Gay hip-hop comes out; with a brand-new record deal,Brooklyn rapper Caushun is gay hip-hop's first mainstream hope but hedoesn't speak for the movement, thanks - The Music Issue

By Derrick Mathis
The Advocate

Is hip-hop ready for a gay rap superstar? That's a big question, andhere's a bigger one: Are we? For a generation of gays and lesbiansraised on disco, hip-hop is foreign territory distinguished mostly bythe homophobic trash talk of its superstars. But as the genre thumpstoward middle age (it's been around since the mid '70s), young proud,loud, and openly gay hip-hop artists raised on the rhymes and beats ofthe Beastie Boys, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., and Sean "P. Diddy"Combs are eagerly stepping out into rap's unapologetic and politicallyincorrect limelight.
"I feel hip-hop because it's in me--it's in my blood," saysBrooklyn, N.Y.-based rap artist and political activist Shante Smalls,27. "And as a queer person, I make it mine."
Up to now, that hove has been unrequited. Queer artists--black,white, and Latino--have been relegated to the underground, with majorlabels staying away in droves. But all that's about to change--maybe.Thanks to Caushun, a 25-year-old ex-hairdresser from Brooklyn who justlanded a major record deal on Kimora Lee Simmons's Baby Phat Records,gays are finally getting a shot at hip-hop's macho mainstream.
Caushun--who styles himself "the gay rapper"--makes no secret ofhis ultimate goal. He wants success. And he figures hip-hop is the wayto get it. "The gay community loves hip-hop," he says. "A lot of theserappers that are doing their thing now, they're not getting to platinumand quadruple platinum without gay dollars being plopped down to buytheir CDs. I believe that once gay hip-hop is successful, gay peoplewill get behind it in in large numbers. It will be like, yes, this isan area where we can have a victory."
Underground rappers take issue with the idea of defining victory interms of commercial success. "I'm an activist first and entertainersecond," says Judge Muscat, a.k.a Dutchboy, founder of the gay hip-hopact Rainbow Flava. In addition to performing, Muscat, who's consideredan elder statesman in the world of hip-hop at the ripe old age of 32,has since 1996 maintained Da Dis List--an exhaustive online database ofhomophobic lyrics in hip-hop. The list evolved, he says, out of debateon his Web site about whether homophobic lyrics are really aswidespread in rap music as the media claim.
"The bluntness in hip-hop, for somebody that's come from a queeractivism background, can be really hard to relate to," explains Muscat,"because as queer people we've invested so much energy on the rightwords--words that straight people shouldn't be using and words weshould be using to reach out to each other. Hip-hop turns all that onits head."
To gay people who aren't familiar with the music, that soundssuspiciously like excusing hate speech. And that brings up the subjectof Eminem. Rightly or not, he became the face of hip-hop homophobia in2000 when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation mounted amedia campaign against the outrageous lyrics of his massive hit TheMarshall Mathers LP. The campaign didn't quite stick, though. Eventhough many gays shared its concerns, GLAAD was ridiculed by young gayrap fans insisting that the lyrics were never meant to be takenliterally. Interviewed by The Advocate at the time, Scott Seomin, theagency's entertainment media director, defended GLAAD's position: "Thiswas about perpetuating violent behavior against gays and lesbians.Eight million copies of those lyrics were put out there."
Which pretty well goes to the heart of the matter. While the olderfolks were complaining, younger listeners, gay and straight and inbetween, were gobbling it up. Eminem's third CD, The Eminem Show, soldover 8 million copies through March. His movie debut, 8 Mile, raked in$51 million on its opening weekend. Now Eminem's an Oscar-totingsuperstar. There hardly seems a point in being angry anymore.
Except that in the billion-dollar hip-hop industry--as in othermacho strongholds, from pro sports to the military--"don't ask, don'ttell" is still the rule. "Hip-hop has always been the most homophobicgenre of music there is," says Tom Silverman, founder and CEO of TommyBoy Records. "Ironically, it's also the most closeted community around."
Nobody knows that better than Angelo Ellerbee. The openly gayfounder of New York-based image, publicity, and management firm DoubleXxposure, Ellerbee is a powerful industry player best known at themoment for managing superhot rapper-cum-movie star DMZ. Aside fromadvising the major record labels on how to market to the gay community,Ellerbee has served over the years as a top consultant to labelsseeking image control for their artists who are gay--yet who aremarketed to the music-buying public as straight.
"I've been pimped for the last 45 years of my life by recordcompanies and artists," Ellerbee humorously muses. "And I'm 45. I'veconsulted many labels whose artists are not openly gay. And to tell youthe truth, it's a very easy thing for me to do. It's no more than aconversation with each and every artist. My whole motto is, Be honest.And if you're not ready, in time you will be." For Muscat, hip-hop's politically incorrect lyrics are helping tospeed that process. "It's like, let's go ahead; let's throw the wordsaround," he says. "Tell me where you stand, but don't be afraid toactually use the words. In hip-hop that's how you find out who yourenemies are--and who your friends are."
Young queers get the message. In major cities across the nation,gay dance palaces feature a weekly hip-hop night. And just as the earlystrains of disco blared forth from the gay underground clubs of NewYork to herald the birth of gay liberation, hip-hop is now testingthe prevailing attitudes toward freedom of expression within today'spolitically entrenched yet culturally diverse gay community.
Smalls has struggled to make peace with the idiom, for her ownreasons. "There was a period of about two or three years where I didnot listen to any hip-hop," she says. "The ironic thing was, the artistthat got me back listening to hip-hop was Notorious B.I.G. Even asviolent as his album Ready to Die is and even though it can certainlyqualify as sexist, it spoke to me so deeply and so powerfully.Listening to a song like 'Me & My Bitch'--I love that song. Butwhat is that? Is it pathology? Is it self-hatred? Truthfully, I thinkit's something about the rawness. We're living in a culture where a mancan beat and kill his wife or girlfriend and get away with it. I findthat much more problematic than someone saying 'bitch' or 'fag' on arecord."
According to 26-year-old performer Cazwell, being openly gay inhip-hop has been much less challenging than just being white." OnceEminem came out, I think the black community was a bit upset cause itwas like, "Here's a white guy who doesn't suck.' They can't say that hesucks. And that really inspired me."
A native of Worcester, Mass., Cazwell came from a punk rockbackground before 'moving to New York and forming the hip-hop duoMorplay with out lesbian Crasta Yo. Now working solo, Cazwell is deepinto the electroclash movement and impatient, to say the least, withthe identity concept of gay hip-hop. "I give interviews all the timewhere people are like, 'Oh, do you do gay hip-hop?' Like, what the fuckis gay hip-hop? Is that like where I ask the audience to take off theirBurberry scarves and wave them from side to side? As far as being anopenly gay rapper, I know what a good song is, so judge me on that.Judge me on whatever the fuck you want--I don't give a fuck. And that'sjust our fuckin' attitude."
"To be honest, I'm really having a hard time at getting embraced bythe gay community," says 29-year-old rapper Deadlee. A counselor at aLos Angeles area social services agency for gay youth, Deadlee comesfrom a perspective that's both West Coast and Latino: His album, 7Deadlee Sins, features a rock-edged gangsta brand of hip-hop with alittle gothic tossed in under his rhymes. He's learned throughexperience that his lyrics are too raw for many queer ears. "Gays have never been into rap," he says. "I don't think they'reready for it. They'd rather listen to the Madonnas and the BritneySpears and dance music." Invited to perform at a gay pride fest a fewyears back, Deadlee remembers being uninvited by the selectioncommittee. "Maybe I use 'faggot' too much in my lyrics for those folks."
To be sure, for every rapper who just happens to be gay, there areothers for whom gay issues and politics are the heart and soul of theirmusic. "I think when I tested positive it forced me to deal with someof my same shame issues and internalized homophobia," says Tim'm T.West, a member of the Oakland, Calif.-based gay hip-hop actDeepdickollective. "Even though I had been out for so long andconsidered myself an activist, there was still a lot that I was holdingon to."
Other rappers are out there working on theft own dreams for andabout gays and lesbians. "I'm so about visibility," says Alicia Smith,a.k.a. God-Dess, a 26-year old lesbian rapper out of Madison, Wis."When I started, I just wanted gays to have a symbol, an idol--someoneto say, 'I know how you feel.'" There are many more: Tori Fixx, aproducer based in Minneapolis, has already set up his own Midwestdynasty, rapping, DJ'ing, and producing projects for straight and gayartists. Miss Money is emceeing in Houston; Mz. Platinum in Atlanta. Avisit to one of the Web sites that keeps underground artists in touchturns up links to gay tappers in the United Kingdom and Sweden.
It's almost funny, in the face of so much underground effort andpolitical passion, that Caushun took up the gay label as an impulsiveresponse one day when he heard a couple of radio DJs making gay jokes."I called up and introduced myself as a gay rapper and [said] I wantedto battle the rapper who was on the show that day," he recalls. Theincident led him to make his first tape, and before long Caushun wasbeing featured on the influential Star & Buc Wild morning show onNew York City's Hot 97 FM. "I was actually battling other rappers onthe show, and I was beating them all by, like, 800 to 900 votes," hesays.
He also had the kind of music industry connections at hisfingertips that could easily tongue-tie any straight aspiring rapper.Before he traded in his curling iron for the microphone, his clientsincluded Jennifer Lopez, LeAnn Rimes, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and formermodel Kimora Lee Simmons, wife of hip-hop titan and Def Jam Recordingsfounder Russell Simmons. It was through Lee Simmons last year thatCaushun got his demo directly into the hands of Simmons in hopes ofsigning a deal with Def Jam. But the label responded with, "Thanks, butno thanks."

According to Simmons, it didn't have much to do with thefact that Caushun was gay. "My A&R people passed on him because they thought his recordwas too much of a novelty," Simmons told The Advocate at the time."It's really a sexual record, and it's about aggressive flamey ideals.Maybe straights will buy it because it's funny and different. Frankly,I see it as a door opener. Like, the first generation of gay rapperswill be more of a novelty thing, and the second wave will be aboutlifestyle and attitudes."
Caushun and his manager, R&B-hip-hop producer Ivan Matias,didn't see it that way, continuing to shop Caushun's demo to othermajor labels. Some were very interested, says Matias--that is, ifCaushun changed his slant from hiphop to dance music.
"When dance music gets hot again, watch how many openly gay rapperswill pop out of the woodwork," Simmons observes. "Dance is the musicthat's been accepted and embraced by gay culture for over the past 20or 30 years. A rapper wants culture and lifestyle to be the basis ofhis or her rap, so a gay rapper in dance culture is obvious. But a gayrapper in hardcore hiphop culture is a strange thing."
 Then there were those A&R execs who privately championed Caushun's talent but were afraid to get involved.
"I had an executive at a major label who's been responsible for alot of successful hip-hop artists tell me that he thought Caushun wasone of the most talented emcees he'd ever heard," says Matias, who hasproduced hits for Toni Braxton, Pink, Angie Stone, and Outkast. "Hetold me that he would love to sign him. [But if Caushun flopped], thisexec said his career would be over. His reputation as a hip-hop hitmaker would be put into question as well as his sexuality."
In the end, it was Kimora Lee Simmons--an entrepreneur whoseworries don't include proving herself as a man--who inked the deal.Caushun's first gig was emceeing Lee Simmons's Baby Phat runway show onFebruary 13 during New York's Fashion Week. "Caushun is the dose ofreality hip-hop needs," asserts Lee Simmons. "His talent andpersonality make him a guilty pleasure to many. Baby Phat and I lookforward to making him a worldwide success and lifestyle phenomenon."
Can Caushun win over the hip-hop industry on the one hand and theaudience on the other? Tommy Boy's Silverman isn't holding his breath."I think it's going to be a long time before you see the hip-hopcommunity accept gay rap," he says. "Unless the person really got bigand somebody like Ja Rule came out of the closet tomorrow. And thenwhen he came out, two others come out. And all of them come outsaying, 'Fuck what you heard. This is what's happening.' They wouldhave to be in the closet until they got to the top."
And the odds of success for an artist who's out from the start?Silverman puts it this way: "The idea of a hit record coming from anopenly gay rapper is much less likely than us having an openly gaypresident."
Even in the face of such predictions, Caushun, who's preparinghimself for a 22-city tour this summer following the release of hisalbum, remains unfazed. "I've found out that in spending time withstraight rappers, they're not as narrow-minded as their images mayimply," he says. "Thing is, homophobia, in a weird way, sells. It's sofunny--you have these gangsta rappers who have these gay stylists, gayhairdressers, gay video directors. I don't think the hip-hop communityis as homophobic as it is portrayed. I do think the community is scaredto let an open homosexual in because that might threaten [its]moneymaking masculine images. Even so, I think hip-hop is ready for thegay thing. It just has to be the right one."
Predictably, the activist faction of gay hip-hop wonders whoexactly anointed Caushun to speak for them. "I've heard Caushun," saysSmalls, "and to be honest, I thought there were kids on the street whocould beat him. If people push you to say 'I'm a rapper and I'm gay,'then you have to bring really fresh things to the table. Because therehave been people who've been out for a long time, touring the countryand being open about their sexuality and not using it as a marketingtool." Cazwell is less tactful. "I would never want to coin myself as 'thegay tapper,'" he explodes. "How fuckin' shallow is that? If you coinyourself 'the gay rapper,' then that's all you fuckin' are." Caushun couldn't care less, or so he says: "Number one, if I don'trepresent you, who is? Nobody wants to represent you. And number two,I'm not going to be forced back into the closet by another queen. WhatI'm saying to the community is, get over it. As somebody that has beeninfluenced by hiphop, I have a right to express myself however I am."
 Mathis writes on music for publications including LA Weekly.COPYRIGHT 2003 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group



Feature story in the Advocate magazine about the controversy surrounding Gay hip hop and homophobia in the mainstream rap community.

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