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The forgotten history of California’s queer hip hop scene

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Following a HIV diagnosis in 1999, Tim’m T West formed queer hip hop trio Deep Dickollective, ushering in a radical new rap scene whose influence can still be felt today

In 1999 Tim’m T West received news that would change his life. A three-letter diagnosis from a doctor in Northern California that, in his words, was “positive, yet anything but positive.” At the time, he was at Stanford University, writing his PhD in Modern Thought and Literature. His interest in race politics, queer discourse and literature had brought him to one of the most prestigious institutions in America. He was a long way from his hometown of Taylor, Arkansas, with its conservative pedigree and modest population of approximately 500 people. But suddenly, faced with a damning prognosis of HIV, his prospects looked bleak. What had seemed like a bright future, fighting for minority rights via the platform of academia, now looked like a bleak void.

That same year, President Clinton stood under impeachment for sexual harassment of his female staff, and trials over the hate-motivated murders of of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr loomed over the national news, a grim reminder of the bigotry and violence entrenched at the heart of America’s social landscape. On the brink of a new century, the United States was racked with socio-political turpitude, with issues of race, gender and sexuality were at the eye of the storm. 

The sonic backdrop to this turbulent cultural landscape was hip hop, a genre born some 20 years prior in the Bronx to a mixed parentage of disco, early house, Latin, funk, soul and electro. With punk sensibility, street culture and radical politics as its de facto godparents, hip hop had given a voice to society’s most marginalized and vulnerable. Like blues and jazz in the 1920s, it had opened a creative avenue for talented artists who existed on the peripheries of mainstream middle class America. Yet in spite of its egalitarian roots, hip hop had, by 1999, been adopted by the mainstream, and was coincidentally becoming a genre synonymous – whether fairly or not – with conspicuous consumption, hyper-sexualization, and all the hallmarks of good old-fashioned American bigotry. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic: 2001 and Eminem’s Slim Shady LP were two of the biggest selling albums that year, and both were steeped in a hyper-masculine, anti-gay, violent and misogynistic typology that seemed to echo and enforce the most alarming aspects of America’s seeming inability cough up its constitutional promise of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ to all its citizens, regardless of their identity.

“I was young, black and living in the ghetto in the 90s – why wouldn’t I listen to hip hop?” – Tim’m T West, Deep Dickollective

West’s childhood love of hip hop meant that he was well aware of these issues. His academic ambitions had, until now, been a means of arming himself with the intellectual tools to fight against them. But his new diagnosis had sharply pulled focus. He was dying, apparently. In desperation, he reached out to long time friend Juba Kalamka, with whom he had struck up a kinship at a screening of performance artist Marlon Riggs’ seminal art film Tongues Untied, which explores notions of identity among black men in San Francisco’s gay community. Kalamka suggested that they go and let off some steam. So they drove to pick up another friend, Phillip Atiba Goff, and booked a music rehearsal room in Palo Alto. There was a piano and some basic recording equipment, but not much more. Kicking around the room in frustration, the three academics spat free-associative verse, spoken word poetry, and freestyle rhymes, hammering the piano and thumping beats on an upturned bucket. As the session rolled on, they became children again, exploring avenues of creativity that were far removed from their usual academic environment. Playful experimentation quickly developed into jubilant catharsis, confounding the life-sapping news of West’s new diagnosis. It was true hip hop expression, borne out of struggle, frustration and a desire to reach beyond the confines of their current circumstances. West, Kalamka and Goff were fusing their intellect with their rhythmic sensibilities, toying with the style of the hip hop crews they had heard blasting through neighbourhood boomboxes during their youth. In that room, they too were rappers. Not only that, but they were good rappers. 

The early hip hop pioneers who had formed the soundtrack to West, Kalamka and Goff’s youth had seldom touched upon the experience of queer America. In fact, they had often disparaged it. In spite of this, many of hip hop’s universal truths had rung true for the three young men. “I was young, black and living in the ghetto in the 90s – why wouldn’t I listen to hip hop?” laughs West. 

On his seminal 1994 album Illmatic, New York’s introspective rap superstar Nas had bluntly declared that “life’s a bitch and then you die.” West, at this new juncture in his life, was all too aware of that apparent fact, but ironically it was his damning diagnosis and the sense of his own mortality that had brought the three individuals a sudden rush of creative vitality. That day, a new queer hip hop crew – which would become known as Deep Dickollective – was born. Looking back, West nostalgically muses upon the way his two friends came through for him. “I guess the most natural thing to do for a friend who is dying is create art,” he says. 

West, like many prolific African American musicians, grew up with a gospel background. His father was a preacher in and around south west Arkansas, and naturally, Southern Christian conservatism didn’t lend itself to acceptance of queer identity – or, indeed, hip hop culture. But nonetheless he regards his early gospel influence as elemental in the development of his artistry, as well as his emotional resilience to his HIV diagnosis. “I was given a second chance at life. And gospel reflects that in the way that it positively affirms feel-good experiences.” 

In the early 90s, hip hop had possessed the same potency. The bohemian, street smart intellectualism of hip hop’s ‘golden age’ saw artists such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief and Queen Latifah releasing now classic mainstream hip hop records that, as West points out, “you could listen to and not have to worry about being badgered because of your identity.” But the late 90s was, as West puts it, “the zenith of hip hop’s capitalisation.” He recalls his disdain for hearing the homophobic rhetoric of his mainstream rap contemporaries, who were still managing to slam its well-paid fist through the soundsystems of gay clubs and supposedly safe queer spaces. To West, the genre had moved from being an artform based around struggle and freedom of expression, into one based around money, power, and prejudice.

So, taking a cue from Bay Area contemporaries and seminal queer hip hoppers Rainbow Flava, Deep Dickollective decided to push their project. The initial fire under their academic careers had been lit by activists like Marlon Riggs, Joseph F. Beam, and black feminist thinkers like Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Davis. Now, the work of those brave forerunners seemed like a call to arms for the three post-grads to expand their reach beyond intellectual discourse, and into hip hop poetry. Starting with performances on Oakland’s thriving spoken word scene, they then moved on to local hip hop clubs, warehouse parties, punk venues, grassroots political gatherings – anywhere that would book them for a show. 

“In many ways, we were often able to ‘pass’ within the hip hop community,” notes West, “because we were masculine black dudes with dreads, rhyming about afrocentric politics. But we’d encounter a strange atmosphere at shows where a predominantly straight hip hop audience would hear a lyric about ‘my boyfriend’ or anything along those lines. Sometimes it took people by surprise when they realized that, for us, saying ‘faggot’ was a term of positive empowerment.” 

On the flipside, their masculine image also caused them difficulty at times within the Bay Area’s queer scene. West laughs as he recalls an irked feminist accosting him after a show and berating him for his use of the word ‘faggot’ onstage. “I was like, I don’t think you get it – we’re also queer! We just don’t look the way you might expect us to look.” Instances like this reminded the group of America’s deeply ingrained view of the black male body as inherently ‘threatening’, and further fueled their ambitions as queer rappers. The mission was to reconcile their own identities as queer African American men with the negative stereotypes surrounding hip hop culture. 

Much of the emphasis in Deep Dickollective’s work was politicized, but hip hop also held the simple draw of creative self-expression that extended beyond the confines of the academic world they had always inhabited. Rapping, says West, was a way of speaking his truth in a way that was more direct and relatable than academia. “I wanted to do songs about love, romance, life, and things that had nothing to do with my queer existence. I wanted the young boys on the corner to say, ‘that’s a gay rapper, and he’s dope!’”

“It took people by surprise when they realized that, for us, saying ‘faggot’ was a term of positive empowerment” – Tim’m T West, Deep Dickollective

As their reputation spread around the Bay, it was clear that the group needed a record to push at shows. Not only that, but making an album would also be an important artefact. “We needed to have something set down, so that our work wasn’t lost,” says West. “It was important for us to be able to say ‘queer hip hop is happening, and here’s the proof!’” So they cut a record, cannily titled BourgieBohoPomoPostAfroHomo. To the casual listener, it could easily have passed as ‘straight’ hip hop, alongside releases from their indie hip hop contemporaries. The three MCs tagged in and out of witty, cerebral verses, which juxtaposed pop culture references against academic discourse, playful eroticism against revolutionary rhetoric. Collectively, their rhyme style melded the showboating swagger of traditional masculine battle-rap with their idiosyncratic introspection and intellectual ‘outsider’ insight. It was steeped in the funky eclecticism of early-mid 90s East Coast rap collectives and the Afrocentric eccentricity of Bay Area heroes such as The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics. The production threw dusty funk, soul and jazz samples together, creating a sonic aesthetic that reflected the iconic pedigree of radical politics, counterculture and beatnik je-ne-sais-quois attached to the Bay Area’s cultural history. In fact, West goes so far as to conjecture that the genesis of D/DC and the PeaceOUT movement could only have happened in Northern California’s misty golden bay, owing to the traditional of revolutionary ideologies and creative movements the area has grown and nourished since the mid 20th century. 

But by 2000, the vitality of those movements had faded. The nationwide legacies of the Black Panthers, the GLF, Stonewall and other likeminded social revolutionary movements were well into their thirties. Conversely, hip hop culture was a fresh faced twenty-something, ready to be rejuvenated as a truly egalitarian musical artform. Fortunately, there were enough out rappers in the Bay Area at that time for a tangible queer hip hop scene to grow. Judge ‘Dutchboy’ Muscat, Nikki and Tori Fixx were members of pioneering queer rap crew Rainbow Flava, and like D/DC, helped the flag fly, along with lesbian rapper JenRo and trans male rapper Katastrophe. So the conditions for a growing queer voice in hip hop music seemed increasingly plausible. 

As those artists pushed their work in the Bay, the early advent of online social media meant that other queer artists could begin infiltrating the hip hop world, gathering a greater presence in and reaching out across internet blogging platformsBy the early 2000s, web forum Okayplayer, a stronghold for hip hop’s ‘conservative’ old guard, was being commandeered as a space where queer artists could express their love of the genre and share their creative output, often blindsiding their harshest critics with online rap battles and tracks uploaded directly from bedrooms across America, and even the UK. Whereas MCs in hip hop’s early days would have developed their craft and networked at neighbourhood block parties, the internet was quickly becoming a de facto street corner on which queer artists could proudly stand. Flexing their lyrical muscle online, artists like Cazwell, Aggracyst,  and Shante ‘Paradigm’ Smalls were sharing ideas and developing the grassroots, community-based spirit that had, since the late 1990s, largely evaporated from hip hop culture under the heat of music industry commercialization. Suddenly you didn’t have to be in the vicinity of a local scene to have your voice heard. You didn’t even need to have a record deal. Across the country, a bunch of uncompromisingly creative individuals were ‘coming out’ once again – this time as rappers.

It was at this point that the idea came to galvanize the burgeoning scene into a tangible movement where queer rappers could come together in person, as well as in spirit. In 2001, Juba Kalamka was approached by Pete King, organizer of Oakland’s East Bay Pride celebrations, with the proposition of setting up a queer hip hop festival. Initially, Kalamka was reluctant. Mainstream Pride events had hardly embraced hip hop in the past, and it had often seemed as though the LGBT majority were happy to leave queer hip hop artists in the gay ‘ghetto’ that they themselves had struggled to escape in times gone by. Why should the scene affiliate itself with the predominantly white, middle class queer majority who had largely ignored their output? For a moment, it looked as though queer hip hop was set to remain a subterranean cult for web-savvy cats, united in their love of the music, but destined to co-exist in isolation from one another. But a terrible thought dawned on Kalamka and West. If they turned away from the opportunity of sharing a stage with other artists who, like them, had struggled to push their work out into hip hop’s hostile landscape, then there remained the possibility of the ‘record’ being wiped clean. So much in the history of queer culture, minority politics, and indeed, the history of hip hop, has been obscured from popular view by the smoke cloud of the mainstream. Would queer hip hop share the same fate?

With this in mind, it suddenly seemed vital to gather the troops from all corners of the country, assemble a platform together, and etch their name into the towering cliff faces of the LGBT community that had met them with indifference, and the music industry that had, more often than not, bashed them for who they were. So, with sponsorship from Oakland’s East Bay Pride festival, they set out organizing Cypher 2000:One, which would lay the blueprint for the next six years of PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival. Then in 2003, Kalamka’s DIY record label Sugartruck Recordings teamed up with queer punk zine and record label Outpunk, and were able to co-ordinate and finance the festival independently. Queer hip hop had found its spiritual homeland. Not only that, but it was becoming self-sufficient – a giant leap from the closeted pipe dreams of queer rappers only a few years prior. 

To say that PeaceOUT was inclusive would be an understatement. Knowing the struggles of their fellow queer hip hop artists, its organizers made sure that anyone who wanted to perform would be given the opportunity. As West points out, for many rappers isolated in pockets of middle America’s homophobic hip hop heartland, PeaceOUT was often the only time in a year that they could be sure of getting booked for a show. The PeaceOUT tribe met annually for the next seven years, and in 2005 documentary filmmaker Alex Hinton made Pick Up The Mic, a film that charts the origins of the scene and the personal journeys of the individuals who kept it alive. Sadly, in 2008, the festival was discontinued, and Deep Dickollective disbanded to work on solo projects and focus on their individual work as activists and educators. But the availability of Hinton’s film on Netflix pushed the legacy of the PeaceOUT generation out on to a wider platform, continuing to inspire artists all over the country, standing as proof that real artistry knows no bounds.

“I wanted the young boys on the corner to say, ‘that’s a gay rapper, and he’s dope!’” – Tim’m T West, Deep Dickollective

Over the last few years, a new school of queer-identifying hip hop artists have slowly filtered through to the mainstream. New York rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco has been making waves since his steamrolling club banger “Wavvy” went viral online in 2012, and fellow New Yorker Zebra Katz has released music with megaproducer Diplo’s Mad Decent label and worked with Busta Rhymes amongst other canonical ‘straight’ rap stars. In 2012, lauded producer and songwriter Frank Ocean came out via a blog post the night before the release of his much anticipated album channel ORANGE – primarily to pre-empt the inevitable media barrage of puzzled questions concerning some of its homoerotic lyrical content. Le1f and Cakes Da Killa are all over our Soundcloud feeds, hetero rappers have somewhat toned down their homophobic disses, and – judging by the critical and commercial success of Blonde – Frank Ocean seems to be doing okay.

So the game is changing. But there’s still a long way to go. West’s main concern about the state of queer hip hop today is that the pop cultural fetishization of queer African Americans potentially reinforces tokenism and racial stereotyping. “I think it’s interesting,” he says, “that the mainstream is now paying attention to artists like Mykki Blanco and Big Freedia, possibly, in part, because of the ‘spectacle’ of black effeminate queerness. In that regard, it’s still important for us to examine our prejudices as a society, even within the white queer population.”

Certainly in the pop cultural subconscious, the recent success of queer hip hop’s new wave may still be looked upon as a camp accessory to hip hop culture. Queer rappers with record deals are often seen by the music media as a post-modern hipster trend, but their artistry speaks for itself. History shows us that when the door to the mainstream is slow to open, decent talent will always find a way to break it down. And without doubt, the legacy of the PeaceOUT movement wedged queer hip hop’s sneakers in the door of the mainstream. Although Deep Dickollective are disbanded and PeaceOUT is no more, the sentiment and prophetic strength of their message still remains. Some of the original figures, like Cazwell, Aggracyst and Jenro, are still rapping. Some, like Shante ‘Paradigm’ Smalls, are rapping and also hold prestigious academic positions. Some are activists. West now works all over the country as an educator, with a focus on LGBTQ youth. He still raps, and has released five solo albums to date.

Hip hop, for these artists, was never about fame, wealth or external validation. For them, it’s part of their identity, and a way of reaching out to the next person who struggles to express themselves. From its earliest origins, the modus operandi of any MC, DJ, graffiti artist or breakdancer was to empower themselves, and uplift their audience. Hip hop is about freedom of expression, personal identity, and collective unification. So too is queer discourse. The parallels between the two seems obvious when placed under this particular light, but needless to say, their relationship has been fraught. In spite of this, a growing number of artists continue to take heed from Public Enemy’s invitation to “Fight The Power”, albeit in a fashion that reflects their own identity. Their integrity, and that of the PeaceOUT generation who bravely raised their heads above the parapet, solidifies two facts: hip hop is, and should be, available as an outlet for anybody who wants to embrace it, and moreover, the queer community will always be a powerful mobilizing force in creating art, and reaching across the boundaries set to limit it in the mainstream. In the words of legendary New York rapper Q-Tip, hip hop is ‘all about the love’, and in all musical artforms – whether it’s jazz, soul, punk or hip hop – a genuine love of music will always find a way to transcend differences in race, gender, politics and sexual identity.