Even though the all-purpose expletive has been diluted of its magic, it still helped propel jazz, blues, rock, punk and rap into the countercultural mix (see: Memphis Minnie, Miles Davis, MC 5, Gil-Scott Heron, David Peel and every hip-hop artist ever)
1. a despicable or very unpleasant person or thing.
2. a person or thing of a specified kind, especially one that is formidable or impressive in some way. (“that cover photo proves he is one talented motherfucker”)
From a cultural standpoint, if ever there was a ground zero for a sweeping change in definition and acceptance of a once-vile term, it was when Motherfucker Evangelist Samuel L. Jackson uttered those eleven mortal words, “I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane.”
From that moment, things were different. Prior to that particular pinpoint of time, the term motherfucker, whilst still in frequent use in many facets of society, was often considered nothing more than putrid slang; merely a crude word deriving from a guttural language contrived by the street urchin. And while the hip-hop and rap boom of the early 1980s certainly played its part in planting the motherfucker seed into our collective consciousness, and eventually into the Oxford English Dictionary [see above], this pliable word has spent well over a century manifesting into the delightful term and definition that we use today.
Generally, “motherfucker” in the here and now is considered an omnipresent force delivered unto the masses from the apocalyptic wasteland that we call gangsta rap. In reality, history tells us otherwise.
In 2016, the most viewed word in the Oxford online dictionary was indeed, “motherfucker”. If ever there was hard evidence of a normally intangible cultural change, this is it. And why shouldn’t this cathartic word remain a steadfast member of the English language? It’s wonderful.
“’Motherfucker’ has a new meaning and that meaning is hope.” Samuel L. Jackson
Motherfucker. Just saying it relieves that vice clamping the head, that ball of anxiety knotting the stomach. Even Samuel L. Jackson himself claims that motherfucker saved his life. In a speech given at the American Institute for Stuttering gala in 2013, he revealed that using the swear word wards off a stutter he has been battling since childhood. If he has any hope of successfully getting through his lines for a particular movie, he needs to say it. In generic human terms, that need stems from an etymology that has passed through one-hundred-and-fifty years of musicians, poets, ghetto dwellers and even the aristocracy. So where did motherfucker begin, and when did it begin to influence what we today call pop culture?
“God damned motherfucking bastardly son of a bitch.”
The popular consensus amongst Motherfucker Scholars is that the aforementioned quote was indeed the first hard evidence recording of “motherfucker” in its purest form. In 1889, a Texas court entered into their transcript records that a young African-American defendant, amid a torrent of abuse from the public gallery, was called a “God damned motherfucking bastardly son of a bitch.” The severity in which the slur was treated in those times grew all too apparent when it became the single word in the entire court transcript to be censored.
Whilst evidence of the curse word’s existence in early twentieth-century mainstream society is sparse at best, another recorded instance in 1917 displayed that “motherfucker” is most certainly the common thread when it came to spewing out and out vitriol. In this case, it was an African-American U.S. soldier who wrote a letter to his draft board calling them “Low-down Mother Fuckers.”
In a 1933 shootout with Kansas City police, Bonnie Parker was famously heard to say, “You motherfuckers ain’t taking me alive! I’ll ride to the death!”
Up until World War II—in particular, in the Southern states of America—motherfucker was nothing more than the ultimate slur and considered one of the vilest in the English language. During the war, however, the word was reborn, developing a new definition as American GIs began trading food and money for sex with peasant French and German women, most of which were left deserted by their conscripted husbands. These soldiers were literally deemed as “Mother Fuckers” and were afforded a degree of legendary status among their peers.
Generally, “motherfucker” in the here and now is considered an omnipresent force delivered unto the masses from the apocalyptic wasteland that we call gangsta rap. In reality, history tells us otherwise. In the late 1940s, the slang took on another new meaning, becoming popular among post-WWII jazz circles with band leaders like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker who would often utilise its hard-hitting impact on the musicians beneath them. In 1949, for example, after a rowdy night of drinking and debauchery, a groggy Miles Davis grabbed the arm of young percussionist and said, “You’re a motherfucker.” When the percussionist smiled and thanked Miles for the compliment, Davis was heard to say, “Now you can be in my band!”
Around this period, many jazz and blues musicians began using motherfucker to compliment those around them. The expression ‘Man, you a bad ass motherfucker’ essentially became one of endearment when heaping praise on a musician with serious chops.
But it wasn’t until 1958 when the first recorded instance of this revised definition surfaced, appearing loud and proud in the Oxford English Dictionary to much disdain and controversy. The tome boldly cited among others the story of “Stagger Lee”, an infamous tale based on a true story of a black man who refused to bow to his oppressors.
The cultural significance of the ballad of ‘Stagger Lee’ must not be underplayed. The gothic Americana icon, despite remaining uncredited to this day, was first mentioned in 1897 in the Kansas City Leavenworth Herald as a song performed by “Professor Charlie Lee, the piano thumper.” Since then, the song has evolved, taking on epic proportions in performances from Frank Hutchison’s 1927 version, through to the dark, raucous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds version from 1996 where the use of motherfucker is taken to a whole new level. Other than its protagonist, the only other common thread throughout the past century that links all versions of this folkloric slice of history is the use of the word motherfucker and its variants.
In these early days of recorded music, the necessity to remain uncensored was paramount. Thus, common motherfucker variations needed to be utilised. An infamous example of this is when blues goddess Memphis Minnie coined a term that became the “go to” for musicians in the ongoing battle of slipping motherfucker under the radar. “Mother For You” was the term, and pretty soon it became a common part of blues lingo. Another was “Mother Fuyer”, utilised by many blues artists including Dirty Red and B.B. King. Using these particular vernaculars allowed recording artists to bypass the strictly evolving censor board while still being afforded the opportunity to get their points across. The squares at the censor board never realised what hit them until it was too late. Only those who knew, knew.
By the mid-1960s, “motherfucker” had all but lost its pejorative status and, thanks in part to author Norman Mailer, rather had become an intensifier. In his novels, 1948’s The Naked and the Dead and 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, subtle variants on the term were used with “mother-fugger” and “motherfuck” making several appearances. Mailer stated, “The word was not used to intimidate, but to fill certain spaces in the thought waves.”
In mainstream circles, the word burst onto the scene when comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for using it at one of his shows. A few years later, comedian George Carlin was also arrested for using the word on multiple occasions when performing his famous skit “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television”at a show in Milwaukee.
“It’s common parlance and does not mean that the individual is being accused of having intercourse with his mother.”- Richard Gilman (Newsweek critic) when testifying at the trial of Lenny Bruce
The counterculture of the late 1960s, essentially kick-started by the growing popularity of the beat movement and the rising tide against the Vietnam War, played a major role in introducing motherfucker to white middle America. Along with popular fiction—the aforementioned Norman Mailer novels, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and several works by beat writer William S. Burroughs—the word began to slowly seep into recorded white rock n’ roll, something that had never been seen or heard of before.
With the Vietnam War, came a bubbling boilover in the political melting pot of young America. This was the time; motherfucker was set to go full-blown mainstream. Spiking the melting pot with a pinch of twisted fury was New York City radical activist and performer David Peel. Peel, who would often perform impromptu improvisational pieces in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park that incited humorous proactive defiance while preaching a pro-marijuana mantra, eventually piqued the interest of the highly influential visionary, Danny Fields. Upon witnessing several David Peel performances, Fields promptly convinced the progressive Elektra Records’ head Jac Holzman to sign the free-thinker along with his backing band The Lower East Side.
During this period, an insurrectionary collective calling themselves Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, predominantly made up of disruptive rebels and pranksters from the bordering East Village, became mobilized. It was at this point where an infamous rally led by the collective took place at New York’s Grand Central Station. Front and centre of this rally was David Peel who made his presence felt by leading the singalong of I Like Marijuana and Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, a phrase stolen from various police forces across the country who would often use the taunt, particularly when arresting anyone of colour.
“…while the hip hop and rap boom of the early 1980s certainly played its part in planting the motherfucker seed into our collective consciousness, and eventually into the Oxford English Dictionary, this pliable word has spent well over a century manifesting into the delightful term and definition that we use today.”
In 1968, the David Peel and the Lower East Side debut album was recorded live at Washington Square Park and promptly released, thus cementing Peel’s and Elektra’s collective names in the annals of pop culture folklore. Records suggest that this is perhaps the first instance of a clear, unabashed use of the word motherfucker in its purest form on a recording released by a mainstream record label. Peel’s song ‘Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker’ may only come in at one-minute-and-ten-seconds, but it’s not so short as to allow motherfucker to be chanted seven times over. God’s number. This of course caused a conniption among conservative Americans. Fifty years later, Elektra, David Peel and Danny Fields are seen as revolutionaries. Visionaries that head on smashed the shackles of stuffiness surrounding the music industry and mainstream culture in general. They may not have realised it at the time, but to many, they were about to reach icon status. Heroes to disillusioned generations of musicians, writers and artists to come.
Just months later, Fields and Elektra were casting their revolutionary web once more, this time signing the incendiary front men of the White Panther movement, Detroit’s MC5. The band’s 1969 live album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ -also a debut; how ballsy is that?!- was immediately pulled from the shelves and promptly edited due to singer Rob Tyner’s introduction to the now proto-punk classic title track.
“And right now… right now… right now it’s time to… kick out the jams, motherfuckers!”
The motherfucker momentum was building.
Around the same time, the beacon of hippy shenanigan, Jefferson Airplane, had released their controversial fifth album, Volunteers. With the political climate similarly at boiling point on the U.S. west coast, particularly in San Francisco, the Up Against The Wall Motherfucker movement had seamlessly slid into the psyche of that city’s youth, paving the way for a succession of politically motivated albums from local artists. The Volunteers album, held together by the common thread of peace, love and radical activism, once again caused quite a kerfuffle amongst the conservatives. But it was the song “We Can Be Together” that particularly caused one stink of a controversy.
“Up against the wall Up against the wall Fred Motherfucker Tear down the walls Tear down the walls”
The lyrics to “We Can Be Together” were essentially borrowed from an Up Against the Wall Motherfucker leaflet that was published in the D.I.Y. newspaper The Outlaw Page in New York’s East Village.
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America. In order to survive we steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal… Everything you say we are, we are… Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!”
Following this concentrated spate of motherfucker usage in middle-class white America, the word exploded in popularity. With Jefferson Airplane’s infamous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show came the very first use of motherfucker on television which not only helped popularize the phrase “Up against the wall, motherfucker” as a counterculture battle cry, but also saw a seepage into the consciousness’ of an entire generation of frustrated American youth.
Before long, activist groups like the Black Panthers had adopted the slang, utilizing it as an aggressive accentuation on their already volatile rally cries. As a result, uptown New York black activists, artists and collectives like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron began to “motherfuck” more frequently in their live performances, transforming a previously unappealing political vibe into a much more aggressive and accessible mantra, especially to black youth. Black activism had been rampaging for several years prior, motherfucker helped push it into unchartered territory.
Frankly, to put a pigeon-holed twist on it, motherfucker has—and perhaps always will—feel much more at home in the black community than white, middle-class America. To the politically correct, this may seem a tad racist or narrow. But look at it like this; to any perpetually oppressed race of people, any particular definition that has historically been designed to deflate, divide and taunt—like “slave,” for example—throughout history must and does stand for a hell of a lot more than it does to a middle-class white population that’s essentially free to roam. Take “Up against the wall, motherfucker” as a shining example. Not only was it an authoritarian taunt used by law enforcement, but many suggest that it’s a term that may harken as far back as the days of slavery where it was used by the slaves themselves as a means of avoiding calling their masters father, who would continually rape their female servants for many years, rendering many with unwanted pregnancies.
It was once a powerful word.
Bringing it back to today, to the here and now once more, motherfucker has been diluted to the point of excruciation. The credit goes largely in part to the rap and hip-hop movement of the past four decades, which took great influence and inspiration from militant artists like The Last Poets. In particular, gangsta rap, popularized by rags-to-riches motherfuckers themselves, N.W.A., lays claim as the culprits of sterilizing a once perfectly filthy, highly effective and culturally important word. In 2018, no one bats an eyelid. In a nutshell, motherfucker’s edge in popular culture is dead. It has lost its bite. Its mojo. No longer is it vitriolic and callous; in reality, it borders on cartoonish.
Therapeutically speaking, motherfucker is as valid as ever. An everyday prescription to shake off what encumbers us. A linguistic burst of endorphin release. A sentence filler for the grammatically challenged and as the Motherfucker Evangelist himself once put it…