Ballroom is inching towards the mainstream, and chief among the new crop of crossover hits is "Bad Bitch," a collaborative track by the grime producer Gage and legendary ball MC Kevin Prodigy, released last month on the Bristol-based label Crazylegs.
"Bad Bitch" is one of the first true link ups of the vastly different worlds of grime and ballroom—an unexpected collision that's only possible thanks to ballroom's growing influence. Night Slugs DJs Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990, as well as Fade To Mind/Vogue Knights' MikeQ are some of the sound's biggest champions, and have been responsible for ballroom's spread from its roots in New York City and the East Coast to Japan, Russia and France.
It looks like 2015 is going to bring even more exposure to the genre. Byrell The Great's excellent remix of Cakes Da Killah's "Hunger Pangs" has already been catching some serious attention, while the original ballroom pioneer Vjuan Allure is set for big releases on both the Night Slugs and Knightwerk labels.
"Bad Bitch" is poised to open a whole new set of ears to Kevin Prodigy's remarkable talent, as his gruff but highly energetic flow collides with Gage's booming grime beats and piercing noise blasts. The track is also a prime example of ballroom's "commenting" MC style—a unique sound that owes as much to rave and dancehall MCing as it does to hip-hop.
Remarkably, "Bad Bitch" is only Kevin Prodigy's second official release, after a guest spot on MikeQ's Let It All Out EP in 2012, despite him being one of the best-known artists in the genre. But like much in the world of vogue, Prodigy's work has flown under the radar in the form of SoundCloud uploads and YouTube clips.
Ballroom culture has historically belonged to society's most marginalized groups—specifically, transgender, working class and minority people—and I have been deeply curious about the social acceptance (or not) of the overtly queer genre with the grime audience. So I decided to catch up with Kevin, Gage, and Crazylegs label boss Andy Musgrave to talk about the release, the relationship between ballroom and grime, and the expansion of the culture all over the globe.
THUMP: Kevin Prodigy is a pretty big deal in the world of vogue and ballroom. How did Crazylegs come to release "Bad Bitch"?
Andy Musgrave: Yeah it's a huge honor for us. Kevin's an absolute legend. Gage's stuff has started to lean towards that modern ballroom sound in the last year, at least rhythmically—stripped back, harsh, driving beats. In terms of attitude, it's the embodiment of what we do. "Bad Bitch" is totally new in so many ways, as a culturally meeting point this just doesn't usually happen.
Kevin Prodigy: Gage inboxed me on SoundCloud and asked me if I wanted to do a song with him. And you know me, I'm open to new ideas and like to jump out of the box a lot. This was a good opportunity for me to work with someone not in America. So I just did it and it turned out really, really great!
Gage, do you think there is much in common between the music and cultures of ballroom and grime?
Gage: I find that the more immediately noticeable links are sonic ones. The emphasis on the fourth beat of the bar is a lot more common in ball than grime, but there are loads of grime tracks—like Swiftee's "Dojo Riddim" and Plasticman's "Cha"—that, if slowed down, rhythmically work in the context [of ballroom]. There are definitely some cultural commonalities, specifically regarding marginalization. Both genres initially engaged a local community, which allowed them to develop without outside influences corrupting the sound before the Internet got involved.
I'm surprised ballroom isn't bigger in the UK already. Do you think the overtly queer vocal style and lyrical content of ballroom might alienate more traditional grime fans?
AM: Maybe in its pure form, ballroom isn't as big of a thing in the UK. But as a sonic influence, I think it's already huge and there's an ever-growing awareness of it too. You have to be sensitive to the meaning of the sound and the wider context of it. You can't just "make ballroom" as a white kid from the UK—it's not authentic and all you're doing is taking, you're not offering anything in return.
G: Yeah it surprises me too. I don't want to talk bad on grime because it's what I grew up with, and I think that it has helped a lot of people channel their energy into something creative. But sadly yeah, I do feel like the context of ballroom might create discomfort among some more traditional grime fans. Having said that, ballroom's increasing popularity in the UK relies on a lot more than grime's original demographic.
Gage, what do Kevin's unique vocal style and your productions bring to each other?
G: In the case of "Bad Bitch," he is the driving force. Kevin's flow and delivery work as the accelerator. My beats work like the steering wheel. There are some tracks out there that are tied to words like "underground" and "experimental" but they sound like they've been sanded down so many times that there's no personality left. It was important to me that this track banged while sounding rough, and the vocal and beat match up in rawness and rhythmic emphasis.
Kevin, you have possibly the most iconic and recognizable voice in ballroom. How did you get started performing in the genre?
KP: I got started in ballroom in 1999. You know, voguing and participating in categories. My friend DJ Austin started making music around 2002, and I would just go over to his house and get on the microphone, commentating over the top of it. It was just something that we did. I had no idea how good I was until I realized that I was being played everywhere. And people's reactions would be bigger than mine—they'd be like, "Oh my god, Kevin I love you!"
What are your biggest musical influences? Who would you recommend for people who are just discovering ballroom?
KP: Well, I like all music, but my main musical influences are Madonna and Janet Jackson. And when it comes to ballroom, the artists I would tell people to check out—besides me, of course!—are Vjuan Allure, VJ the DJ from Pumpdabeat, DJ MikeQ, DJ Lucky, DJ Delish, DJ Pauly Paul… ugh there's a lot! The other commentators don't really make music, but you also have Greg Evisu and Father Tree Revlon making music. You have Jack Mizrahi, who just featured on Jennifer Lopez' song "Tens," you have Selvin Mizrahi and Jay Blahnick... I would tell people who have just discovered ballroom to check out everybody!
Do you have any final words of advice for people who are just getting into ballroom culture?
KP: Just to be true to yourself, and know the difference between fantasy and real life.
Follow The Niallist on Twitter - @TheNiallist