While hip hop historically is no stranger to politics, MCs and DJs who voice explicit political sentiments in their songs are the exception rather than the rule. Over the course of two weekends, however, the Twin Cities hip hop community heard calls for change from two fronts. Artists representative of a growing “homo hop” movement staked their claim, both in a documentary and in a live performance at the 7th St. Entry on May 28, for a queer presence within hip hop, while The Coup brought their revolution-seeking music to the Triple Rock on June 2.
Hip hop’s relationship to homosexuality has been, to say the least, vexed. Both in the mainstream and the underground, it seems to range from “don’t ask, don’t tell” to instances that could be easily branded as hate speech. Eminem, Cam’Ron, and many other rappers project an image of hyper-masculinity, one at odds with the cultural conventions of what it means to be gay or lesbian.
Alex Hinton’s new documentary _Pick up the Mic_, however, relates the history of “homo hop,” a defiant strand of hip hop that seeks to carve out a space in one of the most audibly and visibly homophobic genres of music. Screened at this year’s Flaming Film Festival, Hinton’s film charts the rise of homo hop from its Bay Area origins in groups such as Rainbow Flava in the early 90s, up to the more recent work of MCs and DJs like Johnny Dangerous, Deadlee, Miss Molly, Katastrophe, and Soce the Elemental Wizard.
Although the film’s subject and its audience are made well aware of hip hop’s prejudices, the film does well to avoid dwelling on the homophobia residing in much of hip hop, both past and present. Hinton instead lets these artists set the terms of the debate over homo hop’s validity themselves. All of the artists profiled in the documentary were raised with, and actively engage with established codes of, hip hop, though some of the artists profiled in the film, especially Houston producer Miss Molly, buck the idea of “homo hop.” They argue that “it’s all hip hop” and refrain from putting in open references to their homosexuality or to queer issues in their work. And they run the gamut of ambition, from the fiercely independent, underground MCs, such as New York-based MC The Aggracyst, to those seeking mainstream success, such as lesbian MC God-des.
Minneapolis MC and producer “Tori Fixx”:http://www.torifixx.com/, one of the original members of Rainbow Flava, has a lengthy profile in _Pick up the Mic_. Founder of Us Too records, he just released his latest album, entitled _Marry Me_. Fixx was also the impetus behind a concert of homo hop artists, held at the 7th St. Entry. Of the artists who performed that evening—Deadlee, Katastrophe, Soce the Elemental Wizard, The Aggracyst, Johnny Dangerous, Tori Fixx, and Nicky Click—only Nicky Click was not featured in Pick up the Mic.
Many of the themes expressed by these MCs are ones found in much contemporary hip hop today. But when Katastrophe, an MC who used to be a woman, says (s)he’s going to steal your girlfriend, or when Deadlee, dressed in chains, a bandana, and a Tupac Shakur t-shirt, says “Suck my gun,” the music is given a much more acute ironic sense. There was little irony with The Aggracyst, who was the most openly emotional performer of the opening, talking candidly about his bi-polarity and delivering a spoken word piece about shielding the true identity of his dying lover. Soce the Elemental Wizard, on the other hand, provided some humor to the evening with songs like “The Bar Mitzvah Remix,” with Hasidic music dancing above a thumping beat that, somewhat amazingly, worked.
Tori Fixx delivered an abbreviated set due to laryngitis, while Chicago’s Johnny Dangerous provided one of the more sexually gratuitous performances of the evening, with one of his songs, a duet with Deadlee, about the drug-like addictiveness of his lover. The only person who seemed out of place was Nicky Click, whose bland beats and rhymes were an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise provocative and entertaining night.
While explicitly political sentiments, of the identity variety or otherwise, were not voiced at the 7th St. Entry that night, Boots Riley of “The Coup”:http://www.thecoupmusic.net/ more than made up for it the following weekend at the Triple Rock. The openly Communist Boots Riley, who creates most of the group’s music, came with a tight backing band of guitar, bass, and drums, but without DJ Pam the Funkstress, who provides most of the scratches heard on the group’s records.
Riley himself seemed a bit reserved, perhaps understandable since the Minneapolis show was only the fifth of their thirteen-week tour. The group is calling it the “Not Your Solider” Tour, after its partnership with “NotYourSoldier.org”:http://www.notyoursoldier.org/, an online group dedicated to getting military recruiters off of schools and campus across the country. One of the most troubling requirements for receiving federal “No Child Left Behind” funding is fhat schools must provide information and access to military recruiters. While the majority of the crowd was white, I’d like to think of this as a sign of solidarity with the types of struggles Boots voices in his songs, rather than suburban whites living out gangster fantasies with little knowledge of the disgracefully unequal social conditions that plague America.
Riley often kept his words between songs to a minimum, but in one memorable exception he described the next number as a version of a field song passed down from generation to generation, a sign of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and recognition. The song? “Five Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” Riley’s diatribe against the figureheads of capitalism, from 2001’s _Party Music_, an album whose original cover art eerily predicted the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Most of the songs were drawn from their latest recording, _Pick a Bigger Weapon_, released recently on Epitaph, which pairs Riley’s stories with music that could equally rock a party or a rally. Silk-E provided one of the highlights of the show, with a rendition of “BabyLetsHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy,” an ode to love in the face of destructive, reactionary political control. Boots also did a solo version of “My Favorite Mutiny,” the best track off of _Pick a Bigger Weapon_, with its screaming horns and thumping piano, which originally featured Talib Kweli and The Roots’ Black Thought.
Two Minneapolis groups opened the show. Black Blondie was up first, a five-piece group—two vocalists, bass, keyboards, and drums—creating soul and jazz grooves that often served as the foundation for hip hop beats. An initially shy crowd was won over by set’s end, with an unexpectedly boomy Rhodes and a sustained high note from singer Samahra. I Self Divine brought an incredible amount of energy to the stage, far outdoing the next act, T-K.a.s.h. Hailing from the Bay Area, T-K.a.s.h. records for Guerrilla Funk Records, the home of Public Enemy. While his political motives were in the same spirit as those of Public Enemy, he seemed a bit too close to his model. Unfortunately, each band had to deal with technical problems, a surprise from the normally reliable Triple Rock.
Both of these weekends were about much more than good music. Each was a wakeup call—to people inside and outside the hip hop community, to those hip hop heads at the front of the stage, to the people who think the music is all about guns, bitches, and weed—announcing that there are still oppositional voices to be heard and resistance to be fostered within hip hop. Now it is a question of what these artists and their audiences will do with it.
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