An object in motion stays in motion. For the Soul Rebels, that’s been an unspoken mantra since the band formed in 1991. Borne from the wellspring of traditional brass and marching bands with a goal of becoming the standard bearer for performing popular music through horns and drums, the Soul Rebels have moved in a consistently impressive trajectory for nearly three decades.
The band’s ever-expanding and atypical list of collaborators includes everyone from Marilyn Manson to Matisyahu, Robin Thicke to Robert Glasper. They’ve opened for The Rolling Stones, appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” performed at Jazz Fest with pop superstar Katy Perry, opened the prestigious TED Conference and backed legendary Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series—all within the last two years. A copious touring schedule keeps the Soul Rebels on 250-plus stages a year, landing them in Australia, China, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Africa. At home in New Orleans, the band holds down its historic residency on Thursdays at Le Bon Temps Roule, plus frequent gigs on Frenchmen Street and at Tipitina’s.
A few years ago, the band began to concentrate on writing and recording its first album since 2012’s Unlock Your Mind. The album, titled Poetry in Motion that arrives October 25, is both a culmination of and introduction to the band’s genre-blending course. Featuring guest appearances from PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty, Big Freedia, Robert Glasper, Branford Marsalis, Tarriona “Tank” Ball and others, it’s the group’s most concerted effort to showcase its versatility. One would be remiss not to mention the contributions of songwriter and singer Sean Carey, whose masterful work on hooks gives the album the catchy characteristics needed to make it a crossover darling.
On the album, folks will hear rapping from trumpet player Julian Gosin and/or trombonist Corey “Passport P” Peyton on seven of the 12 tracks. Rapping has been elemental to the band’s live performances for years; if it isn’t a member MCing, then it’s any of myriad rappers they’ve shared stages with—Mobb Deep, Nas, Rakim, Talib Kweli, and Wu-Tang Clan are but a few. Much like The Roots did before settling in as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, the Soul Rebels have become a pre-eminent force in live hip-hop across the globe, using drums and horns to break down and analyze the genre from a molecular level. But don’t get it twisted—the band does it all.
The group opted to roll out Poetry in Motion with the bounce record “Good Time” featuring Big Freedia, Denisia and Passport P. Nestled elsewhere within the track list are soca, reggae, neo-soul, jazz, R&B, Latin and various other styles. On paper, it could sound like a maniacal hodge-podge of genres with an obvious hip-hop foundation. In reality, it’s precisely what the Soul Rebels—who can really only be considered a brass band based on an instrumental technicality—have always done. As founding member and snare drummer Lumar Leblanc says, “Throw whatever you want at us; we’ll be able to play it.”
An Act of Rebellion
“The Soul Rebels are a quote-unquote brass band,” says PJ Morton. “Out of all the bands, I feel like they are the ones who are on the edge. They were trying to create something new out of this art form. From the way they think about and approach music, to the fact that they don’t do second line music, they’re creating something out of those instruments that other brass bands aren’t.”
The entity that would become known as the Soul Rebels started with the Young Olympia Brass Band, in which founding member and bass drummer Derrick “Oops” Moss as well as founding member and snare drummer Lumar Leblanc played together. Under the tutelage of Milton Batiste, the two played the traditional music of a New Orleans brass band but found themselves more attracted to the funkier, street-savvy sounds of The Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Bands.
Since the band’s first gig as the Soul Rebels at Tipitina’s, rebellion was innate. “Soul Rebels was the first to do hip-hop with a brass band,” says trumpeter Marcus “Red” Hubbard, who remains so devoted to the band, he commutes from his home in Houston to Soul Rebels gigs in New Orleans. “That’s history.”
Derrick says at its onset, the Soul Rebels drew inspiration from Earth, Wind & Fire as well as Public Enemy. “I don’t know if it ever gets credited, but the Soul Rebels was the first to merge hip-hop with brass band. Technically, we are a brass band because we have a sousaphone, horns and separate drums, but it was always going to be more than that.”
Joining the Soul Rebels offered trombonist Corey “Passport P” Peyton an opportunity to become part of a group with a bold musical perspective. He admires the band’s early decision to stop performing second lines and instead prove that brass bands could do much more. “It was about trailblazing. You didn’t want to cut anyone off, but that’s what made me want to be in this band. In the ‘90s, to say you didn’t want to do brass band shit anymore, that was unheard of.”
You can read more about the Soul Rebels’ history in the August 2006 cover story of OffBeat, which features a very different lineup of the band.
The Moving Parts
Today, the Soul Rebels consist of two original members—Lumar and Derrick—plus six members who’ve joined the band as far back as 1998 and as recently as 2016. Marcus joined in ‘98 and saxophonist Erion Williams came on board in 2005. In 2010, the band added trumpeter Julian Gosin as well as trombonists Paul Robertson and Corey. Sousaphonist Manuel “Manny” Perkins Jr. is both the youngest (25 at press time) and newest Soul Rebel, joining the group just a couple of years ago.
With eight voices (not to mention those of management), each of whom represents a specific contribution to the group, the band’s concordance is truly remarkable. Despite their differing ages, years of experience, tastes in music and personalities, they all seem to share a philosophy: “We always gonna keep things moving forward,” as Marcus says. Achieving homeostasis is one thing; achieving harmony is another. Here’s a look at all the moving parts.
Corey’s voice is the first we heard from Poetry in Motion, thanks to his verse as Passport P on lead single “Good Time” (a song which Marcus claims came to be because of a piano riff Corey randomly played on the road). He also lends the album its first rap, on the triumphant intro cut “Blow the Horns.”
In 2018, the New Orleans East native and former member of Kinfolk, Hot 8 and Rebirth Brass Bands released a solo rap album, Global Ambition. During a Soul Rebels show, his prowess at both rapping and blowing takes center stage as he vacillates effortlessly between MC and trombonist. Other members champion his fashion sense, as well as his contributions as a producer and songwriter.
“You feel better about it when you had a hand in it,” he says when I ask him about the songwriting on Poetry in Motion. “I couldn’t imagine someone taking my freedom away, as far as making music. The heart of it, even though struggling, is making some shit that you like.”
Described by others in the band as the cool and introverted one, Corey is arguably the band’s most stylish member. “I think I bring a style, a swagger to the group,” he tells me. “Not that no one else got swagger but, I’m the slim guy who does the MC thing, the rap thing. So people think of me as the rapper of the group. Whatever, so be it.”
Oops, as he’s better known, was drum major of the Southern University Marching Band (as a freshman!). Born in Charity Hospital and a graduate of Alcee Fortier High School where he marched as the tenor drum section leader in the school band with “Slim” (CEO of Cash Money Records), he has an encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans music history.
The oldest in age of all the members and with two grown sons of his own, he says his contributions to the band can sometimes border on the parental. “Sometimes I feel like pops, and I had to realize that I get into father-son mode sometimes. But I do bring, I think, a realness and honesty to whatever’s happening.”
On stage, Oops is energetic but serious. His bandmates use terms like “driven” and “persistent” to describe him, words that also describe his instrument. Says Lumar, “Derrick is someone who can’t separate his musicianship from what his role is, because the bass drum is so important. It’s the heart beat; it’s the main rhythm component. Imagine hearing a show without a bass drum. It just won’t work.”
Unanimously described by his bandmates as the reliable quarterback of the group, Erion and his sax contribute a soulful, laid-back equilibrium to the band’s dynamic. As Corey says, “Erion is the glue guy. He’s never too far left, never too far right. He pulls everyone together and makes shit happen.”
A member since 2005, the Lower 9th Ward native is a former member of The Stooges and Mahogany Brass Bands. During high school at St. Augustine, he played in the globally- renowned Marching 100 and today works with students as a woodwind instructor for Roots of Music and the Trombone Shorty Academy.
For Erion, Poetry in Motion is less of a departure than it is a reminder. “When I got in the band, the goal was, we didn’t want to be known as a brass band. Everyone knows we’re a brass band by instrumentation, so we can’t fight that, but as far as the music goes, we’ve always wanted to be known as a mainstream act,” he says.
“I call this album Rebelution 2.0 [referring to The Soul Rebels’ 2005 debut album Rebelution]. It’s the realization of what the band came out with. I got in the band when Rebelution came out. It was unheard of for a brass band to have tracks and rapping. It was the Soul Rebels at that point, we brought it back to Soul Rebels Brass Band, and then went back to the Soul Rebels again later on. I think this is the realization of that album, and it’s always what this band has wanted to do.”
The 7th Ward trumpeter and rapper has played with the city’s most revered brass bands including Rebirth and Hot 8. Like many other musicians, Julian found his current position through sitting in and subbing for former band members. Le Bon Temps Roule, the Magazine Street club where the band continues to play, was his entry point.
Now 33, Julian describes himself as one of the most vocal members of the band. His contributions on Poetry in Motion are substantial. He has a duet with PJ Morton on “Slide Back,” and provides some sharp sociocultural analysis on “Greatness,” where he raps alongside Dee-1 and Alfred Banks. On “Real Life,” he waxes vulnerable and steadfast, sharing personal details about his history. He also raps on two of the album’s most ambitious tracks, “It’s Up to You,” featuring soca group Kes; and the Matisyahu-assisted reggae-tinged joint “Count Your Blessings.”
“It feels good. Just being able to express myself outside of the instrument is always a good thing. Because I know the average person doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards horns as much as they do lyrics,” he tells me. “I definitely approached this album from a lyrical standpoint, but that’s something we’ve been talking about doing for years.”
Other members of the band describe Julian as athletic and a person who cares deeply about the band’s success. “If we need things to be done,” Manny says, “Julian’s going to be like, ‘Yo, we need to make sure this happens.’”
The gatekeeper and peacemaker of the group, Lumar breathes old-school hip-hop. He’s always got at least one pair of fresh sneakers on his person, and his admiration for the virtuosity of rappers like Rakim and LL Cool J is endless.
The founding member of the Soul Rebels didn’t even want to be a musician. He played the bass drum as a member of the St. Augustine High School marching band, but he had his eyes set on college and a traditional career. Much like the old-school MCs he admires for changing popular music, Lumar was eager to be innovative and saw the band as an opportunity to change the way people thought of New Orleans music.
“I’ve got ideas, and my role in the band is definitely one of leadership,” he tells me. “I try to be the equalizer and create the balance between the older guys and the younger ones. I try to keep us all evolving as a person. We spend so much time together, it’s important to keep the peace. We’ve got to have peace because it’s going to come out through the horns or the drums. You know, you can get away with it if you’ve got a lot of electricity producing the sound. But when you’ve got people physically who have to play it, it’s going to tell when you don’t get along.”
Known as the jubilant trendsetter of the band, Manny first picked up the tuba while playing in the McDonogh 35 High School marching band. He’s played with The Stooges, Kinfolk and Hot 8, but with the Soul Rebels, he’s stepped into his most important role yet.
“I’m the energy-giver in the band. The band has been to all of these places around the world, and the places are new to me. My job is to keep everyone from feeling like we’re doing the same thing again and give them a spark.”
He may be the youngest member, but he’s an impassioned student of brass band history, particularly when it comes to the legacy of his current band. “Anybody who’s followed the band since [2008’s] Let Your Mind Be Free should have known an album like [Poetry in Motion] was coming. This album is needed. People box you in, when they’re so used to seeing you in a certain way. We have a bigger platform to showcase to the world that we’ve actually been coming at it from this angle for ten years. We don’t want you to be, like, ‘this is a brass band type of album.’ We want you to perceive this like any other type of album that you’d listen to. Hear it coming from one of your favorite pop artists and then try to tell me it’s a brass band record.”
Like Lumar, live performance was never the career Marcus envisioned for himself. In 1994, he won a prestigious NAACP competition in classical music, the same year he was bitten by the jazz bug. As he grew, he became far more interested in studio engineering and producing. While attending Southern University, he was spending his weekends playing trumpet with bands like Hot 8 before joining the Soul Rebels in the late nineties.
In the decades since, he’s stepped into a leadership role not unlike that of Derrick and Lumar. “He’s always where he’s supposed to be, on time or early, just like a leader should be,” says Derrick. “He’s definitely paramount,” adds Lumar, “especially when it comes to the intricacies of what we have to do to get the live shows right.” Marcus, although primarily known for his trumpet playing, ended up as a kind of engineer, after all.
Dubbed the level-headed, down-for-whatever, driving force of the band, Marcus is a bridge between the original members and those who came after him. As such, he’s got a unique perspective on where the band has been and where it’s going.
“We didn’t start doing what we’re doing on this record here. Everybody started in the traditional vein, just like we did. We knew we had to learn traditions. That’s why a lot of musicians in the street, they never disrespect us, because they know our history. They know we’re not a band that just popped up, just started doing what we’re doing. That’s the thing we try to push on these youngsters; don’t try to start where we are now.”
The welcoming, vivacious “Big Paul” starting coming around the Soul Rebels when the band was still participating in the Krewe du Vieux parade. Like Julian, all roads pointed to Magazine Street. “Erion hit me up one day and said ‘Pull up to Le Bon Temps,’ and I didn’t even know where that sucker was at.” The Kenner native came on full time in 2010 after subbing for previous member Winston Turner who now is a member of the Brass-A-Holics.
Before that, the trombone player honed his chops playing with the Palmetto Bug Stompers, Smitty Dee’s Brass Band, the Algiers Brass Band and more. During a Soul Rebels show, you’ll likely hear Paul show off his singing voice.
Easily the most gregarious member, Paul admits that work is difficult sometimes. I asked him how he remains so positive on the hard days, when the band has to ship out from a late-night gig to travel for a show in another state, or even country. “Yeah, it gets difficult. People leave you, stuff happens. You miss birthdays, anniversaries. Sometimes music is a good-ass drug, though. When you see people enjoying it, it makes you push.”
“Paul is a wildman,” says Erion when I ask what the trombonist’s role in the band is. “He keeps the crowd hype. Legit, people come to see Paul. He keeps that energy going on stage. He’s a fan favorite.”
Corey echoes the sentiment, saying “Paul is the fun guy. People love him. He’s like a teddy bear playing the trombone. Who wouldn’t want to see that?”
“When you see Michael Jackson, you don’t care if he’s from Indiana or not. He just makes great music that lots of people can enjoy.” Marcus—along with his bandmates—hopes Poetry in Motion will be the album that proves a horn-based band from New Orleans is not limited by the sounds of its home base; that they can, in fact, be mainstream.
“Hopefully,” he adds, “when it’s all said and done for us, we’re the ones who paved the roads and knocked the doors down for brass bands to be on the main stage of any festival.”
I decided to ask the band’s youngest member, Manny, about what Poetry in Motion and the Soul Rebels’ next chapter will look like. “Ain’t no limitations. You can write that verbatim. Ain’t no limitations in any of us.”