The Place to Be
This isn’t the definitive go-go history book (that would be The Beat: Go-Go Music in Washington, D.C., by Kip Lornell and Charles C. Stephenson, Jr.), although Hopkinson gives enough of the facts to get newbies up to speed. She’s got a bigger story in mind, dramatically starting at the June 2010 public funeral for go-go star Anthony “Little Benny” Harley. Hopkinson sees the scene as a playing-out of D.C’s cultural and political dynamics in microcosm, as then-Mayor Adrian Fenty steps forward to pay his official respects. Fenty, whose policies on public sector hiring and charter schools alienated the black community, routinely turned to go-go whenever he needed some street cred; with the funeral coming as Fenty was running for re-election, this would have been one of those times. But folks weren’t fooled; his presence at the funeral did nothing to dissuade black voters from booting him out of office that fall.
Fenty’s time in office came as gentrification hit D.C. hardest. The dynamic of middle-class whites moving into formerly black and working-class (or lower) areas, to be followed by services and amenities the previous residents could only dream about, proved especially troublesome in D.C., which proportionally has been the blackest city in America for more than half a century. D.C.’s majority-black status was so ensconced, George Clinton named the 1975 Parliament album Chocolate City in tacit acknowledgement of it. While gentrification caused frissons of various impacts elsewhere, the effects in D.C. were much more profound.
The new money was coming into parts of D.C. that had never been revitalized after the 1968 riots in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. The new people were taking the place of middle-class blacks that had fled the impoverished city for suburbs (the region’s current nickname is “the DMV” – District, Maryland and Virginia). The net result was a city that was becoming less majority-black, in terms of both demographics and character, by the minute. Hopkinson writes of the frisson between the image of a shiny, gentrified D.C. and its grittier street-level realities. Go-go, the still-beating heart of still-black D.C., is where those realities get played out and expressed.
Go-go has come to be part art form, part entertainment, and part civic totem pole. Over time, it has given rise to business ventures from music stores to streetwear designers. There’s a growing community of scholars and collectors working to archive its history (go-go notoriously does not translate well from the stage to the studio, so live recordings are seen as the music’s most accurate documents). It continues to provide its audience joyful release from the troubles of the day: it mourns their dead with them, it celebrates their birthdays with them, it asserts that somebody out there still believes in them. And sometimes it comes with gospel flava, too.
Hopkinson captures these aspects and more in her reporting throughout go-go’s environs, culminating with a transcription of a 1986 performance by go-go band Rare Essence, which spells out the subtle cultural nuances woven inside the beats. But Go-Go Live isn’t at its heart a book about music, it’s a snapshot of life in a major American city that has a specific style of music flowing through its blood. Go-go and its audience are almost synonymous: often scorned within city limits, all but invisible beyond them, but still here, still adapting, and still rocking the house.
New Orleans music ought to be considered a genre all by itself. There’s not much distinction between funk, blues, jazz, gospel or even zydeco, the way they play ‘em down there. Allen Toussaint, one of the city’s numerous musical treasures, shares more in common with the tradition of Big Easy piano players, going back to and beyond Professor Longhair, than he does with a fellow R&B tunesmith like Smokey Robinson.
Yet rap isn’t always seen as a branch of New Orleans music. The 2004 boxed set Doctors Professors Kings & Queens: The Big Ol’ Box of New Orleans doesn’t contain a single rap track among its 86 selections, even though there were plenty to choose from by then, and even as it’s otherwise remarkably comprehensive in its representation of styles, performers and eras. Somehow, the notion that hard beats and rhymes don’t go well with happy images of second-line parades has taken hold in the popular mindset, or at least that of those marketing New Orleans and its culture that way.
But rap is indeed part of New Orleans’ musical gumbo, and it draws from the rest of said gumbo as much as it does from the rest of rap, if not more so. That’s a takeaway from Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans, Matt Miller’s detailed look at an unheralded piece of the hip-hop mosaic.
New Orleans’ rap scene evolved much as other cities’ had, through radio and major concert tours. It’s indicative of the early East Coast-weighted influence, Miller writes, that the first rap group of note in New Orleans, a mid-‘80s outfit that included people we’d later come to know as Mia X and Mannie Fresh, called itself New York International.
Given that, it shouldn’t be surprising that the record that serves as Track One in the history of bounce was made by a group from Queens. New Orleans was and is the only market where “Drag Rap”, the only known sighting of the Showboys, had a lasting impact. There’s nothing particularly New Orleansian about it: no rollicking syncopation, no buoyant vocalizing, no nods to NOLA culture. But the song became a huge local hit, and New Orleans beatmakers soon started stripping its sonic elements, including its keyboard riff and hard drum sound, and applying them to their own productions.
By the early ‘90s, New Orleans rap had begun to grow a distinctive identity: shout-outs to local neighborhoods, lyrical use of call-and-response party chants as much as narrative storytelling. Producer DJ Irv grafted “Drag Rap” riffs onto rapper MCT. Tucker’s rhyming, and the result was 1992’s “Where They At”, the first true bounce record. Others followed in short order, each refashioning the “Drag Rap” markers.
Bounce became the signature sound of New Orleans rap, but while other local rap scenes attracted a national audience, no such windfall came to the first-generation bounce artists. Thus, bounce continued merrily along for a few years, a distinctly and defiantly New Orleansian spin on an established genre (not at all dissimilar, in that respect, to local takes on other musical styles).
That all changed in the mid-‘90s, when New Orleans-based rap – but not necessarily bounce – became ubiquitous. Miller recaps the concurrent meteoric rises and equally swift descents of No Limit Records and Cash Money Records, two companies who had more in common than their different approaches to music and business would suggest. They both were family outfits (the Millers of No Limit, the Williamses of Cash Money), and they both drew liberally from local talent (even though Percy “Master P” Miller actually started No Limit in Richmond, California, and later relocated operations to New Orleans, his hometown). And when their respective money-making runs came to screeching halts circa 2001-02, they both left the local rap scene not much healthier than they’d found it, save for the success of their major stars.
But that scene persevered, and continues to do so even after Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath turned a city into a diaspora. New Orleans rap has even forged its own corner of the modern rap universe: sissy bounce, as popularized by Big Freedia in recent years, and which dates back to the birth of bounce 20 years ago.
Miller’s writing is at points repetitive and overly clinical and stilted, but his research is more than thorough. He convincingly establishes bounce as yet another offshoot of New Orleans’ unique musical culture. But this is essentially a history book, on a par with The Beat as an entry point for learning about a hyper-local style. To explore the role bounce plays in post-Katrina New Orleans (and vice versa), the music awaits its own version of a treatment like Go-Go Live.
Go-go and bounce derive their longevity from the same fount: A specific form of swagger that cannot be created online. Call it locality with attitude, a fierce devotion to home.
Both D.C. and New Orleans are cities sui generis, with their uncommon characters defined by a variety of factors starting with their geographic separateness from the rest of the continental US. (D.C. by not being part of a state or a state itself, New Orleans by the presence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River). For most of the past 50 years, they have also functioned as essentially black cities, although both are less black proportion-wise than they were a decade ago. Everything from the street food they eat to the politicians they elect is informed by how black people there live life, and respond to their respective social and economic realities. Neither D.C.’s gentrification nor New Orleans’ post-Katrina reinvention will wash black people or blackness itself out of their DNAs.
As Hopkinson makes clear, the life of urban black America involves issues that are far larger than music, but music is how black folk often work through them. And when people in a locale have the means to make their own music to respond to their specifically local situations, it’s not going to sound like everybody else’s radio fare, nor should it.
Further, go-go and bounce reveal the continuing power and importance of tradition and continuity. Those are communal values, historically conveyed person to person, with nuances and subtleties that cannot be gleaned in electronic venues. One can go online and swap beats and lyrics with people half a world away, or call up and dissect songs from any epoch, but one cannot reach out and touch an avatar. There is no such digital thing, at least not yet, that equates to a live-in-the-flesh tribal elder.
The Internet-driven hip-hop universe Weiner describes is hardly the only online music-making community. But wherever black people have gone on this planet, they have taken their drums with them, whether in their memories or their laptops. And people will continue to move about the world, and react to their locales once they get there. And when location, events and time dictate, those drums will start kicking in, live and in the flesh, calling and responding to each other in ways both old and new. And a brand new scene will be happening.
And it’s no accident such scenes get known as “the place to be.”
// Notes from the Road
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