Exclusive: F. Virtue details his days at Fat Beats, New York, mixing genres with his lo-fi production and what to expect on his album, "We Are Not The Shame."
Hip Hop and homosexuality have endured a long and estranged relationship over the years. While certain artists have decried the LGBT community in the media—Brand Nubian's Lord Jamar notably detailed his disapproval of homosexuality—even more listeners have adopted phrases like “gay” and “faggot” to lampoon wack rappers. However, Hip Hop has played witness to an increased awareness and support of gay rights in recent years. In addition to vocal support from the likes of Jay Z, A$AP Rocky, openly Gay artists like Mykki Blanco and Le1f have found success in Hip Hop.
Still, homosexuality is very much a sensitive topic in Hip Hop. The ardent support of rappers Hov and Rocky has done little to open doors for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender rappers, and even though he's garnered immense critical and commercial success, Frank Ocean's “open letter” last year was met with immense scrutiny from Hip Hop heads who perceived the letter to be a publicity stunt. Even the aforementioned Blanco and Le1f have witnessed a less-than-ecstatic response from the greater Hip Hop community—although championed by a litany of media outlets, rarely are either mentioned in the same conversation as their heterosexual peers. To put it bluntly, the notion of an openly gay rapper is still very much a bugbear in modern Hip Hop.
One emcee, however, recently stepped up to break through the glass ceiling of sexuality in Hip Hop. F. Virtue—a 23-year-old emcee from Canada who cut his teeth alongside indie stalwarts like J57, Watsky, and recent Strange Famous signees Juan Deuce and Falside—released his latest video “Anita Bryant” on August 6. Although the track certainly benefits from Virtue’s emphatic delivery and powerful visuals, it is the lyrical content that has garnered the biggest response: he’s a Gay Hip Hop head questioning Hip Hop’s homophobic tendencies. Now, with his most recent album We Are Not The Shame in tow via indie label Fake Four Inc., F. Virtue sits down to discuss the pressures of “coming out” in Hip Hop, his history as an intern at Fat Beats’ now-shuttered NYC storefront, and the universal message behind his music.
F. Virtue Addresses Dealing With Homophobia In Hip Hop
HipHopDX: Last week, the big news was the release of your video for “Anita Bryant,” which covers a really heavy topic and one that’s certainly personal to you. What was your approach with the video and what were you feeling leading up to its release?
F. Virtue: Actually, I wrote the song a few years ago…almost three years ago. In between the time of writing the song and releasing the song, I allowed myself to kind of get mentally prepared. I couldn’t have just released that song at any time; I couldn’t have dropped the video a month ago or a year ago. It had to be when I was ready and when the world was ready. It had to be right, so by the time it did come out, I was totally cool with it. I was fine, and I wasn’t that nervous. I was more excited and ready, but leading up to getting myself to that place was a process—a process that was basically my whole life. Getting comfortable with myself, slowly telling more friends, and just getting to a place where I could do it.
DX: And you say some crazy stuff on the song, where you thought your DJ wasn’t going to be accepting of it. Being a rapper and being gay, how do you feel about the way the whole culture of Hip Hop has dealt with issues of homosexuality?
F. Virtue: It sucks. It sucks as an avid Hip Hop head. I worked at Fat Beats—that’s how I met Brown Bag [AllStars] and those dudes. I’ve worked at Underground Hip Hop [UGHH.com] in Boston, and I’ve been a head forever first and foremost, just a lover of Hip Hop. Almost every artist—even if they’re not homophobic—even if in real life they’re probably cool, they probably have gay friends—they almost all have some kind of lyric that's using “gay” or “faggot” in a derogatory way. Even though that’s the way a lot of people used to talk normally… I had a lot of friends who even said that growing up, but when you hear it in a song and listening to an artist and it’s used in an aggressive way, it affects you. It’s like, “Shit, am I allowed to listen to this? Am I a fan? They’re kind of making fun of me, but this is the culture I’m relating to.” It’s very frustrating. I hated that feeling, which is why I had to write “Anita [Bryant].” I really thought a lot of people wouldn’t fuck with me anymore…like it would make their name look bad or it would ruin their career if they were associated with me. I was really nervous to let anyone who I made music with know for a while.
DX: I’m guessing the people you do normally work with on music have been accepting of it?
F. Virtue: Over 100%. Every person, I haven’t had one issue. In fact, it’s made me [have] a much tighter bond with everybody that I do work with, because now there’s an open level of understanding. I was always more of a hermit prior to this, because I was just scared to get close to the people I worked with. I didn’t want to hurt them, even though it was only my issue.
DX: Growing up and being a Hip Hop head, did you really ever have to question, “Why am I going to put myself out in this culture and be a part of this culture if so many people seem to hate me because I’m gay?”
F. Virtue: Definitely. I always had these kind of inner arguments with myself, trying to understand where I fit in, if I could fit in, if I could do this, but it’s all I ever did. I couldn’t really question it. I’ve been writing for a long time, and I just had to keep making music. I had to validate for myself and understand it for myself first, and I did so by saying, “Well, Hip Hop came from oppression; Hip Hop was a voice for the oppressed, and that’s what I’m going through right now.” I allowed myself to be a part of Hip Hop without any issue because I relate to where Hip Hop actually came from and what it stands for. I touch on it in the track, but that’s how I convinced myself that it’s all good.
DX: Why do you think Hip Hop overall hasn’t gravitated towards that idea?
F. Virtue: I think it’s just because people tend not to think outside of themselves. Growing up in this Rap culture, they wouldn’t have to think that hard about homophobia; they wouldn’t have to sit down and be like, “This is like the struggle I’ve gone through.” It’s just not being questioned, and I think it’s being put in lyrics so often because one thing in Rap culture—an emcee wants to put down another emcee as quick as possible. That’s just a quick, easy way with that one word, “Oh, you’re gay.” That’s a quick writing trick to brag or something. That’s a bad kind of thing to rely on. That’s one of the reasons they’re using it, whether they’re homophobic or not—but also culturally, just in terms of normal daily conversation—it is how people are talking. Rap is always a reflection of the truth, and there is honesty in there: subconscious homophobia. I remember even some of my friends in high school would say it, even knowing about me, it would just slip out like, “That’s so gay” or whatever. And then they’d be like, “Oh, sorry.” It’s just a way of talking, so I hope that changes.
DX: Are you at all concerned being pegged as kind of like, the martyr for the cause?
F. Virtue: Definitely, and that was a big concern when I was writing this song. I was like, “Man, I really don’t want to be pegged. I don’t want to be the gay rapper.” I had some close friends in music who were like, “Be cautious about that.” Ricky Shabbaz [née Nick Heller, music video director], who’s one of my closest friends, was always like, “Be careful. You don’t want to be the gay rapper.” It’s not like there’d be anything wrong with that, but being pegged as anything is always a negative thing. The way I look at it is, I had to release this song. It’s been said, and the reason I hope this doesn’t stick to my title is because of my discography. I’ve released so many songs before this, and I’m going to release a lot of songs after it, so I hope that now I can move on to other things. I hope they hit as hard; obviously, there won’t be anything quite as groundbreaking so to speak, but that’s kind of freeing in a way. Now, I can just talk about life…talk about little things and see where my music goes. I’m definitely happy it can continue to grow now that this does exist. But I think if people do like the song and like the music and listen to other songs. If people peg me as that, then they’ll just be a fan of the style of Hip Hop that [I make] in general as opposed to this one video.
DX: Obviously, there are a number of openly gay rappers out there. I think the biggest name right now is Mykki Blanco, and I think Mykki has ties outside of Hip Hop with art and fashion. Since you’re kind of more in the vein of underground Hip Hop, do you anticipate any kind of a reaction on that level with the song?
F. Virtue: It’s a world that I admire, and a world that I love. I’m a fan of art. I’m a fan of fashion culture—the same one that Mykki is a part of—but I just have to see where it goes. I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to do different things, and I would love to expand. I love all aspects of art and creation. As I said, I am a Hip Hop head, and I do love being a part of the Indie Rap world. I love other emcees, and I love some of the music being made, but there are more worlds I’d love to be a part of. But you have to kind of get to a certain stage of credibility to be accepted there, and I’m not there yet. The video hasn’t gone viral or blown up; it's done well, and it’s got good views…but I’m open to any world I end up in.
How “Same Love” & Hip Hop’s Evolution Impact F. Virtue
DX: Being such a Hip Hop head for so long, how have you seen the Hip Hop world change in being more open to homosexuality?
F. Virtue: Definitely. The Hip Hop world—not even homosexuality—it’s just growing to be more open always, always. Everyone remembers when it was weird for a rapper to be white, and that’s such a ridiculous thought now. That’s so prehistoric, that Rap is so black and white now. It just doesn’t matter your skin color, so that the next argument, “Oh, a rapper has to be male.” Well, no, not really. There was the term “femcee” for a minute, but now it’s not as weird to see a girl rapper. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s a girl rapper,” there’s just girls who Rap. The next thing is sexuality. There’s always something. I think Hip Hop is just getting more open, and it’s not just Hip Hop, it’s the world and everything helps it. Artists like Mykki Blanco help it [as does] Macklemore’s track [“Same Love”]. Whether they know it or not, people like Mac Miller help it in someway or something. Every weird thing that bugs the Golden Era Hip Hop dudes at some point stops bugging them and gets accepted. It’s just like happening…just like whatever.
DX: I actually did want to ask about the Macklemore song “Same Love.” When you heard that song, what was your reaction?
F. Virtue: It was actually a complicated reaction because I can’t lie; I’m still an egotistical rapper to a degree. Firstly, I’ve been up on Macklemore since 2003, so for a long time, I’ve watched him and that whole thing. When I heard [that song], my first reaction was like, “Fuck, I was gonna write a track like…that motherfucker!” But then I’m like, “Wait, that’s immature.” He put something very positive into the world. I have to be really happy that exists, and as a gay man, I love the fact that it came from a straight man, because that makes the message different. That makes the message powerful in a different way. It shows support. It’s not like us rallying for a cause and rioting; it’s like someone showing support for something. It’s just a good dynamic. So once I put my personal, initial reactions aside, I think it’s very positive for the world. It’s great, but I was also a little frustrated because our songs are very different, and it’s not a comparison. The more positive things for the world, the better. But my first reaction was, “Shit, I had this song written three years ago.” I wish I moved faster, but I wasn’t ready yet. But what Macklemore did was very positive for the world. Kudos to him; he’s getting his.
F. Virtue Breaks Down “We Are Not The Shame,” House & EDM Influences
DX: You have the new album out entitled, We Are Not The Shame. What can you tell me about the rest of the project?
F. Virtue: I’m really happy with this album. It’s all self-produced except for this single, which is interesting because I had a self-produced beat for the single [“Anita Bryant”]. But I was like, “Man, this has to come so hard,” and my homies who I work with a lot [Couch Potatoes and Time Crisis] hit me with that beat. And I was like, “This is it.” It was interesting, because I didn’t know if this could be on the album since it’s the only beat I didn’t do. But it came together, and I’m super happy with the album. In terms of We Are Not The Shame, I think that title really properly encapsulates the album. I say some things I’m a little shameful of, and I’m very honest. It’s just the way shit has to be. I don’t know… I talk about relationship shit on the record as most artists do, and it's a very personal record. All my records are personal, but this one to the utmost is the most personal.
It’s interesting, because at the time it was being produced was when Azealia Banks was coming out. I had just moved to New York, and I had this desire to play at some of the clubs I was going to. It was this cool club scene I was witnessing from the outskirts of, and it's just not really who I am as an artist. I’m not a club rapper at all; I can’t even pretend to be one. So I was making beats with my mind on making these danceable, dark, after hours club tracks, but then it would always come out super emotional. So I was really happy with the mix of these sounds. I have some danceier tempos; I have some interesting influences from vogue music and house and even some dubstep in there…just influences. At the end of it, it’s still an Underground Rap album.
DX: With dubstep and house music really coming into a more mainstream form, you see a lot of people really gravitating to that in the Rap world. For you as an artist, how do you balance those two genres as both a producer and emcee?
F. Virtue: It’s actually very easy for me to balance, because it works in my benefit. My style of production is very lo-fi, and my honest abilities as a producer are lo-fi to say the least. I feel like I’m the best producer who’s the worst producer. So when I’m influenced by a style of music or when I tackle something that in my mind has a house [feel] or a BPM that’s super-danceable, sometimes it’s only in my head. When I’m taking an influence like voguing music and some crazy club shit, it won’t sound like that—which is why it won’t ever sound like a corny take on it. I’m limited kind of by my style…my weird-ass style. In my head, what sounds sonically like I’m doing something that’s a [specific] kind of music, it just never really is, which is good. It’s weird talking about my music like this, but I think that it definitely has its own sound, and that’s something I always want to keep. I would hate to just rap over looped beats and spit verses. There are very few other producers I work with. [J57’s] one of them, but he’s a special case. That’s how I keep it fresh: just kind of my tools and also my actual skills.
DX: What do you want people to be the big take away from We Are Not The Shame?
F. Virtue: I want a sense of connection—not in terms of, “Oh, this was a rapper; this was a Rap album,” but in terms of, “This was a musician. This was an actual music album that made me feel a way or took me on a journey.” I want it to be pretty heavy. Basically, I want it to do for people what some of my favorite music did for me growing up. That’s probably every musician’s dream, just for people to connect to them they way they connected to it…We Are Not The Shame especially says some things I really wanted people to hear, because I want people to feel less alone when they hear it. I really want that connection; I’d say that's the biggest thing. I want to connect with listeners, and I guess… I don't know, because now I’m questioning it. Why do I want to connect with them? Is it selfish? Is it to be heard? I don’t like to think it’s about me and me being heard, but for them to experience what I wanted to experience and what I love about music, because music got me through everything. It really shaped my consciousness, and it really shaped the way I looked at the world. Some of those smart-ass fucking emcees that I grew up on made me totally question the school system I was in. It expanded my mind, and I want to [do] that—expand peoples’ worlds a little bit.
F. Virtue Recalls Working At Fat Beats NYC & UGHH
DX: You said you worked at Fat Beats’ New York store and UGHH in Boston. I’m guessing your influences with vogue and club music were formed there. How did working there at those two underground Rap mainstays inform the way you approached those types of influences?
F. Virtue: Man, I got a lot of good insight from a fan’s view and an industry view of artists from both those places, and both were completely different. I don’t know how much I should say or how much I should name-drop, but at Fat Beats, I was geeking off a Busdriver record. I got made fun of endlessly…endlessly! That’s what really molded me as a fan and my take in Hip Hop, because I saw what these Hip Hop heads from New York thought about Hip Hop that I thought was unquestionably dope. I was like, “No, just sit and listen to this verse; this flow is so dope!” And they just couldn’t hear it as good. So it was very interesting for me when I approach music, because I just keep in mind, prior to that, all these underground rappers are the best rappers. Everyone I love is the best, but to see that these dudes who love Rap and can sit there and listen to a verse I think is incredible hate it and laugh at me for liking it was good for my music. I keep those dudes in mind, and I think of them saying what they didn't like.
I have a very rounded view of Hip Hop from that. That’s because my homie worked at UGHH, and he’s one of my best buddies. He loves all the same shit as me. He still doesn’t download anything digitally, and he’s a cassette tape, vinyl dude. When he smokes weed, he’ll only bust it with his fingers…dude is like serious on some shit. And that gave me the opposite view of Fat Beats, because that was going super underground, listening to weirdoes in this city making shit on their 8-tracks. As a fan, seeing all the different things people can like in the same genre, and I’m not even touching on the fact I lived with punk kids and all that shit… But at Fat Beats and UGHH, it was all in the same genre, in the scope of Hip Hop. The huge range in the one umbrella that is Hip Hop is super good to recognize as a fan and artist.
DX: And it’s interesting, because they were two of the big retailers in Hip Hop. What did working at those places teach you about the business side aspects of Rap?
F. Virtue: It’s also very useful, because I always ran Fameless Fam like a pseudo-label. So while I was working, I was always taking tips on how I could apply them. Some of the best things I learned were almost just confidence. Seeing people behind the scenes and what they actually do and saw anyone can really hold any job to a degree… It's just people sending out these press releases and people blowing up other people. Just seeing how anyone can contact anyone and make things happen was important for me to see. Of course, seeing the management [side] and press releases have been priceless for me. I was learning everything we’re seeing in press releases and dealing with press releases. I write all my own press releases. I feel like I always will, even though I label put out this record [via Fake Four Inc.]. Traditionally, the label handles all that. I was like, “No, I’m writing my own press releases, and I’m sending it to you. You show me the e-mail you’re sending to the press before [you send it].” I’m a press beast just because it was my position for so long.
I also worked at Ciroc for Diddy at the Bad Boy office…working at all these places taught me a lot; in both how everybody views Hip Hop and how press is. I didn’t learn too much about the art is at any of these places just because the artists were never around that often. The one time working at Fat Beats, it was my job to pick up A.G. and drive him to the studio, so that was awesome. Just listening to him talk on some O.G. shit.
DX: You mentioned Fameless Family. Can you break down what that is?
F. Virtue: I never wanted to use the word “label.” My favorite word for it is “collective,” just like crew. We’re homies; we came up together at the same time so we understand our roots. We kind of know where each other are going musically. We’re much less connected now on a day-to-day basis, but every time I hear a Fameless Fam member make music, it’s like, “That’s some Fameless shit. I love that.” It’s very different, and it really is just Fameless Fam because we’re just a bunch of dudes who are really—I like to think—honest to our art. We’re just kind of all doing our own thing despite what happens. We’re just Fameless, and we don’t really care.