Where They At: The Life and Times of Bounce
By Patrick Strange, with Daniel Kohn on March 9, 2010
A lot of people equate New Orleans with a lot of different things, but only a select few know it for what it does best. And no, it’s not partying.
For those in the know, New Orleans is perhaps most adept at preserving its own cultural traditions, and in turn, fostering them in a creative, albeit insular environment. Just think of it as a prime example of cultural evolution: You separate a smaller population (southern Louisiana) from a larger whole (North America), let it exist unmolested for a couple of centuries (Katrina and its aftermath being two of the more tragic results of such a dynamic), and voila—you have a distinct culture all to its own.
In fact, nothing could be more natural.
While there are plenty of traits synonymous with the New Orleans specimen—corruption, cuisine and dialect to name just three—music, by far, is its most radiant plumage. From the drum circles of Congo Square to the birth of ragtime to the internationally known funk and hip-hop artists of today, New Orleans musicians have been cultivated at home and exported around the world for decades. But for every Dr. John and Lil Wayne, there are thousands of New Orleans musicians who never get their moment in the sun—and whole musical movements that never make it over the Mason Dixon line. One such musical outcrop is bounce.
Like the chants of the Mardi Gras Indians, bounce music is solely—and unabashedly—a cultural product of New Orleans. Yet, unlike many other New Orleans exports, few people are familiar with the bounce style or its major purveyors (even though, arguably, it’s existed as one of the largest influences on southern hip-hop over the last two decades). First developed during the late ’80s and early ’90s, bounce took its cue from typical call-and-response hip-hop and set it to primarily one of two basic beats—the Triggerman Beat (“Drag Rap,” The Showboys) and Derek B's “Rock the Beat." Over the years, bounce has grown into a distinct and popular regional music in New Orleans and surrounding environs—and many believe it’s high time that bounce got national props, and the people that make it the credit that they deserve.
With this goal in mind, photographer Aubrey Edwards helped develop the Where They At archival project, a photography, video and audio exhibit which highlights the founders and musicians of New Orleans hip-hop, and specifically, of bounce music. Among others, you can see and hear Juvenile, DJ Jubilee and Katey Red—a New Orleans transgendered bounce rapper—talk about their work and the people who shaped it. You can explore the footage online, full site launching in April, or visit the exhibit in person at several upcoming or ongoing dates in New York, Austin, and New Orleans.
Recently, FILTER talked shop with Edwards and her integral cohort Alison Fensterstock, a New Orleans-based journalist and all-around woman about town who aided Edwards in the research of bounce music and the creation of the Where They At project. Among other subjects, we discussed the history of bounce, the importance of it as a living cultural artifact, and a little thing called “sissy” bounce.
When did you first become interested in bounce music?
Aubrey Edwards: Over two years ago, I received a Bounce mixed CD as a birthday gift. The music that I heard on that CD was unlike anything else that I had ever listened to. I had family who lived in New Orleans before the storm and after the storm, I spent nearly three years photographing rebuilders to help replace lost photos and to document the time of reconstruction. That CD came to me as my community and my resources in New Orleans were at their strongest. I decided to begin a documentary portrait project of rappers in the city. Knowing that I would need someone who knew more about the scene than I did, I reached out to Alison after a recommendation from a friend. He had unknowingly given me a defunct email address for Alison; after my email to her went unanswered, I posted a Craigslist ad in search of a writing counterpart—she was the only one to respond.
Is there something specifically about the New Orleans culture and personality that makes it a place that is conducive for bounce to emerge?
Alison Fensterstock: New Orleans is a party town – all its indigenous music is for dancing. When hip-hop hit NOLA, it was destined to turn into dance music.
What at are the origins of bounce?
AF: This is a long, sort of complicated story. The first truly NOLA-flavored rap song was “Buck Jump Time,” released in 1987 by Gregory D and Mannie Fresh. It was the first recording of what they call “project rap,” which you hear in tons of bounce songs (shouting out different wards, projects and hoods) and used a tuba for the bass line. Juvenile was performing his “Bounce for the Juvenile” in clubs in the late ’80s as well. But the first real bounce record that most folks accept as such is DJ Irv and TT Tucker’s “Wha Dey At.” Another DJ, DJ Jimi, recorded it later that year (’92) as “Where They At.”
There’s a point of contention about who was actually performing it first in the clubs; Jimi was at Big Man’s Lounge on Louisiana and Claiborne and Irv was at Ghost Town off Earhart Boulevard. But Jimi wound up getting more juice with his record because it was put out on Avenue Records—a label run by Isaac Bolden, an old-school ’60s A&R dude who had also worked with people like Jean Knight and knew the business. Jimi’s version wound up charting in ’92 on the hip-hop and R&B charts.
How did Katrina affect the growth or evolution of bounce?
AF: I find it very hard to tell how Katrina affected the scene since by 2005, most of the original artists weren’t super active anyway. They were getting into their thirties, starting families, starting new businesses, not focusing 100 percent on music anymore. I know it did dump a lot of bounce on Houston—there were tons of bounce shows and parties there, apparently.
Talk a little bit about sissy bounce—what are your thoughts about the movement/sub-genre?
AF: Well, first of all, “sissy bounce” isn’t really a genre. I think it may be the fault of a Gambit headline writer who wrote the headline for a cover story I did on gay bounce artists in 2008; some of the rappers get annoyed with that. Katey Red was the first bounce artist I ever saw live, in ’98 or ’99, at Quintron’s club, The Spellcaster Lounge. Her rap style is much more classic bounce—she’s a DJ Jubilee protégé (and I say “she,” but she’s a bio-boy). The real trend of gay bounce rappers started with Katey Red in ’98, when she put out her first album, and other artists like Big Freedia, Vockah Redu and SWA started to emerge. After the storm, for whatever reason, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby really had N.O. on lock, performing six or seven shows a week and becoming hugely hot partially just by virtue of working their butts off.
In a culture that is typically hostile to homosexuality, how did gay bounce gain such popularity within the black community? Is there something unique about New Orleans as a city that may encourage gay and transgendered people to have a voice?
AF: The fact that New Orleans hip-hop has somehow provided space for openly gay and cross-dressing rappers to flourish in the real rap scene, not some alt-hipster variation, is amazing. The sissies are the real deal. On the one hand, N.O. has a strong history of laissez-faire hedonism, masking, etc. – it also has a tradition of gay and cross-dressing entertainers going back to the ’40s. Bobby Marchan, the former R&B/Soul star who was a huge player in terms of early bounce promotion and booking, arrived in N.O. in the late ’40s as part of a female impersonator troupe. On Mardi Gras Day (back when there were laws about dressing in clothes appropriate to your gender), the laws were suspended and cross-dressing was OK. That’s really not to say that it’s all sunshine and lollipops, though. Some straight rappers are quite upset about the sissies’ prominence.
What was the impetus for your project?
AE: I began this project wanting to document a hyper-regional form of music that, at the time, almost no one outside of New Orleans was aware existed. It took a couple months for Alison and me to strategize how we wanted to document and what our end goal was. We basically shifted from working together short term for a magazine pitch, to spending over 18 months collecting portraits and oral histories to build the most comprehensive (and only) online and physical archive of the folks who played a prominent role in creating this music for over 20 years. The purpose of the website, launching April of 2010, is to serve as an online resource and forum where anyone from an academic to an aspiring 14 year-old rapper can view images, hear artist’s music, listen to their experiences in their words, view rare archived video footage and interact with a pre-Katrina city map pinpointing the clubs and neighborhoods where the music was born.
The purpose of the traveling exhibition is to allow folks the opportunity to learn about a culture that they may never have the chance to interact with. Being able to view a person’s image while you listen to them speak about growing up in a housing project, playing snare in the marching band, getting their first record deal at age 15, being a sixth generation New Orleanian or being stranded on an overpass during Katrina, well… that is a very powerful experience and a very powerful immersion into a culture that you may never have known existed.
What are your goals for the project besides raising awareness for the genre?
AF: Well, raising awareness is number one. Also, to specify, raising awareness that bounce and N.O. rap in general is genuine New Orleans roots music, same as brass bands or Mardi Gras Indians.
AE: When I first started this project, my ex police officer father basically said, “Well you’re really wasting your fucking time, rap’s not even real music.” For me, this project is not about “validating” a culture, but rather about aiding in a platform to celebrate and archive it; in doing so stereotypes surrounding the hip hop community that the masses tend to cling to will lose their basis…it’s easier to dislike or stereotype what you don’t know or understand…And how incredible is it that these bounce and hip hop musicians-who have never quite been included in the pantheon of New Orleans roots music will be celebrated within their city. After Katrina, the loss of records, letters, photographs, heirlooms and other personal nostalgia was harder, for most, to reckon with than the losing of a home. I want this project to forever archive these images and these stories so future generations can look back on this time of New Orleans culture and music with understanding, and without the fear that this too could be lost in a (proverbial) storm.
And Lil Wayne?
AF: Wayne’s a lyricist, but he could not have helped being exposed to bounce, considering his age, his neighborhood, and his involvement with Cash Money, which began as mostly a bounce label. On a lot of his mix tape tracks on the We Are Young Money album, there are songs that quote classic bounce lyrics verbatim, and even one—the “Where’s Wayne” single—that uses the popular Triggerman sample, which is a bounce signature.
You can catch the Where They At exhibit at New York's Abron's Art Center through March 27, Austin's Birdhouse Gallery from March 7 through March 21, and New Orleans' Ogden Museum of Southern Art from April 22 through July 25.
Where They At will also be at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin later this month. You can catch live perfomances by New Orleans hip-hop and bounce artists at their official showcase on March 20. Visit Where They At for more info.
Bounce Video Links
DJ Jimi “Where They At”
DJ Jubilee “Back that (Ass) Thang Up”
Juvenile “Solja Rag”
Mia X Speaks at Congo Square 1 year after Katrina
Partners N Crime “So Attracted”
Sissy Nobbe & Big Freedia at the Sissy Sweetheart Ball at One Eyed Jacks
Da Sha Ra on Public Access Show “Positive Black Talk”