Hip-hop genres flare up and become passé in the blink of an eye, but no style ever truly dies in New Orleans.
Late last year, six people were arrested in New Orleans for tagging the graffiti message “Free Lil Wayne” in the French Quarter. It was an odd message of support given that Lil Wayne hasn’t lived in New Orleans since well before Katrina and had yet to start serving his sentence in New York City, where he was convicted of possessing an unlicensed gun. Why the concern for Lil Wayne? He doesn’t live in New Orleans and didn’t even root for the Saints in the NFC Championship game (he’s a Brett Favre fan). Probably because in New Orleans the ties that bind only tighten with age.
New Orleans hip-hop is a great signifier of those bonds. The plight of the city’s brass band and Mardi Gras Indian culture has been well documented, but the destruction of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods after the federal flood may have impacted the hiphop scene most of all.
“Like all other kinds of street music, a lot of the communities are gone and a lot of artists are not back yet,” says New Orleans journalist Alison Fensterstock, who has written extensively about local hip-hop, especially the subgenre of bounce.“The one thing it did for bounce was it had a kind of Johnny Appleseed effect, like in Houston they had bounce nights at clubs and people were coming
out to them in large numbers.”
It took a while for the New Orleans hip-hop scene to get its legs back after the flood, as many of the biggest names in the mix left town or languished in prison, and DJs were devastated by material losses of record collections and hardware, hardships well documented in the excellent documentary Ya Heard Me.
Ya Heard Me focused on bounce, a form of hip-hop peculiar to the city, and one that people feared would die after Katrina along with other street traditions. But bounce has made a comeback, particularly in what’s come to be known as “sissy bounce,” with its flamboyantly gay and cross-dressing performers. Fensterstock has organized a showcase of bounce artists for this year’s SXSW and “Where They At,” a multimedia archive of bounce at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans (Aubrey Edwards’ photos come from this show). She calls attention to a music whose practitioners are not well known outside of New Orleans.
Hip-hop has been undercovered by the chroniclers of New Orleans popular music, perhaps because New Orleans didn’t really develop a distinctive hip-hop scene until the latter part of the 1980s and the development of bounce. In 1987, Gregory D recorded “Buck Jump Time” with DJ Mannie Fresh, who would go on to create the Cash Money beats, taking cues from what the Rebirth Brass Band was doing with its reinvention of brass band music as a hip-hop hybrid. “Here we go with a brand new style,” raps Gregory D, who goes on to quote “Hey Pocky Way,” give shout-outs to various New Orleans locations, and tap the ubiquitous audience participation chant, “Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.” Gregory D went in a different direction after that, but bounce was on the map, even though it still existed more in the streets than the marketplace. The first all-bounce album, It’s Jimi by DJ Jimi, didn’t come out until 1992.
There is a widespread misconception that all New Orleans hip-hop is bounce, and though many of the best known New Orleans rappers started in bounce, they eventually dropped the form in order to appeal to a national audience. Juvenile contributed extensively to the DJ Jimi material, but by the time he signed to Cash Money records and became part of one of that label’s signature groups, the Hot Boys, along with Lil Wayne, B.G. and Young Turk, he was already moving away from the simple chants, dance cues and neighborhood shout-outs that characterize bounce.
That connection to the neighborhoods, and to a past that is part of a cyclical timeline that is always renewing itself and is often confused with the New Orleans nostalgia music played for tourists, explains why so much New Orleans music links back to common sources. Shrewd observers have been pointing out for years that New Orleans musicians have been doing something rap-like at least as far back as Louis Armstrong. Bounce emerged out of the same elements that inspire all New Orleans street music–Mardi Gras Indian chants and second line marching rhythms.
K.C. Redd’s “Hot Girlz on Fire” quotes “Iko Iko,” making a direct connection to the classic New Orleans R&B that shares so many characteristics with bounce- nonsense lyrics, nursery rhymes, local dialect, explicit sex themes, catalogs of dances and a goofy sense of humor. Ricky B used a sousaphone on the rhythm track for his early bounce release “Y’all Holla,” which includes brass band chants along with neighborhood tags like this tribute to the 9th Ward’s Desire project:
Who got that fire
right ‘cross the tracks
in the wild Desire…
SXSW is a particularly good place to showcase bounce because New Orleans hip-hop has had strong historical connections to Texas.
“New Orleans bounce influenced the Houston scene even before Katrina,” says Fensterstock. “It’s the New Orleans curse. It’s been happening in all the music that I’ve ever studied. New Orleans artists put out their music on these little local labels that don’t get good distribution and they have bad contracts and they don’t tour. It’s that way with hip-hop. A lot of New Orleans bounce has influenced other southern rap. The Ying Yang Twins had hits with the ‘Shake It Like a Salt Shaker’ chant and that’s DJ Jimi. Rihanna has a new song where at the end they’re going ‘Where they at, where they at, where they at,’ which is DJ Jimi.”
The seven acts in the showcase represent a diverse cross section of the past, present and future of New Orleans bounce.
“Bounce King” DJ Jubilee has the most recognizable signature. So recognizable, in fact, that Juvenile’s hit “Back That Azz Up” is a straight cop of Jubilee’s “Back That Ass Up.” The call-and-response chants of “Get Ready, Ready” characterize Jubilee’s style. Each verse introduces a new element as Jubilee builds the tension, counting down dance calls as a chorus cues the crowd with answer lines:
Where ya headed?
I’m from Uptown
We got a touchdown…
What’s the name of your
Do the Wiggy
Do the Belly Hop
Do the Pork Chop…
Partners-N-Crime, the duo of Kango Slim and Mista Meana, cut one of the genre’s more popular tracks, “Pump tha Party,” and adapt elements of reggae and soul into their style.
Their new release with 5th Ward Weebie, We Are Legends, trends toward a more national style. Ms Tee, a female rapper who used to sing the hookson the Cash Money records mixes her bounce with a more straightforward contemporary R&B style. Magnolia Shorty offers a good example of how bounce combines the eccentric New Orleans elements of sexuality, comedy and hard edged dance rhythms on the thumping “Monkey On the Dick.”
The super-theatrical Vockah Redu says he’s straight but cross-dresses as a performance strategy, and he has been representing the new style of bounce, a more electronic sound with much faster beats than the traditional Showboys’ “Triggerman” samples that have always given it a hyperactive feel. The other two bounce artists in the showcase, Katey Red and Big Freedia, are the iconic figures of the hottest aspect of this music, sissy bounce. Both came out of Walter L. Cohen High School, where they participated in the school parade band, which also included Vockah Redu, who was already marching in drag as part of the baton twirling team.
Katey Red was a pioneer of New Orleans gay bounce, dating back to her first release, Melpomene Block Party in 1999. Hip-hop, and southern rap in particular, is an unapologetically homophobic culture, so it took real guts for Katey Red to flash her boygal style before the turn of the century. But New Orleans has a history of gay and crossdressing performers going at least as far back as the Dew Drop Inn, where Patsy Vidalia and Bobby Marchan put on their legendary drag performances. And Katey Red was true to the spirit of bounce as a music for and about the audience rather than the performer. The sheer joy of her call-and-response with the female chorus in “Melpomene Block Party,” where Katey shouts the first half of a Muses street name and the answering chorus finishes it, is pure electricity.
Katey Red inspired other MCs to come out, creating a small but thriving bounce subculture in the early part of the ‘00s. When the city’s population was scattered after the flood, it was gay bounce artists like Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby who kept the faith, playing private parties and school functions along with gay clubs and strip joints. Big Freedia worked hard, holding down a day job as an event production designer and playing three club gigs a night.
Two years ago Fensterstock wrote about the phenomenon and inadvertently coined the term “sissy bounce.” A prairie fire of acceptance by young clubgoers suddenly turned sissy bounce into the face of New Orleans hip-hop, so much so that a lot of people are under the impression that the entire New Orleans bounce scene is gay.
“This sissy bounce thing is one of the great accidents of music history,” says Fensterstock. “I ever heard the term before I wrote that piece. It’s not like it’s the best or most original or most significant hip-hop coming out of New Orleans. There are cases for other artists that aren’t into gay orientations, but for whatever reason there’s been this perfect storm of sissiness. People wanted to call it something.”
It’s also significant that the sissy bounce vocalists appeal to hip-hop fans at black clubs as well as alternative downriver crowds at the Hi-Ho Lounge, rock clubs like One Eyed Jacks and dance clubs for young white suburbanites like the Hookah, where Rusty Lazer DJs regular bounce nights. On Valentine’s Day, the all-star bounce bash headlined by Katey Red and Big Freedia was non-stop excitement. Katey Red, an imposing figure in her black ‘do and tank top, paced the stage aggressively and never stopped blurting one line call-and-response prompts, moving the nearly all-white crowd to shout back the responses like the peers she was making them. Whenever a performance can bring the audience to such a peak of physical and emotional involvement, you have sheer pop culture magic at work, a spirit movement that rivals any religious gathering.
Hip-hop is notorious for being a music of the moment, and today’s flash is tomorrow’s old school. In most hip-hop communities, bounce would have run its course long ago, but not in New Orleans. In New Orleans, music isn’t just fashion or entertainment; it’s a way of life, and when the general populace accepts sounds or styles as part of that life they never give them up. That’s why Lil Wayne, even after he left town and was no longer the street presence he once was, remained a powerful symbolic force in the culture. If he had been from New York or L.A. and moved to Miami to do his thing, he would have been shunned as a traitor. In the mythology of New Orleans hip-hop it’s far better for a Magnolia Projects soulja (Lil Wayne was from Hollygrove but became part of the Magnolia-based Cash Money gang) to move to Miami than to record for a rival neighborhood gang like the Calliope-based No Limit crew. It’s a measure of how deep that mythology is entrenched that both of those projects no longer exist, yet the allegiance perseveres like some ghetto Camelot.
So you have to think of a track like Lil Wayne’s “Drop It While It’s Hot” or Jubilee/Juvenile’s “Back That Ass(zz) Up” as folk music to get why it’s still part of the day-to-day lexicon of New Orleans music. We’ll be hearing those chants decades from now, just as we continue to hear “Tipitina” or “Carnival Time” half a century (and more) after they were made.