Who You Calling Ratchet?

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."

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 The origin of the dance and term is largely given to Shreveport, La. (aka "Ratchet City"), where the word has been in circulation since the late 1990s. Local label Lava House Records released "Do Da Ratchet" by Lava House, featuring Baton Rouge, La., artist Lil Boosie, in 2005 to set the elbow-jerking dance moves to music; and a remix featuring Baton Rouge's Webbie, released the next year, brought the word out of the immediate area.


While Boosie and Webbie have gone on to international fame (despite well-documented run-ins with the law), the self-proclaimed "ratchet king," Lava House's Anthony Mandigo, is currently serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary on drug charges.

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."

"I think it's just like when 'ghetto' was becoming popular," reckons Rae. "Five years from now, white girls are going to start saying, 'Oh my God, my hair's so nappy, it's ratchet.' I'm hoping it will go out of style soon, but it will always be around as it has been for years. It's just been suppressed, so now is ratchet's time to rear its tacky lace-front head for the world to see."


Tamara Palmer is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and the author of Country Fried Soul: Adventures in Dirty South Hip-Hop. Follow her on Twitter

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