Rapping With A Queer Twist Gay female rapper Benni E.’s success is imminent.
by Bill Chenevert
The 941 Theater, a BYO venue on North Front St. in Northern Liberties, is filled with girls looking like boys and boys dancing like girls. Twenty-somethings with beards and decked in plaid dance like sissies. Dykes in tank tops and pompadours rub up against their girlfriends. They’re smiling ear to ear and bumpin’ as Sgt. Sass drop their latest EP, Body Rock, with the help of their girl Benni Emilia.
If Sgt. Sass is the beating heart of Philly’s queer hip-hop scene, then Benni E. is the blood pulsating through it. The 25-year-old rapper is here, she’s queer and she doesn’t give a fuck about the homophobic and mysognistic attitudes that characterize most big money rappers. She’s on a journey to become the first gay rapper to hit big.
The South Philly native sees the power in music—just rapping about gay life becomes an act of protest, musical activism—and she won’t let the masculine posturing of the rap game, claims of riches and Cristal-fueled mega club-bangers keep her at arms length.
“Right now, going mainstream and being a queer hip hop artist are exclusive things. I think that’s why we push ourselves and we push our envelope because it shouldn’t be.”
“Gay boys, making hip hop is a revolutionary act,” raps Deep Dickollective. “Gay girls, making hip-hop is a revolutionary act.” Revolutionizing hip-hop is what Benni hopes to accomplish with her latest mixtape, Microphone Influenza. Some of the perfectly produced and studio-polished gems from Influenza were the tracks that floored at 941: “I’m Good,” “Sickest Emcee,” Girlz to Church” and “Fashion Scene” to name a few.
Like many queer rap artists including Sgt. Sass, Benni is taking the hip-hop’s homophobia and spinning gold out of hate. Consciousness doesn’t have to mean boring. Gay artists intend to take conscious rap where Common and Talib took it, but with more color and fierceness. Benni’s trim head sometimes gets covered in a colorful bob wig or with just a fresh New Era hat, stickers on and everything. Fashion is actually important to the Art Institute alum. “People judge you before they know who you are,” Benni explains. “Fashion is a way to make a statement.” So she rocks jeans, high-tops, and fly printed T-shirts, not the dresses and skirts her Panamanian mom expected her to wear as a kid. That’s just the packaging though; the message from Benni is the real product.
OutHipHop.com owner and editor Camilo Arenivar is launching his own LGBT indie hip hop label and has his eye on Benni. “Her flow is just incredible. Her stage presence and her delivery, she just got up there like a class act as if rapping and rhyming was like breathing to her,” he commended. “I think she has an appearance, an appeal that will work. She’s fire.”
Philly could be the home of the first queer rapper to achieve big things and take hip-hop to a new and exciting place.
Benni’s been proactively affecting change at large and in Philly for years now. She began reciting conscious poems and lyrics, which she first performed at Duiji Mshinda’s Poems Not Prisons in West Philly at the age of 20. She’s marched in rallies for peace and queer rights, and recently completed work with City Year, a non-profit that’s embedding full-time volunteers in schools as tutors and after-school care providers.
But at the end of the day, says Benni, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and right now she’s focused on the rap game. She recently accompanied the members of Sgt. Sass to San Francisco’s Homo-A-Go-Go, a big gay festival of arts and performance. She met up with Philly’s DJ Bunnystyle, her longtime collaborator and live DJ, and Steven Bloodbath to talk about future tracks they’ll be putting down together. Last week she emceed and performed a short set at local FTM Parker Gard’s ByeBye Boobies Benefit, a queer open mic and performance night to raise money for top surgery. Next week, she embarks on a Boston adventure headlining a queer night at Zuzu, put on by DJ D’hana and Paul Foley, and then joins a roster of performers for Aliza Shapiro’s TraniWreck at the Middle East. She’s busy.
Right now it’s a collection of songs for a mixtape called The Ninth Oz Child. “I’m breaking away from the party-hearty hip-hop,” she says. It’s a prologue to a future full-length, a testing of the waters to generate press and create more opportunities to get on the mic. It’s going down with the help of Neal Dexter, the RUINIT producer she met through Philly’s Chang Chang, in his Jersey studio. Benni’s not into playing to an audience just looking for the next hot electro beat. She’s going to do it lyrically and not with songs about booze, but injustices.
She’s following through on a struggle that began in Southern California in the mid-’90s with queer hip-hop legends Rainbow Flava and Deep Dickollective (D/DC). “People made the way for us like D/DC, Deadlee, Tori Fixx. These cats laid the groundwork and it’s time for us to pick up our weight and do what we’re supposed to do,” she says.
The infiltration of gay rappers in hip-hop is now a multi-city movement with over 100 out LGBT rappers and producers thriving in three primary urban pockets: New York, L.A./San Francisco and Atlanta. “I use hip-hop as my venue as an artist—it’s what I use to get whatever I’m going through in my life out,” says Sgt. Sass’s DaQuan. “I happen to be queer so that’s what I’m gonna talk about.” “Faggot Snappin’” might be the perfect example of Sgt. Sass’ gay ways: “First you gotta limp your wrist with attitude and snap it back,” DaQuan raps. “Flip your hair like you don’t care, roll your back and snap right/ Some don’t like the term I use to label up this brand new dance/ I hear the word everyday, they call me it at every chance.”
Benni’s battle won’t be easy, she’s got two industry strikes against her: Hip-hop continues to take pride in lyrical gay bashing and misogyny. To be a queer rapper reaching for mainstream exposure you’ve got to be pretty damn amazing and Alex Hinton’s Pick Up The Mic documentary revealed the struggle for gay hip-hop artists across the country. From homo-central New York City to Houston, Texas’ Miss Money, to Madison, Wis., there’s a whole stable of gays, lesbians, trans and bisexual men and women grappling with the crushing truth that they’ll probably never achieve the stardom they hope for.
It’s the reason most queer rappers are content to just play to their own crowd. “Sissies will go buy a sissy record,” says Juba Kalamka of Body Rock, one of the two masterminds behind Deep Dickollective. With over twenty years of emceeing under his tube dress, he has a firm grasp on what success for a queer rapper means and knows that artists like Benni will be hard-pressed to sell 15-20,000 records, the kind of numbers major labels want to see as proof that you can sell.
Some homo hip-hoppers may be content to dwell in the success of their respective underground cultures, but Benni wants more. “If you make good music you make good music,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what genre, what your background is. If you’re makin’ good music people are gonna support you.”
Benni knows that there’s no money in keepin’ it local and has been able to make a living performing and with Yo Majesty's success, a Tampa, Fla.-born outspoken lesbian trio of rappers, it doesn't seem so far off. Their explicit and often nudity-filled stage performances have been well-received by critics, homos and forward-thinking straights. It’s a spotlight that Benni may be able to capitalize on, though she’s definitely not getting naked. She doesn’t have to. Benni Emilia’s got the goods, the flow, the beats and the charm.
The Israeli punks in Monotonix are something else. They sing in English but it might as well be Hebrew. It’s nearly unintelligible. But that doesn’t really matter – their brand of garage rock is dirty, gritty and heavy on the guitars and wails. Where Were You When It Happened? is their first proper LP after their successful 2008 Drag City EP Body Language. Clocking in at half an hour with eight songs, it’s a rollicking bundle of energy full of screams, moans, drum rolls, feedback, crescendos and lulls.
Their live show reputation precedes them. Notorious for lewd, crude behavior (pouring beers on heads, climbing walls and lighting things on fire) resulting in audience members likely heading home with bruises and scratches, the question is if their antics live up to a record of substance. From the first track, a barreling two-minute introduction called “Flesh And Blood,” you get a Black Keys vibe but more like if those Ohio boys got wasted, pissed off, and took it out on their guitar and drums.
It’s not easy to assert levels of punk in hard, guitar-heavy rock, but these guys are somewhere between Royal Trux, angry Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy. They’ve done a couple tours with the Silver Jews but at their gnarliest moments, Where Were You sounds like a Black Sabbath record. Album standout “I Can’t Take It Anymore” is a more digestible rock song. Despite lead singer Ami Shalev’s muffled screams, it slows at the chorus and its churning guitar and syncopated drumbeat are damn near classic rock. You can actually decipher some lyrics on the following “My Needs,” when Shalev moans “what are my neeeeds, what are my neeeeeds.” “Something Had Dried” is the closest the trio get to straight up blues. Each verse gets its due punk treatment of thrashes and freak-outs but it keeps coming back to a rolling blues lick. “Set Me Free” is probably the most radio-friendly tune; another slower, deliberate rock song with a catchy drum beat and a minimal sense of anarchy.
This is not for the faint of rock heart. The nastiness is not far from the trio emerging from a bush of pubic hair spilling out of un-zipped jeans on the cover of the record. But late at night with some alcohol-fueled gusto, I’m sure pushing around the drummer and his bass drum as he surfs the crowd and pounds on his tom would be the sweetest thing on earth. Even if you bruise a wrist.
Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson Break Up SOUNDS LIKE: Yorn was going for a Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot thing and ScarJo doesn't ruin his emo guitary duets completely FREE ASSOCIATION: Babe, these aren't Waits songs, you have to really sing FOR FANS OF: Match Point, L.A., "Life on a Chain"
The Proclaimers Notes & Rhymes SOUNDS LIKE: The '500 Miles' twins are still making ultra-Scottish records that are equal parts pub rock, Nashville, Beatlemania and UK folk FREE ASSOCIATION: How many songs into their set do drunks start yelling '500 Miles!'? FOR FANS OF: The '80s + the movie Once
Sea Wolf White Water, White Bloom SOUNDS LIKE: Literary chamber pop full of strings and organs, inspired by a love affair in Montreal and executed in Omaha with a Bright Eyes producer FREE ASSOCIATION: Shoulda recorded it in Canada, woulda sounded less like Conor Oberst FOR FANS OF: Sad Stars, orchestral Rilo Kiley
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers The Bear SOUNDS LIKE: Western MA native and road warrior who writes sappy country-tinged folksy songs that could be terrible but manage to be charming FREE ASSOCIATION: A band that could somehow fit in at state fairs, the Opry, and Mercury Lounge FOR FANS OF: Jackson Browne, the Band, Rhett Miller
The Rifles Great Escape SOUNDS LIKE: East London boys' second LP and US debut is full of punchy, short, mod rock reminiscent of every 21st century UK indie rock band FREE ASSOCIATION: Don't young Brits grow up listening to more than Oasis and the Clash? FOR FANS OF: Straighter Bloc Party, the Kooks
Thrice Beggars SOUNDS LIKE: Anaheim, CA quartet of prog rockers' follow up their epic Alchemy EP cycle with serious cerebro-rock taking themselves very seriously FREE ASSOCIATION: Opening for Brand New and Rise Against might seem like a good idea but... FOR FANS OF: Slower Muse, Warped Tours
Miley Cyrus The Time of Our Lives SOUNDS LIKE: Disney and Walmart team up to re-package the 16-y.o. puppet's Avril-wannabe whiney bullshit, minus "Party In The U.S.A." - pure gold FREE ASSOCIATION: The world waits for her Jonas Bros. gang-bang sex tape with baited breath FOR FANS OF: Taylor Swift, Hillary Duff
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe Brother's Keeper SOUNDS LIKE: The Cali funk guru got some help (Ndegeochello, funky as hell on the bass) but his Greyboy Allstars ish was more electrically fun FREE ASSOCIATION: You can almost smell the herb and envision the hoola-hoopers FOR FANS OF: Festivals of groove, Curtis Mayfield
Ladyhawke Ladyhawke SOUNDS LIKE: Nicely packaged re-release of the New Zealand chick's popularized pseudo-dance electro emo pop that's boring FREE ASSOCIATION: Cute drawings, headbands, and album art won't work on me, this is a snooze FOR FANS OF: Imogen Heap, Tegan & Sara
Castanets Texas Rose, The Thaw & The Beasts SOUNDS LIKE: Quiet, gentle and creepy freak folk with breezy little flourishes of country and blues that'll haunt you good and slow FREE ASSOCIATION: What if a drunk Loretta Lynn stumbled into a Portland open-mic night? FOR FANS OF: WIll Oldham, Devotchka
The Get Up Kids something to write home about reissue SOUNDS LIKE: Kansas City band's big deal '99 re-release that combines elements of timeless powerpop and avoids the pitfalls of ultra-emo crap FREE ASSOCIATION: They make these whippersnapper long-hairs with their tattoos and celeb GFs look stupid FOR FANS OF: Lil' Weezer, lil' Jets to Brazil, lil' Superchunk
Throw Me The Statue Creaturesque SOUNDS LIKE: Jangly, poppy sophomore effort from a Vassar boy using a computer and guitar to make happy times tunes that are casually spoke/sang FREE ASSOCIATION: Secretly Canadian was all over this one, he's so indie he had to tour with Jens Lekman FOR FANS OF: Shins, Say Hi To Your Mom, Sufjan
Os Mutantes Haih or Amortecedor SOUNDS LIKE: The kings of Brazilian tropicalia, who debuted in '68, rolled some reunion shows into a record of new material - muy bueno FREE ASSOCIATION: Moody, rhythmic, spicy and joyous; ultra-authentic Latin flavor FOR FANS OF: Sweaty tequila nights, hip shaking
Manic Street Preachers Journal For Plague Lovers SOUNDS LIKE: Legendary glam-punk rockers of '90s London put missing member's lyrics to music with Nirvana producer at the helm FREE ASSOCIATION: You say you sold more copies of Generation Terrorists than Appetite for Destruction? Bollocks FOR FANS OF: In Utero, The Verve, Smashing Pumpkins
Billy Talent III SOUNDS LIKE: Repetitive un-interesting powerpop-punk from Canada's third LP whose lead singer's voice is brutal, every song's the same FREE ASSOCIATION: How the hell did they win a Juno? Oh wait, Nickelback won 12 FOR FANS OF: Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance
Le Loup Family SOUNDS LIKE: D.C. indie collective's second LP of wicked soundscapes: slowly built loops, banjo and guitar, chanty and choral vocals FREE ASSOCIATION: Finally someone's figured out what Animal Collective has been doing right FOR FANS OF: Fleet Foxes, Panda Bear
Turns out Eagles of Death Metal are not a death metal band. They are, in fact, a kick-ass glam rock band. Despite an opening spot with Guns n’ Roses’ reunion tour that went horribly wrong (they were booed and Axl called them the Pigeons of Shit Metal, which lead guitar/vocalist Jesse Hughes promptly tattooed on his forearm), they’ve honed their own brand of scuzzy goofball glam. The tongue-in-cheekiness is everywhere; hello, the record is called Heart On. They sport mustaches, aviators, and ooze silliness alongside their sexiness.
Take Heart On highlight “(I Used to Couldn’t Dance) Tight Pants.” A metal riff is laid over a disco drum beat while Hughes’ chorus includes a “tiiigght pants WOOO!” A heavy-handed pinch of Rolling Stones is heard throughout the Queens of the Stone Age boys’ third LP (Note: this is not a ’side project’ – Hughes says he has two bands and is a musical schizophrenic). Several songs are laced with hand claps and high-energy guitar. Short three-minute songs feature foot stomps and weird percussive elements (think “Honky Tonk Woman”). While no one’s saying they’re overly derivative, they certainly aren’t breaking musical ground here. They take elements of classic rock, modernize it and sexify it like Hot Hot Heat and Louis XIV.
But Hughes and hometown CA homeboy Josh Homme don’t take themselves very seriously. That’s the beauty of this band. They’re hilariously self-deprecating and make a joke of their rock sexy bravado. Check out what they say about Heart On: “EODM’s latest fabulous weapon, a top-secret music missile, a sonic warhead sexually tipped for her pleasure, shot from the deck of USS EODM Mantastic Fantastic.” On HO’s “Solo Flights,” a glorious examination of self-pleasure, Hughes sings “nobody does me like I do.” The album closer’s called “I’m Your Torpedo.” These guys are nuts and it’s fantastic.
The secret is pretty much out on Eagles of Death Metal. They’ve had songs licensed by Nissan, Payless, Budweiser, Gran Turismo and Epic Movie. But Heart On is their best yet, a playful and partying rock record that makes you want to put on pleather pants and cruise around to disco clubs. “Wanna Be in L.A.” or “High Voltage” will make you dance until you’re uncomfortably sweaty. “Cheap Thrills” would soundtrack your bathroom barfing, then you can get in a fist fight to “Anything ‘Cept the Truth.” Lastly, make up, make out and pass out to the wonderfully slow-tempo “Now I’m a Fool.” Now that’s a night on the town.
Health Get Color SOUNDS LIKE: Ground up guitars and primal drums, glorious post-punk noise from LA kids who play at the Smell because they do too. FREE ASSOCIATION: Those bangs look perfect for squeaky guitar head-banging rhythms. FOR FANS OF: Crystal Castles, Battles, Mika Miko.
David Bazan Curse Your Branches SOUNDS LIKE: Heart-wrenchingly beautiful LP from Pedro the Lion songwriter about faith, life and love with expert guitar support. FREE ASSOCIATION: Sometimes all you need is a great voice and smart lyrics to make it tight. FOR FANS OF: Bon Iver meets National + Dylan.
deadmau5 For Lack of a Better Name SOUNDS LIKE: The Toronto super-producer/DJ drops an hour of clubbed-up electro house on a proper LP for the dance heads. FREE ASSOCIATION: Best-suited for late, late beery nights when anonymity is key. FOR FANS OF: Tiësto, Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold.
BLK JKS After Robots SOUNDS LIKE: South African friends’ anticipated Secretly Canadian LP is a chaotic blend of soweto, tribalism, acid rock and soulful pop. FREE ASSOCIATION: The Police had a sweet reggae streak—this is 50x sweeter. FOR FANS OF: Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, but badass.
A.A. Bondy When The Devil’s Loose SOUNDS LIKE: The Georgia rocker left grunge rock behind when he moved to the Catskills and started making gorgeous sad bastard blues in a barn. FREE ASSOCIATION: This second LP is better than the first; less boozey, more soulful. FOR FANS OF: Waits, Reed, Cohen.
Reverend Horton Heat Laughin’ & Cryin’ with the Reverend Horton Heat SOUNDS LIKE: The land’s foremost practitioners of psychobilly blend blues, polka, rockabilly and bizarro country into one weird-ass trip. FREE ASSOCIATION: Imagine Garth Brooks on acid performing a country-western puppet show. FOR FANS OF: Weird Al Yankovic, Brian Setzer.
Timber Timbre Timber Timbre SOUNDS LIKE: Way cool soft and bluesy folk music that meets up with Canadian country twang, spooks it then hushes it with a lullaby. FREE ASSOCIATION: Do they have a Memphis up there? This is spooky saloon music. FOR FANS OF: Johnny Cash meets Portishead.
Matisyahu Light SOUNDS LIKE: Better record than his debut, which isn’t saying much. You can only take so much Judaic reggaeton. FREE ASSOCIATION: Oh dear, Joel Madden is on a song. That shouldn’t have happened. FOR FANS OF: Bob Marley + DMB x Shaggy
Malajube Labyrinthes SOUNDS LIKE: Quebecois hipsters sing in French, from soft to quiet and sweet to loud, menacing proggy indie rock—je l’aime. FREE ASSOCIATION: It’d be rad to go to a sweet Quebec party with these pretty boys. FOR FANS OF: The Dears, Radiohead
Datarock Red SOUNDS LIKE: Norwegian dudes who are legit obsessed with computers, the Internet and digital stuff—also dramatic dance music. FREE ASSOCIATION: Remember when the Internet was freaking people out? FOR FANS OF: Daft Punk, Röyksopp, nerds
Arctic Monkeys Humbug SOUNDS LIKE: UK juggernauts who knocked Oasis off their high horse, deliver another stunning set of guitar rock and slick vocals. FREE ASSOCIATION: Believe the hype—inspired young blokes who make fit records. FOR FANS OF: The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand
The Apples in Stereo #1 Hits Explosion SOUNDS LIKE: 50+ minutes of fuzzy, jangly, happy rock music from the Denver-born band who adore the Beach Boys and the Beatles. FREE ASSOCIATION: Only one original member left, but he’s tight with Stephen Colbert. FOR FANS OF: Pet Sounds, walls of sound
The Red Channels Ghetto Cooking SOUNDS LIKE: A freak folk duo’s third and beautifully weird gem of dub and reggae-infused beats over Björk-like howls. FREE ASSOCIATION: Even the leftovers are probably dope the next day. FOR FANS OF: Blonde Redhead, Lee Perry
LeToya Lady Love SOUNDS LIKE: Destiny’s Child outcast is over that ish and making fierce records to let everyone know she can sing like the dickens. FREE ASSOCIATION: Feelin’ those Estelle and Ludacris guest spots. FOR FANS OF: Survivors
Division Day Visitation SOUNDS LIKE: Solid cerebral indie rock from Santa Cruz heavy on the drums, keys, and bass hinting at shoegaze, post-rock and ‘80s pop. FREE ASSOCIATION: Damn, that’s some sexy record art, layout and fonts. FOR FANS OF: Joy Division, Interpol
Collective Soul Collective Soul SOUNDS LIKE: This album should not have been made—their relevance was mild at best in the ‘90s and they’re Target minions now. FREE ASSOCIATION: Collective Soul is to grunge as Fall Out Boy is to punk; brutal poachers. FOR FANS OF: Bush, Live, the ‘90s
Some great new records are constantly coming my way. And with my writing the 30 Second jobs for Philly Weekly I'm getting quite good at being concise. I just want any readers to check out some titles for themselves, download, go to shows, etc.
#1 - Le Loup's Family
I effing love this record. It might seem at first like indie new-agey world music, but it's a beautiful hybrid of Animal Collective/Panda Bear and Sufjan/Jens folky guitar-oriented strumming. Can't get enough of it. Great reading music.
#2 - Japandroids' Post-Nothing
You've already seen this on my 30 Second Review, but it's truly fantastic noisy post-punk rock music. It's fuzzy, it's not super hi-fi, it's young and passionate, it's simple and it wails. I'm not a heavy rock fanatic, so you know this isn't screaming (or it is, but it's more like yelping and it comes across softly with its mediocre recording quality) or head-banging. It's very charming and endearing.
#3 - The xx's xx
My friend JT just sent this to me and I had to go to Pitchfork to figure out what their deal was. They're four London twenty-ish kids who play with guitars, ambience and machines to achieve a soft, ethereally beautiful pop sound. It's haunting and focuses on their hushed, luscious voices and doesn't need a drummer, somehow. The songs are mostly about sex, needs and wants. So that helps.
#4 - Maxwell's BLACKsummers'night
Still listening to this early-mid summer release. It's a beautiful, slowly infectious record full of great songs beyond the fucking precious single, "Pretty Wings." It's perfect sexy times music but also great background noise or reading music. It's soft, sultry, soulful and just ultra-listenable.
An upstate country boy who was Johnny HighSchool, went to an expensive liberal arts college and took about 20 English classes, went to graduate school in Oregon for a couple years then came back to the Empire state and tried to pass as a city boy for a minute. Now I'm Philly and I love it.