Steph Kretowicz unpicks the mystery that is Michael Quattlebaum.
The moment his hotel room door swings open, Michael Quattlebaum is chattering about the unprofessional journalists he’s met so far. It’s the sixth date of a gruelling month-long European tour, and when I ask if I can turn my recorder on, he seems surprised I even had to ask. “It reminds me of something that I would have done if I was a teenager,” he back pedals, without pause, about the “sneaky people” posing as reporters only to offer him Xanax and invite him to parties. “But then, when you’re in the situation, you’re just like, ‘oh, come on!’ Like, I’m tired.”
Quattlebaum certainly looks exhausted. Wearing a grubby white hoodie with ‘SUSHI’ printed across it, suede pink tights and slightly chipped fluoro nail polish, the poet-cum-rapper talks non-stop. Weaving in and out of any given conversational thread, usually of his own choosing, he’s interrupted by a phone call from live producer DJ Open1one about sound check at one point, and by frantically searching for his contact lenses at another (“I slept in them. I shouldn’t have slept in them”).
I’m nestled on a couch between a pile of clothes and a limp blonde wig slumped on an armrest. “I need to brush it,” he says, smoothing it out with his hands after I ask if it’s real hair: “I wish”. Quattlebaum’s preoccupied, slightly erratic behaviour comes in contrast to his focussed dialectic on his art practice, which he delivers with almost terrifying eloquence. He speaks clearly, with a slight lisp, using repetition as a rhetorical device, while getting distracted often and digressing more, “What was I talking about? I kind of veered off.”
Mykki Blanco – Wavvy
But he doesn’t always realise when he’s deviating. Instead, pausing and re-starting any given answer, he gives the illusion of control as he re-articulates and edits himself mid-sentence, making it seem as if physical time doesn’t actually operate on a continuum. Lapsing into linguistic fillers less than others, the only time the “like“s and “you know“s flow freely is when he gets excited, be it recounting an interaction with a trans woman sex worker “Rosalinda” the night before, or saying something he hasn’t recited already: “You can either go around griping to yourself, ‘Oh, I wish I was on a major so I can have more money to do certain stuff’, or you can just fucking do it. You know what I mean?”
“You can either go around griping to yourself, ‘Oh, I wish I was on a major so I can have more money to do certain stuff’, or you can just fucking do it. You know what I mean?” – Mykki Blanco
And Quattlebaum has certainly fucking done it. In the three years since donning a dress and introducing the art world to ‘Teen Raptress Mykki Nicole Blanco’, the struggling New York runaway, originally from North Carolina, has rocketed into the public consciousness with his exhilarating amalgam of grimy electro and rap, sprung from a root of gender-bending performance art and transgressive urban poetry. “Last year, talk about kicks like a speeding bullet,” says Quattlebaum about his unforeseen beeline into life as a career musician, “There are times when some people have looked at us and they’re just like, ‘you guys are crazy’,” referring to his partnership with manager and UNO label owner, Charles Damga. “But the thing is that I don’t think that we’ve moved at a speed that’s been maniacal or creatively unhealthy,” he says, before qualifying: “it was hard. It took a toll sometimes. Literally, I felt like I was going fucking insane because there was just so much going on.”
Mykki Blanco – Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me A Perm)
When talking to Quattlebaum, there’s certainly a sense of the chaos of Mykki Blanco. Thrust into the spotlight when shocking the Web with the creepy video for Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me A Perm), produced by Arca, a reappropriated Auto-Tune function creates a vocal effect that’s as wonky and weird as the image of a rapping, bewigged black man in a bikini reeling drunkenly in the dark and wearing a dead squid. That track was originally thrown in with his debut EP, ‘Mykki Blanco & the Mutant Angels’, meant more as a progression from his No Fear performance art that mingled poetry with a live Riot Grrrl, No Wave and industrial rock aspect than pursuing any real pop intention. Since then, though, the interest in Quattlebaum “doing the cute little rap” has been so strong that those elements of his punk background have faded out of the musical component and transpired more in his consciously provocative and DIY approach to staged self-construction. “The combination of what would be the ‘Mykki Blanco Project’, a black boy in drag being a punk performer but then rapping also, that’s when I realised that people’s interest was really through the roof.”
It’s from this point that Quattlebaum launched his career as we see it today: transitioning from a video art project with him “pretending to rap as a teenage girl” in different gay clubs and bars around the city, to ‘Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss’ mix tape, dropped in November last year to widespread praise. “The second half is all the stuff that I originally made. That’s all my little lo-fi stuff, just me on my laptop. I put that on there so that it shows the chronology of the whole entire project.” An online search will reveal that those latter pieces have been floating around the Internet for one, two years. If it isn’t words from MB’s First Freestyle on Glasnost NYC documentary ‘Cosmic Angel’, then it’s the brilliant tween-age eye roll of existential poetry, Mendocino California, produced at home “with the little pitch-shifter on GarageBand.”
Mykki Blanco – Mendocino California
“A good Mykki Blanco song is hard-hitting, combative and aggressive but also the lyricism is psychedelic and trippy and spaced out…Last, it’s sassy, biting and hyper-feminine.” – Mykki Blanco
That very mixtape features a whopping nine of some of North America and Europe’s most interesting electronic producers, but for the follow-up EP ‘Betty Rubble: The Initiation’ (also a reference to an early octave experiment appearing on ‘Cosmic Angel’) Quattlebaum has nearly halved the line-up. “I would have to be on a Rihanna-level of money and coordination for me to ever work with nine producers again,” he laughs. But in numbering five, including A-Trak, Sinden, Supreme Cuts and Sinjin Hawke among his latest legion, it’s not that much of a step down in terms of workload. The outcome so far is a track like Feeling Special, produced by Matrixxman, where the bilious withholding of strained top notes are jerked into an undertow of a leaden bass line, pulling its listener through that very “rabbit hole” of surreal experience and psychosis that Quattlebaum’s words evoke. “A good Mykki Blanco song is hard-hitting, combative and aggressive but also the lyricism is psychedelic and trippy and spaced out,” he explains, “Last, it’s sassy, biting and hyper-feminine. It’s those elements combined that, when I say the lyrics, it sounds so rough and then I come right back and it’s so sassy and so bitchy.”
It’s that multiplicity that makes Mykki Blanco such an exciting prospect. If it isn’t “shirtless Michael, with the head shaved, screaming into the microphone,” in contrast with the Madame Libertine of the Wavvy video, then it’s a blue-eyed “genderless third” introduced in the consciously macho play on gangsta rap in Brenmar’s exquisitely scattered Kingpinning (Ice Cold). Here, Quattlebaum eulogises his fellow freaks with an unlikely call for acceptance in, “I roll with all types, real niggas, real dykes, white boys with them yarmulkes, model chicks with a million followers.”
Mykki Blanco – Kingpinning (Ice Cold)
The problem is, according to Quattlebaum, that a lot of people have misconstrued these plays as some kind of original alter ego, rather than drawn from a long and obvious line of gender-bending characters, from Bowie to Boy George, Dennis Rodman and Ru Paul. “Can we stop being so text book psychology? Let’s get back to the basics of show business, which is it’s a stage name,” Quattlebaum says, iterating that these alleged “personas” –from Mykki Blanco to Betty Rubble, Young Castro and Black Sailor Moon –are only theatrical devices employed to examine life’s complexities, a technique going way back to avant-garde poet Jean Cocteau. But then, with the onus on journalists and cultural critics being in quarrying cultural novelty, Quattlebaum adds, his performances have been represented as something much more original than they really are. “I think the way that it’s packaged is so provocative and new-seeming, that they would rather negate the lineage. I’m basically just doing glam rock.”
“Can we stop being so text book psychology? Let’s get back to the basics of show business, which is it’s a stage name…I’m basically just doing glam rock” – Mykki Blanco
It’s this idea of re-definition, or, more specifically, de-definition, that Quattlebaum is exploring. “You may not know it yet but Mykki Blanco isn’t just female Mykki. Mykki Blanco is Mykki Blanco ‘female’, Mykki Blanco ‘male’, Mykki Blanco with blue eyes, Mykki Blanco with three eyes. I’m probably eventually going to do a video where it’s not Mykki, where it’s completely genderless, where it won’t be Mykki ‘boy’ or ‘girl’.” That ambiguity, ambivalence even, is easily lost on some. Because, despite the provocative nature of Quattlebaum’s work, its lyrical content comes, less as a conscientious political position, and more a rendering of those words –loaded with implication and used as an agent for confining and marginalizing specific groups –ineffective. That’s why you’ll hear Mykki Blanco drop “bitch niggas gone retardo” in YungRhymeAssassin and reference shock comic Lenny Bruce in Feeling Special without so much as a flinch.
As a poet, having already published From the Silence of Duchamp to the Noise of Boys through LA Gallery OHWOW in 2011, Quattlebaum literally trades in playing with words and their meanings. That’s not least through his insistence that all his press refer to Mykki Blanco as “she”, whether coming accompanied by a typically masculine image or a consciously feminine one, and the world has yielded accordingly. “I made that decision, not just for gender play, but because, kind of in that way that Lil B named that album ‘I’m Gay’, I wanted to continue to fuck with people.” Quattlebaum says, elaborating that it has a lot to do with his interest in the term “Pandora’s box” because, as an idiom referring to the idea of a seemingly inconsequential action having huge implications, it relates directly to his faith in the future “feminisation of society”. “There’s that phrase by Yoko Ono, ‘the woman is the nigger of the world’. Honestly, I do believe that’s a large part of the problems of the world. Homophobia comes from misogyny, the hatred of women. If you can’t see the connection between homophobia and the hatred of women, you’re blind.”
Mykki Blanco – No Fear
About Mykki Blanco, a friend once said to me, “you know he’s full of shit, right?” She’d interpreted Quattlebaum’s transvestism as a harmful parody of women, echoing a history of disagreement between trans and some feminist groups over drag performance. What complicates the predicament surrounding Quattlebaum even more, is that he’s a relative newcomer to the cross-dressing scene. Beginning as late as 2010, when he was 24-years-old, there have been rumblings around Mykki Blanco, questioning her legitimacy and labelling her a phoney. That begs the question: does Quattlebaum actually consider himself a transvestite?
“If you look up the term transvestite, I am a transvestite… I apologise if we are still in a time in society when having that word makes some people feel as if saying it is a regression but I’ve always been a very blunt person and I am a transvestite.” – Mykki Blanco
“Yeah, because I am,” he replies directly, already aware of the potential for criticism, especially within the discourse among trans activists and advocates censuring the very use of the term. “They’re talking about a whole entire body of ideas, and a meaning, and message that is specific to them. If you look up the term transvestite, I am a transvestite… I apologise if we are still in a time in society when having that word makes some people feel as if saying it is a regression but I’ve always been a very blunt person and I am a transvestite. I am not transgender and I am not transsexual. And I don’t get dressed up all the time, so that makes me even more of a transvestite!” he adds laughing.
The contention regarding the legitimacy of Quattlebaum’s cross-dressing is one that can be applied to most any lifestyle, from sexuality to vegetarianism. The first thing people tend to ask is, “how long for”? Implying there’s a certain trial period one must go through to prove their conviction. In a recent interview with Dummy, fellow Harlem-dweller A$AP Rocky dismissed Mykki Blanco as outside the greater rap cultural discourse, for that very reason: “I think he’s been rapping for like a year now so, what ‘scene’ are you talking about?” Which begs the question, at what point does one “qualify” as a rapper, in the same way as they “qualify” as a transvestite? “I started rapping because people told me I was good at it.” Quattlebaum says frankly, “I was a poet and if you’re good at writing poetry, you’re a good rapper; you make words rhyme.” There has been endless debate –explicitly centred on things like traditional rhyme schemes but implicitly pointing to cultural norms –levelled at Quattlebaum and other purported pretenders, like Das Racist and Le1f. But when it comes to semantics, it isn’t a question of whether someone lives up to that ever-subjective idea of what is “good” or “bad” rap, but whether it is rap at all.
“Right now I think of myself more as an artist working with rap” – Mykki Blanco
“Right now I think of myself more as an artist working with rap,” qualifies Quattlebaum, no doubt conscious of the heritage that he, as a performer starting in poetry and visual art, appears to be threatening. But, whether intended or not, Mykki Blanco “raps”, therefore he is a “rapper”. And that’s not to mention the clear history of disruptive innovation in the very genre that he’s referencing. “I want to really build the Mykki Blanco mythology and make an original space for myself, like so many hip hop artists have done in the past. Whether they’re, in the end, regarded as underground or mainstream, they still did it. I look a lot to Wu-Tang Clan and I look a lot to Ghostface Killah, my favourite rapper, because he creates his own mythology within his raps and I see a similarity in what I like and what I can do.”
That’s because Quattlebuam isn’t just deconstructing gender, he’s deconstructing what it means to be a rapper, what it means to be a musician, what it means to be an artist. Echoing the contemporary situation of an expanding art world, cultural diversification and interdisciplinarity, the Mykki Blanco project is a defiantly circumstantial work-in-progress. “I think that definition will change with experience,” Quattlebaum says of self-identifying as “an accidental rapper”. Because, for him, “the journey is the reward” and it’s pretty apparent he’s been loving the trip so far.
“So I’m, like, wearing this latex and lace dress,” he says, jumping on his bed and burying his chin into his pillow while recounting a crazy night with new friend “Rosalinda” behind a De Wallen window in Amsterdam. “A guy actually ended up coming 45 minutes later, or an hour later, and we had to get kicked out but it was so much fun. It was so much fun. I love stuff like that. I love stuff like that happening. It was cool,” he shrieks, kicking up his feet and squeezing his pillow tighter. “I was, like, standing in the window for a minute! With Rosalindaaa!”
That’s where the interview ends. But as I’m watching Mykki Blanco performing that very night, wig attached, make up applied, and tank top flung off for a fierce rendition of Wavvy’s “it’s a war out here, the real versus the gimmick,” I briefly wonder, “who’s the ‘real’ and who’s the ‘gimmick’?”. That’s when it occurs to me that I’d never asked Michael Quattlebaum whether he’d always felt like cross-dressing. But then, who cares? A vegan’s still a vegan, animal lover or not, and Mykki Blanco is a black, cross-dressing rapper performing to a packed room that is going wild and singing her words. If that isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is.