“Once again a case of your feet in my Nike’s/ If a crowd is in my realm I’m saying, ‘mic please’/ Hip-hop is living, can’t yank the plug/ If you do the result, will end up kind of bugged”
“Be alert, look alive, and act like you know”
“A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see/ And a middle finger goes for all you punk MCs”
“East Coast stomping, ripping and romping”
“Industry rule number four thousand and eighty/ Record company people are shady”
There is no question that A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most legendary hip-hop groups of all time. For the last twenty-five years, Q-tip’s signature velvety voice and Phife Dawg’s relentless staccato flow have influenced hip-hop heads, young and old alike. Released in 1991, The Low End Theory, contains a laid-back feel that is heavily influenced by jazz and the experiential narrative of two twenty-something African-American men from St. Albans, Queens.
Featuring guest bassist Ron Carter, The Low End Theory is driven by the low, pulsing notes of stand up bass. Whether its “Butter,” “Jazz (We’ve Got), or “Verses From The Abstract,” the pulse stays on the far backside of the beat, creating the perfect backdrop for Phife and Tip to tell their stories. With DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the 1’s and 2’s as well as features from Busta Rhymes, Sadat X and Diamond D, The Low End Theory is a primary document of sorts, allowing us to revisit the sounds and feelings of parts of hip-hop in the early 90’s.
On The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, they are in no rush to explain anything to you. Instead, the tempos are in the perfect spot for them to get there, when Tip and the Five Foot Assassin are good and ready. Don’t get me wrong, they want to rap and tell you their stories through the art form that is music. However, as they’ve done throughout their entire career, they do it on their own terms, at their own pace. Thinking about how the music industry is so heavily influenced and based around one-hit-wonders and what’s trending, it’s important to appreciate the artists, past and present, that make the music they want to make, for themselves, despite the industry. With The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest did this, and continues to do so.
The LGBT’S community’s fight for equality has been a hot topic in the news as of late. Almost daily, more and more significant celebrities and politicians come out in support of gays. In the political realm, President Obama’s public support of gay marriage made news last year. In the infamously homophobic sports world, both Brittney Griner and Jason Collins have come out as homosexuals within the past month. Society as a whole has made lots of progress on gay marriage in the past few years, as this March marked the first time in the history of the United States that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Hip-hop does not exist in a vacuum, so the topic of homophobia and equality for homosexuals has been at the forefront of the culture as well. This has produced significant strides within hip-hop in relation to the LGBT community, but hip-hop culture still has a long way to go.
Homophobia has deep roots in hip-hop culture. In fact, the first hip-hop song to ever reach the Billboard Top 40, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” featured homophobic lyrics (“I said he’s a fairy I do suppose / Flyin’ through the air in pantyhose”). This was only the beginning, as rappers have constantly used “faggot” or other derogatory terms towards homosexuals in order to question other rappers’ manhood. One of the most progressive groups in hip-hop history, A Tribe Called Quest, created the song “Georgie Porgie” with the sole purpose of disparaging the homosexual community. Go through your favorite rapper’s album and you will more than likely hear the word “faggot” or “fairy” at one point or another.
“Georgie Porgie” by A Tribe Called Quest
This trend was not limited to the 90’s, as homophobia within hip-hop has continued into the 21st century as well. For example, in the early 2000’s Cam’ron coined the term “no homo,” which absolves rappers from the “embarrassment” of having a statement misinterpreted as being “gay.” This term has hung around and is widely used in songs to this day, most notably by Lil’ Wayne.
What’s interesting, and even a bit comical about homophobia in hip-hop culture is the fact that, according to PBS:
“Homophobia, homoeroticism and hypermasculinity often go hand in hand. In hip-hop, for instance, images of thugged out, hypermasculine men of color—posing shirtless, greased up, muscular—decorate magazine and album covers. While these images might not have been created as explicitly homoerotic, hypermasculinity in hip-hop…serve to bond men together” (PBS)
How many times have you seen hip-hop artists posing shirtless on their album covers? What about all those music videos with “the crew” hanging out with their shirts off? Hip-hop artists constantly toe the line between homo- and hetero- sexual, so they feel they need to make up for it by being outwardly vocal about their sexual orientation. From rapping about all the women they have sex with to calling each other “faggots,” they constantly overcompensate for their homoerotic tendencies to ensure nobody calls them gay. This is not something that is unique to hip-hop; it can be applied to society as a whole. People, particularly heterosexual males, constantly need to put down people of other skin colors, gender, religion, and sexual orientation in order to cover up their insecurities and meet their misconstrued, ignorant ideologies of “masculinity.” To Hip-hop culture, being gay makes one less of a man, which is a viewpoint that is both incorrect and embarrassing. We should judge an MC’s character by their morals, honestly, loyalty and storytelling ability, not by their sexual orientation.
One of the first times hip-hop ever extended an olive branch to the gay community came at an unlikely time from an unlikely source. Throughout the 90’s, hip-hop was largely homophobic, and no significant rapper had ever publicly supported or even accepted gays. This changed in 2001 when Eminem and Elton John–who was arguably the most famous homosexual in the world at the time–performed “Stan” live at the Grammy’s. It was so shocking because Eminem was infamous for his homophobic lyrics, an example of which occurs in his song “Criminal” when he raps, “Hate fags? The answer’s yes / Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic.” Eminem and Elton John were polar opposites, but they delivered an awe-inspiring, spine-chilling performance, and remain good friends to this day. Obviously, this didn’t absolve Eminem from his absurdly homophobic lyrics, but it was still a big day for the hip-hop community. If an artist of Eminem’s stature could come out and publicly support the LGBT community’s fight for equality, it made it more likely that others would do the same.
Eminem and Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards
More recently, hip-hop united with gays during the fight for marriage equality leading up to the elections last fall. Macklemore, an independent rapper from Seattle, released his song “Same Love” in support of the Referendum 74, which lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in Washington. The release of this song was greeted with great fanfare, as it quickly became the anthem for supporters of Referendum 74, which was passed. In the song, Macklemore doesn’t hold any shots back when attacking critics of gay marriage, including hip-hop culture (“If I was gay, I would think Hip hop hates me”). Macklemore even touches on the commonalities between hip-hop and gays (“A culture founded by oppression / Yet we don’t have acceptance for ‘em”). If any culture should be able to empathize with the plight of gays, it should be hip-hop; a culture born from oppression and continues to be oppressed to this day. The success of the single, which peaked at #89 on the US Billboard Top 100, goes to show how accepting hip-hop fans were of Macklemore’s message about marriage equality. This was a far cry from hip-hop of the past, which, according to Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, viewed gays as “filthy and funny to the utmost exponent.” Although Macklemore’s “Same Love” was not the first instance of a hip-hop artist supporting gays, it was still a breath of fresh air into a culture that has historically been filled with homophobia.
More and more popular rappers are joining the LGBT community in their fight for equality. One of these rappers is A$AP Rocky, whose Long. Live. A$AP album held the top spot on the Billboard charts earlier this year. In an interview with Hard Knock TV late last year, the Harlem MC stated:
“Yo, you don’t have to worry about what he’s doing. If he’s gay, that’s his business. Why does it matter? If you gay, why do you care? I don’t give a fuck about gay people. I don’t! I don’t give a fuck about straight people. I don’t care. It don’t matter to me” (HiphopDX)
To hear this come from the mouth of one of the most popular hip-hop artists is progress. Also, the fact that this statement didn’t make many headlines, as it wasn’t considered big news for a popular rapper to support gays, testifies to the paradigm shift occurring throughout hip-hop. It is hard to imagine a prominent rapper, such as Biggie or Tupac, coming out and doing the same in the 1990’s. In fact, one of Biggie’s best friends, Mann, was gay, but that didn’t stop him from spitting homophobic bars in his songs.
However, today’s relationship between hip-hop and gays is not as peachy as some make it out to be. In that same interview with Hard Knock TV, A$AP states:
“We made it cool – I kicked down the door for kids that’s my age, older and younger, to be able to wear Jeremy Scott sneakers, rips in their jeans and not feel gay” (HiphopDX)
Although he says this with good intentions, this is just one of many examples of how hip-hop artists, as well as society as a whole, can insult the homosexual community while intending to help them. Notice how A$AP says that he made it so kids can do things and not feel gay, insinuating that feeling gay is a bad thing. He’s not stating that it’s OK to be gay, he’s just saying that he’s de-gayified some things, such as fashion. This directly contradicts the statements he made earlier in the same interview, and he doesn’t even notice. This is a contradiction that probably goes unnoticed by a majority of readers as well, which is also a problem. Years and years of conditioning from society and hip-hop have led A$AP, as well as many others within hip-hop culture, to think that being gay is a blemish on one’s self. This shows how deeply rooted the problems of homophobia are within the culture, and how difficult it is going to be to change.
Another, albeit less subtle, example of hip-hop oppressing the homosexual community began with Tyler, The Creator’s public support of fellow Odd Future member Frank Ocean’s announcement that he was gay. Because of the widespread use of the word “faggot” in Tyler’s songs, the fact that he came to the side of Ocean was both surprising and confusing. When confronted about the homophobic slur he explained:
“He knows me, and he knows I don’t care about being gay. It’s just another word to me. I’m not homophobic. I just think ‘faggot’ hits and hurts people. It hits. And ‘gay’ just means you’re stupid. I don’t know, we don’t think about it, we’re just kids. We don’t think about that shit. But I don’t hate gay people. I don’t want anyone to think I’m homophobic” (BET)
Odd Future members (going from left to right) Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt (Photo Credit: Terry Richardson)
There’s so much wrong with this quote that I don’t know where to begin. He claims that he only uses “faggot” because it “hits hard” and holds power. It doesn’t look like he has done much contemplation to find out why the slur “hits hard”: it is a word rooted in oppression and intolerance. Using such a controversial word over and over does not diminish its power; it only gives his listeners an excuse to keep using the slur, an excuse to be intolerant and ignorant. He also seems to believe that he’s justified in using the word because Frank Ocean doesn’t mind. For the sake of comparison, would it be alright for white people to run around saying the n-word, and when confronted about it claim that they “Don’t think about that shit?” What if they said it’s cool because they have one Black friend that doesn’t mind? Ignorance is never a valid excuse to insult and demean other human beings, but that doesn’t stop Tyler. And this isn’t even acknowledging the fact that his definition of gay is “stupid,” which is a huge problem itself. Like A$AP Rocky as well as many hip-hop artists who “support” gay marriage, Tyler subconsciously contradicts himself. In this case, he claims that he’s not homophobic, but uses slurs that reinforce the negative stereotypes that have constantly hampered gays’ fight for equality.
The dictionary defines Homophobia as “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.” Irrational. These are fellow human beings. Human beings that are constantly being degraded and humiliated in front of our very eyes, yet we chose to do nothing about it. Yes, society as a whole (including hip-hop culture) has made a lot of progress, but progress is not equality. Discrimination is not equality. Rather than going out of our way to demean gays, we should be going out of our way to help gays; to fight for their rights, to ensure equality for a fellow group of human beings. Especially within hip-hop culture, which was founded on the premise of spreading positivity in the face of oppression and discrimination. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when he said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.