"My accent is Midwestern, Chicago born and raised / and I'm out here tryna function, keep these cuties entertained," raps Big Dipper on "FTP" off his new self-titled EP. The four-track effort, produced by NYC-based DJ Byrell the Great, is a more aggressive shift for the NYC transplant, whose earlier release this year, Free Money, played with more clubby, uptempo production and tongue-in-cheek hooks. But for the rapper with bear style and a former album called Thick Life, the project's still got humor -- except this time around, he's more Nicki Minaj and less Weird Al, capable of flinging Queen-y, pop-friendly puns on one track and then growling over thrashing, ballroom beats on the next. We caught up with the musician to talk to him about moving to NYC, getting confused for being straight, and what he thinks about rap's continued ambivalence toward LGBT artists. Read his thoughts, listen to his new EP, and watch his brand new video for album track "Bob N Weave," all below.
You recently moved from Chicago to NYC. What's that been like?
I have an ingrained Midwestern work ethic. I'm happy to wait in line if I need to; I'm nice to people if they come up to me. In New York, there's a harder edge. When people play it correctly, this comes across as fierce confidence, but there are still a lot of cutthroat bitches here. If there's ever a day when the hustle slows down and the coin is really flowing, I might set up homebase elsewhere, but I'm out here for now because the hustle is here. The moment I moved here and was like, 'I'm based in New York,' I started booking nationally, which wasn't happening in Chicago. There's that weird thing about being a 'New York artist.' But I feel like I have Chicago in my blood -- a level of showmanship without entitlement. I came to New York to work and prove myself.
What else has changed for you since starting out as Big Dipper?
I used to be a very confident person, but never outwardly. At this point, I basically strip down to my underwear every show. I can confidently work a room and I've pushed myself out of every comfort zone. I've definitely become more aware of the world, of music, of underground culture. I hadn't gone to a club until I started performing in clubs because I went to theater school and was so focused on making performances. I have this huge love for nightlife as performance now -- that whole circus of go-go boys, drag queens and club characters. That's a performance in itself. Big Dipper has flipped my whole world 180 degrees and I look at things through a different lens now.
Humor plays a major role in your work. Have you always been interested in comedy?
I did improvisation in high school and when I was a theater director, I loved directing comedy. I played a [rap] gig in D.C. and when I was done, the DJ played my first song, "Drip Drop," and I was cringing the entire time. The first song wasn't meant as a joke, but it was definitely like, "Oh, I've always wanted to make a song -- it's going to be really funny and super sexual" -- that's what the intent was. Because the response was so great, I decided to keep going. Humor comes naturally to me. Just a couple years ago, I was writing and someone called me a "Comedian Rapper." I didn't want people to think I was joking -- that I was Weird Al. I tried to write more seriously, but it didn't feel natural. I'm a funny guy, I like puns and I like making people smile. When I listen to Nicki Minaj's The Pinkprint, it's equally as funny, as raunchy, as honest, as playful -- it's all those things. In "Feeling Myself,'" Nicki says, "Bitches ain't got punch lines or flow. I got punch lines and an empire, also." That's the whole deal right there. You need to have everything. I'm sometimes nasty, sometimes stupid, sometimes smart, sometimes funny -- you can't just be arty because people need a break.
In that same sense, you don't seem to have a pinpointed style for how you convey sexuality on stage. There's some complexity there.
I can give you sassy effeminate and flip my fake wig -- I just played a show in the middle of drag queens -- but I can also butch it up for the bears and they eat it from the palm of my hands. Sexiness comes in all shapes and sizes. It's about being present and giving people something new. I used to get a kick out of it when people would be surprised that I was gay. They would say, "Oh no, you don't look gay." There was that little pride in the idea that I could pass [as straight]. Now I find it annoying when people assume, like my deli guy the other day was like, "Who are you texting? Your girlfriend?" I'm like, "No, I'm actually looking at this ass picture from someone off the street." Or someone was driving me to a party once and they were like, "Do you believe in Jesus? Are you married to a woman?" That sucks. I want everyone to see me and see faggot. In terms of my music, there's pride when I get on stage and have flow -- that surprises people.
What are your thoughts about hip-hop's continued ambivalence toward the LGBTQ community, especially rapper Erick Sermon's recent claim that trans artists aren't welcome?
Deep within my back pocket, I've always had this dream of being a rapper. Now, this is what I do to make money, stay alive and stay fed. I go to where I get booked -- where I'm welcome. The only place that I ever run into hate is on the Internet. I'm never at a hip-hop showcase trying to hustle my mixtape and get five minutes on an open mic -- I'm being flown to a party across the country to do 40-minute sets. I've never met that [hate] face-to-face and it's shocking to me because I get booked for queer hip-hop parties with all-queer lineups across the country. I watched Bruce Jenner's interview and was gagged when Diane Sawyer said statistics show only 86% of Americans know a gay person and 8% know a trans person. How is it not 100%? I'm so deeply inside this gay world and this queer identity that to me, the idea of not being welcome is so foreign. I feel like I'm not welcome because I'm an independent artist more so than because I'm gay. I'm not playing Jingle Ball with Drake and Nicki Minaj because I'm an independent artist -- not because I'm a faggot.
Big Dipper's "BOB N WEAVE" video
As someone occupying a unique space in hip-hop, what are some of the biggest pressures you're facing?
People talk about authenticity in hip-hop all the time [and it's something I think about] especially being a white person and a queer person. A lot of people making music are very young and I just turned 30. There are all these factors and it's easy to feel like, "Oh shit, these people do it this way or these people do it that way." The constant correct answer is, "How do I do it?" I'm not trying to do anything that anybody else does and that has been the biggest lesson in creating music, videos and a persona. [Big Dipper] is a big fucking art project that reflects my entire life and personality -- it can't be inauthentic.
How important is sex in your work?
Whether it's deep in a metaphor or as blatant as fucking 'Put It In Your Mouth,' so much of my favorite music is all about sexuality. Listen to a Lil Wayne album and count how many times he says pussy -- I'm not doing anything revolutionary as far as content. It's just because I'm gay that everyone latches onto that sexuality. That comes from both sides -- straight people who get uncomfortable by the music are like, "Why do you have to talk about sucking dick so much?" And then gay people who are anxious for a gay rapper to cross over are like, "You'll never cross over until you stop talking about sucking dick." If you look at old school Nicki [Minaj] tapes, she was raunchy -- smart, witty and fierce lyricism, but also really raunchy. And then she got picked up.