I reserve the right to be a nigger.
Stanley Crouch is a gangsta rapper. Throughout his career, Crouch has moved through black nationalism, bohemia, and places we haven’t yet developed the vocab to name. But if there’s one thing we’ve gleaned from Crouch’s recent assault on novelist and critic Dale Peck, it is this—we have found Crouch’s muse, and his name is Suge Knight.
The backstory is simple, and for Crouch routine. On July 12, out for lunch at Tartine in the West Village, Crouch spotted Peck, who’d trashed his book Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome a few years back. After greeting Peck with one hand, Crouch smacked him with the other. “What I would actually have preferred to happen,” says Crouch, “was that I had the presence of mind to hawk up a huge oyster and spit it in his face.”
Crouch claims he recieved several calls thanking him for the act, which wouldn’t be a surprise given that Peck made his name by penning extended negative and, often personal, reviews of other fiction writers.
This was not a moment of hot-headed indiscretion. Crouch may use his perch at the Daily News to inveigh against gangsta rap with all deliberate fury and alarm (“Hip Hop’s Thugs Hit New Low,” “Hip Hop Gets The Bruising It Deserves,” or “Morally, Allen Iverson’s a Bad Guy”), but his habit of violent exchanges with writers and editors puts him a notch above Snoop on the ne’er-do-well scale. In most cases gangsta rap is just talk—Biggie and Tupac are the exceptions. But while Crouch has yet to peel caps, the gangsta ethos is realer for him than it is for your average gun-talker.
“The thing is that Stanley will get gangsta on you,” says Nelson George, who worked with Crouch here at the Voice, in the 1980s. “There is nothing more gangsta than just walking up and pimp-slapping someone. Not even punching them, just slapping them, almost as a sign of disrespect.”
It’s almost unfair to accuse Crouch of taking a page from, say, Masta Killa—Crouch was smacking critics when hip-hop was still laceless shelltops and battle raps. Along with being one of the great essayists of his generation, Crouch has always been a man who took Ishmael Reed’s Writin’ Is Fightin’ a little too seriously. During his colorful tenure at this paper, Crouch repeatedly threatened editors and menaced fellow writers. By the time Crouch left, he’d sealed his rep as an iconoclastic curmudgeon and a critic without peer. His litany of incidents usually began with debates over some bit of jazz arcana and ultimately ended in fisticuffs.
“Stanley deserves better than his own temper” says jazz writer Peter Watrous, who also worked here with Crouch. “There are two things that happen at the same time—one of them is that Stanley is a utopian. He strongly believes people should behave in certain way. That combines with an inability to control his own temper, and it makes for a bullying streak.”
There was the time Crouch was arguing with jazz writer Russ Musto and told him that if he were a foot taller he’d knock his block off. Musto kept arguing, since he knew he wasn’t growing any. Crouch went back on his word, and swung at him anyway. After the two men were separated, Crouch calmed down and offered to buy Musto a drink. Musto says they’re friends to this day. Then there’s what happened to Guy Trebay, whom Crouch stalked through the Voice‘s old offices threatening to kill him, relenting only after writer Hilton Als intervened. Another time, writer Harry Allen approached Crouch, hoping to exchange some notes on hip-hop. Instead Crouch, evidently in a bad mood, caught Allen’s neck in the cobra clutch, prompting the Voice to give Crouch his walking papers.
By then the Hanging Judge had secured his rep as king of the literal literary brawlers—an accolade that ranks right up there with prettiest journalist. Really now, administering beat-downs to pencil-necked critics is about as macho as spousal abuse, croquet—or gangsta rap.
Much like the acts he derides, Crouch has a taste for swinging that is nothing short of a variation on the “I ain’t no punk” theme seemingly encoded on the DNA of all black males. “I have a kind of Mailer-esque reaction to the way some people view writers,” Crouch once told The New Yorker. “I want them to know that just because I write doesn’t mean I can’t also fight.” Put another way, Crouch wants you know he keeps it gangsta.
“People perceive writers as being soft and not assertive. And there is a legacy of writers, going back to Hemingway, asserting their masculinity in an overt way,” says George. “Maybe it gives Stanley personal satisfaction, but I don’t think it’s necessary. This is something you’d expect from a rapper in The Source‘s office because they got three mics in a review.”
Crouch’s street mojo also adds another layer of mystique, particularly for his white fans. His brand of withering attacks against black nationalism and the black left would normally open the assailant to essentialist charges about his “blackness.” But to the frustration of his targets, Crouch is the real deal for the Tina Brown set. From his jazz criticism, to his folksy Southern lilt, down to his willingness invoke the ghost of Joe Louis, Crouch always manages to sound like his ghetto pass is at the ready.
Even if in his writing Crouch derides the ethics of the street, his actions close the distance between him and the gangsta rappers he abhors, making cartoons of them all. Both could live without the electric slide, whop, or moonwalk. Both could give up the cross-over and dunk.
But never let it be said that he who purports to be a black male gives up the beast. That it’s all an act, and he really won’t kick your ass. That in the middle of politicking over Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and tea, he won’t go David Banner, upturn your table of crumpets and coffee-cake, grab you by the collar, drag you out into the darkest alley, and show you that, yes, what you have heard is true. That he will not swing through on his dick and snatch your Jane on a vine like Tarzan. Never let it be said that Jim Brown was not the essence of him. Never let it be said that he—whether Crip or Crouch—failed to be a nigga.