Hip Hop’s Gay Cousin: House-Structured Ballroom Culture 

This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50. 


In early 1989, Friends by R&B singer Jody Watley—featuring hip-hop duo Eric B and Rakim—became the first record to chart the billboard top-ten featuring a rap artist. At its peak, Friends reached number 3 on U.S. Billboards Hot Black Singles, a measure of the best songs in hip-hop and R&B. While Friends rightfully can be remembered as the first smash-hit song to bring together an R&B singer with rap emcees, the song’s music video also made history as the first major music video to include voguing. Before Madonna’s Vogue (1990) or Malcolm McLaren’s Deep in Vogue (1989), a historic collaboration between R&B and rap artists and MRA label mates featured the ballroom children voguing.

The celebrated classic record and music video Friends exemplifies how we can think across arbitrary genre distinctions that too often separate hip-hop and house music. On the track, each layer of instrumentation and sampling is meticulously layered, which highlights the various forms of dancing. Genre distinctions matter here only to discuss the ways that the social has become mapped onto the sonic to mythologize queerness as outside of the origins of hip-hop. The seamless integration of melodic R&B elements with the hard-hitting back beats of hip-hop showcase the track’s groundbreaking sonic imprint. Hip-Hop scholar Shante Paradigm Smalls has excavated a historiography of the queer presence in hip-hop beginning in the 1981 with the group ‘Age of Consent.’ Smalls also negotiates the tension of how “queerness is used as an anti-thesis to ‘real’ hip-hop identity.” These contradictions have left the interrelatedness between hip-hop and house-structured ballroom culture largely unaddressed. Yet, hip-hop and ballroom culture have a significant and enduring relationship.

The relationship between house-structured ballroom culture and hip-hop emerges from the same period of the 1970s and 1980s in Post-Industrial New York City.

These historical conditions have created countless parallels.  For example, the major elements of hip-hop: deejaying, rapping, breaking, and fashion all have clear equivalents in ballroom culture. Conversely, while ballroom is known for its houses or chosen family structures, hip-hop mirrors these structures with crews. More than just parallels, we are reminded that the members of houses and the original emcees grew up on the same blocks as they crafted insurgent street cultures. As neighbors and classmates, they frequented the same bars and remixed the same records, trading sound technologies. In 1989, when Friends released, crack and HIV-AIDS crises were at their peak in decimating Black communities. When we often think of ballroom as outside of hip-hop, genre needlessly separates out similarities of sounds and social environments.

The house-structured ballroom community can further demonstrate the reasons behind the rigid genre distinctions genre between house music and hip-hop. As ballroom scholar Marlon Bailey reminds us in his field-shifting book Butch Queen Up In Pumps“House music…[is] associated with femininity… exactly contrary to the masculinized rap and hip-hop music forms.” While hip-hop and rap music often feature at balls, particularly during the category of “ butch queen thug realness” Bailey continues to explain how the association of house music with Black LGBT cultures has quarantined house music from hip-hop and other Afro-diasporic genres. The dismissal of house music because of its Black queer and trans roots further has hampered its study within the academy and Black Studies. Yet, Friends and its genre-blending form bring us back to the space of the club. A reminder of the meeting grounds of these two Black youth-led street cultures.  

The video begins with the viewer seeing Jody Watley under the spotlight of an uptown New York City Club called ‘the World.’ In flashes of light, different vantage points of the dark club become illuminated. We see now iconic voguers Derrick Xtravaganza, Mohammad Omni, Ivan Chanel, Fidel Fields, Jason Ovahness, and others’ bodies forming the straight lines characteristic to “old way” voguing. The voguer’s arms and hands become instruments of expression, effortlessly gliding through the air. Their elongated arms form striking lines conveying nuanced narratives. These gestures, known as “hand performance,” are executed with remarkable dexterity and finesse, captivating the audience with their intricacy and intentionality. As pointed hand movements frame their faces to the beat, the camera cuts to b-boys, drag queens, emcees, deejays, and rappers. The common place demonstration of Black and Latinx men voguing shows how these movements emerge from the club as a shared social space. In the club, scenes breaking and voguing form a mélange of African diasporic social dancing. Friends, as a time capsule, brings us to the voguers, drag queens and b-boys that occupied the same dance floors in uptown clubs. The next year, one of the first ladies of hip hop, Queen Latifah would cast some of these same ballroom children in her house anthem, Come into My House.

Friends’ pulsating baseline, velvety vocals, and lyrical dynamism creates a trailblazing sonic and visual tapestry which deserves continued celebration. This celebration should also mark this collaboration as one between R&B, hip-hop, and house-structured ballroom culture, which first brought voguing to the mainstream. While it would be irresponsible to ignore the strands of hip-hop culture that have actively excluded non-heterosexual emcees, it would be ahistorical to ignore the shared sociality between hip-hop and house-structured ballroom culture. So perhaps house-structured ballroom culture and hip-hop have not always been friends; instead, ballroom has been there all along as a distant family member—hip-hop’s gay cousin.

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Victor Ultra Omni

Victor Ultra Omni (They/Them) is a PhD candidate at Emory University in the department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Their dissertation provides a historical treatment of the house-structured ballroom culture in New York City from 1972-1992. Their work is published or forthcoming in Trans Studies Quarterly (TSQ), The Black Scholar, Diagolo,and the textbook Feminist Studies: Foundations, Conversations, Applications.

Comments on “Hip Hop’s Gay Cousin: House-Structured Ballroom Culture 

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    Oh this was such an informative article! Thank you, Victor for this wonderful, critical piece!

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    Such a a wonderful articulate and beautifully informative article… You are always blazing the way.

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