By Jason Newman
As a hard, thumping beat plays in the background, LA rapper Deadlee grabs the mic and starts spitting a verse before busting into a chorus of “no fags allowed.” A tattooed, muscular man in standard thug gear – black, baggy pants, black bandana, wife beater – this wouldn’t be particularly noticeable in a genre with a history of homophobia. But given that Deadlee is performing the track at Peace Out 2003, a festival devoted to queer hip-hop, the perceived incongruities are all the more striking.
The scene opens Pick Up The Mic, a landmark new film by director Alex Hinton chronicling the MCs and producers who make up the bourgeoning queer hip-hop movement. Premiering in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film was one of the most talked-about of the festival and was named one of the top five movies by the weekly newspaper Now Toronto (calling it “historic” and “fascinating.”)
“Pick Up the Mic brought me into a culture of which I was not aware and as a music documentary, I felt that we were seeing some very talented artists who had yet to get the kind of exposure they deserved,” says Sean Farnel, programmer for the festival. “There was a shared passion among them that was quite genuine and inspiring.”
The 90-minute movie, edited down from over 300 hours of footage shot between 2002 and 2005, was born out of Hinton’s fascination with the idea of a gay rapper – an idea he thought was purely hypothetical. “I was sure there couldn’t be any openly gay hip-hop artists,” he says. After an Internet search brought pioneering queer hip-hop groups Rainbow Flava and Deep Dickollective (D/DC) to his attention, Hinton was surprised at the lack of media coverage – including gay-centered magazines – the movement had received. “I just found that the subject of queer hip-hop was this humongous untapped subject,” he says via phone in Los Angeles. “When people hear the initial concept of queer hip-hop, they automatically go to the stereotypical imagery of what a gay rapper would be.”
As Pick Up the Mic shows, there are dozens of openly gay MCs recording and performing, many of whom, like Deadlee, bash these stereotypes and prove that “gay” and “hip-hop” are not mutually exclusive. With increased exposure expected on this still-nascent scene, the number of people involved in this movement only looks to expand.
Indeed, the diverse styles employed by these artists render the phrase “gay hip-hop” as vague a term as regular old “hip-hop.” Much like N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest are sonic opposites under the same genre, pinpointing a “queer hip-hop sound” turns out to be an impossible task. There’s the conscious rap of Deep Dickollective, Rainbow Flava and Paradigm. The “homothug” rap of Deadlee (The self-described “faggot with a gat.”) The brash lyricism of Aggracyst and Johnny Dangerous. The tongue-twisting flow of Katastrophe. The production (for both gay and straight MCs) of Minneapolis-based Tori Fixx and Houston’s Miss Money. Throw in an assortment of DJs, battle raps, diss tracks, and R&B/rap hybrids and you find a scene as varied as any other.
The genesis of queer hip-hop—or “homohop,” as many of those involved call it—can be traced to 1996, with the formation of the Bay Area’s Rainbow Flava by homohop pioneer Dutchboy. As the first to build an online community and reach out to other gay artists, acceptance was difficult not only in the hip-hop community, but in the gay community itself. “When we started, we got a fair amount of resistance even from gay crowds because people were like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense to us. Rap music is ignorance and prejudice.’” explains Dutchboy. “I always knew that what we were doing was considered impossible or contradictory and I’ve always gotten off of that. It’s not that I wanted to fuck with people, but I wanted to get a reaction and push the envelope and tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise get told.”
Redefining the phrase “alternative hip-hop,” Rainbow Flava continued to tour and slowly built a sizable following. In 1999, Juba Kalamka joined Rainbow Flava and would later start intellectual homohop group Deep Dickollective, one of the most popular of the movement. As Kalamka looks back on the formative years, the relationship between race and sexual orientation is impossible to ignore. “I think that regardless of the quality that [Dutchboy] did, he knew that there was a way people were going to approach it with a white dude as the frontman. With D/DC, we were a validating force in that we were black, Afrocentric and masculine. We ‘looked’ hip-hop in a particular kind of way that people had to deal with in a way they could dismiss Rainbow Flava. I don’t think that was necessarily fair to a lot of people in the scene, but it was the truth.”
Once D/DC and Rainbow Flava had begun to get their voices out, the Internet became instrumental as a clearinghouse for MCs around the world who all thought they were the only gay rappers. Web sites such as rainbowflava.com, phatfamily.org, and gayhiphop.com, run by British DJ Mister Maker, all bridged a geographically disparate, but ideologically like-minded, community that continues to coalesce to this day.
In 2001, the first Peace Out festival, curated by Mister Maker and D/DC member Tim’m T. West, was held in Oakland’s Preservation Park and became a brick-and-mortar meeting spot for everyone previously connected through cable modems and wires. As West says of the inaugural festival, “There was a crowd moving to the rhythm, breakdancing, sweating, waving their hands, as one would expect with any hip-hop show. Ultimately, gay hip-hop is hip-hop!” The event has since birthed Peace Out festivals in New York, England, and Atlanta.