"If y'all love hip-hop, make some muthafuckin' noise!" barks 27-year-old Shorty Roc (his mama named him Devalle Boone) as he takes the stage at El Cid Mexican restaurant. The L.A. crowd, sparse and tentative, rewards him with a few tepid nods. The slim and handsome Shorty has the unenviable task of getting the party started. But this is no ordinary party--it's fraught with meaning beyond "throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care."
Tonight is day 2 of the 11-day, 10-city HomoRevolution tour, a first for LGBT rap artists. In a year when brand-name music festivals like Coachella and Rock the Bells are top heavy with A-list performers and fleshed out with indie darlings, the HomoRev tour similarly pulls together a who's who and who-might-be from the spectrum of homo-hop: Miss Money, Deadlee, Tori Fixx, Julie Fucking Potter, Salvimex, Shorty Roc, Foxx-Jazzell, Johnny Dangerous, QBoy, Bigg Nugg, Mz Fontaine, and more. The line-up fuses races, rap styles, and gender presentations. And ironically, given the homophobia that courses through the culture, the homo tribe returns hip-hop to its outsider roots.
"There is a place for intelligent, loving, conscious hip-hop from a group of highly talented people," says San Francisco's 29-year-old Julie Fucking Potter. "Minorities speaking their truth and putting it in your face is exactly how hip-hop started."
Hip-hop culture is now mainstream culture; status quo. Much of the language, cadence, and flow of words and bodies, of ideas and politics that permeate the worlds of fashion, music, advertising, TV, and film are rooted in hip-hop culture and its primary vessel, rap music. But as hip-hop went pop, strapping on the knee pads for big daddy capitalism, it often lost sight of its origins. Record-label money and "artists" with nothing to say have boosted the most conservative and reactionary aspects of hip-hop because that's what dovetails profitably with the misogyny and homophobia found in mainstream America.
But hip-hop's original core was about creating a place for the marginalized to voice their realities and fantasies, to kick serious shit and frivolity alike. Before MTV, BET, and Clear Channel perverted the form, hip-hop's outcast nature was its point of connection for disparate devotees and artists, including gay folk. Look at the relationship between hip-hop and queer artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom gay rapper and hip-hop historian Juba Kalamka calls "seminal [hip-hop] figures, our graffiti foundation."
From the blistering social commentary of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" to the SugarHill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," rap music and the larger hip-hop culture for which it was the soundtrack, was equal parts resistance and celebration of self from those redlined to the margins.
"The first rap record I heard was, 'Rapper's Delight,'" says Shorty. "It was an immediate love affair with hip-hop. It expressed so much when I was coming up--fashion, style, struggle, fun, slang, dancing. It was our everyday life."
Back on El Cid's stage, Shorty wins over the growing crowd with his R&B-drizzled, club-oriented tracks, including the requisite gay rapper song that ponders whether big-name rappers "get down." (Objects of speculation and adoration in this case include 50 Cent, Snoop, Ja Rule, and Ludacris.) He ends his set with an almost dazzling rip on shady people: "Dat Shit Ain't Right." The rapid-fire delivery shows he needs to work a bit on breath control. With more performances under his belt, he could be a real contender.
Next up is Potter, whose material lays bare her Bay Area politics. "If I must claim a culture," says Potter after the show, "I claim San Francisco culture. I will boast about this city with my dying breath. There is something we have figured out here: Coexist, be who you are, follow your dreams, give generously, and love with every part of yourself." Her material shows the influence of Missy Elliott in ribald songs about psycho ex-girlfriends, smoking weed, and the drudgery of working as a waitress in Bakersfield, Calif. If her flow is a tad generic, her eye for storytelling detail is sharp, and she attacks each track with gusto. The highlight of Potter's set occurs when her wife, Caroline, a ringer for a shaved Sinead O'Connor, takes the stage with a nimble violin accompaniment.
Though Potter flaunts her politics, she makes it clear she doesn't want her sexual orientation to define her as an artist. Like many homo-hop artists, she teeters across the tightrope of being down with and down for fellow LGBT folks and not wanting to be boxed in due to that allegiance. "Yes, I'm queer," says Potter. "I care about the health and prosperity of this community. ... I'm an out, strong lesbian, so I'm going to uphold certain ideals. But I don't want to be labeled as a quote-unquote gay rapper. I'm a person who raps who is also gay."
That sentiment comes even more sharply from 32-year-old Drastiko, who makes up the duo Salvimex with 24-year-old Cruz (the name is a tip of the hat to the pails Salvadoran and Mexican heritages). He says point-blank, "We do think of ourselves as political artists, but we don't feel any special responsibility to queer audiences because we're not doing gay music. We're gays making hip-hop music."
Tori Fixx adds, "I now know that [making music] is not just about limiting my art to one group of people but opening myself up to anyone who might like to receive [it]."
When the 32-year-old Fixx is asked about the contradiction between not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a gay rapper, and participating in a gay tour, he says, "I have no problem being affiliated with HomoRev. Being known as a talented gay rapper is just the right amount of controversy one may need to push forward in the biz."
On the flip side is 30-something homo-hop icon Deadlee, who has made it clear he wants his music to specifically reach queer youths, particularly those of color, who are underserved in terms of positive media representation.
"I think being political comes with the territory of being a first," he says. "I feel a responsibility to educate and take a political stance. I am breaking the sexuality barrier in the game and I feel like the Jackie Robinson of rap. I feel a special responsibility to queer youth.... I would love to do even more for them but for now I put myself out there as a strong, confident gay man."
One measure of HomoRevolution's success on this night is the diversity of rap styles and queer identities showcased. Ohio's Bigg Nugg reps for the bears. Johnny Dangerous storms recording booth and stage alike as a gay Lil' Kim; his triple-X raps are raunchy enough to make a military-base working girl blush. Fixx does modified stepping, pointedly placing his work in black tradition. Fixx, whose polished production work with countless gay and lesbian rappers makes him sort of a gay Dr. Dre, is so smooth, commanding, and charismatic onstage that he slowly works even the middle-aged white guys in the crowd into a funkdafied state. Of the bunch, he is the most ready for prime time.
Deadlee has perhaps the most adventurous set, though. Armed with a scowl and flossing the cholo gear he wears in real life, the rapper--who offstage is shy in demeanor works his gangsta mojo through unapologetically queer subject matter, dealing with everything from homophobia-induced suicide to the joys of free-bailing. His clout is so far-reaching that the U.K.'s QBoy and Toronto's Micah Barnes join him onstage for duets. Deadlee's acting and performance art backgrounds surface in a duet with his hype man, Dorian Wood, who performs dressed in a grotesque mask, massive hat, and black veil. Wood unleashes gospel-infused wafts and testimony that bring the audience (which now packs the room) to a frenzy.
Still, the best, most intriguing act of the night is Salvimex. Other acts are tighter in execution or get the room amped at a higher intensity. And Salvimex's two male backup dancers were cheesy and unattractive, a lethal combo. What Salvimex does that almost no other performer can, however, is use hip-hop to take you to an undermapped terrain. The paws music mixes rap boats and strains of Latin traditional music, and their subject matter is indecipherable for those who don't speak espanol. That doesn't matter. The chemistry between them--brotherly love, a palpable joy in performing--bounces across the metaphorical footlights. They prove the adage that music transcends racial and linguistic boundaries, and as with hip-hop artists of old--or those now relegated to the underground--they take you someplace you may not have known existed.
As I file out of El Cid well after midnight, it hits me that while there wasn't an awful lot that was mind-blowingly great, the bulk of the performers were as good as the majority of Top 40 rappers out now. That's not enough, of course. To truly conquer hip-hop, an openly gay rapper has to have their shit running on 110% at all times. Going by the artists at the L.A. show--different artists rotated in and out as the tour crossed the southwestern U.S.--few have memorable lyrics, stunning wordplay, a powerful stage persona, or that indefinable spark to put them over. For now, there isn't a Lauryn, Redman, or Rakim. But the foundation is being laid, and some are close to peak fighting form.
Hip-hop itself is in well-documented doldrums; it's in desperate need of new energy and ideas. The culture, which by definition is an identity art centered on identity politics, has collapsed on the mainstream stage because the dominating identities have become caricatures and money-driven jokes. The corporate machine long ago co-opted the culture and now spits out rappers who exist merely to maintain the machine itself, with all its bigotry-based politics. New perspectives are needed. Though it will likely be a long, long time before the larger hip-hop world and mainstream America embrace a queer rapper, it's still the perfect time for an out rapper to seize this moment of hip-hop's crisis and force the culture to keep it real.
Hardy has written for Rolling Stone and Vibe. He is the author of Blood Beats: Vol. 1, a collection of cultural criticism; Blood Beats: Vol. 2 will be released in the fall.…