Next time Jay Z visits London, he should swing by Shoreditch’s Ace Hotel for the club night that he unwittingly inspired: a gay hip-hop party called Hard Cock Life.
“When we were coming up with names for the night, I was originally going for something much more oblique and smart — a subtle nod to classic hip-hop,” says Josh Cole, who started Hard Cock Life two years ago. “I wanted to call it Liquid Swords, which is an album by GZA from Wu Tang. It’s a phallic title, although I’m sure that’s not what GZA intended.”
But the more shamelessly NSFW title won out. “It just stuck, because it’s funny. I still find myself chuckling at the name. Unfortunately, I’ve had Annie’s ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’ and the Jay Z track going around in my head for about two years now, which is driving me insane.”
Cole’s monthly, alternative hip-hop event was the first of its kind in London and has become a platform for queer rappers and performers in the U.K. Cole also DJs, playing turn-of-the-millennium hip-hop for a wildly enthusiastic crowd who proudly show off their “Hard Cock Life” ink stamps. The event attracts a large contingent from the fashion world, including high-profile male models and designers — which means it tends to be a well-dressed crowd of some of the best-looking men in London. When Cole shows me photos from the latest event, they’re littered with beautiful guys in British streetwear, pouting at the camera and showing off ripped abdomens. “I know,” he nods. “People say, ‘Where do they come from?’ You don’t see some of these guys anywhere else, and then they just appear on the night.” The event always sells out.
Cole spoke to the Cut about London’s burgeoning queer hip-hop scene and how Hard Cock Life offers a cheerful F-you to the homophobes of the rap world.
How did Hard Cock Life come about?
It started as a joke with friends: “What would you call a gay hip-hop night?” We were playing around with puns, not taking the idea seriously — but there was a germ of a thought that actually, this isn’t something that’s around in London. In New York, alternative hip-hop and queer hip-hop have really taken off, with the rise of artists like Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz. Over here, it felt like no one had a place to do the same thing. One of the things I’ve loved about Hard Cock Life is being able to offer a platform to talented guys in London, like the rappers Prince Congo and Dopeboy – that’s exciting.
How does your night fit into London’s gay scene?
Twenty years ago, the scene was much more spread out than it is now. Today it’s concentrated into three neighborhoods: Soho, Vauxhall, and East London. It’s quite tribal, but I think Hard Cock Life has attracted a genuinely diverse crowd that you don’t see elsewhere. We bring together your Soho jocks, your art-school kids, and the older crowd from Vauxhall — I hate to use the term, but the “bears” — and we also get hip-hop heads and straight guys. That has happened naturally, and I love it.
So what are you playing at the moment?
When a track is about 15 years old, that’s when people really love it. So right now it’s music from the turn of the millennium: Lil’ Kim, Aaliyah, Cam’ron, early Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott … And female icons like TLC go down really well. I don’t play old-school hip-hop because there’s no nostalgia for that from the majority of our crowd. They want the artists they grew up with. When Timbaland emerged with that really digital sound in the late ‘90s, it changed hip-hop, and it still sounds fresh.
Hip-hop hasn’t traditionally been a welcoming environment for gay men, but there have been some signs of progress — when Frank Ocean wrote about his bisexuality in 2012, for example, and Jay Z publicly supported him …
Yes, and of course that was good. But Jay Z is such a canny operator — he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s the same with A$AP Rocky, who was the poster boy for the new style of supposedly “decent” hip-hop — and yet when you scrape the surface, it seems to be bullshit. He wears skinny jeans and hangs out with the fashion crowd, but the lyrics are just as disgustingly offensive and dumb as any other rapper’s from the last 20 years. It’s the same bullshit, just packaged smartly. And I think Jay Z borrowed from that same PR book.
So we’re not in a new, enlightened world of hip-hop?
No, definitely not. If you go to hip-hop shows, it still feels like a heteronormative, aggressive, fist-pumping crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you get the feeling that if someone showed up in hip-hop drag, that wouldn’t be cool. I think gay people are attracted to the artists who are more welcoming — so they’ll go and see Lil’ Kim or Frank Ocean or Azealia Banks, for example. But that makes it all the more painful and disappointing when Azealia Banks calls someone a faggot.
Then of course you’ve got Kanye saying “no homo,” and Busta Rhymes with his inbuilt homophobia. But we play all that music anyway. People enjoy it, and I think if you were going to take a moral perspective, you’d have to rule out the vast majority of hip-hop. Why shouldn’t we be able to enjoy great music that we haven’t traditionally had access to? It’s almost a “fuck you” to the homophobes. There’s no way that those guys are dancing half as hard as we are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
To hear about upcoming events, including a planned night in New York later this year, add Hard Cock Life as a Facebook friend.