Nicki Minaj Plus a Gay Bear Equals Chicago's The Big Dipper
There is a Big Dipper Sound, as ascribed by the artist himself in the pornographically droll and ebola infectious song "Drip Drop." In an Andersonville walk up on Chicago's North Side, one can see it being polished; following a cup of coffee from a Swedish bakery, the Dipper, né Dan, bounced around eagerly, ricocheting ideas off of producer Dan Foley, of self described queer-electro-fuck music act BAATHHAUS. Scheduled for a show in a few days, the duo were busy setting the set list and adjusting the live tracks, providing an intimate look at the compositions, stripped down to various colored bars, and providing insight into the Big Dipper Sound even as they adjusted it.
The Big Dipper Sound is clubby, for lack of a better term, not full on dance music, per se, but irrevocably along the lines of dance rap. "Danceability is what we aim for," the Dipper said when asked about the floor friendly rhythms that permeate his tracks. "If we can't dance to it, we don't do it."
Bouncing along atop the drums, heavy synths and, in one case, a Backstreet Boys sample, is the single key component to the sound, the Dipper's voice, a voice honed over countless lunch table top-of-the-head freestyles in Evanston with the girth and elasticity of a produce rubber band and the texture of a bag full of marbles, framed, as it should be, in a beard and delivered with a palpable energy from beneath bright eyes, large glasses and a high and semi-tight/rattail combination. The voice is reflected in the Dipper's clothes, as strong, flexible and impractical as his silver chain, and in his motions, namely, the idea that something so large, be it the voice or the Dipper's own sizable frame, can move so nimbly.
The Dipper is just now coming in to finding his voice. After leaving Evanston for the theater program at Ithaca College, he had returned to Chicago and gone to work. "I graduated in 2007 and I came back here and I was pursuing a theater career," he recalled. "I was affiliated with a lot of different companies here. I was working as a choreographer, and a teacher, and a photo assistant. I had some service jobs. And during all of that, I started to really connect with a queer nightlife. Queer parties in Chicago, DJs, music, performance; that sort of thing was really formative and eye opening. I always knew how I identified and what was interesting to me as a spectator, but I was working in a theatrical medium, and you've got a script, and you've got to execute the script. There was no 'just make some shit up that's inside your head and turn it in to a performance,' and that's happening in this very sort of art party, underground, no one's making any money, no one's paying any money. People are just showing what's inside of them."
What was inside the Dipper was a deep, long standing love for hip-hop music that he had come to believe was damned to be unrequited, due first to race, "Kriss Kross were living my dream, but I was like 'I'm white, it's never going to happen.' But then Eminem came out, and I was like 'oh shit, this could legitimately be something I could do'," and then sexual orientation. "A close friend of mine, his older brother had a rap crew … in high school, we would like smoke blunts, and watch them freestyle. Then they would leave, and we would do our own freestyles. But they would throw "faggot" around left, right, and center, and it was always so hard, because it [rap] was something that I wanted. I saw it, and I was like 'I identify with this world. This music makes me happy. I want to be involved. But I won't be accepted.' And so it was really difficult." With his eyes now opened to the realm of creative possibilities and receptive audience he found in the queer nightlife scene, the Dipper began to drift into performance.
He started with an art project-cum-dance troupe called Double DJ. "It was me and two other people," Dipper said. "They were both former drag performers, one a man and one a woman, and we all had very different looks and body types, and we did what I still consider a fascinating bar, club dance performance that fucked with gender representation and movement." Double DJ collaborated with Foley and other DJs to create mixes and set lists, pulling primarily from the hip-hop and dance worlds (their most popular number was to the Peaches remix of Crime Mob's "Stiletto Pumps in the Club"). "It was opening this door of 'this can be whatever we want it to be.' And we would dance pretty much always in big, six inch stiletto platform heels, and for a while, when I started rapping, I was doing them at the same time. People would want us to dance, and then for me to rap. The first few times I did it, I was like 'yes! I'm being double paid for the same night.' But then I started to realize that I was being one performance character and identity, and then I was being another."
Despite leaving the theater behind, the Big Dipper had not allowed himself to grab the microphone. "Now, what I do when I rap is way more myself. When I was first doing it, it was more like a character. You're going to be a rapper? That's not serious. So I had to be a character. And now, that's really faded away as people have responded personally to what we're doing."
Now that the Big Dipper Sound had found its voice it needed something to say, which brings us to the sound's next key component: The Big Dipper Sound is terribly profane and filthily hilarious, which is not to say that it is a joke. The Dipper pulled a Details spread off of Foley's refrigerator and handed it to me.
"I think they think I'm like Weird Al," he laughed. The article places the Dipper in the "great tradition of hip-hop jokesters" with The Fat Boys and Ugly Duckling (respectable enough names, although leaving Heems and Kool AD out of a conversation about rap harlequins seems absurd, even if the jump from jokester to satirist is perhaps too large a one for most to make) and "Andy Samberg's Lonely Island Crew," the last of which seems a particularly lazy and egregious companion. True, the Dipper's bars are stuffed with punchlines and vulgarity, but the disturbing question one wonders when seeing him listed as a "hip-hop jokester" is, if he was rhyming about fucking women, would it still be funny?
The simple fact is that the Big Dipper is saying nothing that countless straight rappers have not said before, and the novelty of hearing it applied, with skill, mind you, to the male anatomy is something to bemoan, not laud; it is the skill with which he gets vulgar, rather than who he is getting vulgar with, that would be the focus in a perfect world. But while we can take the rubbernecking factor as a negative, or cultural tourism, there is also something inherently positive to be found in the Dipper's explicit bars. As part of a new guard of gay rappers, he has been afforded the ability to rap and be gay, rather than rap about being gay; to devote himself to songs of carnal pleasure, rather than fighting vehemently for his political rights. Basically, the Big Dipper and other like him represent a dramatic sea change in gay hip-hop: By having to say nothing, they are saying everything.
"When it comes to gay/queer politics, ideas, and legislation and all of those things, I look at where my skill set is," the Dipper said. "My skill set is in performing, and my skill set is in art making. And so, my stance, my activism, is being present with a product … I think it is a second generation. Tons of people have paved the way for those of us who want to make fun dance music … we have the opportunity to just put ourselves out there and have a good time."
The final facet of The Big Dipper Sound is a direct call back to his days in Ithaca and with Double DJ; for The Big Dipper Sound is theatrical, and it is magnetic, enough so as to pull everyone inside the tiny Tonic Room towards him and whip them into a dick bouncing frenzy on a Wednesday night. Flanked by two dancers and backed by Foley, playing the role of his delightfully apathetic hype man/sample pad mashing DJ, the Dipper ran through his entire EP, the live tracks I had watched being mixed before, and a few outliers, including "Good At Sex," a piece in the classic, corporeal adroitness mold and the most entertaining re-working of Gucci Mane's "Lemonade" since Tyler and Earl poured out "Orange Juice."
All of those dance moves on display in Andersonville were elaborated upon, as the Dipper vogued and growled, shuffled and preened, simulated sex acts and stripped down from a Humpback whale t-shirt, USA leather motorcycle jacket and jean shorts to a black and cobalt wrestling singlet.
Following the Dipper was fellow rattailed rapper, bastard child of Mystikal and Aqua Teen Hunger Force's Carl, and two time VICE "DO" recipient (I did not substantiate this claim, but have every reason to believe it) Andy D. Aside from the obvious physical similarities, D's style of heavy club synths and ragged, unorthodox flows and lyrical content served as a perfect reflection of the Big Dipper. They are two sides of the same coin, one which my generation, more than any before it, is ready to flip.