A New York rapper and punk icon chat studio politics and how to fight today’s battles.
Mykki Blanco and Kathleen Hanna barely take a breath during the 90 minutes we're on the phone—well over our allotted slot. They chat like new BFFs: affectionate, respectful, and just so damn hyped on one another. Blanco is dialing in from Kansas where he's shooting a short film for the fashion label Hood By Air directed by SSION's Cody Critcheloe. "It's a kind of a John Waters scene," he says in a husky tone, while Hanna grills him on the wig he's wearing for the piece: "Oh my god, you have that hair. That is so awesome." Hanna's wrapped up in a blanket in her New York apartment, nursing a cold she came down with after returning from a trip to Mexico City. The night before she'd performed at a Joan Jett tribute concert with her partner Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys: "I was sweating bullets." The two friends congratulate and console one another, and I kind of feel like I am eavesdropping on a private conversation. I reluctantly turn teacher and remind them that we're here to talk about their collaboration on Blanco's latest missive, Gay Dog Food.
"A Moment With Kathleen," below, was the result of a day Hanna and Blanco spent in the studio with UNO producer Gobby. It features Hanna repeating the words the archive inside the archive, distorting them into various configurations until they triumphantly form I'm outside the archive. In the song, Blanco plays the part of a gushing fan, so enamored with the idea of Kathleen Hanna that he seems oblivious to her message. It's a sharp and self-aware look at the implications of historicizing. Here, the two trade stories of how they got to know each other's work, discuss what it means to be political today, and share what it takes to stay strong in the face of adversity.
How did you first become aware of each other's work? MYKKI BLANCO: There was this girl that I went to high school with named Jonti. She was my first actual anarchist punk friend. I remember thinking, "God, this girl is really cool" and she listens to really good music. At that time I was only listening to like Macy Gray, Jamiroquai, The Fugees and Beck. Jonti indoctrinated me into this somewhat anarchist youth group called Youth Voice, and on the way there for the first time she played me [Bikini Kill's] "Rebel Girl." Something about the song was sassy, you know what I mean? For me as a gay boy, it was just as sassy as I wanted it to be, but also super hardcore. At that time shows on American TV were like Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I knew that I didn't identify with what that image of gay was, but I knew that I definitely felt comfortable being gay.
I remember there were several girls on "Rebel Girl" but Kathleen's voice is so distinctive. Jonti was like, "Oh yeah this is Kathleen Hanna, she's fucking awesome." I just remember going on the internet and all at once I found out about Bikini Kill, Kim Gordon's side project Free Kitten, and Tracy + the Plastics. I also found out about Le Tigre and Chicks on Speed. Even though I became a super big Le Tigre fan and went to Le Tigre shows and wrote fan letters to Le Tigre, it was Julie Ruin that actually ended up being one of the most influential records of my entire life. This was lo-fi music that was so tight and well composed. This is way before Ariel Pink, way before John Maus, and way before Grimes.
KATHLEEN HANNA: I have such a boring story about how I found out about you, Mykki. My bandmate Kenny Mellman—I feel like his brain is the size of a water tower—knows every new musician, every new video that comes out, every good record. We have really, really similar taste so I'm always asking him, "What should I be listening to?" "Oh, you gotta listen to Mykki Blanco." So I just went on the internet and watched "Wavvy" and I was just like, this is the coolest shit ever. Watching these clips and seeing Mykki on the street using freestyle as a way to deal with street harassment—I used to print out flyers about street harassment and stand on the street and hand them to people because I cannot rap. I was just like, "This is totally incredible, this is the future."
What was it like working on this track together? KATHLEEN HANNA: I had no clue was I walking into. When you're the person who's kind of in charge of everything a lot of the time, it's sometimes nice to get bossed around. It's sometimes nice to have somebody say, "This is what I want you to do" and to stretch your abilities. Like, I came out on a Green Day record because I wanted to see what that experience would be like. I was fascinated by it—what would they want me to sing like? Did they want me to sing like a female Billie Joel? So I kind of walked into the situation [with Mykki] with that same feeling: I hope I get some direction that tells me to do something I've never done before. Then Mykki went in and just freestyled these lyrics that were so amazing and I was totally blown away.
MYKKI BLANCO: It's kind of like, you don't really boss Kathleen around.
KATHLEEN HANNA: That's what people think about me, But the thing is I am such a bossy producer and such a control freak that there's a part of me that really longs to be [bossed around].
MYKKI BLANCO: I kind of had it in my head like, maybe I'll do a rap and Kathleen can come in in the hook. And then we started going in that direction and I was like, wait a minute, I need to be smarter about this. Just because the other person is more of a singer, [I'm going to] do this thing where 'now I'm gonna rap, now you're gonna sing'? I literally remember being like, me and Kathleen ain't gonna go out like that.
KATHLEEN HANNA: Mykki and I sat down on the couch and started talking about ideas. And somehow I was talking about Olympia and why I moved, and this whole thing of being part of this scene that ends up getting called riot grrrl or whatever. How things start getting historicized and it almost becomes dead. I lived in a small town and we had to make things happen because nobody was gonna make them happen for us. We didn't live in New York and we were very affected by Queer Nation and Act Up, and stuff that we were reading in Art Forum Magazine, but we didn't have direct access to that. We were like, how can we be involved in changing things from where we're at?
The whole idea—and I think is still the idea of what I do musically with my band—is to encourage participation. But when our scene became kind of famous and kids moved into our town, they just stood around and watched us like we were statues. They didn't start their own bands, they didn't start their own zines, they just came to our parties that we played in basements and looked at us like we were in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. That was one of the reasons I left. [Mykki and I] were talking about that because I archive my work at NYU and there's a film made about me and blah blah blah. It's kind of this feeling of, Oh my god, I'm so historicized, I might as well be dead. It's weird to be so historicized and to still be making work. We talked about this notion of how being so historicized—being fetishized—is exactly the opposite you're going for when you're asking for participation. I really feel like that day in the studio, I was like, "Oh my god this person is a force to be reckoned with." Mykki is a participator who can't stop.
Something you both do in the worlds that you're in is provide alternatives for people to have dialogue with. How has the landscape for being a political artist changed over the years and what do you see as today's battles? KATHLEEN HANNA: I think it's different for me because I'm older so I'd like to hear how Mykki experiences it.
MYKKI BLANCO: I can't answer this super straightforwardly. When I first started making music, which is just two years ago in 2012, this issue of gay rights or being gay in the industry, was a hot topic. You had you know people like me, and Le1f, and Zebra Katz. Our music sounded nothing alike, but because we were all gay, black and making music at the same time, people grouped us in together, started a buzzword. It was good to spread awareness, but it was a very hostile environment. When I look back at some of the things I said in interviews, when I look back at how I actually felt at the time I was getting all this exposure, it really did feel like I had to immediately fight against so much machismo. I remember certain websites not wanted to post my video because they were just like, "Oh, our viewers aren't gonna like this." You know, feeling super boxed in by male, white music writers who were literally butchering my artistry because they didn't know how to talk about it. Then you had the world at large—my video hitting some hip-hop sites and having people leave the most insane comments and saying the craziest things. You see that little dark side of human nature and you're just like, woah, I didn't know that people had this much hatred purely towards something that is actually different. And more than just different, gay. Let's just say it, gay. I think that even though people would like to pretend two years on that attitudes have relaxed, I don't think that they have.
I think that I'm better off now with the state of the world and my career than I was two years ago because even though I got all this press and all this attention and people thought I was cool, still a large majority came out of this shock. Behind the shock was still fear and prejudice. No one's shock ever advanced my career. I started to tour internationally and I had to build my whole entire career off of my live show because I knew that people did not completely understand what the hell I was doing unless they saw me live, you know? That's why being a punk performer is so important to me. I've made my own money, I've actually been successful independently. I got to fucking come from no one wanting to give me anything, to being some crazy, rapping drag queen on the street, to people actually finally understanding my artistry. That does feel political because now I don't have to be angry and militant even though I think militancy is always a guiding and really powerful force to use. Now for me it's more about pushing my music. No one is still making music like this! Everyone can Auto-Tune their voice a thousand times on the radio, we can have as many female pop stars that wanna imitate Beyoncé and Gaga and Katy Perry and whoever else, but when a unique voice comes along—like Twigs, or an Arca, or a year and a half ago when it was me—it's always gonna stand out. You don't have to be political anymore by screaming, you can be political by the sheer show of your success.
KATHLEEN HANNA: Exactly. I totally relate to when you were saying you were getting all this attention and people were lumping you in with all these other people who were like, oh well they're all black and gay and their rapping a little so they're all the same. I've had that same shit happen in every band that I've been in. We were lumped in with Le Tigre, WITH Chicks on Speed, who we're good friends with, and Peaches, and a bunch of other people. With riot grrrl it was the same thing. Just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I'm the same as every other female singer, you know? It's just like sexism, it's just racism, it's just homophobia, and it hasn't gone away clearly by the hatred we see on the internet and all the other stuff. Mykki, I'm so happy that you figured this shit out in two years because it took me like 25 to get it together in my head. [I was] so sick of having nobody talk about my songwriting or my singing or how my voice had changed or how I had used it in different ways.
If you say, "I'm a feminist," or what have you, that's all people talk to you about for the rest of your life. No one ever asked me about my guitar playing, about how I write songs, about any of that stuff. I mix and produce a lot of the stuff that I put out and I'm pretty good on the Pro-Tools. And I am a little bit of a nerd, not necessarily in terms of keeping up with every new band but in terms of production. I'm really interested in how people produce their records and what sonic qualities can mean. I never get asked about that stuff. I get asked about riot grrrl; I get asked, "Do you think Miley Cyrus is really a feminist?" You know what I mean? It's like go fucking ask Justin Timberlake if he's a feminist. I want to know if Justin Timberlake considers himself a feminist. Like, why are you asking me that?
"Go fucking ask Justin Timberlake if he's a feminist."
Where does the strength to keep pushing your artistry forward come from? KATHLEEN HANNA: I've always just thought of the really cliché phrase, "I'm on the right side of history." Back in the '90s when we were getting a massive amount of shit and people were trying to beat us up and stuff, I was just like, "I'm on the right side of history." I had women telling me I was a man-hater and men telling me I was a man-hater and blah blah blah. At the same time, I'm from the kind of '90s culture which was very much "you should stay a cult figure and never bust out of that world." So it's been hard for me to kind of un-indoctrinate myself from that because we saw what happened with Nirvana and with Kurt and I think in a way we were afraid that if we got into that world it would just lead to no good. I didn't feel strong enough as an artist to take the mainstream on. Now I feel totally differently—I feel strong enough as an artist. I feel like both Mykki and I at this point, we're gonna make whatever the fuck we're gonna make and that's what we're gonna make. Whether it's loved or hated, or keeps us in a cult star place, or elevates either or both of us into some crazy stratosphere, that's what's gonna happen, and it's not really really under my control.
At this point in my career I'm like, I want people to hear what I have to make because I like what we make. I think we're really great and I think our next record's gonna be even better. I really love that I'm giving myself the opportunity finally to not have the pressure of every single song you do having to be "political" or whatever. I'm just making what I wanna make. I think what's awesome is that I'm older and I'm being inspired by Mykki, who was inspired by me, and that's just so cool because we are kind of a weird, loose-knit community and we're both members of various overlapping communities and underlapping communities [laughs]. It's so cool when it comes around that way, when we're inspiring each other as artists and it's not top-down.
MYKKI BLANCO: My strength comes from the fact that I know that longevity brings rewards. Even on my most difficult day, you know just with life or whatever, I just know that one of my biggest talents is performing and the gift of performing is being able to take your ideology and spread it to larger amounts of people that may feel insecure or sheltered or may not have a voice. These things may sound cheesy, cliché, but once you get out there and start performing like I perform, [laughs] you realize it's true. You realize that you represent something to people, and that not only do you represent something, but just like that one live show can be so transformative. That's why I started to say things in my set, you know, like "A straight man's respect doesn't mean shit to me. A straight man's respect doesn't mean shit." That's why I say things now that are in my life, I wanna be here now 'cause the future is stupid. I just realize that my performance, who I am, even if I have to deal with bullshit sometimes, it doesn't really matter because I'm out here doing it. Whether I am a bajillionaire, or whether I continue to keep on what I'm doing what I'm doing and just keep getting better and better, it's like, I am a working artist and no one can take that away from me.
Lead image credit: Jack Mannix and Chloe Aftel.