Discussion in 'Black Entertainment' started by Isaiah, Apr 24, 2006.

  1. Isaiah

    Isaiah Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Jun 8, 2004
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    Published: April 23, 2006
    FOR thousands of people — we'll probably never know exactly how many — Hurricane Katrina was the end. But for listeners across the country, that not-quite-natural disaster also marked the beginning of a party that hasn't ended yet. Ever since those awful days last year, the country has been celebrating the rich musical heritage of New Orleans.

    There was a blitz of benefit concerts, including "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy," a pair of shows held simultaneously at Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall last September. A New Orleans jam session closed the show at the Grammy Awards in February. There have been scads of well-intentioned compilations, including "Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast" (Nonesuch), "Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now" (Concord) and "Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert" (Blue Note), a live album recorded at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Benefit. At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last month, a video segment paid tribute to New Orleans music through the years, from Louis Armstrong to the Neville Brothers; there was also the inevitable New Orleans jam session.

    But one thing all these tributes have in common is that they all ignored the thrilling — and wildly popular — sound of New Orleans hip-hop, the music that has been the city's true soundtrack through the last few decades.

    Rap music remains by far New Orleans's most popular musical export. Lil Wayne, Master P, Juvenile, Mannie Fresh, B. G., Mystikal and many other pioneers have sold millions of albums, and they have helped make their city an indispensable part of the hip-hop world. Unlike all the other musicians celebrated at post-Katrina tributes, these ones still show up on the pop charts, often near the top. (Juvenile's most recent album made its debut at No. 1, last month.) Yet when tourists and journalists descend upon the city next weekend, for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, they'll find only one local rapper on the schedule: Juvenile, who is to appear on the Congo Square Louisiana Rebirth Stage at 6 p.m. Saturday.

    Maybe New Orleans rappers don't mind being left out. No doubt most of them prefer popularity — and its rewards — to respect. But why should they have to choose?

    Hip-hop was long considered unfit for polite society. And yet the extraordinary snubbing of New Orleans hip-hop comes at a time when the genre is gaining institutional validation. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History recently announced plans for a hip-hop exhibit. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum exhibited "Roots, Rhyme and Rage: The Hip-Hop Story" in 1999. Colleges and universities around the country are offering conferences and courses devoted to hip-hop history. At the same time that hip-hop is being written out of the history of New Orleans, it's being written into the history of America. Could that possibly be a coincidence?

    The story of New Orleans hip-hop begins in earnest with what is known as bounce music: festive beats, exuberant chants, simple lyrics that ruled local nightclubs and breezeway parties in the late 1980's and early 90's. The future hip-hop star Juvenile got his start in the bounce-music scene. But like many New Orleans musicians before him, Juvenile found out that having a citywide hit wasn't quite the same as having a nationwide hit.

    By the mid-90's, Southern hip-hop was starting to explode, and so some New Orleans entrepreneurs figured out ways to go national. Master P, a world-class hustler and less-than-world-class rapper from the city's rough Calliope projects, founded a label called No Limit, and used it to popularize a distinctively New Orleans-ish form of hard-boiled hip-hop. For a time Master P was one of pop music's most successful moguls. (He made the cover of Fortune, and he never let anyone forget it.)

    Master P's crosstown rivals were the Williams brothers, proprietors of Cash Money Records, which eventually replaced No Limit as the city's dominant brand name. Cash Money signed up the hometown hero Juvenile (who was raised in the Magnolia projects), as well as the city's greatest hip-hop producer, Mannie Fresh. Working with a great group of rappers including Lil Wayne and B. G., Fresh perfected an exuberant electronic sound; he did as much as anyone to pull the musical legacy of New Orleans into the 21st century. You could hear brass bands in the synthesizers, drum lines in the rattling beats, Mardi Gras Indians in the sing-song lyrics. (If you're wondering where to start, try Juvenile's head-spinning 1998 blockbuster, "400 Degreez," which has sold 4.7 million copies.)

    Like most musical stories, this one doesn't really have a happy ending — or any ending at all. Master P's empire dissolved, which explains why you might recently have seen him on "Dancing With the Stars." Mystikal, one of the city's best and weirdest rappers, split with No Limit in 2000, and he's currently serving a jail sentence for sexual battery and tax evasion. Juvenile, B. G. and Mannie Fresh have all left Cash Money, though Lil Wayne remains.

    The came Katrina. Not all of the city's stars were living in New Orleans when the storm hit, but all lost houses or cars or — at the very least — a hometown. Lil Wayne moved his mother to Miami; Mannie Fresh set up shop in Los Angeles; B. G. is living in Detroit.

    But the music never stopped. Juvenile's "Reality Check" (UTP/Atlantic), released last month, was the fastest-selling CD of his career; for the defiant first single, "Get Ya Hustle On," he filmed a video in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. B. G. recently released a strong new album, "The Heart of tha Streetz Vol. 2 (I Am What I Am)" (Koch); it was strong enough, in fact, to earn him a new record contract with Atlantic. In "Move Around," the album's first single, Mannie Fresh sings (sort of) the cheerful refrain: "I'm from the ghetto, homey/ I was raised on bread and baloney/ You can't come around here, 'cause you're phony."

    And then there's Lil Wayne, who last fall released "Tha Carter 2" (Cash Money/Universal), perhaps the finest album of his career (it has sold about 900,000 copies so far). In his slick lyrics and raspy voice, you can hear a city's swagger and desperation:

    All I have in this world is a pistol and a promise
    A fistful of dollars
    A list full of problems
    I'll address 'em like P.O. Boxes
    Yeah, I'm from New Orleans, the Creole cockpit
    We so out of it
    Zero tolerance
    Gangsta gumbo — I'll serve 'em a pot of it

    All right, so this isn't the stuff that feel-good tributes are made of. Despite the topical video, "Get Ya Hustle On" is a mishmash of political commentary and drug-dealer rhymes. (The song included the well-known couplet, "Everybody tryna get that check from FEMA/ So he can go and score him some co-ca-een-uh.") And much of the music portrays New Orleans as a place full of violence and decadence: expensive teeth, cheap women, "choppers" (machine guns) everywhere. If you're trying to celebrate the old, festive, tourist-friendly New Orleans, maybe these aren't the locals you want.

    Furthermore, much of the post-Katrina effort has focused on "saving" and "preserving" the city's musical heritage. Clearly top-selling rappers don't need charity. In fact, many have been quietly helping, through gifts to fellow residents and hip-hop charities like David Banner's Heal the Hood Foundation.

    But it's worth remembering that many New Orleans hip-hop pioneers — from DJ Jimi to the influential group U.N.L.V. — aren't exactly millionaires. And for that matter, many rappers aren't nearly as rich as they claim. In any case, glowing recollections aren't the only way to pay tribute to the city. The story of Katrina is in large part a story of poverty and neglect; it's no coincidence that many of the rappers come from the same neighborhoods that still haven't been cleaned up. Surely the lyrics to a Juvenile song aren't nearly as shocking as those images most of us saw on television.

    The language of preservationism sometimes conceals its own biases. If all the dying traditions are valuable, does that also mean all the valuable traditions are dying? If a genre doesn't need saving, does that also mean it's not worth saving? If New Orleans rappers seem less lovable than, say, Mardi Gras Indians or veteran soul singers, might it be because they're less needy? Cultural philanthropy is drawn to musical pioneers — especially African-American ones — who are old, poor and humble. What do you do when the pioneers are young, rich and cocky instead?

    Believe it or not, that question brings us back to the Smithsonian, which has come to praise hip-hop. Or to bury it. Or both. The genre is over 30 years old by now, and while its early stars now seem unimpeachable (does anyone have a bad word to say about Grandmaster Flash or Run-DMC?), its current stars seem more impeachable than ever. From 50 Cent to Young Jeezy to, well, Juvenile, hip-hop might be even more controversial now than it was in the 80's; hip-hop culture has been blamed for everything from lousy schools to sexism to the riots in France. In a weird way, that might help account for the newfound respectability of the old school. To an older listener who's aghast at crack rap, the relatively innocent rhymes of Run-DMC don't seem so bad. If the new generation didn't seem so harmful, its predecessors might not seem harmless enough for the national archives.

    Maybe the New Orleans hip-hop scene — "gangsta gumbo" — just hasn't been around long enough to make the history books. But that will change, as the rappers start seeming less like harbingers of an ominous future and more like relics of a colorful past. New Orleans hip-hop will endure not just because the music is so thrilling, but also because the rappers vividly evoke a city that is, for worse and (let's not forget) for better, never going to be the same.

    After all, long before his name was affixed to an airport, Louis Armstrong, too, seemed manifestly unfit for polite society. Back when he recorded "Muggles," an ode to marijuana, he was a symbol of the so-called "jazz intoxication" that was corrupting an earlier generation the way hip-hop is corrupting this one.

    A quarter-century from now, when the social problems that Juvenile and others so discomfitingly rap about have become one more strand of the city's official history, they may find themselves honored in just the kinds of musical tributes and cultural museums that currently shut them out. By then, their careers will probably have cooled off. They'll be less influential, less popular, less controversial; not coincidentally, they'll have a less visceral connection to the youth of New Orleans. And finally, their music — and maybe also their recording studios, their custom jewelry, their promotional posters — will seem to be worth saving. Perhaps, like so many other pop-music traditions, "gangsta gumbo" is a dish best preserved cold.