featured by Nina Collavo June 20, 2022
Something close to alchemy happens when rap collectives make music together. Differing voices, perspectives, and styles collide over the beat, materializing in fresh, exciting musical ideas.
Often, the work done in rap collectives invents new horizons for the genre. Many forward-thinking artists of our current time have emerged from the collective melting pot: Kendrick had his beginnings in Black Hippy, ASAP Rocky in the ASAP Mob, Tyler, the Creator in Odd Future.
Foundations for this kind of music-making were built long ago. Groups from the 80s-90s like Wu-Tang Clan, N.W.A, and A Tribe Called Quest proved the strength of a collective approach.
Yet, the boundary-pushing sounds of the collective are at odds with rap’s strict ideas of black masculinity, steeped in homophobia.
Hip-hop from this time displays a deep uneasiness with queerness. These earlier songs are lined with perennial, reflexive defenses of ‘no homo’.
There was a necessity for rappers to appear masculine, which was measured by the amount of women they could get. The credibility of their music rested on this x-factor: the rapper needed to project the image of a player or a baller, someone with an enviable position in society.
Conversely, gay men were at the bottom of the pecking order. No one wanted to be associated with the stain of queerness, even indirectly through music, given the chance it might rub off on them.
Well-documented and often blatant instances of homophobia come from these older records. Beastie Boys wanted to name their first album Don’t Be A F****t, a move that was rejected by their record company, who instead titled the record Licensed to III.
A Tribe Called Quest, though considered more progressive by contemporary standards, still included explicitly homophobic lyrics in their music. In “Georgie Porgie” off the album The Low End Theory, Phife Dawg raps,
“In the beginning, there was Adam and Eve / But some try to make it look like Adam and Steve […] Oh my God how gross can one be”.Phife Dawg, “Georgie Porgie”
Q-Tip takes this further at the end of the song, openly admitting his homophobia and daring the listener to do something about it:
“Call me homophobic but I know it and you know it / You’re filthy and funny to the utmost exponent”.Q-Tip, “Georgie Porgie”
In recent years, rap has seen a steady trickle of mainstream artists willing to embrace their queer identities.
Frank Ocean of prominent collective Odd Future broke into the commercial mainstream with his albums “Channel Orange” and “Blonde”. In “Bad Religion”, he laments his unrequited love for another man.
“I can never make him love me / Never make him love me / It’s a bad religion / To be in love with someone who could never love you”.Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Over time, other members of Odd Future joined the wave of rappers coming out. Tyler, The Creator, once a braggadocious upcomer hurling gay slurs, has gestured towards his own possible queerness in several lyrics on Flower Boy and IGOR.
The song “Garden Shed” is an extended metaphor for living inside of the closet, but he uses far more direct language on “I Ain’t Got Time”, saying “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004”. Syd, another member, has openly embraced her queer identity.
In an interview with LA Weekly, she said “The world is just now starting to become open about homosexuality. I can’t really say I’ve contributed to that, and I’m grateful to the people who have set a path for me to be who I am today. And I guess in that sense I want to return the favor.”
Makkonen Sheran, better known by his stage name ILoveMakkonen, came out as gay in 2017. He cut his teeth in the Phantom Posse, an NYC-based collective, and soon gained renown in his solo career with the 2014 breakout single “Tuesday”, featuring Drake.
He announced on a now-deleted Twitter account that he was gay: “As a fashion icon, I can’t tell u about everybody else’s closet, I can only tell u about mine, and it’s time I’ve come out. And since y’all love breaking news, here’s some old news to break, I’m gay. And now I’ve told u about my life, maybe u can go [live] yours.”
These trailblazers have played important parts in shifting the culture towards more mainstream acceptance of queerness. Both the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest have pivoted away from their prior homophobic stances.
Ad-rock apologized to fans in a letter apologizing for “the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record”. A Tribe Called Quest released a track called “We the People…” in 2016, criticizing Trump’s treatment of minorities, including LGBTQ people.
More and more prominent allies are emerging with time, and hopefully opening a space for all voices to be heard in rap.
More than ever, young collectives are embracing queer voices. The pressures to maintain a masculine image have lessened among many, leading the way toward more honest expression in rap.
Brockhampton is also a notable example. The 13 member group has become one of the most popular rap collectives in recent years, hitting number one on the Billboard 200 with their album Iridescence.
They insist on calling themselves a boyband, a term is usually reserved for groups of floppy-haired, dimpled heartthrobs. Boybands have a distinct effeminate association which they embrace with glee, a drastic departure from the hyper-masculine culture of prior collectives.
Lead man Kevin Abstract is openly, boldly gay, and makes it known through his music. When talking with Shortlist, he said: “I’d see negative comments and forget [being gay] was a big deal to some people, that some people hadn’t heard it before. My goal is just to normalize it. I have to express myself and who I am.”
The future of rap includes diverse perspectives, and this future will be planted in young collectives.
Rap, at its core, has always been a collaborative genre. It’s about improv, expression, and telling a story through words and beats. Shouldn’t all stories be welcome?