By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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"Who fucks up two full rides?" Michael Quattlebaum Jr. is sitting in the kitchen of his manager's apartment in Williamsburg one cold Sunday morning, drinking a beet juice and wearing sweats. The rapper's hair is close-cropped, almost shaved—a style that makes him look younger than his 27 years, and facilitates the wearing of wigs—and his voice is slightly raspy. "It was a big crisis moment when I dropped out of school. The second time, I was just like, if I'm not successful, if I don't start working really hard at something, I have really fucked up."
Quattlebaum, better known by his rap alias, Mykki Blanco, has not really fucked up. Judging by his schedule, he hasn't fucked up at all. Yesterday he crisscrossed Manhattan and Brooklyn on a 14-hour video shoot. Today he flies to Los Angeles, where he is recording his forthcoming EP. Later this month, he will head to Europe for a 22-city tour that will take him from Finland to Italy. Mykki Blanco raps about gay sex and mutant monsters and Albert Einstein, and although Quattlebaum is a man, Mykki is a woman. She has shared a stage with Grimes, and been photographed by Terry Richardson, and tweets with Azealia Banks, who recently rated Mykki's last mixtape her favorite hip-hop release of 2012. "It looks like the future," Banks told Hypetrak TV late last year. "He can actually rap. It's not like a gimmick at all."
A day earlier, Quattlebaum was dancing on a soundstage in Williamsburg while his song "Kingpinning" played on a loop. He wore a vest covered in studs, a pair of plaid pants, a backward Katz's Deli baseball cap, and a strap-on harness. Clarence Fuller, who did the video for Banks's "Luxury," was directing as a shirtless Quattlebaum—after a wardrobe change to a silk Chanel scarf, worn as a turban—danced with a procession of the downtown-famous: music video director Vashtie Kola, musician Dev Hynes, rapper Le1f, OHWOW gallery founder Aaron Bondaroff, and up-and-coming r&b singer Ian Isaiah all made cameos.
"I roll with all types," Quattlebaum rapped, with a shimmy. "Real niggas, real dykes/White boys with them yarmulkes/Model chicks with a million followers." He is a lithe and agile 6-foot-2. His five o'clock shadow reads on camera and his torso—covered in tattoos of the Star of David, crescent moons, and phrases like "Pony Boy" and "Wise Up"—is flat and androgynous. Between takes, Shayne Oliver, who designs streetwear label Hood by Air, approached tentatively. "This is a—this is maybe stupid," said Oliver, "but, like, when I talk about you, should I say 'he' or 'her' or . . . ?" Quattlebaum grinned.
The first musical genre Quattlebaum identified with was not hip-hop. It was riot grrrl. He was exposed to a variety of influences growing up—his father introduced him to everything from the B-52s to Nirvana; his sister Malaika, his senior by 13 years, liked the Wu-Tang Clan and the Fugees. Quattlebaum used to search Napster, jumping from download to download, figuring out what he liked. Punk turned him off ("Anything that's inherently homophobic," he says, "I can't all the way connect to"), but once he found riot grrrl, at age 14, it became his musical world. "For a long time, I only listened to, like, Julie Ruin, Tracy + the Plastics, and Le Tigre."
Groups like Bikini Kill wrote angry songs about sexual abuse and life among the oppressed, two things a gay black kid in Raleigh, North Carolina, could relate to (Quattlebaum says he was abused as a child). On their website, Le Tigre pointed their fans to feminist and anarchist texts, including works by the pioneering queer academics Audre Lorde, Judith Halberstam, and Leslie Feinberg—giving Quattlebaum a vocabulary for his feelings just as he was trying, in the way of all adolescents, to define his place in the world.
"To be able to identify as a feminist at that age felt really good," he says. "I was still angsty—I was 15—but I was able to identify with something. And it was through riot grrrl that I found out about queercore, and Vaginal Creme Davis, and Bruce LaBruce, and queer zine culture." In his teens, he wrote to the artists he admired, asking for advice. Davis, the members of Le Tigre, and Vincent Gallo wrote back. The performance artist and actor Bibbe Hansen (otherwise known as Beck's mom) became a pen pal. "I knew I was not going to make it out like how most people make it out," Quattlebaum explains. "So I knew I needed to use these other people like models."
Fine-boned and willowy, Quattlebaum didn't grow facial hair until he was 24. He has dressed as a woman in public off and on since he was 16. The first time, during a summer spent as a runaway in New York, he says he put on a pair of bell-bottoms, lipstick, and a silk headscarf and walked down St. Marks Place. A group of gay men whispered, "Is that a girl?" A lesbian security guard catcalled him. "And I remember thinking, Wow, she really does not know.