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If you ask Matt Wobensmith, punk is dead. Five years ago the 27-year-old San Franciscan founded the zine and record label Outpunk to document queercore, an at-that-point little-known genre of furious three-chord rock played by people who happened to be gay. At the start, queer bands like Tribe 8, Pansy Division, Sta-Prest, God Is My Co-Pilot, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney were marginalized artists. Today, many are as well-known as you can be and still be legitimately punk, and a couple of them are rock magazine regulars and critical darlings. They don't need the kind of support that Wobensmith and his zine provide.
Wobensmith doesn't need punk anymore. He's moving on to a new place in music, starting a record label specializing in a musical genre in which gay people are routinely absent, closeted, or ridiculed in verse. To hip hop.
If the leap from punk to hip hop seems extreme, even fickle, it makes perfect sense to Wobensmith. "My tastes have changed," he says in an interview. "Honestly, in 1998 rock music sucks. It is shit. It is boring and formulaic and predictable."
Wobensmith says it wasn't always that way. When he found a budding queercore scene in the early '90s, the bands -- mostly from the West Coast -- were feeding off ACT UP and Queer Nation activist politics. But more importantly, they were providing a vital, and truly punk, approach to gay culture -- sometimes telling its members what they didn't necessarily want to hear. "A lot of people were reacting to what they see as mainstream values in the gay community: sexism, racism, conformity, assimilation, self-hatred."
The most resolute of those bands have done well. Pansy Division played stadiums with Green Day. Sleater-Kinney placed in the top five in the Village Voice critics' poll for the past two years. Tribe 8 just released their third full-length album. Now, in a way, those groups are part of the gay mainstream. Indeed, when Wobensmith took two rappers to the San Francisco Pride Committee -- the group that organizes the festivities around the parade, set for June 28 -- the committee told him they had a surplus of rock. "They had way too many gay rock bands and no hip hop," he says. "Five or six years ago to be gay and doing rock music was such a bold statement."
Now, says Wobensmith, "I feel that it's time to expand on the idea." In the final issue of Outpunk last December, Wobensmith spent much of the magazine explaining why he was fed up with punk. After seven issues and five years, he decided punkdom was stale and institutionalized and announced the end of the zine and the record label. "It's hard to get excited about something whose premise was determined well over five years ago," he wrote.
Wobensmith devoted half of the final issue to queer hip-hop MCs, and vows to do with hip hop what he did with punk: create "a network of young people across the world who are into underground gay music."
The new project must attract music fans and gay people, hopefully in that order. "We are music fans first," says Wobensmith of punk, and -- by extension -- hip hop, "but also people who -- how do I put this? -- get off on making crazy gay shit!"
If hip hop and punk are radically different genres, to Wobensmith, the spirit is the same. "Again, what we are doing is creating a whole new language," he says. "This was the first step to take getting together a scene where gay people can feel more comfortable being into hip hop and the music and culture they love."
His first act is Cyryus, a female rapper from Georgia. Wobensmith's new imprint Queercorps released her debut last week. The Lyricist is a fluid album of slow raps on life and love, pushed along by Cyryus' own piano and guitar samples. A local rapper named N.I. Double K.I. (aka Deshelia Mixon) collaborated with Cyryus on the album. "It is music that makes you think about what is going on in the world. You can't just dance to it; you have to listen to it," Mixon says. "Lyrically she is really good, her vocals are real good, and she is really talented productionwise too. All of the beats on her album are produced by her."
Both Wobensmith and Mixon readily admit that the mainstream hip-hop scene has its own dynamic of homophobia, but they see that as a challenge. Furthermore, Wobensmith says there are plenty of closeted gays in hip hop already. "Any given issue of a hip-hop magazine has fags and lesbos in it," he says. "Many -- dare I say most -- of the big artists are fags or dykes." (Uncharacteristically, he wouldn't volunteer names for this story.)
There is still plenty of homophobia, not to mention outright lyrical gay bashing, in mainstream hip hop. (Goodie Mob's malevolent couplet on the critically well-received Still Standing -- "Me and the hollow-point tip/ On this gay rights activist" -- is just the latest such example.) But Mixon, who is African-American, has a forbearant view of the issue. "If you do something that people have never heard or people think can't be done, they are not going to like it at first," she says. "It will be hard to get into at first because it's pretty much a male black thing."
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