The Legacy of Donald Goines, His Influence on Hip-Hop, and Blaxploitation
Christian name hell! I’m naming my son just what he is. I’m a whore and he is my son. If he grows up ashamed of me, the hell with him. That’s what I’m wantin’ to name him, and that’s what it’s goin’ to be — Donald Goines, Whoreson
Before MCs signed record deals and connected the streets to mainstream audiences, celebrated author Donald Goines — who some consider the godfather of rap — acted as a gatekeeper of the underworld. The prolific storyteller detailed accounts, although fictional, of drug lords, prostitutes, crooked cops, stick-up kids, and morally loose addicts. After a few unsuccessful attempts at writing western novels, Goines found his niche in urban fiction, garnering a publishing deal with Holloway House.
Goines’ influence on hip-hop, pulp-fiction, movies, and scores of authors deserve as much praise as a James Baldwin or Richard Wright, who also wrote about Black life in the ghetto.
Like many rappers and political writers, Goines wrote from first-hand experience. Born in 1936 in Chicago, Ill., his parents eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan. Raised in an independent-minded family, the elder Goines made ends meet by running two successful dry cleaning companies.
Being reared in a middle-class family wasn’t enough to quell Goines’ curiosity about street life, dissimilar to his early influencer and famed contemporary, Iceberg Slim. Slim burst on the scene in 1967 with his memoir Pimp: The Story of my Life, followed by Trick Baby: The Story of a White Negro, which was adapted into a movie by Universal Pictures, blamed his inauguration into the streets on his mother leaving his step-father. Slim, who directly influenced rapper Ice T and others, asserts in his collection of essays, The Naked Soul of Iceberg, that his decision to become a pimp was rooted in an unhealthy relationship with his mother.
Both Slim and Goines were extremely intelligent. Slim, also born in Chicago, had a superior IQ that enabled him to graduate high school at 15 years old. He also won an academic scholarship to Tuskegee University, but after two years of higher education, Slim was expelled for bringing whiskey on campus.
Unlike Slim, Goines never made it to a traditional campus. His university was the streets of Detroit. After getting kicked out of Catholic school, Goines dropped out of school in the 9th grade. Eddie B. Allen, a biographer and author of Low Road: The Life and Legacy of Donald Goines, details Goines’ wittiness and wisdom at a young age. To avoid jail time for a petty crime, a then-15-year-old Goines altered his birth certificate in order to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.
This scenario took place during the Korean War. While Goines didn’t experience physical combat, it was in the Air Force where he developed a heroin addiction, a foe that he would battle for the remainder of his life. According to his sister in the documentary, Donnie’s Stories: The Life of Donald Goines, the author first experimented with heroin after some older guys in the Air Force tricked him into changing the Polyjohn, a portable bathroom. After dumping the feces and urine, Goines returned to the barracks only to find everyone laughing at him. To cope with the embarrassment and low self-esteem that comes with being taken advantage of, Goines found comfort in drug use.
An honorable discharge sent him back to Detroit with a monstrous addiction weighing him down. To support his drug habit, he resorted to crime, including larceny, bootlegging, robbing, and pimping. As a result, Goines did two prison stints: one, in a federal prison for bootlegging liquor; the other at Michigan’s Jackson State Prison for robbing a numbers house.
It was at Jackson State Prison that Goines stumbled upon Slim’s books, Pimp and Trick Baby. In literature, as in hip-hop, die-hard consumers are pulled toward authentic energy. Goines knew that Slim penned Pimp and Trick Baby from first-hand experience. It was after reading his works that Goines found his calling. “He’d been in the life, made it out of the joint, and now he was writing about it,” Goines said about Slim in Low End.
Within one year of his release from Jackson State Prison, Goines’ debut novel, Dopefiend: The Desperate Rage and Suffering of a Junkie was released through Holloway House Publishing, the same publishing house as Slim.
According to Kinohi Nishikawa’s Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction, and the Making of a Literary Underground, Holloway House published “black sleaze books. Nishikawa describes it as deeply misogynistic reads meant to attract white male readers. Matthew Teutsch writes in Black Perspectives that early Holloway House books played into white males’ “fears of losing their masculinity.”
Whether it was intentional or not, Goines’ evidence-based writing steered away from the sleaze that Holloway House was known for. In Goines’ rookie novel, Dopefiend his genius was in showing the filth and distress driven by drug addiction.
“The floor of the apartment had pools of blood on it, from where addicts had tried to get a hit, but the works had stopped up, and they had pulled the needle out, leaving a flowing trail of blood that dropped down from their arms or necks and settled on the floor,” Goines writes in Dopefiend. He later writes about an addict trying to find a vein, eventually sticking a small abscess on her thigh, which oozed with blood and puss.
There was nothing sensational about Goines’ writing. Even the drug dealer, Porky, in Dopefiend wasn’t worthy of celebration, which is also a departure from pulp fiction. Back then, most blaxploitation films and pulp fiction writing centered on heroic characters like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Superfly, but there were no heroes or happy endings in Goines’ novels.
Goines’ legacy reaches far beyond the urban literature world. Rappers Jadakiss, who referenced a Goines character on Sheek Louche’s “Mighty D-Block (2 Guns Up),” and Onyx are featured in Donnie’s Stories. Here, the rappers praise the author’s work while discussing their favorite Goines books. Nas’ ”Black Girl Lost,” a song from his sophomore album It Was Written, is a direct theme of Goines’ novel of the same name. The late Tupac boasted that Goines was his father figure. Additionally, MCs T.I.(Royce da 5'9" “Black Savage’), E-40 (2 Chainz’s “2 Dollar Bill”), and Jay-Z have all name-dropped Goines in their music.
Former hip-hop executive Chaz Williams attempted to adapt Goines’ Black Gangsters into a film. While the film didn’t come to fruition, the movie’s soundtrack sold 150,000 copies. Famed drug kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff saw success in bringing Goines’ novel Crime Partners to DVD in 2001. The film starred Ice-T, Snoop Dogg, Laz Alonzo, and Cliffton Powell. The movie’s soundtrack was set to be released through Blackhand Entertainment/Murder Inc., however a federal case against Supreme and Murder Inc. deaded the project.
The most successful Goines adaption is the film Never Die Alone, which starred rapper and actor DMX as King David, a ruthless drug dealer, and David Arquette as Paul, a reporter whose fortunes are suddenly changed by an encounter with King David.
While the likes of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison gave voices to political matters, their powerful words and timeless publications didn’t change the direction of politics. The machine that they spoke out against stayed intact. However, the former’s contributions to the arts, intellectuality, and their adeptness at digging into the psyche of what it means to be black men in America is unparalleled. On the other hand, Goines, an entertaining, yet veritable writer, inspired dozens of authors like Terri Woods, Vickie Stringer, Wahida Clark, and others to change their circumstances by starting independent publishing companies at a time when black voices were ignored in publishing spaces.
Goines was murdered, along with his wife in 1974. He was 36. As of today, the murder is still unsolved.