// by George Shaw //
In the second instalment of this series, I’ve decided to tackle an area of music that, while spans multiple genres, has a hugely specific niche in the histories of music, African-Americans and the gay community – vogue music.
When most people first consider the word ‘vogue’, the immediate response usually lies along the lines of “oh, yeah, that fashion magazine” and if pressed in a music direction, most will often refer to Madonna’s premier hit single of the same name. I myself was that exact person until I was introduced to the history of vogue by a close friend who recommended that I watch the film, “Paris is Burning”. This covered the history of the dance culture which primarily took place over the ’80s and ’90s in major American cities such as New York, from which I was inspired to delve into the music of the time. Indeed it is both difficult and pointless to attempt to separate the music of voguing with the dancing.
In essence, voguing evolved as an art form for the repressed and subverted members of USA society, which so happened to centralise young gay, black Americans. Local journalist Tim Lawrence noted that “drag queens found themselves isolated not only from their biological families, which were usually intolerant of their choices, but also the ruling cadre of black nationalist leaders, whose increasingly macho ‘real man’ discourse was popularised by the gangs”. So, this queer community that developed acted as a foster family for the most vulnerable. Voguing became a form of expression and competition that otherwise could not be found.
Many music historians have noted that the history of the drag balls – the events where voguing took place – does have roots in 1930s Harlem. However, it was not until 1977 with the announcement of an extravagant ball by Crystal LaBeija that balls – and vogueing – were formalised somewhat. Before the 1990s and the so-called ‘New Way’ of voguing, the music that was utilised was very much whatever was popular at the time. Voguer Muhammad Omni explained that “voguing is an African-American dance…and the music is very important. It is modern progressions of the African drum. It is the ethnological musical imprint that comes from blues, jazz, gospel and funk. All these things were embodied in the traditional music of vogue”. And indeed that is the case if you consider the popular tunes. MFSB’s ‘Love Is The Message’ had extended use due to the breaks in the song which could be used to display a huge variety of dances moves and this became the case for lots of tracks utilised in the ’90s during the ‘New Way’. The spectacular ‘The Ha Dance’ by Masters at Work became the cornerstone of ’90s vogue due to the heavy rhythmic beat pattern which accentuated on every 4th beat with the titular “ha” sample, originally pulled from the Eddie Murphy film, Trading Places. This allowed dancers to perfectly punctate their moves in time to the track. The ’90s and the ‘New Way’ exploded with an unprecedented vigour and strength. Music was chosen to reflect the “glorification of gayness and femininity” (House of Diabolique) and included powerful, raw tracks such as ‘Walk 4 Me’ by Robbie Tronco and ‘Feel This’ from Robbie Rivera.
This queer community that developed acted as a foster family for the most vulnerable. Voguing became a form of expression and competition that otherwise could not be found.
However, by the early 2000s music had somewhat stagnated. Producer MikeQ remarked that “there was only like three tracks the kids got to vogue to”, which was said in reference to the butchering and remaking of the famous ‘The Ha Dance’. Big DJs of the time recalled making ‘Ha’s’ (remixes of the Masters at Work song) hundreds of times over to add different elements to the track and to tailor make it for specific styles of dance. ‘The Allure Ha’ from scene legend Vjuan Allure was the first of these ‘Ha’s’ and was released in 2000 and although this was considered during a musical lull period, it did spark the heavier, aggressive and rawer music of modern vogue. Today the scene is more popular than ever and a massive variety of tunes reflect all those involved. Big name Kevin JourdanZion is noted for his songs such as the raucous ‘Who Is Ya Favorite Femm Queen’ which has a somewhat heavy garage-y feel with shade-filled vocal samples over the top. Furthermore, KevinJZ has claimed notoriety for producing songs for specific voguers, with tracks dedicated to the likes of Niambi Prodigy and Pork Chop Milan.
Vogue music is layered with such a deep and textured history that in reality, “an idiot’s guide” cannot do it justice. The music is so much more than a simple genre and tells the stories of a very specific and segregated community. Today these songs and the scene itself have remained ever strong, albeit with various changes which reflect the evolution of both the tastes of the dancers and indeed the growing acceptance of the formerly estranged coloured and gay communities.
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