- “Put Some Bass in Your Walk”Notes on Queerness, Hip Hop, and the Spectacle of the Undoable
Because this is a history (of sorts), I’ll open here by locating us in a time—the 1990s—and a place—New York City. But because this history is, essentially, a history of style, of movement, of arguable origins and promiscuous genealogies, this temporal and geographical frame will get broken, necessarily, by jumps in time. Because this article has taken as its main objects of thought a cadre of urban style-conscious young people, whom historian Robin D. G. Kelley has described as, the “brown bodies of varying hues whose lack of employment has left them with plenty of time to ‘play’”1 while performing their cultural lives upon the public stage of New York, there will be places where we will slip into a temporal space a few decades before the 1990s, as those genealogies I referred to earlier branch off, into other narratives.
The first time I saw a pair of young men voguing, moving sinuously, rhythmically, across the dance floor of a nightclub called Tracks in 1987, I felt the same way I felt the first time I heard rap music, standing on the broken, weed-strewn running track at my suburban New York junior high school. Voguing looked, to my neophyte eyes—new to social, public “gayness,” new to the rarified, hothouse intensity of gay club life—as brazen and candid as rap music had sounded. It registered as something defiant in presentation yet simple and declarative in tone; as self-making; as powerful. I would later write about, and speak of, what I saw as the similarities in both forms, in voguing bodies and rapping voices, and the gender-fucking and -enhancing methods they both used to self-referentialize both the experience of being a “brown [End Page 214] body” on the public stage and the homosocial valences of that experience.2 And I was told that I shouldn’t say the things I said. I shouldn’t align hip hop with ball culture, even if I believed that these brown bodies were actively theorizing through their physical and vocal aesthetic labor on the performance of race, gender, class, and sexuality by marginalized communities in American society, because one was “straight” and the other was “gay.” I shouldn’t think about or openly write about black male bodies in hip hop because the black male body had been historically under siege in American culture, a site of violence and trauma and demasculization. To equate boys in diva drag with boys in Kangols and Adidas was to besmirch hip hop, whose virtues, as a black male, as a black male writer, I was encouraged to extol and celebrate. It didn’t help my case that I also had a theory about a common genealogical strain informing the contours of rap culture and ball culture. But I ceased to emphasize them; there seemed to be no point, and the irony of my ideas about the sayability of these defiant cultural forms being rendered unsayable was not lost on me. The argument would never be won.
That theory, as it were, was this: rap music, sonically and vocally birthed from a polycultural mix of influences, including the African griot tradition, Caribbean dub music, and loops of black American percussive funk breaks, is queer, having found its commercial foothold through the aural nuances of disco, most notably, The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” its music track built from a replayed break of Chic’s “Good Times.” Blasting from boom boxes and car stereos, emanating from the immense speakers that flew along the ceilings of strobe-lit, coke-fueled nightclubs, Chic’s “Good Times” was, in many ways, the perfect disco anthem, a sonic blend of soaring strings, funky drumming, and vocal attitude. In that bit of sonic snatching, repurposing, resequencing, “Rapper’s Delight” not only seduced its way into the disco landscape, it also broke ground for the broader dissemination of rap music’s aural pleasures, climbing as high as #36 on United States pop charts and #1 on Canadian and Dutch charts. Also through this...