Peace Out

The members of gay act Rainbow Flava don't want to change hip hop -- they just want some respect

The first thing the members of San Francisco hip hop group Rainbow Flava want to make clear is that the outfit isn't an anomaly. When Dutchboy, the act's founder, declares that the four members "represent the 10 percent," he doesn't mean that they're outsiders attempting to assimilate into the larger community. He means that they're queer, they embody hip hop culture -- and they aren't the first or only ones to do so. End of novelty factor.

"What concerns me is that when the [members of the] hip hop press decide they're going to take on the issue of gays in hip hop, they always talk about it as this abstraction," Dutchboy says. "Even when the gay press tries to cover this, there are certain [supposed] truisms that are thrown around, and one of them is that there are no queer rappers."

Indeed, the last five years have seen the proliferation of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual acts like Rainbow Flava, Oakland's Tori Fixx, New York's Morplay, and St. Louis' Dyamond Theory. Hip hop's hypermasculine party line has never been able to excise the subtext of sexual nonconformity that has existed since the music's prehistory. The artists who founded gangster rap on the pimp fantasies of '70s author Iceberg Slim tend to overlook his later book, Mama Black Widow, the story of a gay transvestite struggling to survive in urban black America. Many people also forget that rapping evolved directly out of disco, a musical style produced and consumed largely by inner-city gay men. As Rainbow Flava MC Juba Kalamka points out, "If you just went aesthetically through the history of hip hop, it's so queer. Like Grandmaster Flash and that new wave style, all the leather, Run-D.M.C. ... or even look at Method Man or Outkast -- they look like banjee boys" (the roughneck urban style taken to the point of camp by Harlem drag queens).

Despite the existence of out hip hop artists and the music's occasional flamboyance, it's still safe to say that gay pride is about as welcome in front of an Eminem audience as within a Jerry Falwell congregation. Hip hop represents the last mainstream forum in America besides the military that widely tolerates the word "faggot" and allows vivid depictions of gay bashing. Not surprisingly, no one in the straight community has welcomed groups like Rainbow Flava with open arms -- or for that matter, even bothered to notice them. Such acts survive at the very deepest levels of the underground. Dutchboy, in a 1997 e-mail response to an essay on the invisibility of gays in the industry by local hip hop activist Davey D, drew the battle lines: "If we can't get the mainstream to back us up, fine -- we'll do it ourselves, the same way Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and Def Jam found a market for hip hop back when the major labels weren't interested."

Admittedly, no one in the queer underground has flexed microphone or production skills on par with the music's avant-garde. Just as white rappers weren't able to shake the Vanilla Ice specter until an artist emerged so unquestionably proficient that the rest of hip hop was forced to acknowledge him (Eminem), no queer group will get props without developing a style or sound that's anything short of revolutionary.

Still, it's only a matter of time until the rhymes of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual MC rise above the white noise of hip hop's overcrowded ranks. Openly queer artists have been visible for only a handful of years now -- given more time, the members of Rainbow Flava could prove to be the leaders of a new school. Dutchboy came up with the idea for his group only five years ago, at a time when "as far as I knew, there wasn't anybody who even thought it was a good idea." Nevertheless, he put the word out, and soon a collective of queer MCs and DJs began gathering at his house every Sunday to exchange beats and rhymes. When Dutchboy set up the group's Web site, www.rainbowflava.com, the outfit gained even more momentum.

"I started getting these bizarre messages from people all over the planet saying, "I'm in Houston and I'm a gay MC,' "I'm a lesbian in New York and I DJ,' or "I'm gay and I collect hip hop records.' I became aware that even if there weren't a lot of people doing this, there were an awful lot of people wondering the same things I was. Like, "Why hasn't it happened yet?' and "Where [can I] find it?'"

One of the e-mailers was the gay DJ from Schonheitsfehler, a popular German-language group in Austria that was putting on an event to raise awareness about homophobia in March 1998. Since Rainbow Flava was the only queer act the Austrians could find, they offered to fly the group overseas to play, even mentioning the possibility of a little payment. "For a minute I was wondering if the whole thing was some kind of massive translation error or something," Dutchboy writes on the group's Web site. "Maybe he'd meant to say "fruits and celery' instead of "flights and salary.'"

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