For as long as rap music and hip hop culture have existed, its been known as one of the most hyper-masculine genres. A lot of hip hop culture is based on machismo and posturing to the point where hyperbole eventually becomes actualized. That’s why its interesting to see that rap culture and male culture to a certain extent has become more androgynous over the last few years. Not that it’s become an entirely effeminate day at the spa across the board, but here and there a tinge of a cultural upheaval has become a much more common occurrence.
What’s really interesting is that the very early aesthetic if not directly was at least partially inspired by gay culture. The very origins of some rap DJs and early rap records got tested out in New York City gay clubs before they had a chance to make it to the boombox, and on top of that many early rap songs were derived from disco hits. One of the earliest and most famous was The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” which was based on a few second breakbeat from the Chic track “Good Times”. Beyond the musical inspiration for rap origins the clothing was also appropriated or sampled at least partially from gay culture. If you look at very early hip hop clothing from the late 70s to early 80s it was tons of leather and spikes, and gauntlets and chains; it was almost an urban spin on the collective aesthetic between punk and gay leather clubs.
With hip hop culture being one of the most experimental genres of course the aesthetic eventually mutated into tons of different forms over the years and quickly progressed away from its origins to a more urban sportswear look that came in the 1980s and 1990s with Run DMC and their Adidas partnership, and tons of other highly sought after hip hop brands like Troop, Fila, Nike, Coogi, Puma, and countless others. Eventually this aesthetic changed again in the late 1990s to early 2000s and gigantic triple XL everything became the standard hip hop wardrobe.
It wasn’t until the late 2000s that the hip hop aesthetic made a return to a more fitted, and less comically oversized look. Around this same time androgyny within male culture overall became more of a culturally accepted aesthetic. The infamous metrosexual movement in the 2000s (as expertly satirized on South Park) made it okay for men to care more about their physical grooming and a feminine style without suffering the risk of mockery from their male counterparts. As this trend progressed in the mainstream it eventually made its way into hip hop culture.
Kanye West, who has received his own fair share of sexuality comments, was one of the first rappers who made it okay to be seen in the front row at a Galliano show accompanied by Taz Arnold in leopard print leggings (again immortalized on South Park on the classic Kanye gay fish episode) while at the same time maintaining at least some element of street cred within the music industry. Kanye was more of an isolated example at the time he first started immersing himself in the world of fashion, but eventually it became okay for hyper masculine rappers to reference these haute couture designers and still maintain a sense of bravado on their songs.
Artwork via Teen Witch
The last few years has really expanded on what Kanye quasi initiated and now androgyny in rap music has really come to the forefront of the hip hop cultural discussion. One of the main if not the most vocal advocates of this new culture is definitely Lil B. Even before he named his most recent album I’m Gay (I’m Happy), he was lacing his dada based raps with tons of almost gender neutral sentiments. Although Lil B says that he’s 100% straight, he constantly refers to himself as a pretty bitch, has repeatedly called himself a f****t and lesbian on tons of different tracks, and he constantly refers to his wardrobe as “tiny shirt tiny pants” which is a direct inversion of the initial bigger is better aesthetic. Because of his extremely out there album title Lil B has spoken on numerous occasions about the role of sexuality and androgyny in rap music and more then anything he refers to his perception of hip hop culture as all accepting genre with no judgment towards any minority group.
One of the most interesting aspects about this discussion is the sharp contrast between the experimental nature of rap music and its sometimes extremely strict rules of conduct. It’s something that’s completely modern in nature in that it’s the only genre that is entirely based on sampling other genres, but at the same time its aesthetic for the most part has strictly defined rules about what’s acceptable. Something like skinny jeans have really only been worn by men for a few years, and when sub-sects or small areas of the rap community began wearing them, there was a huge backlash in both interviews and songs from the more traditional rap artists. Even recently the rapper Danny Brown was in talks with 50 Cent to be signed to his label G-Unit and one aspect that made the deal fall though was that Danny Brown wears vintage rock t shirts and skinny jeans and has half of his head shaved with an almost wavy pompadour, and even though he’s one of the most talented underground rappers right now, his aesthetic was enough of an issue to sour the deal.
That’s what’s really interesting about the current rap climate and even how androgyny is perceived in different cultures across the board. There was an article in The New York Times recently about a trend among gay men in New York City that wear pumps and stilettos with their otherwise masculine outfits (which is also something that’s been a constant on The Real Housewives of Atlanta since Season 1). On the runway and with street fashion especially in Japan and Europe male leggings have become at least somewhat commonplace for more experimental aesthetics.
In tons of different cultural arenas male androgyny has started to make headway as a more accepted form of expression, and its interesting to see that even in the hyper masculine climate of hip hop culture there’s at least a tinge of that happening, even if the proponents are few and far between. Andre 3000 was wearing absolutely garish almost drag-esque costumes for years, and even the ultimate anti-hero “your rapper’s favorite rapper” Cam’ron was absolutely infatuated with the color pink for a year or so in the early 2000s, to the extent that he was constantly seen hopping out of his custom Laffy Taffy pink Range Rover in head to toe pink chinchilla that looked like a cotton candy factory imploded. Of course Camron and his Dipset cohorts also came up with the well known “No Homo” adlib, its still interesting that hip hop culture has evolved to the point where you can maintain a sense of hyper masculinity while still immersed in an almost Lisa Frank esque aesthetic. Hip Hop culture will probably always have a complicated relationship with androgyny but at least over the years its scope has expanded to start including more experimental aspects that truly hark back to its groundbreaking origins.