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Stateside Podcast: A brief history of "what up doe"

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For many Black Detroiters, the phrase “what up doe” is a piece of home.

“The first time somebody said, 'what up doe' to me, […] I felt like they were saying, like, ‘we're family. We're in community,’” Natasha T. Miller said, a Detroit poet, author, activist, and film producer.

Miller as well as Biba Adams, senior daytime news writer at The Grio, have both lived with the phrase and wrote about its cultural presence. They joined Stateside to trace the lineage of “what up doe”, describe its usage, explore its social agency, and more.

“I think my favorite part about it is the way that it's both a question and a response,” Adams said. “When somebody says that it's like, you know, 'what up doe?' with a question mark, and they respond back with a period at the end, or it could be an exclamation mark. It could also be another question. I think that the fluidity of it is one of my favorite things.”

While it acts as a variety of greetings and phrases, “what up doe” can also be a challenge.

“It's almost something that could come out of whatever happened prior. You know, it's like, OK, we're in an argument. You ready to take this to the next level? What up doe?” Adams said.

Adams, who has studied organized criminal drug gangs, traces the origin of the term back to drug culture, where it “bubbled up from the streets.”

“'Dough' is commonly known as, you know, a phrase that we use to describe money. So it's possible that it was kind of a street code around drug culture.” Adams said. “And things that happen in drug culture do make their way — particularly in the Black community — to the mainstream culture through usage and through music. And so it appears that that's kind of how it evolved.”

Adams continued to explain how the term’s popularity grew through “national channels.” Though they certainly weren’t the last, the first Detroit rap group to incorporate the phrase into a song was A.W.O.L. Their song, “What Up Doe,” was a regional hit, but the phrase gained national notoriety as Atlanta rapper Jeezy adopted it. Also, its usage in the Eminem biopic 8 Mile contributed to the phrase’s popularity.

Despite how prolific “what up doe” has become, hearing their hometown lingo repeated back to them by outsiders, Adams and Miller have mixed reactions.

“It could be weird sometimes,” Miller said. “If I go to some suburban places … outside of Detroit, and I hear somebody like, ‘what up doe?’ And I know that they're just kind of like… are you really doing this because you actually care about the culture? Or are you now just kind of posing?”

“I think it's always funny to hear people from out of state, like sometimes they'll say, ‘what up though?’ Or I've even heard, like, ‘what up those,’” Adams said.

To Adams, it’s less about who has license to say it and more about how it reflects her identity as a Detroiter.

“I think it's kind of cool to have something that is distinctly yours. You know, when you think about it, Atlanta, and you think about somebody saying 'shawty,' you know that that's theirs. I think that it's important to have slang and colloquialisms that come out of where you're from because it just speaks to the people and it speaks to their history.”

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Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

If you like what you hear on the pod, consider supporting our work.

Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.
Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.