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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.