Hip hop, more than most musical genres, seems built on and around machismo, but of course there are plenty of gay fans of rap, too. It’s with that fact in mind that director Alex Hinton set out to shine a spotlight on the so-called modern revolution of “homohop” with his superb, festival-minted documentary Pick Up the Mic, which features gay, lesbian and even transgender emcees both rapping about issues important to them and talking about their place, collectively and individually, within a music world that still marginalizes them.
Shot over a three-year period in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Houston and even the Ozarks, Hinton’s movie captures the birth of the homohop movement, and chronicles its growth into a global if still somewhat understated and underground community of artists that has managed to thrive despite improbable odds. Rainbow Flava’s Deadlee and Dutchboy open the film, performing their radical, thumping ditty “No Fagz Allowed,” which seeks to wrest back control of the title-checked epithet in much the same way that urban trailblazers N.W.A. did with the word nigger a couple decades back.
Before long, though, we’re launched back to the late 1980s and early ’90s, and a thumbnail history of how homohop sprouted up in the Bay Area of Northern California. Current A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Records head Matt Wobensmith talks about his move to San Francisco nearly 20 years ago, and the launch of his self-published ‘zine, Outpunk. After learning that he didn’t need to actually pay for all his publishing costs (a friend within Kinko’s would let the publishers of various fringe ‘zines run off free copies after closing time), Wobensmith expanded his operation a bit, and served as a sort of catalyst for the uniting of all sorts of gay men currently dabbling in various forms of indie and underground music. Combining their creative passion with his business acumen, a legitimate community was born.
Owing to the fact that their personal experiences often stand in contrast to many of their heterosexual rap brethren, gay rap, on the whole, has an understandably steep political and sociological bent, with everything from personal coming-out stories and lingering issues of prejudice informing the rhymes. Still, those thinking that was the end-all, be-all of homohop subject matter would be mistaken, as Rocco Kayiatos, lesbian rapper JenRo and others prove, sharing wild stories of dating and boozy hook-ups that would certainly rival any straight rapper.
At its heart, though, Hinton’s film has a sociopolitical streak, because homophobia continues to stain a lot of hip hop. In this vein, perhaps most interesting and eloquent is spoken word artist and Deep Dickollective emcee Timm T. West, who talks about many in the African-American community rejecting the tags of gay and lesbian as being too part of and associated with the dominant, mainstream culture, and instead referring to homosexual individuals as “same-gender loving” or “in the life.” This articulation of this perceived cultural split — with Ellen DeGeneres, Will & Grace and Queer as Folk for largely white audiences, but little to no correlative national mainstream figures for black gay and lesbian audiences — is an interesting thing to ponder, and makes one wonder if sub-cultural prejudices or detentes ultimately do more to advance overall equality for gays and lesbians. In a related strand, there’s also an interesting exchange where West gets hailed down on the streets of New York by a would-be rapper intrigued by the camera following West around; after a while it comes out that West is gay, and the dialogue that follows runs refreshingly counter to expectations. Just like much of Hinton’s film, overall, actually; one needn’t be a huge hip hop-head to enjoy Pick Up the Mic, such is the universality of its story of growth and connection.
Housed in a clear plastic Amaray case with a striking red cover, Pick Up the Mic releases to DVD next week; it’s presented in 1.33:1 full screen on a region-free disc, and comes with more than 40 minutes of deleted scenes. Included in this mix are several musical performances — perhaps most stirring being Deadlee’s “Suck My Gun” — but also a collection of coming-out stories from interviewees like Cazwell, Paradigm, QBoy and Soce. There are stories of parental arguments, screaming and tears, but perhaps most amusing is a story that evokes Anne Rice’s blood-sucking Lestat as triggering a moment of inwardly blossoming revelation. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; for more information on the film, click here. B+ (Movie) B (Disc)