Hip-Hop Has Always Been Queer — That Story Just Hasn’t Always Been Told
Fifty years into hip-hop, we’ve gotten used to decades of headlines proclaiming the genre’s culture is homophobic and misogynistic — that generations of queer talents were forced to the peripheries and into closets until today’s mega star rappers like Tyler, the Creator, Lil Nas X, and Cardi B busted down the doors to a new chapter. But that’s not actually the full story of queer people in hip-hop. They’ve been at the forefront and in the underground innovating the genre since it started. Back in hip-hop’s adolescence — when it was as playful, juvenile, and wacky as the kids breathing life into it on the playground — hip-hop was more fluid.
“When you talk to people who are culture historians or who were making music at that time, they were playing disco records and kids were rolling around on the floor spinning on their heads,” explains Shanté Paradigm Smalls, an associate professor of art and public policy at New York University. Smalls grew up in New York alongside hip-hop in the ’80s and has been out in Black and queer communities since they were 15 years old in the ’90s.
“Disco culture at that time was all inclusive, like what house culture is now, all races, lifestyles, dance-focused,” Smalls tells POPSUGAR. “There was a lot of flamboyancy, and that was part of gay culture.”
“Black people have always been at the forefront of queer and trans culture.”
Most famously, Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight,” the hip-hop single that’s largely credited with bringing the genre to the mainstream, sampled the disco record “Good Times” by Black disco legend Nile Rodgers, who’s known for writing and producing gay disco anthems like Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out.” Back then, when hip-hop was mostly about letting loose and being creative, there wasn’t as much of a focus on it being a Black genre or a hyper-misogynist, straight genre, either.
That fluidity, openness, and playfulness in early hip-hop also carried over into the fashion. “If you look at early hip-hop groups, the stylings of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, they look and sound no different than The Village People,” Smalls says, referencing the queer group known for “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.” “It’s very interesting that people are saying young people are dressing gay now, when back then it was tight leather pants, mesh, that was the style. A lot of it was about adornment and showing off your body, and that’s not just a gay thing, that’s part of Black diasporic culture.”
Alongside the popularity of disco and the aesthetic influence of popular gay performers, there was, of course, also the vogue ballroom scene with all of its posing, dance battling, and posturing, which contributed to the cultural mix of the communities hip-hop, and especially breakdancing, was born out of.
But with the broader society still being homophobic at the time, this rise of gay culture at the start of hip-hop led to blowback. “[Disco] was considered feminine, gay, druggy,” Smalls explains. “People were like what is this? That’s why you see the move away from disco, not just by Black culture and hip-hop, but everyone.” And at the same time that disco was going out of style, hip-hop’s image became more tightly controlled by record labels because, Smalls says, “it became clear there was a lot of money to be made.” So as hip-hop toughened up and packaged a particular image of authenticity rooted in gang and street culture, some queer rappers decided to avoid mentioning their sexuality for a better shot at fame, while other lesser-known yet important genre pioneers decided to be out and proud and pave their own way.
Clubs like The Limelight, Crazy Nanny’s, and the Warehouse, a three-story secret Black queer wonderland tucked under a bridge in the Bronx, NY, became important places for Black and Latine hip-hop heads to flourish and continue innovating together. Popular artists that weren’t out yet on the global stage, like Da Brat and Queen Latifah, would still frequent these clubs — a way of being out with their community, Smalls says. Smalls postulates more people would’ve chosen to be out in early decades if there wasn’t so much “fear-mongering” going on about what that would mean for record deals, endorsements, and simply keeping their families financially stable.
Simultaneously, a new school of lesser-known MCs also started to emerge who were out and explicit in their music — a community of underground queer rappers and activists who were truly the first to usher in today’s moment of unapologetically out rap. Before these MCs, Smalls says, out queer people were mostly involved with the less visible aspects of hip-hop culture like graffiti, breakdancing, and DJing, including the popular house and hip-hop DJ Man Parrish. But researching this early movement of out MCs became the focus of Smalls’s PhD work, which eventually led to their book, “Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City (Postmillennial Pop).”
“It’s important to remember that queer rappers — and out queer rappers — have always been there.”
Smalls was shocked to discover the earliest recorded out rap group they could find was a group from the early ’80s with two white gay guys and a woman in Los Angeles called Age of Consent. They would rap over hip-hop beats with disco samples, but they still seemed to be beaming in from a totally different culture than the kids putting out records in New York. (Hate to say it, but frankly, there was a lack of swag.) However, going into the ’90s, there were more and more out queer rappers popping up with different styles and approaches, largely in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, who built on the idea of fighting homophobia directly with their rhymes.
“It wasn’t surprising that [the ’90s movement of queer hip-hop] happened far away from what seemed like a masculine, hard Black cultural movement,” Smalls says. “New York was slower and more conservative around authenticity because New York hip-hop felt like it was losing its influence because West Coast rap and the South became important.”
The 2006 documentary “Pick Up the Mic” is an incredible day-in-the-life look at this pioneering community of ’90s and early 2000s out queer MCs — their struggles, goals, and triumphs. They all had different styles and approaches to using or not using their identity in their art. Most of the MCs weren’t trying to be famous, but rather simply wanted to be real to who they were, advocate for their community, and find people who would respect them for that. The documentary captures a moment in time where these MCs meet each other for the first time at festivals like Rainbow Flava, Outpunk, and PeaceOUT, with the goal of establishing the category of “gay hip-hop” (sometimes called homo-hop back then).
One of the many challenges of the “homo-hop” movement being accepted and popularized more broadly was its whiteness, because hip-hop was seen as both Black and straight at the time. But one of the popular featured groups in the doc, Deep Dickollective, was made up of four queer Black men, one of whom was a trans man, who were rapping to empower other queer Black men. As one of their members, Tim’m T. West, pointed out, at this time the divide between Black and white queer communities was so deep that there were Black queer folks who didn’t like to use terms like “gay” or “lesbian” because they thought it was too associated with white culture and preferred more culturally relevant terms like, “in the life.” The Deep Dickollective hammered home the idea that gayness didn’t have to look white like it did on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” or “Will and Grace,” and helped make inroads with Black audiences who could be down with “homo-hop.”
“One of the narratives is that [Black people are] more homophobic, but Black people have always been at the forefront of queer and trans culture,” Smalls says. “The first drag queen was the formerly enslaved William Dorsey Swann. We invented ballroom, which comes from cake walks making fun of white people on the plantation. . . . And that goes straight through the Harlem Renaissance where that’s a really queer movement. That’s where white people would go to get their queerness on. We’ve been there, but that history has been suppressed.”
While most of the rappers in this underground scene chose to be out and impact their local communities instead of pursuing global fame, some heartbreakingly wanted to do both and weren’t able to, as the doc also shows. But despite the queer rap scene not making it into popular memory of the hip-hop canon, much of the point of their festivals and gatherings was to create a record of their movement. Smalls explains people came from all around the world to perform at queer hip-hop festivals like PeaceOUT.
Still, there are countless others whose names have been lost to history. “Especially with women, it’s been harder to research queer women’s history,” Smalls says. “It’s not recorded. It’s often oral, left out, or come to belatedly. But of course there were people.”
The tide started turning yet again in places away from the more “traditional” New York headquarters, as queer artists became champions in underdog cities that were all about pushing to expand the rap world, like trans icon Katey Red and gay icon Big Freedia leading New Orleans bounce music, and Andre 3000 of Outkast seamlessly becoming a King of Atlanta rap with his gender-bending fashion.
Today, of course, some local icons like Big Freedia have been getting major mainstream co-signs from the likes of Beyoncé and Drake, as progressive society at large embraces queerness. And landmark moments like Frank Ocean’s gorgeous coming out story on Tumblr in 2013 have opened the floodgates for fellow rappers Tyler, the Creator, Jaden Smith, Lil Nas X, and the like to not be boxed in. Now, we have queer icons like superstar rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B alongside less famous yet in-your-face out artists like Chika, Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and Cakes da Killa. And even straight rappers, like A$AP Rocky, have been getting into the marketability of queer aesthetics (for better or worse).
But in the longview of queer hip-hop history, it’s important to remember that queer rappers — and out queer rappers — have always been there. Whether they were given credit, deemed “cool,” recorded in history, or not, they were there.
“It’s not new. It’s just that today there’s more staying power, visibility, and integration with our own cultural expressions, people not having to leave Black culture or their town,” Smalls says. “The legacy is that we’re building an archive. Now it’s overground, it’s out. People are in the front now, not relegated to the back, and I think that’s really valuable.”