Exposing Hip-Hop's Gay Subculture

In a hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans, Terrance Dean doesn't give off "gay" on first sight—and he has worked hard to present himself that way. In a downtown coffee shop in Manhattan, the former MTV staffer describes the lengths he's gone to over the years to achieve that body aesthetic: he strolls, never saunters. He dresses well, but not too well. He doesn't wear flashy jewelry and substitutes "she" for "he" when he tells colleagues about his weekend plans. Even now that he's out of the closet, he sometimes forgets. When somebody asked if he was gay recently, he blurted out "no" without even thinking.

But Dean is going to have a hard time fooling anyone much longer. His new book, "Hiding in Hip-Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry," is a tale of life inside Hollywood's secret gay subculture, and hip-hop's place within that world. Though it doesn't name names, the memoir is a detailed (and graphic) account of down-low life, gay sex parties and secret societies, where some of hip-hop's major artists openly sleep with men, only to go home to their wives and girlfriends at night's end. (A person who is "down low" considers himself straight but regularly sleeps with members of the same sex; the term is frequently used when describing black men.) And though Dean's intention was never to out anybody, he provides just enough information for readers to go crazy searching Google. There's a New York R&B singer who often opened for Jay-Z, caught the ears of Death Row Records and has worked on Broadway. A member of a rap group that changed hip-hop with its "philosophical rhymes over hard-core beats" who then went solo to achieve chart-topping success, eventually landing the lead in a movie. (He's also married.) "Men who have secret love affairs have separate homes and apartments, and separate phones strictly for their romantic flings," writes Dean. "No one ever suspects a thing, and they go to great lengths to keep it that way."

Except, of course, that everybody inside the industry is well aware of that fact, which is probably Dean's most surprising revelation. Sure, there's always a story kicking around about homosexuality and the music industry; rumors have swirled around rappers since the '70s and '80s. But according to Dean, and a number of other industry insiders, who's gay and who's straight (or rather, who is "down low"; DL brothers don't identify as "gay") is common knowledge. So common, in fact, that one hip-hop radio personality says he discussed it with his Los Angeles barber last week. "I can't sit here and say this is secret, because a lot of times I see things firsthand," says Charlamagne Tha God (real name Lenard McKelvey), who is the cohost of the Wendy Williams show on New York's WBLS. "To be honest, it might be the industry's worst kept secret."

That doesn't mean it's not taboo. Hip-hop has a long history of homophobia, much of which is tied up with the powerful black church. ("I remember the pastor at my church saying 'Homosexuality is a sin!' and pounding his fist on the table," Dean recalls.) As one of the most visible voices of black culture, hip-hop has adopted those beliefs—and, in doing so, transmits them to young fans. And though there was a time when artists like Public Enemy and NWA waxed political, hip-hop today is dominated by money, power, bling and video vixens. Thug appeal is critical to a rapper's image, and there's no place for a "faggot" within that, says Dean, whose upbringing in Detroit involved a drug-addicted prostitute mother and time in jail. Being gay is considered soft, sissy—a putdown that's won emcee battles for years. So when artists like Eminem and Jay-Z—and even so-called socially conscious rappers like Common—throw out insults like "fag" and "bitch," it's the ultimate threat to a man's masculinity. "The more hetero a person is, the more accepted he is," Dean writes. Adds Tim'm West, an openly gay Bay Area rapper and activist, "Straightness is as crudely affixed to skill in hip-hop as the microphone."

Rappers certainly know that. When filmmaker Byron Hurt asked Busta Rhymes about homosexuality in hip-hop for a 2006 documentary on the subject, the rapper was so offended he walked out—on camera. Even when Hurt later screened the film, called "Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," he says his audiences squirmed when the topic was raised. "The very nature of the hip-hop beast has homophobia imbedded in it," says Fred Mwangaguhunga, the editor of MediaTakeOut.com, a black-focused celebrity website.

Which is why hip-hop's gay culture is so shrouded in silence, with intricate measures taken to keep it that way. To get admitted into the "clique," as Dean describes it, a brother is carefully vetted, then interviewed by a person who will become his "sponsor," meaning he'll take the fall if that person screws up or goes to the press. There's also a machine designed to back that up. Managers brief artists on image control, give them extensive media training about how to walk, talk and act the gangster lifestyle—and always avoid the inevitable questions. Publicists go to great lengths to mastermind their artists' appearances—and who those appearances are with—in gossip mags. Producers tap their friends in the industry to find single female celebs they can persuade to be on hand for red carpet events. "We have to make sure [nobody] will run and report it to the media, gossip magazines, or to [their] friends," Dean writes. "We have to make sure you have an allegiance with us and that you will go down for us."

That allegiance extends all the way to the paparazzi, who in many cases won't break the code in an effort to ensure future access. If they do break it, many magazines editors won't buy the photos anyhow, for fear of lawsuits or professional backlash. (In 1998, when Hot 97 shock jock Wendy Williams hinted that a major New York rapper was gay, she was booted from the station.) "You have to understand that once you print a story like that, particularly against a hip-hop artist, you have to be prepared for a full-on kamikaze attack," says Mwangaguhunga. "The artist, the label, and everybody who endorsed that artist will launch a huge lawsuit against you." Mwangaguhunga says his agency gets tips on this type of thing three or four times a week—sometimes in the form of a phone call, photo, or video. But because of the time and money needed to confirm the accusations, a lot of those tips don't make it into print. Says a corporate lawyer turned gossip writer for AllHipHop.com, who would only give his pen name, illseed, "There are people in the tabloid media dying to confirm something of this sort. But at the very end of the day, it's not what you know, its what you can prove—or, these days, what you can print."

As Dean points out, the irony about gay rappers is that hip-hop was founded on the notion of speaking truth; it was the voice of an urban underclass largely hidden from the mainstream. The more adversity an artist faced, the more street credibility he developed. "It was about being real," says Los Angeles rapper Deadlee (real name Joseph Lee), who is openly gay—do-rag, tattoos, hardcore lyrics and all. Money has changed all that, as hip-hop has transformed from the word of the street to the word of the elite: clothes, cars, bitches and bling have overtaken social consciousness. But Deadlee is part of a growing movement of gay rappers who make up the world of "homohop," a genre he hopes will eventually cross over to the mainstream. With more than 50 recognized homohop artists on the Web site Outhiphop.com, many are touring at home and abroad. "There's likely a gay counterpart to every 'brand' of hip-hop in the mainstream," says Tim'm West, who is the founder of the Oakland-based gay rap group, Deep Dickollective. (He also released his second solo album, "Blakkboy Blue(s)," last year.)

Mainstream acceptance of a gay rapper would definitely require a paradigm shift, says West. But perhaps a failing industry could foster that. After 30 years of growing popularity, rap is now struggling with an alarming sales decline and growing criticism; its sales dropped 21 percent from 2005 to 2006. A recent study by the Black Youth Project showed that a majority of youth rap is too violent; even Nas declared in the title of his 2006 album, "Hip-hop Is Dead." "I wonder what would happen if a rapper came out and tapped into this market," says Mwangaguhunga. "Hip-hop is about telling stories of struggle and life, and I think there's a real story to tell of urban, gay youth." That won't happen tomorrow, but if Dean can come out of "hiding," maybe the industry can too.