Scan the schedule for this year’s Voodoo Festival. I’ll bet you two drinks you’ve never heard of the artist who opens Friday on the Le Plur stage.
Because Hello Negro is a phantom.
“If you’ve worked in New Orleans music, you’re probably familiar with the man behind the moniker. A respected piano player and cultural organizer, he appears at Voodoo under a cloud of intrigue. He’s a bit mystified himself, actually.”
“I actually don’t know what it is,” he laughs. We’re at Tivoli & Lee on Lee Circle, interviewee with vodka, interviewer with whiskey. I’ve asked him to define EDM, or electronic dance music, today’s dominant pop sound. The artist currently known as Hello Negro arrived in the genre with little prior knowledge of its trends and stars. Trained as both jazz improviser and electrical engineer, he gravitates towards musical puzzles. In pop, he sensed a void.
“I think there’s an improvisational element that’s been extracted from pop music. Remember when pop music had the instrumental solo in the midst of a song with lyrics? I’m not a big Madonna fan, but I was going through radio stations and one of these ’80s Madonna songs came on and she’s singing out of tune, bad drums, but sure enough, two-and-a-half minutes into it, there’s a 30-second solo. You never hear that anymore. I thought that was some of the coolest parts of this music.”
You can pause here and dig, say, the 2:30 mark on Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The man has a point, but a musician of his caliber doesn’t don a mask and head into the streets to mete out justice for lost synth solos. What made those ’80s interludes noteworthy? Is there still a place for improvisation in dance music? A yearlong search for solutions opened up a new path.
No photos exist of Hello Negro, but there are YouTube clips showing 10 dexterous fingers hovering above the 12 square pads of an MPC-500 drum machine. A melodic sample starts and the fingertips begin tapping out a beat. Each sound—the four-on-the-floor bass drum, the winding snares, a voice promising “bass”—is triggered by a finger. The sum is infectious EDM, but the process bears little resemblance to what EDM heavyweights David Guetta or Afrojack employ.
“What I do is very different,” Hello Negro says. “Those guys are DJs, so they work with these digital audio work stations; they prepare shows ahead of time, and they pump the fist and there’s some tweaking, but they prerecord the show.” At a few well-received early gigs, he grew bored. His inner jazz cat longed for more space to improvise and react to the crowd. The search continued.
“I found some guys who were doing jungle music [a precursor to the popular ‘drum and bass’ genre], playing it live, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ That’s where I got the idea. So I took my process a couple steps back.” Initially, his process had involved creating and recording a selection of sounds, sequencing them in a digital program, recording the programmed track, and then playing it at a gig. Now, Hello Negro’s live performances start in the middle: he arrives with the sounds programmed into his MPC-500s, but he plays the sequences and beats live, improvising every note. No loops, no autopilot.
Sounds difficult, right? “The process by which I use to create it is absolutely New Orleans, and something you can only learn in New Orleans,” he explains.
“It is the philosophy of creating a paradigm that provides structure, but enough space for you to improvise. Which is something I learned playing jazz. You sit down and play a jazz composition, there are chord changes, there’s a melody, and there’s a form. The magic in creating art with that is, that’s just a template. The beauty comes from your ability to improvise and your ability to develop themes.”
DJs marvel at both his process and his chosen machines. Along with the MPC-500s, he employs a MicroKorg synthesizer (“I got it from this kid in LaPlace who sold it to me for a $100 because he hated it”), all of it at least a decade behind the times. For this unlikely journey, he needed to build his own ship.
He also needed a disguise. During a garbled text exchange with a friend, he found it. “My mom would probably stop speaking to me,” thought the African American from Broadmoor. But it stuck. The transformation to Hello Negro was complete.
But why? I ask as we finish our drinks. You’re already a successful musician with enough responsibilities. Why reinvent yourself?
“I’m having a blast,” he laughs. The interaction with the audience, the ability to improvise, to propel the dancers—it returns him to an earlier point in his career. “It brings it back to playing with a church choir. I played Hammond organ. The 100 people who came to church were 15 feet away from me, and it’s like, ‘We’re here. We together are required to do this thing. I’m watching you; you’re watching me.’”
And after Voodoo? Hello Negro says the mission continues.
“I’m going to sit down and figure it out myself.”