It’s a stiflingly hot afternoon on 20th April, and we’re in East London’s fragrant and trendy Victoria Park. The air is thick and sweet. Pub gardens on the park’s fringes overflow with beer bottles, ethically sourced pulled pork burgers and more Aztec print than MIA’s Instagram account.
We’re under a tree with QBoy and Neil Prince. Along with LA based DJ David Oh, they run and promote R & She, the UK’s biggest LGBT-focused R&B and hip-hop night. Strutting into town once a month, in a host of different venues, the night celebrates the formidable range of female talent in the industry, from Monie Love to Mary J Blige!
On May Bank Holiday weekend, to celebrate their sixth year making waves on London’s eclectic but competitive nightlife scene, they’re headed to superclub Heaven, with what might be the biggest party they’ve ever undertaken.
The boys are passionate about what they do, with a wealth of knowledge on every aspect of a complicated, creative and culturally nuanced corner of mainstream music.
Dylan Jones spoke to them about their beginnings on London’s queer club scene, and how they’ve been affected by the radical changes in the hip-hop and R & B industry over the last decade.
Hey guys! So, typical interview question to kick things off…what’s the story of how R & She started?
Neil: Well I knew Marcos [QBoy] to say hello to, but we weren’t friends as such.
QBoy: Because I’m so…
QBoy: [Laughs] Yeah, and I forget people.
Neil: I’d been DJing around East London for ages, doing bits and pieces. And whenever I’d play somewhere doing pop stuff, I’d sometimes drop some old school R & B and hip-hop, and people would just go crazy. At the time, there wasn’t a gay hip-hop/R&B night in East London. So I was like “Ok, we blatantly need one.” Because the gay audience loves their divas, I thought I’d do a themed night and make it about all the females in R&B. I didn’t think it would turn into anything, it was just a one off. I was doing Songs of Praise at the time, with David Oh, so I asked if he wanted to do it with me. I was like “we need somebody else who’s actually known for R&B and hip-hop.” Then David suggested QBoy and I was like “perfect.” So then we dropped him a message.
QBoy: I got very excited. When I first started DJing, I was terrible.
Neil: I didn’t even realise he didn’t use headphones at first! But he knew his stuff well enough to still play.
QBoy: With a lot of R&B songs, they’re all pop structures. The commercial stuff, it doesn’t really need mixing. And I knew the songs inside out already. When you know the songs, you don’t need headphones because you know exactly where to come in.
That must be so satisfying to do…
QBoy: When I started, I was just using vinyl. Back in 2001, we had PacMan, which was the gay hip-hop club I ran with Gideon from Bloc9, Mistamaker, Noki the fashion artist and 9Bob. We ran that in Brighton and then in London for a few years. We all brought different things to its sound, and what I brought was females. Mostly female rappers, but female R&B as well. That’s always been my bag. So when Neil was like “do you wanna come and play this all-female R&B night?” I was like “ERR YES! It’s perfect!”
Neil: We started off at Vogue Fabrics. Because of the size, it’s such a perfect place to try an idea out and see if it works, and then if it works you can take it on and build it. So we did it there, and it was just instant. It became a total sweatbox.
QBoy: It surprised me, because I was playing the same records as in 2001, but nobody wanted to listen to 90s records in 2001, because it was still too close to the 90s. Then a few years later, exactly the same songs, and everyone goes crazy!
Neil: It’s people’s childhood now, the 90s and 00s stuff.
Well, Anne-Marie’s just released a song called 2002…
QBoy: Oh, fuck off.
Neil: Estelle released 1980 didn’t she. And that was in 2003.
I remember reading somewhere that American Boy was the most influential song of that decade…
QBoy: It’s Estelle does Jamiroqui.
Neil: Yeah, we like it but I wouldn’t go that far. I kinda miss her though, she keeps teasing the odd thing but has never really come back properly.
Why do you think female rap and R&B resonates with gay men so much?
Neil: Well, gay men who love pop music always seem to move towards female vocalists in pop as well.
QBoy: Growing up, I was always into hip-hop and rap, but I found the male rappers too hard, too homophobic, macho, misogynistic, all of that. For me it was more natural to be into Salt-N-Pepa, Lil’ Kim, Neneh Cherry, Queen Latifah…until I had a strong enough ego to deal with the other shit.
Neil: Your ego’s never been strong Marcos.
QBoy: [Laughs] shut up! But it’s not easy to deal with it…because you’re asking queer people, when you play certain records, to essentially listen to people cussing them through the speaker. Most of the women rappers tend not to have as much homophobic content, if any. There’s been the odd “faggot” from Lil Kim here and there.
Neil: Back then in the 90s, there was a lot more homophobia around though.
Why was that an issue in the hip-hop/rap industry in particular?
QBoy: Hip-hop changed a lot in the 90s. In ‘94, all the major record labels bought up the independent hip-hop labels. So if you go pre-94, and look at the commercial hip-hop in the charts up to that point, it’s a mixture of very different styles of hip-hop – they have politically conscious stuff, party stuff, fun stuff…and then around ’94, because all those independent labels got bought up, the majors put the quash on those positive artists, and started funding gangster rap artists. Gangster rap is a segment under the umbrella of hip-hop, but it’s not hip-hop per se. But it became the face of hip-hop through the 90s, and into the early 2000s. And that has the face of homophobia, sexism, gun culture, drugs, crime.
I feel like that’s coming to an end now.
QBoy: Yeah! It started to come to an ended in about 2002 actually. The Black Eyed Peas, as tasteless as some of their music was, switched it back to being more fun. And now it’s gone in several directions.
So the first ever R & She was six years ago…tell me about it.
QBoy: Well, Aaliyah was our cover girl on the posters. Still one of my favourite posters ever.
Neil: What was brilliant was as soon as we put it up on Facebook, the response was incredible. The feed on the event page was about sixty music videos, everyone posting their favourites and sounding off on what they liked. It was great. It just showed how much people were into it.
QBoy: And the selections weren’t all obvious ones either. There was some really rare R&B stuff. You really love it when someone comes up with a good suggestion.
Neil: Something you thought you might not be able to get away with playing.
QBoy: Yeah, it gives you license to play it.
Neil: But yeah, they all blend into one… I can’t specifically remember anything at the first one.
QBoy: I remember coming in and putting the posters up. My bedroom wall was COVERED – ceiling, radiators, every surface you can imagine – with female rappers and female R&B singers. So I brought them down and put them up. Also, our first party was just at the time when the 90s revival started.
So what’s the plan for this Sunday’s party?
Neil: Just a massive celebration. We’ve got WeLovePop DJs coming as well. Because we wanted to provide an alternative to the R&B and bashment if people want it. They’re gonna do an all-female pop room with Britney, Christina, Madonna, because it’s at Heaven, and they’re more used to having pop there. A lot of the Soho crowd do come to our birthday parties there, so we wanted to make sure we’ve covered all bases. And then it’s business as usual on the main floor: just a massive celebration of all the biggest hip-hop/R&B queens, from the 90s to now!
R & She 6th Birthday is on Sunday 6th May at Heaven, Villiers Street, Charing Cross, WC2N 6NG. 10% of all profits will go to He For She, a movement committed to achieving gender equality.