A documentary about a seemingly contradictory notion -- gay hip-hop -- "Pick Up the Mic" edges past simple curiosity value based on the likeability, forthrightness and performance skills of the talent it spotlights. Rather rough-hewn, pic nonetheless stands a fair chance of scoring specialized theatrical release.

A correction was made to this review on Oct. 14, 2005.

A documentary about a seemingly contradictory notion — gay hip-hop — “Pick Up the Mic” edges past simple curiosity value based on the likeability, forthrightness and performance skills of the talent it spotlights. Rather rough-hewn in comparison to most music docs that have broken out of the fest circuit lately, pic nonetheless stands a fair chance of scoring specialized theatrical release, especially if tied into a soundtrack release that could help trumpet the whole scene in youth-oriented media.

Pegged by one interviewee here as primarily a “culture of angry young men,” hip-hop has long been associated as much with homophobia as “bitch/ho” misogyny. Stars from Ice Cube to Eminem have used “faggot” as worst-expletive-of-choice, shoring up their hypermasculine images via lyrics that express bewilderment, hostility or outright violent intent toward gays.

Very few major players, most recently Kanye West, have gone on record saying that this prejudice is as uncool as any other. No wonder, then, that gay and lesbian hip-hop artists have thus far remained a self-contained “underground,” not acknowledged by hip-hop’s mainstream, or even by the larger gay community.

Using a chronological structure, pic starts as the scene’s isolated pioneers came together for a 1997 “Rainbow Flava” performance in San Francisco. Across the bay in Oakland, the newly formed “literary, poetic and musical project” Deep Dickollective (especially co-founder Juba Kalamka) proved a lightning rod for inspiring more artists, as did performer/Phat Family label founder Dutchboy.

Among standout acts to emerge more recently throughout the country are raunchy female rapper JenRO, tongue-twisting geek whiteboy Katastrophe (actually a female-to-male transsexual), soulful Tim’m T. West, and Wisconsin-bred God-Des, who (with her vocalist Tina G.) will settle for nothing less than being “homohop’s” first crossover success.

Though the level of talent showcased here is much higher than skeptics might expect, a couple acts are of the “sorry, nice try” ilk, and pic’s digressive nature occasionally makes it seem a tad aimless. But most of the time, the personalities are so engaging that the viewer is just pleased to share their company, on or off-stage.

Underlining the complexities behind a blanket term like “gay,” homosexual diversity is defined in a hilarious, grappling-to-understand conversation between Dutchboy and producer Money. Former is a bisexual white male artist-activist living with a longtime girlfriend, while dedicated exclusively to creating and promoting gay hip-hop. Latter is an African-American lesbian who can’t grasp sexual fence-sitters, but professionally — as her name implies — is quite happy producing only the more-marketable straight artists.

There are some terrific tracks and live perfs heard here, suggesting that a tie-in multi-artist CD release could turn into the breakout moment this scene has been waiting for. Making his first feature docu after several shorts, helmer Alex Hinton delivers a package full of entertaining content, though lensing and tech aspects are just adequate. Some editorial tweaking and added graphics wouldn’t hurt theatrical prospects.

Pick Up The Mic

Production

A Rhino Films presentation of a Planet Janet Films production. Produced by Alan Skinner. Executive producers, Stephen Nemeth, Charles Solomon. Directed by Alex Hinton.

Crew

Camera (color, DigiBeta), Hinton; editors, Alan Skinner, Hinton; sound, Scott Rader. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 11, 2005. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Aggracyst, Johnny Dangerous, Deadlee, Deep Dickollective, Dutchboy, Tori Fixx, God-Des, JB Rap, JenRO, Juba Kalamka, Katastrophe, Money, Mister Maker, Paradigm, Qboy, Scream Club, Marcus Rene Van, Tim'm T. West.
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