By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
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"I could go anywhere with Mykki," says musician Bill Sales, better known as Brenmar, who produced "Kingpinning" and Quattlebaum's song "Wavvy"—an Internet hit that has been viewed over half a million times on YouTube. "He's willing to do any kind of beats—so long as it bangs and it's dope."
Quattlebaum's recording history may be brief, but his career trajectory is promising. In addition to his European tour, late last year he did a stint through Canada and the U.S. supporting the alt-rap group Death Grips, and released both an EP and a mixtape. His second EP is due in May, with a North American tour that will take him through more than a dozen cities including Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, and Toronto to follow this spring. His birthday show at the Bowery Ballroom sold out. He will spend the summer playing the big European music festivals.
Music writer Miles Raymer thinks the rise of Mykki Blanco can be attributed to two factors: growing acceptance of gay people, and indie rap's less troubled relationship with the mainstream. He sees Quattlebaum and his contemporaries bringing a "punk rock energy" to rap. At the same time, "These are artists who want to be big, but want to do it completely on their own terms. I don't think that [indie rappers] particularly cared about being accepted before. They wore that as a badge of pride. But these new artists, like Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and Azealia Banks, all the usual suspects, they all want to be as big as anyone else. They want to be superstars. But they want to do it by being as weird as they want to be." And, adds Raymer, "It's a good time to be weird."
Quattlebaum argues that hip-hop, with all its swag, has a rich a history of weird, a long line of artists subverting gender norms just as they have done in "whiter" genres like glam rock and pop. This is a community with room for Cam'ron and his pink furs, for Kanye West and his leather skirts and Céline women's wear, for Tupac and his immaculately groomed eyebrows. Even the most explicitly homophobic rappers regularly accessorize with more jewelry than a Tiffany's window. "Do you not think that with all that flamboyant imagery, gay children were not getting turned on to, like, what was going on? Or not relating to it?" asks Quattlebaum. "It's like, who is really fooling who?"
Michael Quattlebaum Jr. putting on a push-up bra and becoming Mykki Blanco onstage is fundamentally not that different from André Benjamin putting on a polka-dotted bow tie and becoming André 3000. As for the much-debated "authenticity" issue, Quattlebaum has zero patience for such policing. "I know what 'keeping it real' means," he says. "Everyone knows what 'keeping it real' means. But when you're an entertainer, you're not supposed to be keeping it real. No, I am not 'keeping it real,'" he says emphatically. "And none of you are."
He sounds a little sick of reading (and being interviewed for) "queer rap" trend stories such as those that have appeared in recent months in Details, The Guardian, and Pitchfork—the endless chronicles of Le1f, Zebra Katz, Ocean, and Odd Future's DJ Syd the Kid. And he takes offense at the idea that they are all "struggling for acceptance" in their community. "Do you guys realize that if the music wasn't good, this would be nothing? That your culture piece, that your trend piece, would be nothing?" he asks. "It's not that I am trying to derail you from all of the glorious political implications, and the connecting of dots, and the feeling you have that this is something brand new—but it's not.
"It's like, no. My fans are 15-year-olds on Tumblr who get all of my references," he continues. "If I was struggling to find acceptance, I wouldn't have a fucking booking agent."
It's well after midnight on a freezing night in Berlin. Quattlebaum is crashing with a photographer friend in the middle of his European tour; he spent the day huddled under a SpongeBob SquarePants comforter. His DJ, Open1one, went to a party at the megaclub Berghain sometime this morning and hasn't been seen since; Mykki Blanco is going to have to do her show without him.
It's some time after 2 a.m. when Mykki reaches the nightclub, which is called, amazingly, Ficken 3000. It's one of Berlin's oldest gay clubs, and the ceiling is covered with CDs that reflect light like a disco ball. The bouncer wears a gold leather gimp mask. Two male porn stars are having athletic, hairless sex on the television screens above the bar, and a go-go dancer with a devilish goatee and a neck tattoo is warming up the crowd. The promoter is angry that his talent is late, but Quattlebaum ignores him. Two lesbians with asymmetrical haircuts make out rhythmically on the dance floor. It seems like a skeptical Sunday night audience, perhaps more interested in grinding to Beyoncé than listening to defiantly weird foreign-language rap by a guy in purple leggings. The air tastes pre-breathed. The bouncer is smoking through the mouth hole of his mask.