Thursday, July 24, 2008
Pornographer's Son... & More
Before I kick off this long-ass post of a book excerpt followed by assorted hip-hop odds & ends (all being typed on a loaner computer courtesy of Stephen Wu and Randy Williams,) I want to thank everyone who’s donated toward the fundraising efforts to replace my aged PC which crashed and died almost two weeks ago. The response to my last post and an email blast that I sent to friends has been amazing. To date I’ve received $1,000 and for that I am extremely grateful. I know these are hard economic times so I appreciate all donations toward the goal of raising $3,000 for a new, high-end computer. Because fundraising is ongoing, I was advised by someone who’s worked for a non-profit to be more explicit about where the money is going and why it’s crucial for me to get a new computer ASAP. First, it’s the primary tool of my trade; I’m fucked without it. As a freelance writer, I have to write everyday to pay the rent. Second, this is a crucial work phase for me. I’m prepping a book on the artist Mark Bradford and his upcoming art installation which is based on Hurricane Katrina and its after-effects. (The installation will be set up in New Orleans’ 9th Ward.) The book I’m writing will center on Bradford’s project but expand to examine larger cultural and political issues within modern Black America. I’m also in the middle of co-editing a literary anthology, working on two novels and polishing a collection of short-stories/poems. Also in the pipeline: a couple of nascent film and music projects. In short, I have a lot of work to do and need a kick-ass computer to do it. Everyone who donates will be acknowledged in a special thank-you section of the Bradford art book if you so desire. (You can remain anonymous if you prefer.) As soon as I hit the money mark, I’ll post a notice and end the fundraising. As they say on TV, no amount is too small…
Donations can be mailed to:
7095 Hollywood Blvd.
PMB # 454
Hollywood, CA 90028
Eothen Alapatt / Gendy Alimurung / Mark Bradford / Bull B. Dike / Sam Green / Reginald Moore / Bernard Peaks / Sarah Schulman / Antony Yee / the Anons
THE PORNOGRAPHER’S SON
(This is an excerpt from the essay “The Pornographer’s Son,” which can be found in whole in my book Blood Beats Vol. 2: The Bootleg Joints.)
May, 1998: Mother’s Day Weekend
When you first walk into Cats, a dive on W. 48th St. in Midtown Manhattan, a man by the door checks ID. After he gives his nod, you walk down three or four wooden stairs onto the sawdust-covered floor. It’s a long, narrow stretch of ground running parallel to the bar, whose stools are all occupied by middle-aged men nursing drinks. The lights are dim and the music tinny, wafting in from the back room. Opposite the bar is a mirrored wall that doubles the room’s despair. Wooden crates soaked with stale beer are shoved up against this reflective panel to provide additional seating. A few men nod as you walk pass, some offer tentative smiles. Being that you’re under forty – and the room is dim – the assumption is that you’re a ‘ho. It’s a fair guess: Cats is one of New York’s most popular hustler bars, where men of all races (but largely white, mostly middle-aged) come to trick with the mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican hustlers.
At the end of the bar, more stairs lead up into another room. A jukebox is to your left once you reach the second landing. This is where the music is trickling from: TLC’s “Creep.” To the right, directly across from the jukebox, is a small, elevated stage. You notice it because as you walk into the room, you feel something press against your upper arm. You turn and a dancer clad only in Speedos is grinding his crotch into your shoulder. Standing in shadow, he has the unblemished beauty of a nineteen or twenty year-old ruffneck. When he steps into the shaft of light beaming from directly overhead, a brutal twenty years are suddenly rouged onto his face. He looks at you blankly, still grinding. You nod and try to smile an apology. Walking further in, there’s another bar, another mirrored wall, and a handful of small tables, each with two or three chairs clustered around them. The crowd back here is younger, livelier. There’s a cozy feel, an ethnic “Cheers” vibe: A lot of folks know each other’s names.
You buy a beer and sit at a table that’s pressed against the furthest wall. A lot of the guys standing around trying to pick up customers are actors from various Latin Connection (LC) films – LC being a bleak line of Puerto Rican-cast gay porn. This is good since you’re working on a piece about race and gay porn, specifically the New York based homo-hop (gay hip-hop) porn created by 30-year-old director Enrique Cruz, founder and owner of LaMancha Productions.
After a while, you notice that you’re being watched by a drop-dead gorgeous Puerto Rican boy in his early twenties. Clad in a baseball cap, dark T-shirt and slightly baggy jeans, he’s sitting at a table with a fat white man who looks to be in his late thirties, thick glasses sliding down his nose and misery webbed into his face. The Puerto Rican kid nods and smiles. You do the same. The white guy glares. This cycle repeats. Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” comes on the jukebox and the kid looks at you while mouthing the words, slowly dragging the head of his beer bottle along his lower lip. Finally he comes over and introduces himself: Bug. It’s tattooed on his arm.
He asks your name, why you’re sitting by yourself, and if you’d like some company. He says he’s a strict top and charges a hundred dollars an hour. You tell him you’re a writer from L.A., broke, and strictly doing research. That tomorrow you’re spending the day in Bed-Stuy watching a porno being filmed. You two talk a while until he says he’s going to get a slice of pizza and invites you along. He’ll show you around Times Square.
“Won’t your friend be mad?” you ask.
“Yeah, but don’t worry about him,” he replies. “Just wait a few minutes after we leave, then meet me out front.” You agree and he goes back to his table. Some moments later, they exit. You finish your beer, wait a few minutes, then make your way outside. When you hit the street, you see Bug and the white guy talking a few yards away but you stay put, letting them wrap up business. The door opens behind you and one of the actor / hustlers comes out, followed by an old man. You step aside as the two pass and the old guy suddenly blurts, “I don’t know about this.”
“Oh, c’mon,” groans the kid, “you won’t regret it. I promise you.” His New York accent is thick. The old man wavers and the kid starts to walk away, then turns around after a few steps. “You comin’?” he asks impatiently. The old-timer stands for an eternity, then shakes his head. “Naw, I don’t think so.” The kid turns again and walks down the street, shouting, “Okay, your loss.” The old man just stands there looking after the shrinking figure. Bug runs up. “Ready?” he asks.
“So, where you stayin’?”
“The Paramount,” I tell him.
“Oh, yeah,” he nods. “I’m over there all the time.” He stops. “You stayin’ at the Paramount and you broke?” He arches an eyebrow.
“I’m on assignment,” I tell him. “Someone else is footing the bill. Was your friend pissed?”
“Naw,” sighs Bug. “That guy... He comes in there everyday. If I’m not there, he gets all pissed off. So I try to be there. I gotta be nice to him. He pays my rent, knowimsayin’? He spends so much money on me. But he’s cool. I like him. But now he’s all comin’ over my house,” he shakes his head. “About a month ago, he bought me a Nintendo 64 so now he’s coming over, like, everyday, dropping off games and shit. I wish he would just give me the money,” he laughs.
“Sounds like the boy made the classic mistake,” I tell him.
“Sounds like he fell in love.”
“Hell yeah,” laughs Bug loudly. “Hell yeah! Classic mistake! Classic fuckin’ mistake!” He slaps my back. “Man, I’m starvin.’ I could go for some grits ‘n’ cheese.”
I look at him. “What do you know about grits ‘n’ cheese?”
“Aw, man, see. Get it right. You think ‘cause I’m all light-skinned and shit... Naw, naw, naw. My grandmother was black. Buh-lack. We used to visit her every summer in Georgia. She could hook up some grits, eggs, bacon, biscuits... hell, yeah.”
We walk around Times Square and Bug points out the porno arcades, differentiating those that are little more than hustling spots from those that are primarily for horny guys looking to hook up for free. “And keep moving,” he adds. “These fuckin’ cops will give you a ticket if you stop to take a breath. That ain’t a problem for me ‘cause I don’t work the street but it’s gettin’ outta hand. Giuiliani has turned this place into fuckin’ Disney. You can’t do shit no more. See that building over there?” he points to a high-rise in the distance. I nod.
“That’s where Latin Connection shoot a lot of they shit. It’s crack central.”
“You ever do porn?” I ask.
“Naw, uh-uh. Man, Latin Connection is cheap. They offered me a hundred dollars to do a movie. A hundred dollars. See, what they do is wait till a muthafucka get strung out and then they can just pay you whatever they want and you’ll be grateful. Fuck that. I can make a hundred easier than that and my shit won’t be on tape, knowimsayin’? What’s that place you writin’ about?”
“LaMancha Productions,” I tell him.
“Never heard of ‘em.”
I don’t bother telling him that LaMancha’s hip-hop gay porn can seem something akin to radical, antidote to the fare put that’s been out by gay porn powerhouse Latino Fan Club since the mid ‘80s. LFC made its name and forged its style by casting fresh-off-the-streets young New York Puerto Rican men in white-homo fantasies. By the time LaMancha launched in the mid ‘90s, using black and Latino casts, LFC was big dog on the block and LaMancha’s Enrique Cruz, who directs all the films, employed a classic hip-hip/upstart tactic to make his name: He talked plenty shit about the old guard. But he also spoke plenty truth, calling out the racist, patronizing depictions of LFC fare by noting that it was colored porn for white people. A war of words was soon playing out between the two companies, with an unexpected pay-off for XXX fans: LFC upped their game considerably and started putting out much improved product.
One of the most refreshing aspects of LaMancha’s stuff is that its rawness doesn’t host the racism that floats off so much old LFC fare. Massuh don’t keep edging hisself into the frame. LaMancha’s movies evoke something of the vibrant self-determination that marks a lot of [largely white] ‘70s gay porn. Just as that older XXX material reflected the shifting mores and freedoms sparked by the gay, civil and women’s rights movements of that era, LaMancha captures something of this hip-hop defined cultural moment – not just the fashion, cadence & colloquialism, and visual sensibilities, but also the simmering power of first-person creation, celebration and revelation (all within a communal embrace) that hip-hop culture, at its foundation and at its most inspired, imparts to devotees. That it does this with the lives, bodies and sexual fantasies of gay men of color is not the violation that many homophobic heads would claim. It’s actually a return to hip-hop’s outsider roots.
Cruz is, unfortunately, often groaningly inept with his camera. His insistence on using a single hand-held to shoot the sex scenes means that basic conventions of simply decent (let alone good or great) porn are often fumbled: establishing shots, clear penetration shots, the considered rotation from medium to close-up to wide shots in order to really capture the move and flow of bodies. His films can veer into the unintentionally abstract, with weird angles and bizarre cuts thwarting the very purpose of porn. But the promise he holds should he get his shit together is enormous. And his casts, every shade of black and brown, are the definition of fuckability. I’m spending tomorrow on-set as he shoots scenes for his next feature, Off Da Hook.
Bug and I go into a pizzeria and order slices and sodas. When it’s time to pay, I pull out a lonely five dollar bill. Bug pulls out a thick wad of cash: twenties, fifties, a couple of Ben Franklins. “I haven’t worked [a legal gig] in two years,” he tells me. “I made two thousand dollars last week. Tax free. And that was before I put up my website. Fuck Latin Connection,” he laughs.
Going on a hunch, I ask if he has a girlfriend. “Yeah,” he answers. “That’s why I’m workin’ tonight. She wanna go tomorrow and get a lot of shit pierced. I don’t want her to but if she wants it, then I want her to have it.” A woman in line in front of us turns around with a smile, “I wish I had a man like that.” Bug and I chuckle as we step back outside.
“Does your girlfriend know what you do?” I ask.
He pauses for half a beat. “She don’t ask questions, knowimsayin’? She know I do what I gotta do to take care of business. She ain’t stupid.”
His response makes me think of the ways that desperation – or just lack and its solutions – are gendered in popular thinking. So often, when a woman says, “I did what I had to do…” the assumption is that ass was sold or traded, sex was used as currency. Men say the same thing and a host of shady activities might spring to mind (including his putting women on the block), but rarely does the thought occur that he might be sucking dick, selling ass or peddling pinga to pay the bills. Bug’s hawking of self to pay for his girl’s piercings rather than having her sell ass to support him (not that those are the only two options), and the fact of their unspoken understanding about his money-making endeavors, seems a gritty 21st century retooling of chivalry and commitment. It’s certainly an unvarnished take on love, sex, sexuality, hetero coupling and economic realities.
“So,” I ask, “would you say you’re bisexual?”
“Do you know any Puerto Ricans who ain’t?” he asks, looking me in the eye and grinning. “I don’t. Maybe some of them old muthafuckas in church – but I bet even they just keepin’ it on the DL.”
I tell him that sounds like the kind of stereotype bullshit pimped in Latin Connection movies.
“Yeah,” he shrugs, “but it’s true, though.”
It starts to rain softly and Bug wolfs down his pizza. “Look, I gotta get back to work. Here,” he hands me a business card with his beeper number and web address. “Give me a call some time. Check out my website. And tell your friends about me.” He grins, slaps my hand and takes off down the street. He has an amazing ass. A few months after our meeting, Cats was closed down by the city.
The next day, a car service drops me off in Bed-Stuy. This is not the Skittles color-schemed place of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s gray, cheerless and rundown. I’m standing in front of a brownstone that’s seen far better days. It’s all about what’s happening behind closed doors.
Filming begins in the dark...
Copyright 2008. Ernest Hardy
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In my coverage of the Dances With Films festival, in the LA Weekly this week, I wrote this brief review of the documentary Diamonds in the Rough:
Brett Mazurk’s Diamonds in the Rough fuses two currently popular documentary subjects — global hip-hop and strife in Africa — to tell the story of Silas, son of a slain Ugandan revolutionary, who returns home from Canada (where his family fled after being brutalized by the government) to bring his own message of revolution via hip-hop. Though Silas is just so-so as a rapper, his passion and the movie’s succinct but detailed refresher course on Uganda’s tortured history are riveting.
What I really found most interesting (and didn’t have the space to go into or develop) was the body language of Silas, both as onstage rapper and offstage political and social commentator. He reminded me of something I wrote in the essay “Punks Jump Up to Get Theirs,” in my first book. Track 5 of that essay reads:
Since it’s birth, hip-hop has evolved and captured the globe. It’s become a common global language, an American Negro-rooted worldwide youth culture that voices political dissent and simmering cultural revolutions. But much of it also acts as a stealth bomb whose active ingredients are unbridled capitalism, the celebration of mindless consumerism and the reassuring brace of dated gender and sexual models. The false stability of rigid and retro gender/sexuality roles that so much (certainly not all) hip-hop provides is a desperately held anchor in a world of rapidly blurring racial/ethnic identities and morphing sexual mores.
But it’s not only the big-money exports of pop and gangsta rap that can be oppressive in their uniformity. Check many undaground or alternative hip-hop spaces, and you’ll see the same gender divides and manners of physical carriage found in mainstream outlets. That last item – the physicality – is especially noteworthy; it’s the uniform’s foundation.
It’s not just the swagger of the b-boy stride or the droop of his baggy pants. It’s the way fingers are locked and splayed before they jab the air, the way shoulders are squared as they move through the crowd. It’s the way performers, with one flailing arm as oar, glide across a stage, either surrounded by an army of robotic and joyless dancers or backed only by a deejay. It’s the pimp walk / gangsta lean that is the default setting for the way niggas, wiggas and latter-day CEOs move. Check the percussive hand movements of MCs as they emphasize a lyric’s dopest point, simultaneously raising a knee, hunching their backs, and contracting their bodies to the beat. Tellingly, these hood-honed mannerisms also make up the movement vocabulary of every angry-white-boy fronted hip-hop/rock outfit – as well as the Disney-spawned boy-bands. Peep the music videos or performance footage of hip-hop and pop artists from Cuba to Russia, Japan to France, and it’s all eerily the same.
One of the few things that still interests me about hip hop culture is its Trojan horse quotient, the little critiqued soothing lull of conformity even by (or especially by) practitioners who are declaiming their individuality, idiosyncrasy or eccentricity. It’s especially noticeable when the tales are of hard knock lives. Check out the cookie-cutter agitation from:
This clip from Cuba is actually quite controversial on Youtube, where there are heated exchanges between folks who claim to be from Cuba or to have relatives there, and they say the kids in this news clip are pawns being used by the U.S. media to paint Castro’s Cuba in a bad light, and that the racism these kids say they’ve experienced is actually a narrative they’ve picked up from American rap and embraced as their own. Other voices, also claiming to either be from Cuba or to have relatives there, counter that these kids are speaking truth, that Cuba does indeed have “a race problem” and is not the colorblind utopia of popular leftist lore. Not being Cuban and not having relatives there, I can’t speak on the topic. But I do find the mannerisms and body language of the rappers to be interesting for their very… familiarity.
MISC. (These are my favorites, especially the last one.)
This is the little discussed downside to the frequently trotted out observation (yeah, even by me) that the Black American male is the most clocked / watched / imitated creature on the planet… ‘cause this shit is just straight comedy. Yo, Ali G, where you at?