Some years back, in the increasingly hazy ‘90s, the now-shuttered alternative weekly New Times, which I dutifully collected every Thursday evening here in Greater ‘El Lay’, ran a cover story detailing the startling transformation of a scabrous gangsta rapper into a sensitive, openly gay brother who’d fallen head over for his homeboy. WTF?!!!
Stop the world and let me get off! Could such an offense be true? According to a later postscript, it couldn’t. The piece ran on April 1st. It was a dummy. Fooled ya better than Parkay margarine!
Thing is, truth can be stranger than fiction. Gay-themed hip-hop, or “homohop”, as it’s often colloquially known, probably already existed when the New Times editors were spinning their fool’s gold, and the cat is definitely out of the bag now, as is made clear in Alex Hinton’s 2006 documentary Pick Up The Mic, a comprehensive look at this lyrical movement shadowing its world-conquering granddaddy, and recently out on DVD.
Aurally speaking, so-labeled “homohop”, isn’t distinct from the rap music we’ve come to know and love (or hate), and this is why I often resist labels which seek to categorize and define music in narrowest terms, an unfortunate practice beloved by teenagers. Much homo-hop presents lyrics about gay life, often in scatological eloquence, but not all.
Still, the folks interviewed in this film are mostly adamant in their general passion for hip-hop, and have chosen to use the form to express their desires and hopefully educate their suspicious brethren about their lives. And they do have some schoolin’ to do!
Los Angeles-based rapper Deadlee, for instance, chooses to embrace the “peacock masculinity” endemic to hip-hop, and styles himself as a gangster with street cred, with baggy pants, multiple tatts, and a bandanna crowning his head – that last sartorial flourish a bit 1979, if you ask me.
He even wails about ‘guns’, as evidenced by his eyebrow-raiser “Suck My Gun”. One needn’t be a genius to recognize that he’s not referring to a Saturday Night Special, but rather, the ‘pistol’ Mother Nature endowed him with. And there’s the rub. He’s dismissing the culture of street violence, while simultaneously proclaiming himself a machine of virility, on a par with any straight boy, and woe to any knucklehead that would cast him off as a sissy.
His “homothug” persona is definitely a turn-off to some, but it has a postmodern flavor to it, and never seems a self-conscious put-on. Deadlee is no suburban dilettante taking a stroll on the wild side, but a former street urchin who’s smart enough to turn those values inside out. How else to explain his self-penned tune “No Fags Allowed”?
Hinton’s film, primarily, is about the dizzying diversity within the homohop sphere. The scene is truly a Noah’s Ark of sorts, with white, black, Latino, male, female, bisexual and yes, transgendered all apparently coexisting in amity and fraternity. Indeed, I noticed an interracial camaraderie amongst these mostly young Turks which – to my senses – is far less prevalent in traditional gay circles, at least male-dominated ones.
Among the most accomplished rappers depicted is Katastrophe, nee Rocco Kayiatos, a curly-topped hottie who just happens to be a female-to-male transsexual. And it’s surprisingly international, with British-raised QBoy, who glides effortlessly between a fey Britpop manner and his aggressive, throaty stage persona, a sort of Yankface, epitomized by English actors and rock stars who affect American accents with canny skill.
Supported by OutPunk magazine/label impresario Matt Wobensmith, San Francisco – surprise! – seems to be the flashpoint for the gay hip-hop scene, and 2001, an annus horribilis for other reasons, was a critical year for the movement, as East Bay Pride – Oakland’s queer pride extravaganza – hosted PeaceOut, the world’s premiere homohop gathering.
Since then, the event has been staged annually by the dreadlocked Juba Kalamka, and even inspired similar events throughout the US. Fitting that the festival takes place across the bridge in Oaktown, a city more welcoming nowadays to working-class people of color than Tony Bennett’s now-pricey City by the Bay.
A major presence in the scene – and film – is underground hyphenate Tim’m T. West, a self-styled poet, feminist, working-class, HIV-positive, queer rapper – I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of Tim’m’s titles – who has no qualms about admitting his sexual preferences to all he meets, including young aspiring rapper Duquan, who West encounters walking the streets of his former Brooklyn ‘hood. West is a driving force in Deep Dickollective, and possesses a commanding baritone rapping style.
His attitude is one of inclusion, and he disdains “conscious brothers” who are too “high and mighty” to chat with local troublemakers, suggesting that it’s necessary to spark dialogue even with society’s transgressors to effect positive change. One can argue this point back and forth, but West’s sincerity seems unimpeachable.
Other MCs profiled include the portly, bookishly-spectacled Aggracyst, who tells of his mother scurrying to close the windows during a fierce argument after he screams, “I’m a big, fuckin’ fag!”, the meaty, hypersexual Johnny Dangerous, a cabaret performer utilizing rap to titillate audiences, the flamboyant, lesbian-led Scream Club, and Soce, a vaguely nerdy New Hampshire-raised Wall Street programmer who morphs into a rapper after dark, delivering a hilariously annoying tune titled “I Am So Gay”, featuring a singsong chorus more reminiscent of Sesame Street than LL Cool J.
Extras include coming out tales from several of the interviewees, and also performance bits, including an introduction to Deadlee’s partner Drastiko, and QBoy’s discussion of being bullied during his schoolboy days.
The greatest strength of any documentary is its facility in telling us what we don’t already know, or exposing truths that we may know, but sweep under the rug. Pick up the Mic casts light upon the fluidities and duality of socio-sexual identity and identity politics, which can occasionally become rigidly specific.
No one can say whether any of these cultural trendsetters will ever earn a comfortable living through their art, but neither would anyone have predicted ten years ago that an African-American would hold press conferences at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or that New Hampshire(!) would grant homosexual citizens the right to marry. It seems that the times truly are a-changin’.