Sugartruck Recordings helmsman Juba Kalamka wasn't expecting any attitude problems at the CD release party he'd helped organize for Bay Area trans rapper Katastrophe at SF's RickShaw Stop in early January -- least of all from the avuncular (and, for our purposes, anonymous) five-MC outfit slated to open. After all, Kalamka had booked the group to perform at Oakland's Homo Hop Festival in 2002. Presumably, these open-minded backpacker dudes wouldn't have any trouble getting down with the mixed-race, mostly queer crowd who'd come to see Katastrophe, the gritty female MC JenRo, and Kalamka's stalwart "pomo afro homo" group Deep Dickollective. Even if the dudes were the only straight people in the room.
"They were on this tip of, 'I got all my tattoos on the block' and 'We live this street shit, and you should like us for that,'" Kalamka recalls. "You know, typical shit." When Katastrophe introduced Deep Dickollective as "The Godfathers of Gay Hip-Hop," one member of the opening act elbowed to the front of the stage and started bobbing his head jokingly, "like he was sucking my dick," Kalamka explains. "And then he says, 'I'm just trying to help.'"
So Kalamka had to flash on the dude. "We don't need no help: We suck dick for real," he snapped. "If we want some trade, we'll call you." Stung, the offender retreated to a far corner of the club, wearing the beleaguered look of someone who'd just gotten the switching of his life.
Granted, in this instance, the tables were turned: It's unusual for the heterosexual thugged-out MC to recoil when he gets a tongue-lashing from the bisexual boho rapper. In fact, Kalamka says he started the Sugartruck label in 2001 because he was fed up with all the hostilities faced by queer hip-hop artists when they try to stake claim in a scene dominated by ballers and mack daddies. The dearth of labels even willing to embrace queer hip-hop and spoken word is a perennial problem, even in the Bay Area, known both as a gay mecca and ground zero for independent music.
"If you want to be snarky about it, there's a whole community of straight MCs out here," Kalamka says. "And if I had some of them running up to me to get them shows and put out their albums, I might feel different."
Rocco Kayiatos (the real-life tattooed 25-year-old) and Katastrophe (his flamboyant ballin' MC alter ego) exist on different sides of the Coolness Richter Scale. "Rocco is indecisive and riddled with insecurity, whereas Katastrophe is a ladies' man who's able to figure things out that Rocco can only solve in therapy," he admits.
In truth, the real-life Rocco purges many of his insecurities as Katastrophe on the MC's solo debut, Let's Fuck, Then Talk About My Problems -- particularly on "Underachievers," a special jam for All my folks who never reached their full potential. Rocco says he started out in the honors program in high school, but quickly flunked out: "I didn't respect the teachers, because they were assholes." He admits that, had he not become tight with the vice principal, he probably wouldn't have graduated. While other kids were muscling for good grades and currying favor with college admissions boards, Rocco was writing poetry; he entered his first slam at seventeen, came in second, and was hired to do workshops with Youth Speaks the following year.
In 2000, Rocco performed on the national Wasted Motel Tour with the renowned dyke spoken-word troupe Sister Spit. He remembers sitting in the van with San Francisco's own stilettoed porn diva Shar Rednour and yakking about how much they both loved candy. Shar suggested that Katastrophe write a song about getting revved up on candy for the porn flick Sugar High Glitter City, which she was making with her partner, Jackie Strano. Although Rocco had no experience writing music, it didn't take much to get him to score porn; he teamed up with another fledgling MC and producer named Mark Schafer, who was going by the handle Syphilis Bill, but soon changed it to STD, which stood, variously, for "Something Totally Deep" and "So Terribly Depraved." They collaborated on Sugar High's title song, along with a couple characteristically gloom-and-doom instrumentals.
The success of Sugar High Glitter Sky quickly catapulted the guys to, well, local repute if not critical acclaim, though their score was nominated for Best Soundtrack at 2001's Adult Video News awards. (Snoop Dogg won.) Unfazed, STD and Katastrophe formed the hip-hop group End of the World, which Rocco describes as "deeply self-effacing white-boy music."
In fact, the three-MC group -- Katastrophe, Schafer (who by then had changed his name to The Dark Lord), and their friend Ricky Lee -- was essentially three visions combined into one: Schafer's "gore core" meets hip-hop meets an "apocalyptic Blues Brothers" shtick. They would come onstage dressed in suits and capes with their names hand-stitched in sequins ("My sister made them, and by the time she finished the name 'Katastrophe,' her hands were all puffy," Rocco recalls), while Lee wore vinyl dresses and spewed blood on the audience. When the group toured with the SF-based spoken-word poet Michelle Tea a few years back, the packed art-house crowds of literary lesbians were petrified: "Our intro was a re-creation of the newscast from the Hindenburg, and then we'd burst out in capes and suits," Rocco says. "Everyone cleared the floor."
Wearing overalls, a faded black hoodie, and a red knit cap over his huge dreadlocks, Kalamka is the antithesis of your stereotypical cigar-smoking label exec. He cites two label-owning inspirations for launching Sugartruck: Ani DiFranco and Dr. Dre. "I was fascinated by the idea of a person putting out records without backing from a major label," Kalamka says. "Because the members of Deep Dickollective are queer and black and politicized in that way, we don't want anyone telling us what to do. So much of what I do is about artists controlling their own identity, and how they want to be promoted."
Ergo the four-man Deep Dickollective, one of the few underground hip-hop groups that can get away with jokey, gay men's chorus-y refrains that proclaim We are famous proto-negroes/Mission hipsters step to our flows and still manage to not get excommunicated from El Rio and the EndUp. That's probably because their raps are pretty hooky, despite the backpacker-ish smattering of fifty-dollar words, not to mention footnotes to various postcolonial theorists.
But lately Kalamka has focused on Sugartruck, and Sugartruck has focused on Katastrophe. And if you're thinking this sounds suspiciously Ladyfest-ish and sullenly white-boy-ish at the same time, well, you're on the right track. But imagine that you combined all the best things of both those genres: the self-flagellating backpacker who loves the shape of words even more than their meanings, the grainy, perpetually minor-keyed "emo-hop" beats, the rap confessionals that could've almost been cribbed from an episode of Degrassi High, if the show had a transgendered character. Katastrophe may try to front like he's the shit or the fly MC, but a lot of the raps sound more like the Diary Entries of Rocco, particularly "Bad Bad Feelings," in which the rapper describes himself as My own worst enemy, my own hate crime, with no one defending me.
And then there's that excellent title. "'Fuck' carries more weight than 'sex,'" Rocco argues. "It's bigger and angrier. 'Let's have sex' is so specific, but 'Let's fuck' can have a different meaning, because I feel like people are fucking me all the time, without ever having sex with me."
To be fair, it's a title that could apply to any fledgling MC: Which rappers aren't looking for someone who could function as a good lay and a de facto therapist at the same time? Yet for Katastrophe, the phrase takes on another meaning. "A lot of people are ignorant to what a trans person even is, so their first questions are usually gratuitous or sexual in nature, like, 'What's between your legs?' It's like, in order to relate to me as a human being, they first have to know the intimate details of my body. 'Let's fuck' is like saying, 'Okay, let's get that bullshit out of the way, so you can see me as a regular person with regular problems.'"
The funny thing is, Rocco doesn't look all that different from any other backpacker, and if he weren't so beholden to the queer community, he could easily pass for a straight white guy. "Yawn," the MC says. "Who wants to hear the same diatribes over and over again? You can't spit without hitting a white backpacker who's dealing with depression and wanting to be the next Slug. Being trans is an obstacle, but at the same time, nobody else is rapping about my experience."
Granted, San Francisco is a strategic location for any queer artist to come up, given that there's a vibrant, built-in scene waiting to embrace artists like Rocco and Kalamka. Then again, there's always the tantalizing prospect of absconding to some Podunk city and doing the indie thing in a different, less public guise. Rocco grins sheepishly at the thought. "Of course, I could closet myself and no one would ever know," he muses. "Every once in a while I'm tempted to move to Nebraska, where I could just start over again."