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.

LL Cool J (Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment); Issa Rae (BET.com)
LL Cool J (Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment); Issa Rae (BET.com)

(The Root) — LL Cool J’s new single, “Ratchet,” describes a “hit it and quit it” session with a trashy young lady, a disrespectful departure for the man behind such tender cuts as “I Need Love.”

“A little money for gas?” coos a whiny female voice on the hook.

“I shoulda never been with your ratchet ass!” replies Uncle L.

The song is a pretty strong indication of how far the word “ratchet” has shot up to the top of mainstream urban slang in recent times. (Note: The usage should not be confused with “ratchet” as a euphemism for a handgun. See Cam’Ron’s “Get Ya Gun,” on which he rhymes: ” The car’s far, I’m at the bar, got my gat in the club (poppin’ Sizzurp)/And my ratchet is snub (snub) … “)

What arguably started as a Southern rap dance at the turn of the century and then expanded to describe a relatively positive expression of energy has now become a worthy rival to the word “ghetto.” It is most typically used to describe outrageously uncivilized behaviors and music — often with women as the butt of the joke. (See Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson’s “Ratchet Girl Anthem,” which has snagged 30 million-plus views on YouTube since January.)

“I can’t give a dictionary definition,” says filmmaker Issa Rae — creator of The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl Web series — in the first episode of her spin-off Web series, Ratchetpiece Theatre, “but I can say that it’s like if ‘ghetto’ and ‘hot sh–ty mess’ had a baby. And that baby had no father and became a stripper, then made a sex tape with an athlete and then became a reality star.”

When Rae, who also does a “This Week in Ratchet” segment on Don’t Sleep, the T.J. Holmes-hosted talk show on BET, caught up with The Root recently, she offered a deeper explanation. “In college, my friend Tova introduced us to this dance from down South called the Ratchet. That was the first time I heard the term and saw the dance,” Rae told The Root. “Then, over the years, the term evolved into something to describe a type of behavior or way of life.”