Born Robert Lee Maupin, in Chicago on August 4, 1918, he spent his childhood in Milwaukee and Rockford, Illinois until he returned to Chicago as a teenager. His father deserted them, leaving his mother who ran a beauty shop and worked as a domestic to support them both.
Taking "Iceberg Slim" as an assumed name, Robert started pimping at 18, and continued until age 42, when he decided against it in 1960, after a final 10-month prison stretch in solitary confinement. At that point, he decided to write about his past instead. Slim moved to California in the 1960s to pursue writing under the Iceberg Slim pen-name, but in normal life, changed his name to Robert Beck, taking the last name of the man his mother was married to at the time.
In 1969, his first autobiographical novel was Pimp: The Story of My Life, published by Holloway House.
Reviews of Pimp were mixed; it was quickly categorized as being typical of the black "revolutionary" literature then being created. However, Beck's vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was the first insider look into the world of black pimps, to be followed by a half-dozen pimp memoirs by other writers. Of his literary contribution, a Washington Post critic claimed, "Iceberg Slim may have done for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who's been there."
Pimp sold very well, mainly among black audiences. By 1973, it was reprinted 19 times and sold nearly 2 million copies. Pimp was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. Nevertheless, the book was largely ignored by white America; even the venerable Library of Congress does not own a copy.
He wrote seven more novels. Beck has sold over six million books prior to his death in 1992, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers (after Alex Haley). All his books were published exclusively as paperbacks. Iceberg Slim also released an album of poetry called Reflections in the early 1970s.
Pimp was followed by Trick Baby, Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, Mama Black Widow, Long White Con, Airtight Willie & Me, and Death Wish: A Story of the Mafia.
Reflections (first press 1976, ALA Records); producer: David Drozen; executive producer: Louis Drozen; music: Red Halloway Quartet; photography: Robert Wotherspoon
In 1973 one of his reality novels, Trick Baby, was adapted as a blaxploitation movie of the same name, directed by Larry Yust.
A movie adaptation of Pimp has been planned for a long time. There were announcements of a movie directed by Bill Duke and starring Ice Cube; that project was put on hold. In 2004 rapper Pras acquired the rights to produce a movie based on the book.
Mama Black Widow is rumored to be in production, directed by Darren Grant and adapted by Will De Los Santos. Reports have suggested that the film would feature Kerry Washington, Anthony Anderson, Rihanna, Mos Def, and Macy Gray.
Iceberg Slim was an important influence on hip-hop artists and rappers such as Ice-T and Ice Cube and Pittsburgh Slim and Slim Thug, who adopted their names in part from reading the author. Iceberg Slim's last book, Doom Fox, which was written in 1978 but not published until 1998, contains an introduction written by Ice-T. Ice-T's third album, The Iceberg, was another major homage. Most of the currently popular references to pimp culture, for example in the work of Too Short and Snoop Dogg, ultimately can be traced back to Iceberg Slim. Rapper Jay-Z also refers to himself as "Iceberg Slim" whenever discussing his adventures with women.
Comedian Dave Chappelle often talks about Iceberg and "The Game" during his stand-up routines. According to him, Iceberg got his name by keeping "ice-cold" in a shoot-out where he stayed at the bar drinking his drink even though a bullet pierced his hat, a story told at the end of chapter 13 in Slim's Pimp. On his 2006-07 summer tour, Chappelle told a tale of Iceberg, learning of him from Maya Angelou, and relates it to why he left $50 million at Comedy Central and secretly went to Africa.
At the conclusion of Chappelle's stand up routine he compares how Slim used to blackmail his hookers and therefore forcing them to stay loyal to him. Chappelle would close his show with the saying, like Slim used to say "Don't ever leave me."