The Big Easy bounces back with its own hip-hop beat
Dance-oriented bounce music, a hip-hop variant unique to New Orleans, is tapped by hitmakers.
Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, a percolator of the blues, and where the early pioneers of rock 'n' roll recorded songs that have since crisscrossed continents, cultures, and generations.
All this music is still accessible on the streets where it was born – just stroll down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, visit its many festivals throughout the year, or tune into WWOZ, the city's cherished community radio station, to hear how much.
Yet as much as the city thrives by looking backward, the music that has served as the greatest economic engine of its residents of the past 20 years is hip-hop. Bounce, a hip-hop variant that evolved from the city's housing projects, has produced some artists who – unlike their better-celebrated elders such as Allen Toussaint and the Neville Brothers – sell millions of albums and whose music is sampled and recycled by mainstream hitmakers, including Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lil Wayne.
Helping shed light on bounce is "Where They At: New Orleans Hip-Hop and Bounce in Words and Pictures," a traveling multimedia exhibit and oral history project that examines the local hip-hop culture through the artists. But because any roots music is a product of the neighborhood, it also pays attention to the local clubs, housing projects, record stores, and recording studios that contributed to its evolution.
Like any home-grown music, bounce is inseparable from New Orleans itself. Interspersed over fast, hard club beats, it's not unusual to hear references to specific street corners, wards, or clubs. The call-and-response exchange between rappers mimics Mardi Gras Indian chants, and this segment of hip-hop may be the only one to routinely call in local high school marching bands to liven up the party.
"So many lines can be drawn to New Orleans second lines, New Orleans brass bands. So many New Orleans rappers and DJs grew up in New Orleans brass bands, which is why so much of this music is rooted in the specific New Orleans fabric," says Ms. Edwards, referring to the distinctive beat that characterizes New Orleans jazz.
She started the project after receiving a CD of New Orleans hip-hop as a gift. "I didn't even know [this] regional form of hip-hop existed," she says. The idea of investigating the people she was listening to brought her to Alison Fensterstock, a local music journalist. Both women started knocking on doors and making phone calls in hopes of being invited into a world they initially knew little about, but ended up documenting.
Their work helped shape a narrative that tracked the music's evolution, starting with "Where Dey At," the first cassette single in 1992 that they identify as pure bounce. Along the way they were able to tell the story of forgotten but pivotal characters like Bobby Marchan, an early club promoter and record hustler who, as a flamboyant gay man, disproved the stereotype that hip-hop did not have a place for anyone who wasn't a chiseled, straight male.
"Finding these people, earning their trust, earning their respect, it was a little tricky," Edwards admits. Because of the city's insular character, they also encountered a healthy amount of "trepidation and skepticism" when a trail led them to someone who'd never suspected that the music they made had spread far outside their specific ward, and that what they did was appreciated by people outside the culture.
Bounce artists tend to be reverent of traditional music, unlike many in hip-hop who see traditional music as old-fashioned or irrelevant. In New Orleans, being aware of what came before is an asset.
"If we got away from being traditional, we wouldn't be original," says Mia Young, who, as Mia X, is one of bounce's earliest hitmakers. "That's what sets New Orleans [apart] from anybody. We don't sound like anything from the South. We don't sound like anybody. We don't dance like anybody. We're our own little unique beautiful city."
Ms. Young grew up in the city's Seventh Ward and became a single mother, working two jobs to make ends meet. As the local hip-hop scene exploded in the early 1990s through Cash Money Records and No Limit Records, the two locally based record labels that helped usher New Orleans hip-hop to a national audience, she saw an opportunity to contribute a perspective that was missing.
"I wasn't hearing a lot of women who were talking about the everyday struggles of women," she says. "A lot of stuff was sexually driven and fashion-driven, and a lot of stuff was focused on getting a man to pay attention to how beautiful you were, and I felt what was missing was the stuff that women were going through every day."
Young released three albums between 1995 and 1998; the second, "Unlady Like" (No Limit), sold more than 500,000 copies. She describes her music as "tribal," much like the spare second-line beat that came from the Mardi Gras Indians. For her, at least, the connection is organic: Her distant cousin is the late Allison "Tootie" Montana, one of the city's most famous Indian chiefs.
In recent years, elements of bounce songs have shown up in chart-topping hits and producers routinely comb through regional mix tapes for ideas or hooks. It also helps that Cash Money, thanks to the success of Lil Wayne, is now a hip-hop powerhouse, which further promotes New Orleans as a commercial rival to New York or Los Angeles.
But as a subgenre to the city's general hip-hop scene, bounce has not produced, after 20 years, a crossover star, a fact that reflects on the heavy regional flavor of the music. Like much of New Orleans culture, the hothouse nature of the city is its greatest asset in creating something from nothing, but its insularity keeps things closer to home.
Not that it matters.
"I don't get mad because they co-opt our culture," says Young. "I just feel like bounce is so infectious, if anybody is around, they're going to do something in some kind of way to infuse it into what they're doing."
For her, the music is an end in itself: "Unlike anywhere else, we need our culture for our survival – we need to listen to second line,... we need to listen to bounce music."