Toronto
6 min

Homo homies

Queers with attitude kick open the hip-hop closet

PERV POSSE. LA's Deadlee says hip hop is about protest - and that brown and black queers have a lot to protest about. Credit: Xtra files

“I’ve always loved the freaks,” says Los Angeles hip-hop artist Deadlee, a sexy, macho Latino. He looks every bit an LA street thug but was actually raised in Denver, Colorado. We are watching the low-rent drag show at the Study, one of his favourite local hangouts in Hollywood. The Study is “double ghetto,” catering to patrons who are both African-American and gay.



“You got two things on top of you. You’re not only gay, but you’re brown or black,” Deadlee says into my ear over the music. Living in the Ramparts district of Los Angeles Deadlee knows the double ghetto real well.



We came here tonight to enjoy the party-in-the-living room atmosphere in one of a half-dozen Los Angeles nightclubs, where hip hop and queer culture actually intersect in public. Some of these guys might not be fully out and are hanging here tonight on the down low. But in here everything is relaxed and loose, just like the music, that cuts across colour and class lines.



It seems only white gay men have missed the rebel stance in hip hop’s take-over of the airwaves, warned off by the homophobic and misogynist tendencies of mainstream rappers. But with most of the music being targeted for teenage boys, can we be blamed? “The Puff Daddys and Jay Zs have about said all there is to say about the bling-bling [big money], cars, weed and women. It’s all been done. To me, it’s just not the real thing. How many people are going to get the mansions?” says Deadlee.



There was a time when artists like Public Enemy, Ice T and NWA mixed a political consciousness with the beats. Unfortunately, the language of violence and hatred proved more powerful out in the marketplace, giving rise to what is now known as gangster rap and the attention grabbing antics of Eminem, whose flow is almost as good as his ability to keep on shocking the suburbs.



“There’s a home for Eminem killing his mother or for beating his girl up,” Deadlee says. “There’s a home for that, but there’s not a home for being truthful about your sexuality.



“I still believe in its form of storytelling, but rap must continue to change, morph and open the doors to everyone if it wants to be as relevant as it once was.”



Deadlee is one of a small but growing handful of out, queer rappers; he put out his searing and complex debut release, Seven Deadlee Sins, on his own label last year. Full of dark drama, it paints a chaotic landscape of queer street-life. Its dark themes and edgy soundscape is simply unlike anything out there by mainstream rappers. But then party music isn’t Deadlee’s game nor his influences. “Rap is the new punk. I like Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain and Axel Rose,” Deadlee says “They live or die for their pain. I kind of wear the shit, too. I can’t hide my fucking pain; it just comes out.”



The clientele at the Study tonight don’t know he’s a rising underground star but when the floor show is over and the DJ is pumping hip hop hits, all eyes are on Deadlee dancing as if lost in his own world, a pretty boy hoodlum with his pants hanging off his ass, jailbird tattoos all over his neck and Tupac head wrap on top of his beautiful face. Here in Los Angeles where even ghetto beauty must face the unflinching gaze of Hollywood, Deadlee is simply a knockout.



But that isn’t the whole story.



Deadlee acts hard, but is actually a big-hearted guy who regularly plays daddy to any number of confused kids, both in his day gig working in a group home for queer youth and for the growing troupe of performers he’s been working with for his extravagant live shows.



Hip hop started with inner city kids banding together in loose family units that included rappers, DJs dancers, graffiti artists, designers, etc. These pioneering crews created a structure that not only encouraged the creativity of its members, who in some cases actually replaced fractured home lives. As Deadlee says, “Like all rappers, I’ve got to have a posse. The only difference is I have trannies, drag queens, Mexican- and Central-American immigrants, gay boy dancers.



“The kids I work with? It’s not me so much educating, as much as them educating me. They’re gay kids dealing with their sexuality at a young age. They give me inspiration to let it all out in my songs and do that shit.”



Spotting potential seems to be his knack. Finding an audience for his work, however, is proving difficult. Most queer ears still perceive hip hoppers like Deadlee and their sound of urban violence as the enemy. “I scare those guys, they think I’m going to bash ’em,” he says.



And of course his stories of resurrected drag queens and marathon runners pursued by AIDS aren’t winning him any fans in the music business world either. It’s a problem when your brothers on both sides of the double ghetto lines are scared of you. But there is a huge queer hip hop audience out there blossoming in cities like Atlanta and Washington where young homies looking for a wild time are digging the music in night clubs playing rap predominantly.



In 2001, a flurry of press reports about a gay Brooklyn rapper who came to fame winning battles on his local station heated things up for queer rappers. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old Caushun, who has been written about in all the major hip-hop press is being sold as a novelty before most folks have even heard his flow. Worst of all Caushun has been dubbed “the first gay rapper” by his management, discounting the pioneering work of artists like Dutchboy of the San Francisco-based Rainbow Flava collective.



“Artists like Caushun are a great example of how far hip-hop culture has come in accepting and recognizing homosexuality,” says Dutchboy in New York, working on tracks for an upcoming Rainbow Flava release called Family Business. “Now, after six years of making noise in the underground, queer rappers have become visible enough that an openly gay MC is attracting the attention of the industry. I like to think that artists like Rainbow Flava and Deepdickollective, through our work behind the scenes, have contributed to making that possible.”



Now 30, Dutchboy had been interested in hip hop since he was a kid in 1983, when his brother was breakdancing and bringing home Run DMC and Whodini records. A white kid from San Francisco, he watched while hip hop has become the predominant urban youth culture on the planet. “After seeing quite a few 14-year-old white kids in my neighbourhood wearing baggy jeans and NWA T-shirts, the idea of my participation started to seem less and less ridiculous.”



His brainchild, Rainbow Flava, began in 1996 as a loose collective of gay and bisexual rappers and DJs in the hip-hop scene in San Francisco. “At that time, I was hosting a monthly party in the Mission District called Club Freaky,” he recalls. “We had DJs spinning hip hop and house, and the occasional live MC, and some of us were interested in taking it to the next level.”

By 1998, they were a trio (Dutchboy, Reh-Shawn and DJ Monkey) and released their first CD, Rainbow Flava Soundsystem. Later members included NI Double-KI, Tori Fixx from Minneapolis and Juba Kalamka from Chicago.



But the road has not been easy for the underground collectives like Rainbow Flava or the all-black, all-male Deep Dickollective, also based in San Francisco, to gain respect in mainstream rap circles. As Dutchboy tells it, “Hip hop is predominantly a culture of angry young men, many of whom have never felt truly included in society. Anyone wishing to be accepted into its inner circle has to be prepared to kick and scream and face dismissal and criticism.



“It’s something women and other minorities in hip hop have struggled with from the beginning, so it’s no surprise that LGBT artists should face the same treatment.”



And how has the reception been to the Rainbow Flava’s easy going “conscious” rap sound that speaks openly about the difficulty of being queer in the world of hip hop? “We’ve gotten our share of hate mail and even death threats, both in e-mail and in the letters sections of magazines like Vibe, Elemental and Hip Hop Connection,” he says. “But at the same time, behind the scenes, we get a fair amount of supportive mail from rappers, journalists and industry types who say they appreciate what were doing.



“One of the things that drew me to hip hop as a vehicle for confronting issues of homophobia and sexual diversity is the fact that it’s one of the few areas of American popular culture that is not averse to conflict,” says Dutchboy. “Differences in beliefs are expressed and verbalized openly…. Even the most extreme positions can receive a fair hearing when voiced by a talented and credible speaker.”



Dutchboy developed his Rainbow crew in the underground parties and nightclubs of politically savvy San Francisco, a city that is much more accepting of discussions across racial and sexual dividing lines. It will be interesting to see what happens for him in New York where he relocated last year to work with the Phat Family, an international organization of LGBT hip-hop artists currently working on a compilation CD slated for release this month on MP3.com.





* Seven Deadlee Sins is available available at www.weareloudboy.com/buycd.html; Rainbow Flava CD’s are at www.rainbowflava.com; also check http://www.phatfamily.org.