NEW YORK DOLLS
JUKE rides the L-train deep into NY’s underground, with queen b’s Mykki Blanco, Venus X, LE1F and Zebra Katz.
The sight of Snoop Dogg, kitted out in a cupcake-print suit, commanding an army of gummy bears alongside Katy Perry summed up the state of hip-hop at the turn of 2011. Not quite dead, but sterile and bloated. The voice of the street was fainted by the guzzling of warm Cristal and reduced to parody. The underground, meanwhile, was trapped in a nostalgic loop, relying on tired beats and recycled rhymes. But as the year wore on, a generation of innovators, like Clams Casino and SpaceghostPurrp, emerged from the infinite depths of the blogosphere, with freshly sketched blueprints. And femcees like Azealia, Azalea and Gita suggested the hyper-hetero rap game sausagefest was adding fresh meat to the menu. New York was the frontline of this progressive zeitgeist. Well-trodden buzz of A$AP Rocky aside, it also gave birth to what Midwestern transplants began to call the ‘queer rap’ scene – a seemingly tight-knit collective of gay, bi and/or cross-dressing producers and rappers that had burst out of their underground closet, to the excited squeals of the liberal music press. It was a left-wing wet dream, the implosion of rap’s biggest taboo and an opportunity to exhibit open-mindedness… by colonising a demographic.
These aggressively tolerant press features with a lopsided focus on sexuality felt like one of David Cameron’s ham-fisted attempts to appear human. We couldn’t help but feel there was something missing – and when we approached the scene’s leading lights, we were met with a response that was the rawest embodiment of OH NO YOU DI’INT. They were riled up, as if we showed up to a party wearing the same outfit or something. They felt creatively undermined by the glut of articles fixated on how they like their pork. An exasperated Zebra Katz told us “People just label you off before knowing what your music is about and what you intend to do with it. It’s a complete shut down of your creative process”.
Luckily, that’s not what we do at JUKE, so we took it upon ourselves to hit up the original G’s – Venus X, Zebra Katz, Mykki Blanco and LE1F – and get the real lowdown. It all started back in 2009, in the midst of a barren spell for NY nightlife, with Venus X’s GHE20 G0TH1K (a monthly club night where she played “tripstep, punk, coldwave, trap rap, Baltimore club, just really chill shit”) that quickly became a space for a mixed crowd, ranging from transvestites, to students, to enjoy a ghetto-goth sonic palette. It was also a creative rendezvous point for our interviewees – Venus X grew up with House of LaDosha’s Dosha Devestation, who brought in former LaDosha member, Zebra Katz, into the fold. Token white boy, Cunty Crawford LaDosha, was one of the early residents, while LE1F and Mykki Blanco were regulars who eventually performed there too. Setting the record straight, LE1F says, “The community of artists we’re a part of is not a queer rap scene. Zebra Katz, Dosha, Mykki Blanco and I are just queer rappers in it. Artists like Physical Therapy and Fatima Al-Qadiri are leaders of the pack too, and they’re straight.”
Venus’s parties moved around various venues, with hype, and the buzz around these star names, growing every month: but what made them so great? Venus X recalls, “It was a mix of things: giving people a place to perform, having a really great audience that was really diverse – class level, education level, all different things. We kind of made it a safe place for great ideas and extremes.” Mykki Blanco also reminisces, “They were the best in those early days, before all the hype, when they were, in my opinion, about global love not queer rap, or trying to fit in with the straight hip-hop world, which is what I feel they’re about now”.
As we already know, the GG crew aren’t happy about their creative output being reduced to sexual preference, so what did they make of that tag, ‘queer rap’? I don’t want my sexuality being described as any kind of genre. Do we talk about queer art? No. It’s retarded. Like, what the hell: queer fashion? A lot of people want attention and aren’t really taking the whole thing in to perspective. They’re just capitalising on queer, some of them!” rages Venus. Zebra Katz echoes her frustrations, “Queer is not a genre, and that’s the saddest thing about it, it’s about the music, but they’re just paying attention to sexuality”. Mykki Blanco, however, is far more diplomatic, “I never use the word queer. To me, that word is for academics – sheltered brainy gays. Faggots in the street don’t use the word queer.”
In their attempts to appear progressive, like suburban moms on Facebook, the press were kneecapping the ‘outsiders’ they claimed to fight for. Zebra Katz muses, “Genres are what’s holding people back from developing new things, because they get grouped into these genres that they have to fight out of. Boxes eventually keep you locked in. People are going to expect you to maintain what’s in your box, otherwise you’re going outside and you’re doing something that isn’t necessarily comfortable”. Venus X, however, is far more cynical, “I sleep with boys too. Why don’t I get any straight fucking press? New straight DJ! New straight party because she’s dating a boy now! They wouldn’t give a fuck; they just want to be like ‘you’re gay, you’re gay!’” Nice one, understanding dad. LE1F adds, “Our little clan crave progressive sounds. Without too much regard to genre, most of us seem to be interested in experimenting with electronic dance and hip-hop aesthetics, sonic landscapes of a future mystical zone. Some of us have been working with rap as a medium and sexuality as one of many subjects to discuss.”
According to Mykki Blanco, they’re not much different to regular rappers, they just have a more fabulous background story. Take his inspiration: “Horrorcore, a focus on lyricism, storytelling and my reality: raves, sex, drugs, occult culture, art freaks, trannies, New York’s underbelly, New York’s socialite bullshit – all of it. I only write from my life”. In contrast, Zebra Katz keeps it in his pants, “If you listen to my music [sexuality] is not really discussed, it’s very flat, which needs to happen to have versatility so everyone can listen to it and really enjoy it”. As for keeping it up, Venus X says, through gritted teeth, “It’s their life; they’re not just rapping about being gay. How do you make gay rap last forever? That shit’s not gonna last forever. That’s just another fucking idea that people want to buy into, ‘Ohhhh, it’s ok to be gay, let me buy this music, I really like gay people!’”
But maybe six-foot-something black dudes in heels were always going to make gender a massive pink elephant sitting in on every interview? As Zebra Katz illustrates, “I think what’s happened is an amassing of a group of artists that may be ‘other’ and brown and live in New York City, but that’s as far as it goes”, although Mykki Blanco thinks it’s no big deal: “In my real life, it’s about feeling pretty, confident, sexy. I meet great guys and have fun with them in my feminine image, it’s fun. But in my performance, I see it as no different to Alice Cooper or KISS.” Although entirely independent of the vogue scene, the ballroom has been a constant source of inspiration, from House of LaDosha’s moniker, to Ima Read– the tune that made Zebra Katz, which is underpinned by voguing lexicon. LE1F, describing how he tries to recreate the ballroom, “The crowd doesn’t just watch, dance a little, maybe, and applaud after. THEY GO CRAZY. They snap and cheer in time with the beat and the dancer’s movements. I don’t want people to sit and overanalyze my music, I want people to throw their bodies around and lose their minds. I need some raw participation”.
Most of the media’s fascination with our thugged-out divas stems from the scarcity of gay men, and women, in the hip-hop industry – most rappers are like rutting mountain goats, so focused on alpha-male posturing and swinging their dicks around; ‘faggot’ is the quintessential diss, and without it, most rap albums and twitter beefs would be reduced to a stutter. So, is their music in any way a reaction to that? Venus X says no way, “It wasn’t some… anthropologist approach to politics and rap. I like what I like. I like misogynistic rap. I like gay rap. I have no interest in changing anyone, or the game, or anything. We don’t wake up, because we want to fight a rap war every day. We just want to have a fun party!”LE1F echoes, “When I feel like expressing the overwhelming vanity, sexism and homophobia in hip-hop or any other capitalist industry, I mock and attack the issues. It’s more of a free action than a reaction”. In fact, judging from Zebra Katz’s experiences, all’s good in the rap game anyway, “I’ve gotten a lot of love from the hip-hop community, Questlove, Saul Williams, and I think that’s ‘cause they realise what I’m doing, what I’m trying to change and they do see it as very hip-hop”. When Odd Future’s Frank Ocean came out via moving tumblr post, he received nothing but love from fans, the industry and his supposedly hardcore-homophobic band mate, Tyler, the Creator.
It’s ignorant to assume that just because some of our gayngsta’s rap, that they’re even interested in what other rappers are doing, as Mykki Blanco so eloquently summarises, “I just don’t care. I’ve always been a freak, why even give the rap game so much credit? I grew up wanting to be Alejandro Jodowrosky and Amanda Lear, not Jay Z and Kanye”. From the sounds of it, if it wasn’t for the press we wouldn’t even have this debate about hip-hop and identity in the first place. Calling them rappers is reductionist – this is a generation of artists who grew up with the Internet, with instant access to all the geographically unrestricted cultural and musical influences (and cat videos) they could possibly want, Their culture expands beyond block parties and break dancing, and that’s reflected in the music. Kool Herc was confined to the records he could get hold of in the Bronx; he couldn’t drop Al Jazeera samples in his sets like Venus does. German techno, industrial and glam rock are as much part of their sonic glossary as rap. This is the globalized future of music – as Venus X tells us, “Things are going to speak to each other. They’re not happening because of each other”.
So, ultimately, do they even consider themselves a part of hip-hop culture? In the words of Mykki Blanco, “I am hip-hop culture. I am the direct result of Busta Rhymes wearing makeup and wigs in his videos. I am the direct result of Missy Elliot and the creativity she brought to hip-hop, I am the direct result of Eminem’s shock tactics, I am the direct result of GraveDiggaz and horrorcore. Nothing happens in a vacuum. I AM hip-hop culture. I am BLACK”.
By Aleks Eror
Photos Mykki Blanco and LE1F – shot by Emily Hope in NY; Venus X – shot by Cameron Alexander, styled by Madeleine Østlie in London; Zebra Katz – shot by Alis Pelleschi, styled by John William in London
For JUKE Vol.04 – The Weird Issue