Monday, July 1, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #018 - 'bourgiebohopostpomoafrohomo' by deep dickollective

So last year by sheer coincidence, during Pride Month I wound up talking about the Dicks on this series, one of the first notable queercore acts and widely cited for pushing gay themes in hardcore punk. And that got me thinking: why don't I do the same thing for this series this year, but for underground hip-hop, find one of those LGBT acts that might be long-forgotten?

Well, if anything this was as challenging of an effort to track down as it was discovering The Dicks, because if you thought queer themes in punk were transgressive in the 80s, they were damn near heretical in underground hip-hop near the turn of the millennium. Just like underground hip-hop we're talking about a male-dominated scene, but it was also a space where the homophobic flowed freely - they'd have a hard time accepting women into the party, let alone queer acts, and that tended to be a common prejudice be you black or white. In fact, it was often framed as a defensive projection of masculinity, not just by young guys scared of catching 'the gay' but also by black men who perceived society's fetishization of them as boiling them down to their sexual traits and nothing else, and if that sexuality was not emphasized, he might be coded as 'gay'. And that's not even touching the pseudo-spiritual and religious dimensions that had no tolerance for queerness.

So I honestly didn't expect to find any acts who came out of this era who openly identified as gay or bi or trans or queer... and yet I did. In the year 2000, a few PhD students at Stanford met and expressed frustration with the spoken word poetry community's ostracization of their blackness and queerness. And while the core trio - Juba Kalamka, Tim'm T West aka 25Percenter, and Philip Atiba Goff aka. LSP - had experienced some solo success in the community, they were annoyed at the lines a presumably "conscious" community was drawing, and they saw the opportunity to push buttons on masculinity, colour, and sexuality in their music, and take a harder, deconstructionist tone to the homophobic content that was cropping up in hip-hop, mainstream and underground. So they began creating compositions that would become the groundwork of their 2001 breakthrough, recruiting a few other guests and producers along the way, a project widely considered as one of the genesis points of queer hip-hop - it might have started as a parody but it morphed into something more. That's right, we're talking about BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo by Deep Dickollective, and this is Resonators!

So there are a few things I want to preface about this project, namely that you can tell there's some level of parody and deconstruction on display because our MCs are keenly aware of how gay and bi black men were seen within culture, especially hip-hop. So they're not about to shy away from pretty explicit descriptions of gay hookup culture and sex, with the foreknowledge that it will shock audiences of the time - hell, in some hip-hop circles I can see a lot of this being perceived as shocking now, even with the success of Tyler and Kevin Abstract. And as such, a lot of work is going into reclamation of slurs and homophobic language, and the biggest coup that the group pulls is highlighting just how much gay culture and black hip-hop culture fall along common lines of oppression or even just common ground, specifically around perceptions of masculinity and power - although given we're dealing with academically-minded MCs, they don't have kind words for capitalism and how it split apart hip-hop culture throughout the late 90s either. But this also means, just like Kill From The Heart by The Dicks last year, this is not an album that abides by modern standards of politically correct language, where the group even got some backlash in queer circles in the day - and it also sadly translates to 'Rhyter's Retreat', where one of the punchlines is your hyperaggressive rapper type flirting with a trans girl, and given that we are talking about highly educated guys, that's a line of attack you'd think they'd know better to avoid. But while I'm kind of disappointed, I'm not really that surprised that wasn't considered: from all accounts this was an album cut out of frustration and casual sessions between three young guys where they'd flow their asses off, so I'm not sure how much of this was curated or second-guessed - probably the same reason they included 'The Ah-Ah' featuring so much stuttering, which isn't really a gimmick because member Tim'm T. West actually does have a speech impediment, but it's not a moment I'm inclined to revisit, especially as everyone on that track tries to affect it.

And on that point, for as much as they might preface the album by saying 'it's not that deep', it's one of those cases where as really talented MCs and slam poets, they're going to flow in double and triple time and you better keep up, and they absolutely have the post-grad problem of assuming people understand their reference base of language. And while I could keep pace - and they're right that many of these songs are simpler than the language implies once you decode them - without lyrics captured anywhere online to reference it makes for a tough listen, especially as it suffers the conventional underground hip-hop problem of the era of being too long and short on song structure. Hell, to some casual listeners, you might just think you're listening to extremely competent but otherwise straight MCs before you catch the references - which likely helped them get through the audience who didn't expect quality bars but just a gimmick, which Deep Dickollective emphatically is not. And really, you could make the argument with cuts like the fashion-conscious 'Cologne On Funk' and the incredibly tight wordplay on 'Oxymoronicon', the group is just at their best existing in the space of hip-hop while being LGBT, proof in action that they can run circles around so many MCs. That said, when this album actually does get more serious on cuts like 'Vaxicran (MedicineGoDown)', which focuses on the hard reality of living with the pharmaceutical regimen required to survive if you're HIV-positive, or the frustration for being constantly, actively marginalized on 'Burnout', or even just the outright annoyance at the scene as they co-opt and flip hip-hop slang on 'Straighttrippin', probably their most recognizable song here, they show the unique value of a queer perspective in the space, and enough of the sentiments are trying to be forward-thinking that they could hold up today! That said, the mechanisms of parody do come through on this project and it's hard not to get the impression that there are hooks and tones chosen specifically to sound a little grating or annoying, like on 'Grammatology', or how the interlude 'Off The Hook' basically collapses for a phone call that just seems a little obnoxious.

And this is where the conversation gets a little more tricky, because for as much as this album was clearly built for MCs to spit first and build songs later, it's does mean that there's a shaggy, haphazard quality to this project that doesn't help its flow or overall construction. Some of this has to do with mixing - the vocal and percussion layering can feel a bit slipshod and inconsistent, especially on 'Rhyter's Retreat' - and while I do like the west-coast appropriation of a Native Tongues, sample-backed sound, it's not always consistent where it works: the horns across 'Cologne on Funk' sound great, but the flat synth keening across 'Run-On' across the scratches didn't quite hit, and some of the attempts at falsetto singing could sound a little flat. More importantly, as much as all three MCs maintain a distinctive flow and style, I struggled to like G-Minus' more jerky, shuddering cadence in comparison with the smoother vibes the main trio could deliver, and even with them, you can tell there's still some kinks to be ironed out. And while that is to be expected - as I said earlier, this was a debut built out of frustration where you can tell it was more important to cultivate a vintage hip-hop vibe rather than chase hits, and their disdain for Billboard is actively brought up on the album - it does mean there's a lot here to swallow in one sitting, and perhaps better sequencing or more attempts at structure could have led to a project that doesn't feel so much of its time.

And that's the funny thing about BougieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo, because I do like this album and I understand the factors behind its creation, and that Deep Dickollective would develop into more of a consistent group on future projects that could play to the PeaceOUT queer hip-hop festival throughout the 2000s. And thanks to the genesis of the internet which allowed LGBT acts to communicate outside of hubs like the Bay Area, it laid a lot of the groundwork for hip-hop's progressive steps this decade, even as PeaceOUT would close and Deep Dickollective would disband around the end of the 2000s and all the members would return to academia in some form. But like when I covered the Dicks last year, even with the onset of the internet there is so much history that's just been lost - there were already gaping holes in the legacy of underground hip-hop full of defunct webpages and grainy video, but when you consider a marginalized space where there were already gaping holes in the history thanks to losses due to the AIDS epidemic, I'm just happy I could find a Bandcamp page where you could get their Greatest Hits compilation and I could get some of the credits! Now for this album... you don't need to tell me that is niche upon niche, and very much of its time, and then it is absolutely flawed... but I would argue it's worth hearing and preserving, especially as it's a subset of fiercely lyrical and progressive hip-hop I guarantee many of you didn't even know existed. As such, I'd give this a very solid 7/10, and if you're looking for a side of Pride long-overlooked, I can see you having fun with this - check it out. 

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