Check Yo’self at the Door: Cryptoheterosexuality and the Black Music Underground

I) Time Considered as a Helix of Semilegal Nightclubs

Any East Coast hip hop fan between the ages of 16 and 25 has spent most of his or her clubgoing life being subjected to almost clinical body checks. Oh, the ignominy of it all! There you are with your friends or your date, crammed into a dingy vestibule, slipping off hats and shoes, opening purses and pockets and allowing your private parts to be pawed by people you normally wouldn’t let bag your groceries. But before all this, before the drinking age was raised to 21, there had been a sort of initiatory stage for nightclub novices . . . a rite of passage, so to speak. No disco neophyte wants to be known as such, so, wanting to hang with and impress the older kids, 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds behaved better. And if someone did have a bad bit of acid or one too many sloe-gin fizzes, there were enough wise old heads around to catch on before it became a problem. Unfortunately, once the Great Booze Divide prematurely enforced the gradual inclination for older kids to party apart from their teenage counterparts, the hip hop generation lost a valuable counterbalance to youthful ignorance and hormonal high spirits. This was why clubs catering to urban teens in the ’80s began habituating their clientele to a weapons search resembling nothing so much as a pat-down before entering a maximum-security prison.

In a town like New York, where most people aren’t happy unless they’ve got a t least a full square foot of empty air in every direction as “personal space,” the residual impact of a disco-frisk is devastating. That guys pat-down guys and girls search women is no comfort. Particularly within a culture already steeped in paranoid homophobia. Not only did clubs like the Latin Quarter, Roseland, the Inferno, and Heartthrob pack socially underdeveloped teens from competing neighborhoods into tight, dark, relatively expensive places, but they put them through a humiliating door ritual to get there! My generation was fortunate enough to enjoy several years of nightlife before most clubs began to deploy such rigid measures. But urban teens of the ’80s and ’90s can’t remember a time when the urge to party was not accompanied by the need for self-defense.

Little wonder then that sex and desire in the music these kids grew up with is so often characterized in brutal, emotionally detached terms. With the then-ridiculed exception of L.L.Cool J’s “I Need Love,” romance in rap was reduced to verbal jousts wherein dominance over the love object mattered more than loyalty or affection. This was the musical tone parallel to the rough-and-ready atmosphere of hip hop parties themselves, where caring too much about anything or anyone was not only a sign of weakness but a prescription for disaster. Couple this mind-set with raging adolescent insecurities and you get the origins of the public violence that toward the end of the last decade all but extinguished commercial clubs devoted to rap.

Between ’87 and ’89, most New York club owners simply refused to allow their jocks to program rap. Therefore most remaining 18-and-over clubs were devoted to either house or Latin “freestyle” music. Eventually, to allow for some sort of variety in an evening’s playlist, a temporary truce evolved between partisans of hard, funky, macho hip hop and the more vulnerable, androgynous house and freestyle forms. DJs and dance producers alike began searching for songs both factions could enjoy, songs that reflected their combined tastes and energy levels. What they came up with was music that was desperately hyper and sexually aggressive, but somehow cryptic . . . intentionally ambiguous in its lyrical allusions. Producer Todd Terry’s sampled and edited sound-mosaics, variously titled “Party People,” “In the Name of Love,” and “Can You Party,” drove dancefloors to frenzy — yet not a single dancer could tell you what or who these records were about. To fill a need for one or two new records slow enough to grind to, house music decelerated long enough to spawn two obliquely rap-influenced sleaze tracks: “Break 4 Love” and the original “Seduction” 12-inch. Both songs revolved around similar bass lines — the former featuring a male vocal, the latter a female. Both were embraced equally by rap, house, and freestyle jocks, and both used only the most metaphorical terms to describe desire and its denouement. Whether you were being urged to put on the breaks before tumbling into bed or being aggressively seduced remained deliciously unclear. Since during this consolidation period gays and straights in search of great music were forced more and more often to party together, sexual uncertainty blanketed the dancefloor like hallucinogenic mist. In fact, the more diverse the dancefloor population, the more interesting our twilight community of underground music and clubs became.

II) Aye, and Gomorrah . . .

One night at a gay club on 19th Street called Tracks, the kids threw a drag ball where contestants were asked to demonstrate no fewer than four different categories of mannish (which is to say, undercover) gay male. The black men who walked the runaway for “realness” to a soundtrack of current rap and R&B looked as macho as any five-star stud stalking a basketball court. In fact, most were so flawlessly swish-free that the evening’s MC was prompted to announce: “This category is for butch queens only! If you are straight, you can not walk! I repeat, this category is for faggots who are queer, not faggots who are straight!”

Somehow the incident reminded me of an old spot in Midtown called the Down Under, a popular after-work hangout for black white-collar workers, there to unwind and maybe see the occasional transvestite track performance. It, along with the Silver Shadow, Leviticus, Pegasus, Le Martinique, and other long-vanished disco bars, catered to a broad cross section of single urban professionals, most with omnivorous tastes in music, intoxicants, and pleasure. One of the most popular songs played there was recorded in answer to the infamous novelty hit by Barbara Mason, “Another Man.” This new version, by someone under the pseudonym Toot Suite, was sung in the persona of the gentleman who had first shared, then stolen, Barbara’s man away. In places where the difference between “faggots who are queer and faggots who are straight” is merely a matter of interpretation, the crude honesty of that song always put everyone in a more candid frame of mind. If you weren’t particularly thinking about sex, it forced the issue. If you were considering going home with some charming new acquaintance, it helped focus your powers of discrimination. And if you were only into the music for music’s sake, it provided a memorable chuckle.

There were many records that made people giggle in nightclubs. Or made them cry out with deep recognition. DJs always had a mental catalogue of special numbers for those times when they wanted to put specific messages in the mix Every venue I can recall comes complete with a mnemonic index card of place-specific musical telegrams: At the Paradise Garage I remember Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (for commitment), Inner Life’s “Moment of My Life” (for self-discovery), and the Clark Sisters’ Christian epistle “You Brought the Sunshine (Into My Life)” (for faith and inspiration).

At the old Ritz on East 11th Street one jock had discovered a rude reggae 45 called “Two Lesbian Hitch,” which retold a Jamaican newspaper story about a bizarre sexual accident involving two nude women and an unintentionally fatal hormone shot. At the Latin Quarter (where same-sex posses of hip hoppers always danced or cruised in schools like minnows) aural epiphanies about male-versus-female priorities were found in Audrey Hall’s “One Dance Won’t Do” and Eric B. & Rakim’s street aria “Eric B. Is President.” At Save the Robots, the favourite after-hours haunt of cocaine fiends, black-leather punks, and professional transvestites, you might hear James Brown, Grace Jones, and Run D.M.C. all in a row, and all taking about sex . . . in ways mutually exclusive to one another’s individual fandoms. The rich ironies of such musical cross talk turned discos unto subliminal seminars on post-modern urban mores. Each club’s musical personality reflected and critiqued the social posture and cultural presumption of its respective clientele.

Club music has always been most imaginatively represented within the shape-shifting trickster guise of nonwhite polymorphous sexuality, not within the lock-step conforming world of white-collar closet clones, Caesar-haircut boys, or bourgeois Fire Island queens — all part of a more conservative white gay gestalt. And, oddly, during an era in which fear and hatred of homosexuality is at an all-time high, the musics most associated with that lifestyle are enjoying an unprecedented influence on mainstream culture. Now that rock & roll is once more veering on into the black dance underground to “borrow” ideas (whitewashed genres like techno and ambient house were all quietly appropriated from the Midwestern black kids who invented the stuff eight years ago), you’ll hear an “alternative” (read: white rock) act like Ethyl Meatplow deploy the same rhythms and obscene allusions as a black gay act like Candy J.

In the early ’80s, the Paradise Garage on Manhattan’s King Street was arguably the best and most exclusive club in the city. When it closed in 1987 (owing largely to the anticipated death of founder-owner Michael Brody from AIDS), it was rightly viewed as the end of an era. Everyone who ever deejayed at any other club aspired to being able to play the Garage, even if just for one night. In size alone it could absorb all the pretentions ever essayed by any other nightspot, but more than that, the sound system was unequivocally awesome. What DJ worth his Technics 1200s wouldn’t want to demonstrate his skills in an acoustically perfect environment? Dancing at the Garage was like being inside a Sony Walkman the size of a basketball court.

Its clientele and staff were predominantly black and Latin; its ownership white; its social orientation predominantly gay; its business orientation largely centering (and dependent) on the entertainment industries. Yearly membership drives divided Garage-goers into two basic categories: gay, which allowed members to attend either Friday, Saturday parties at will; and straight, which for the most part limited access to Fridays. This was done to guarantee the shier, more closeted gay members a social environment free from the disapproving or tattletale disclosures of people who were still uncomfortable with the notion of alternative sexual preference. The system also worked to trim the number of females of any persuasion who attended the club on Saturdays, with few exceptions. Large numbers of women — gay or straight — were not deemed conducive to ideal Saturday-night parties, for reasons not immediately obvious to the young and innocent among us. One Saturday I ran into a casual friend with whom I would later enjoy a long professional partnership. He was dancing the hustle with a queen so anxious to “out” his partner that I immediately understood the wisdom of the Saturday door policies. Even though I along with many others, already knew the brother was gay, he was able to maintain a sort of shadow heterosexuality because he worked so hard to hide his true persuasion. He was (and continues to be) frustrated by the unimaginative stereotyping that straitjackets the area of sexual orientation as much as the areas of gender, class, and race. He chooses not to be openly “gay” as much because he doesn’t fit any glib category or predefined gay identity as much as for fear of discrimination. Until homosexuality as an identity evolves beyond imitative variations on traditionally “male” or traditionally “female” behaviour, it will not enjoy its true status as a third gender. This is why the creative freedom provided by cultural laboratories like nightclubs is so important. The promise couched in art that emerges from gender-ambivalent situations is that humans are still in a process of evolution, and the discovery of a wholly unique third gender could liberate an entire realm of human potential that has only been suggested up to now. Cryptoheterosexuality begins with an awareness that “straight” and “gay” as terminology may be as fundamentally deceptive and fascist as the words “black” and “white” have become. If African Americans hadn’t completely reinvented ourselves in ways that consistently defy or confound the definitions forced on us by Anglo-European domination, no one would recognize or respect us as an autonomous people. This is the challenge that faces what is now known as the gay community, and the many cultural institutions whose very existence is dependent on the infusion of a gay sensibility.

See, not everyone who thinks he’s straight is an unadulterated product of heterosexual orientation. Signs of crypto — or, shall we say, encoded — heterosexuality show up in our music, our art, our advertising, our language, our fashion, and our relationships. The more we try to deny the third gender, the more flamboyant its manifestations become. In the black community, blended gender roles are a normal manifestation of the survival instinct. Whatever you need to be to get out of a tight spot is what you will become. A gift for mimicry, a love of personal style, and/or the need to make an emphatic point will turn almost anyone into a screaming queen.

III) We, In Some Strange Music’s Employ, Dance on a Rigorous Line

Any working definition of “normal” inside a community that doesn’t keep “normal” hours or have “normal” jobs is understandably suspect. Instinct and feeling become more important than a thousand mundane rules and regulations. The “straight” world becomes unreal, and the artificial, ephemeral environment created by each DJ in his own club becomes reality. Cryptoheterosexuality is the art of pretending to be what you aren’t because no one can come up with a satisfactory definition of what you are. It is also the art of inversion — of flipping the meanings of things inside out, the better to understand what words and music truly signify.

The act of subversion is fun. It is the ultimate entertainment of those who are easily bored by anything predictable and static. Playing the dozens is subversive. Voguing is subversive. And when done well, playing records in a club or on radio is subversive. The entire house music movement out of Chicago brought raging polymorphous sexuality to such a height of dancefloor acceptance that explicit pornographic lyrics from icons of outrageousness like Candy J. and Karen Finley became common. But just as with rap during the Chill Decade, the emphasis was always on lust, never love.

You can trace the rising level of post-’70s disco innuendo from examples of early-’80s postpunk: “I might like you better if we slept together . . . ,” sang the female id of Romeo Void; “Why’d you let her suck your cock?” whined a boozy, betrayed Marianne Faithfull; right up to the manic “Suck my pussy ???!!!” screeched by an angry, incredulous Karen Finley in ’86. Soon thereafter the dance-oriented-rock examples were eclipsed by rude, sexy reggae and innumerable pseudonymous house records, filling clubland with anonymous calls to suck, fuck and lick whatever might be handy — all very vivid erotic dramas set to a drumbeat.

And why not? How many of us are privileged to live out our erotic fantasies? How much better to have each taboo made public on the dancefloor, where a driving beat and tactile basslines stroke and seduce the body beyond the need for the act itself? In the year of the condom, the decade of fear, the era of the venereal plague — there was a lot to be said for nonparticipatory wish fulfillment. So club music metamorphosed into a substitute for sex, and great club music became a rhythmic blueprint for great sex (however you might conceive such) and the emotions that precipitate it.

But we miss the love. Need it, in fact, since safe sex is still so hard to come by. Women with huge voices were always the preferred aural embodiment of emotional commitment and sexual energy in dance. (this is one reason why veteran discodivas like Loleatta Holloway and Chaka Khan will always be worshipped in the DJ booth). But male singers, decades removed from the earthy inspiration of the blues, don’t seem to convince us the same way. Which is a problem. Why is it so hard to believe passionate, loving male characters in R&B, dance, or rap music? Even reggae singers are mired in the physical: Mad Cobra is more concerned about how long he can pound the punany than about what happens when he and his woman are not in bed.

Among the rap-influenced new jacks, Keith Sweat is the last great, straight, R&B male whose stage persona ain’t too proud to beg for affection. Meanwhile, the majority of his musical peers smack it, flip it, dis it, or underestimate it. Still afraid that to be sensitive is to be tagged effeminate (a charge Al B. Sure! has had to face down more than once), the black male stance on love in the ’90s remains cynicism — a sad departure from the ingenuous sweetness of “I Want You Back,” “My Cherie Amour,” or “My Girl.”

Oh yes, we club bunnies want the love, and we don’t always want to have to search for a drippy ballad to find it. “Reminisce,” croons Mary J. Blige, and we do, about tunes like “Now That We Found Love,” “Without You,” “Can’t Play Around (When It Comes To Love),” and “Dr. Love.” Uptempo love songs used to be the reason people wanted to boogie after a hard day’s work, and the reason DJs combed record stores to find the music that would make sad people happy and keep happy people coming back for more. But that was back when discos were a haven away from the daily turf wars for identity. Back before people came strapped to every party. Way back in that fabled day when gunshots in a disco were unheard of.

Published in: Vibe, 1993