How New Orleans soldiered through struggle and gave rap its bounce
As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.
On June 11, 1864, Black New Orleanians paraded through their city, cheering, singing and strutting. Though the Civil War was still raging, the throngs recognized the minor victory in Louisiana, a pillar of the South's brutal plantation economy, abolishing slavery in its new constitution a month earlier. The jamboree became one of the Crescent City's earliest second lines, a homegrown tradition of treating hardship as a license to flood the streets with buoyant bodies and exuberant music. Over the next century-plus, despite Jim Crow, lynchings and hurricanes, the people of the Big Easy kept joyfully reveling in public, their assemblies of brass bands, dancers and mourners laying the foundation for one of rap's most enduring and colorful scenes. Funkadelic said free your mind and your ass will follow, but in New Orleans the command applied in reverse: Loosened rumps and shoulders freed tongues to be playful and cutting.
Bounce, the foundation of New Orleans rap, originates in the 1980s, with crews like New York Incorporated, Magician DJs and Sugar Brown Clowns hosting gigs. But one source from farther away — Queens, New York — would become the linchpin of the sound. Noticing the enthusiastic crowd response to the xylophone-like refrain from The Showboys' 1986 proto-gangsta rap song "Drag Rap," mix-masters like DJ Irv, Mannie Fresh and DJ Jimi popularized what is commonly known as the Triggerman loop. Beyond a signature of bounce, it was a catalyst for creativity. As they did with okra and sugar, New Orleaneans constantly adapted the tinny, arpeggiated sample — stretching it, warping it, chopping it and freaking it into myriad shapes. A repertoire of localized chants and dance moves emerged: What project you rep? What ward you from? Where dey at? Do the Eddie Bow. Walk it like a dog. Get in line.
A drummer, the son of a DJ and a student of New Orleans' many music traditions, the scene vet Mannie Fresh became a visionary for Cash Money Records. Founded by Ronald "Slim" and Bryan "Baby" Williams of the Melpomene and Magnolia Projects, the label recruited acts like U.N.L.V., Pimp Daddy and Ms. Tee to cut tracks that showcased charisma on the mic as much as crowd engagement. Fresh, who produced and mixed many of those early records, packed songs with rhythms and textures. U.N.L.V.'s 1993 song "Mannie Fresh Mix," a typical clinic, filets Sade's "Nothing Can Come Between Us" into a funky bass track topped with slick scratches, claps and grunts. Cash Money struggled to hit it big in its initial years, but Fresh's syncretic beats would become the label's Rosetta Stone.
As Cash Money regrouped, the No Limit Records tank rolled into town in the mid-'90s. Initially a record store in Richmond, Calif., where rapper and label head Master P had resettled after his brother was killed in New Orleans, No Limit grew into a regional powerhouse upon P's return. Master P was more a businessman than an artist, but his local brokering and marketing acumen fed into the music; in the lurching flows of TRU and the surreal Pen & Pixel artwork that graced No Limit albums, P's constant talk of independence felt manifest. As the label set up shop in New Orleans, it drew established acts like the nimble Mia X (a former member of New York Incorporated alongside Fresh), the eccentric Mystikal and the people's champ Magnolia Slim, and paired them with a seemingly endless roster of newcomers from across the state and P's family.
Decked in images of tanks and camo, and heavy on features, No Limit albums brought to mind an invading army: If Cash Money bounce conjured block parties, No Limit evoked war zones. But the music was immersive, the constant voices and the supple arrangements building into a mythology of humid, funky goon rap. Though the production from in-house group Beats by the Pound drew less explicitly from brass bands and jazz, its beats still channeled the collective spirit of New Orleans revelry. No Limit music was made for mobbing, the sound of rolling deep and riding out. In C-Murder, you can hear an ethos: "I'm down with No Limit, I'll ride for the cause."
As No Limit racked up plaques and elbowed its way onto the charts with minimal radio placement and TV coverage, Cash Money found its footing. Its replenished roster, comprising outlaws B.G. and Turk, unorthodox charmer Juvenile, teen prodigy Lil Wayne and stunters Baby and Mannie Fresh as the Big Tymers took the agility and malleability of bounce to new heights. B.G.'s "Bling Bling" turned the light of sparkling jewels into sound. The conversational exchanges of Big Tymers' "#1 Stunna" hearkened to bounce's call-and-response. Fresh produced entire albums for the label's acts without ever seeming to run out of ideas or new twists, tapping classical music for Juvenile's twerk anthem "Back That Azz Up" and electro rap for "Ha," among many other flips. Sound and language seemed to bend to Cash Money's will. And they made their millions without diluting the ghetto joy and defiance that initially drew them to the mic.
The glory days for both labels passed at the turn of the millennium as internal conflicts shook up rosters and soured working relationships, but one act ascended through the chaos. Wayne became a star in his own right, honing a style of Martian wordplay and viscous melodies that appealed to both heads and pop audiences. (2008's Tha Carter III sold 400,000 copies its first day, 1 million in a week; only a few months later, he released his 16th mixtape.) A constant presence on the radio, charts and tapes, he cast himself as rap's perennial heavyweight champ. "I'm the best rapper alive," he declared repeatedly, a challenge to himself as much as his peers. An experimental streak pushed him to explore his voice as much as his vocabulary, moves that would influence the druggy emo rap of the SoundCloud set. In Young Money, the Cash Money subsidiary he spearheaded, Wayne's reach extended further, introducing future titans like Drake and Nicki Minaj, while also housing New Orleans acts like Mack Maine and Curren$y.
As time would tell, Wayne's block wasn't the only hot one. After time at both No Limit and Young Money, Curren$y found success apart from the label system. He released a string of independent records that relished leisure in the form of travel and lots of weed, and his smoky lifestyle raps imagined success less as visibility and more as autonomy. That spirit would be further refined by the peripatetic Jay Electronica — an almost folkloric figure, whose sparse output belies his proximity to rap titans like Jay-Z and Nas. His constant references to ritual and religion recall voodoo in their weaving of earthy concerns and spiritual beliefs. Back on earth, Big Freedia has expanded the bounce tradition with commanding vocals that cut through the subgenre's increasingly syncopated rhythms. Prominent samples in Beyoncé and Drake songs brought Freedia and bounce global recognition, but like so many New Orleans artists, her allegiance is to her city. Though her latest album, Central City, offers many glimpses of the world beyond the Big Easy, when Freedia says "we," she's talking to the wodies.
Where to start with New Orleans rap
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