By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"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.
"I had no idea that sexuality was so fluid," he says. Dressed as a woman, he became aware, both from the reactions that he elicited from men on the street and from Craigslist's hookup pages, that gender could be fluid: both very real and very artificial. "Even though I was gay, the world to me was still so black-and-white," he says. "I had no idea that people were so sexually ambiguous. I had no idea that the Tom, Dick, and Harry that I saw every day in their business suits could also have this interest in something that was so completely not the norm."
Quattlebaum once dressed as a woman so consistently that friends and family thought he might come out as transgender. "I started to realize that all of that shit, all of that theory, all of that stuff about makeup, all that stuff that you pick up in books or in college about 'the creation of the woman'—that is real," he says. "It's real. And a little pretty boy can put on the same thing and then become that. That was the mindfuck. That was the huge mindfuck." Gender was a performance, perhaps the performance. And Quattlebaum was born to perform.
Quattlebaum's father and namesake was a longtime IT specialist at Siemens in California. He's now retired and working as a professional psychic. His mother, Deborah Butler, is a paralegal in the North Carolina Patent and Trademark Office. The couple divorced when Quattlebaum was two years old; he grew up between Raleigh and San Mateo County, California, where his paternal grandparents live. He performed publicly for the first time as a kindergartner when he entered a school talent show. "We would watch music videos and write down the words until Michael memorized them," Butler says.
Quattlebaum had always wanted to be an artist, and he hoped art school would be his ticket out of North Carolina. He was good enough at performance art and photography to get a full scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago. But he proved an undisciplined student, and took time off after two semesters. He attempted a third before abandoning the school for good.
Quattlebaum bounced around, squatting and couch-surfing, for a few years in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles before moving to New York, where he'd been offered another scholarship, this time at Parsons. He didn't even last a semester.
He tried painting, and then returned to photography—a selection of his photos was published online by Nicola Formichetti, the stylist, Lady Gaga collaborator, and creative director of Dazed & Confused magazine—but ultimately didn't take to either. An internship at Team Gallery left him burnt out on what he calls "the snobbery, and cattiness, and cutthroat-ness, and the faux-academicism" of the art world.
"New York became very swallowed by Purple magazine—that Dash Snow socialite bad-boy thing," he sighs. "It's like, I'm sorry, but the excess of Terence Koh is not interesting."
Yet Quattlebaum had always been drawn to the stage. "I think a big part of people being able to love and accept Michael for who he is, is Michael's acceptance of himself," says Butler. As a child in Raleigh, he had an agent for acting work and carved out an identity as a teenage playwright, winning grants from a local youth arts organization to mount performance art pieces, most of which explored female subjectivity. He had always written poetry, too, and after dropping out of Parsons, he started reading it live, accompanied by music. His book, From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys, was published by OHWOW's imprint in 2011. (The title refers to an obscure 1973 performance piece by the Italian artist Vettor Pisani.) In videos of those performances, Quattlebaum prowls the stage, often without a shirt. His delivery is fast and rhythmic. It's not hard to see how he made the leap to rap.
"I woke up one day and I was like, What are you? What are you best at? What have you always done?" he says. "From kid actor to weirdo performance artist, what are you good at? You are good at performing. You are good at being on stage."
In the fall of 2010, Quattlebaum opened his laptop, pointed the browser to Facebook, and recorded a confessional video in the character of a teenaged girl he named Mykki Blanco. From the outset, she was by turns clever and foul-mouthed, sulky and cheeky. The clips are intentionally lo-fi and cartoonish—Mykki talking about trying out for JV cheerleading, complaining about being grounded, trying on earrings at Claire's—but endearing.
While Mykki Blanco may be female, she is not always a girl. She can be a glamazon in a bandage dress or a tomboy goth in combat boots and black lipstick. Intellectually and aesthetically, Quattlebaum's persona has more in common with Kurt Cobain wearing a dress onstage than it does with RuPaul's Drag Race.
"In all my press releases, I make them use the word 'her,'" Quattlebaum explains. "Even if you're looking at a picture of Mykki Blanco shirtless in baggy pants, you are going to say 'her,' because language doesn't mean anything."
This idea, that language is meaningless, flies in the face of much of the history of queer and trans rights activism, which insists that language is very powerful indeed. The battle to get an "F" changed to an "M" on a driver's license is, on one level, a battle over language; so is the battle to get civil-rights legislation to include transgender people as a protected class.
But Quattlebaum isn't interested in traditional activism. He says he hates the word "queer"—"I use it only because it exists"—and the field of queer studies along with it. "I have a lot of problems with the academic queer community because it's a community that exists completely removed from reality," he says. "Those kids who are selling their bodies on the West Side Highway, on Christopher Street, they don't even know what the fuck queer theory is."
Mykki Blanco is not a statement, in other words. And while she is something more than a creation for the stage, she's by no means an Identity. Quattlebaum is not, as some have described him, a "trans rapper;" he is a gay man who sometimes dresses as a woman, which is quite a different thing. "I'm not not aware of the advantages that I have that someone who actually is fully transgender does not have," he says, carefully. "I don't want to ever seem as if I am trivializing the transgender community. If I was really living the trans lifestyle that some of the girls that I know in New York have to deal with every day, I would not have the time to be Mykki Blanco. Because every day would be about my survival."
Hip-hop was always on Quattlebaum's radar. "I feel like as an African-American, it just is hand-in-hand," he says. But, as with punk, liking hip-hop is not an uncomplicated proposition for a gay man. Unreconstructed homophobia is not hard to find. Busta Rhymes once walked out of an interview with the words, "With all due respect, what I represent culturally doesn't condone [homosexuality] whatsoever."
But that's not the whole story. For artists, particularly women, willing to live in the glass closet, hip-hop has long offered a measure of toleration. More recently, A$AP Rocky has taken a don't-ask-don't-tell attitude. "Man, if you're gay we can be friends," he told Spinner in February. "As long as you're a great person and, you know, you don't bother me and make me uncomfortable." Less tepid endorsements of gayness are increasingly common. Frank Ocean's coming out was widely covered in the press and praised by stars including Russell Simmons and Beyoncé.
Quattlebaum is a Busta Rhymes fan, homophobia notwithstanding. "You're missing the point," he tells a hypothetical interrogator. "That has nothing to do with his influence on me, or how I digested his creativity and his art. It just doesn't." Mykki Blanco, too, couldn't care less about earnest, '90s-style identity politics. Quattlebaum is not Macklemore. He's a gay, black, half-Jewish transvestite art-school prankster who can rhyme.
"There is a very safe gay attitude toward entertainment," he says. "Which is: Make noise! But not too much noise. Make waves! But don't offend the wrong people. And if you want to really be accepted, you're going to have to tailor your image a little bit to a homogenized, heterosexual mainstream. I am not willing to do any of those things." He pauses. "I'm not going to be some sort of gay political dress-up doll."
In a video posted to Vimeo in 2011, dressed as Mykki with printed leggings, glittery heels, a bomber jacket, and a pink backpack, Quattlebaum finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls on 125th Street. They're dressed in school-dress-code khakis; a murmur of disapproval ripples through their group as they take in the spectacle in their midst.
Quattlebaum says he never experienced significant harassment dressed as a woman, except occasionally from groups of teens. But in the video, on the corner of St. Nicholas Avenue, Mykki Blanco decides it's time for a little after-school special ed, and starts to rap a capella. It's a witty battle rap, full of double entendres and threats. "I'm a perm left in too long, you beg it and you wish it for forgiveness," she says. Some of the girls start to laugh, but in recognition, not spite. "These petty girls are steady trying to count all my flaws," Mykki raps, "but I'm gonna have to train these bitches/Get down on your paws." The group whoops with approval.
The video captures the transformation of a potentially hostile group of teens into wide-eyed fans. It's a street-level version of the same act Blanco is attempting to pull within hip-hop: turning a crowd of gawkers into an audience.
Although the Mykki Blanko persona began as a kind of art project, it would be wrong to write Quattlebaum off as a fine artist moonlighting in a popular genre. He is really a rapper, and he is serious about his craft. Charles Damga, Quattlebaum's manager and head of his record label, UNO NYC, sees the diversity of Quattlebaum's influences as a strength. "He's working with hip-hop producers, electronic artists, and DJs," Damga says between takes on the "Kingpinning" shoot. "He's making rap music but not, like, thugging on the block."
"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.
Mykki Blanco has opted for a short blond wig, black combat boots that reach to her knees, and a pink camouflage-print T-shirt. She takes the stage and begins swiveling her hips and waving her hands like mutant claws. She opens with "Haze.Boogie.Life," then launches into "Kingpinning." The stage is tiny and features a pole—it was recently vacated by the go-go dancer—but Mykki dances wildly, snarling into her mic. The crowd starts to move. When Mykki cuts the music to do the song "YungRhymeAssassin" a capella, the audience claps, then falls silent in anticipation. "I settle every score," she shouts, "bash you with my metaphors!" The track is an angry statement of purpose and a warning to rivals.
"Bottled all my rage/You motherfucking babies, it's time to act your age/And don't be surprised, boys/when I'm sitting center stage!"