It’s a Wednesday night at the Tonic Room in Lincoln Park, and a crowd of about 25 people is standing around sipping beers, waiting for the night’s hip-hop show to begin.
There’s no DJ, no hype man, no cries of “hands in the air.” In fact, the stage is vacant, and the room is subdued.
Enter Big Dipper, the husky, rattail-rocking rapper who is the night’s opening act. Wearing glasses and a tie-dye T-shirt reading “Save the Whales,” he spits raunchy verses over a Backstreet Boys sample while one of his male backup dancers peels down to suspenders and booty shorts. The audience whoops in approval.
Welcome to Chicago’s other hip-hop: an openly queer scene anchored by dance grooves and boundless energy.
Big Dipper, 27, has steadily built a name for himself in Chicago over the last 18 months. Outlets such as the Huffington Post, VICE and Details have chronicled his style, which takes rap’s usual sex talk and braggadocio and presents it in a queer context, all while maintaining the hallmarks of a genre that has long been criticized for its lack of tolerance toward the gay community. He has racked up more than 100,000 views on his music videos “Drip Drop” and “Meat Quotient,” which he funded through crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter. Last year, he quit substitute teaching and making coffee, sold his car and became a “full-time rapper,” as he calls it. He recently dropped an EP called “They Ain’t Ready” and is planning a 2013 full of touring and making music.
“This started out sort of as a joke with some friends,” he said. “Then it became a serious project to make a song, and then make a music video,” he said. “Then, all of a sudden, it sort of evolved into my full-on livelihood. This is what I do. This is who I am.”
Dipper grew up in Evanston listening to artists like Busta Rhymes and Outkast. He was enamored of the music videos from Busta and Missy Elliott that featured intricate narratives in addition to fancy lights and expensive clothes. When Eminem came out with “The Slim Shady LP” in 1999, he said, he memorized the whole album.
“That was like a major shift because I realized, ‘Oh, this is a white person who’s doing it in a way that’s completely changing the game, and has the blessing of [Dr. Dre] on top of it,’ ” he said. “But then I sort of convinced myself that I was never going to be able to do it, because like, you know, he was really homophobic on that album.”
But times change. Eminem performed with Elton John at the Grammys in 2001. More recently, rappers from Jay-Z to Kanye West to Lil B all have spoken out against homophobia. Dipper said he has been impressed, particularly in the last six months, with the number of people who are putting out new music without the F-word or other lyrics that are derogatory to gay people.
“That’s been really fascinating,” said. “And, you know, a bunch of people who are queer or gay or however they identify across the spectrum are making music that is not strictly heterosexual in the rap and hip-hop realm. To me, that’s most exciting, that there’s music happening and there’s a surge in the audience wanting that kind of music.”
RedEye sat down with Big Dipper before his show last week in Lincoln Park. Here are the highlights.
What led you to make the leap to becoming a full-time musician?
It was partly that I developed more of an interest in it. The first time I really took the stage and played like a full-on show, like a set that was more than two songs, I was like, “Oh, [bleep], you know, this is exactly what I want to be doing.”
Wait, so how did you guys hear about the music or the videos at the office? Because your email was so funny.
I don’t know how to be in those emails sometimes.
Just be yourself, Adam. [Laughs.] It’s just so funny, hearing, “Oh, we all at the office watched that video.” Because you just think about, when you’re making a product, you think, “Who’s gonna be interested in this?” ... then it’s like tons of people that you don’t expect.
Give me an example.
Like, I met this couple, and they come to a lot of my shows. ... They were like, “Would you play our wedding? Would you play at the wedding reception?” And I was like, “You do know what my music is like, right?” To me, that was just very funny.
But they love it, and they come out. Literally at the last show, I didn’t have any backup dancers so they hopped on the stage and danced to the last song. And they were like, “We wanna come dance with you!” I was like, “Great, come on, jump up here. Let’s do it.” They’re awesome.
What types of musical or theater experiences have really helped you in the transition to becoming a musician?
You mean a rapper? Becoming a full-time rapper?
Well, just like, I think my training, my education. You know, I was very fortunate to go to college, and my program was about being a theater practitioner, so that involves like producing and all that stuff, so I learned how to read contracts, make deals, and deal with people in a professional way. I think a lot of people are surprised at how, you know, when I show up with my DJ and my backups dancers and my film crew or whatever, we are on our [bleep]. We know how to do things... And I’ve only been [rapping] for like a year and a little bit of time, but I’ve been doing the bigger picture for like seven years.
The showbiz thing.
Yeah, even though, you know, I live in a place that is not a “showbiz” hub ... But I think Chicago is a place that breeds do-it-yourself artists ... everyone is out here because they’re passionate about what they do. And it’s just put me in a good spot.
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