is "embarrassingly fascinated" by it.

"It's so annoyingly degrading, but sometimes the beat is so seductive and the lyrics are so hilariously raunchy that you can't help but sing along to it," she admits. "With Ratchetpiece Theatre, I wanted to put my love for these songs out there but also poke fun at how horrible they are. Nobody should take this music literally, and I wanted to create a personality who kind of does."

"Ratchet" is a word that was intended to describe someone who is "all the way turnt up," "buck," "crunk," "hyphy" -- take your pick. It's now plumbing the depths of "Hood Gone Wild" waters but may prove to be buoyant enough to swing back in a positive direction with the passage of time.

"Often, negative terms are adopted as positive," says Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter on ratchet's possible future. " 'Ghetto' would be a classic example, as would be 'nigger,' of course, and 'funky' and so much else. That doesn't happen as much with slurs against women, though -- 'ho' and 'skank' and 'bitch' only go so far as a term of pride, for example, despite attempts to push them in that direction.

"So if that is the main meaning of 'ratchet,' then I doubt it will go positive," he continues. "However, if 'ratchet' comes to just mean 'ghetto' in general, then I can almost guarantee that in 10 years it will be a term of pride among people of a certain demographic."