The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is actually quite controversial in some circles. Some decry its lack of actual jazz as false advertising, since its namesake genre cowers under the shadow of headliners like Dave Matthews, Jimmy Buffet, and Bon Jovi. The Shell Oil logo that’s been embedded in the fest’s name since 2006 also disturbs Louisiana natives (it's sort of like a San Francisco heritage festival being sponsored by earthquakes). And of course observant locals remain suspicious of how few rap acts grace a festival purporting to represent New Orleans culture.
While you may have to hunt to find jazz in the city, and zydeco music can seem nearly extinct outside of French Quarter bead shops, it is rap, often locally produced rap, that blasts from car stereos, block parties, even kids’ birthday bouncy castles. But for many years now, the number of hip-hop performances at Jazz Fest has hovered closer to zero than ten, and usually the rappers who are invited are artists whose hype could not be ignored, not even by those prone to ignoring hip-hop hype. The fest has previously invited gay bounce rappers Big Freedia, Sissy Nobby, and Katey Red to share a single time slot. In 2012, not long after getting out of jail, New Orleans’s greatest MC ever, Mystikal, performed at the fest before heading right back into prison (he’s now free and signed to YMCMB, and I wish him the world because he truly is New Orleans’s finest). Former Baton Rouge schoolteacher Dee-1’s curse-free act has been invited back for 2013. This Saturday the Jazz Fest crams a record eight more-or-less unrelated hip-hop artists into one 12:45 PM time slot.
One of them is the remarkable 26-year-old female rapper 3D Na’Tee of New Orleans’s Third Ward, who definitely deserves her own showcase. “I am from the same neighborhood as Soulja Slim and all them,” says Na’Tee. “I remember being 12 years old when KLC the Drum Major was with No Limit [Records], he would come and visit his family in the neighborhood and I would purposely walk past that way to go to the store, and I’d just be rapping. Someone from the neighborhood would be like, ‘That girl right there she know howta rap! Stop her!’ So I would stop and rap for KLC. I didn’t know he really gave a fuck about it.” Na’Tee began appearing as a guest on neighborhood rappers’ tracks in 1999, and released her own first mixtape, 3's Company Vol.1: The Rapper, The Hustler, the Diva, in 2006 followed by Volume 2 in 2007. Her career started to really crack open last summer with her mixtape The Coronation. “For the last year I’ll be in the beauty salon and girls be lookin at me. Now it’s ‘What’s up Na’Tee!’ and ‘I wish you the best!’” Na’Tee says. “At this past NOLA Hip-Hop Awards where I won five, they honored KLC, and he got on stage and was like, ‘Yeah I remember Na’Tee!’”
Rap godfather Chuck D has said that he never likes to watch anyone on stage and think to himself, I could do that. When 3D Na’Tee takes the mic, no one thinks that. Her words are so plentiful they often crowd out any hope for a chorus, and her quick lyrical twists and turns would leave Big Boi carsick. While Na’Tee does not sound “old school,” her beats are hi-hat-heavy like Mannie Fresh-era Cash Money, and her concept-driven raps harken back to the years when Yo! MTV Raps was like a contest to see who could sound the smartest. A lyrical girl growing up in a bounce-rap world, Na’Tee preferred Biggie and Nas when her whole city was lapping up Juvenile and DJ Jubilee. “I like to shake my ass,” Na’Tee chuckles, “but I never loved bounce. I stayed with the more lyrical side because people saw it as a challenge: ‘A girl? A girl can’t do that.’”
In response, Na’Tee sat down and wrote pages and pages of verses, even during the years when freestyling everything was in vogue. “People thought it was so cool not to write, and they were making songs that had no concept,” she says. “I can freestyle, but I’d rather make sure I say exactly what I mean. I am also big on concept. I just think that it’s necessary.” Na’Tee’s “Lil Kim” is a Slick Rick-esque narration both complex and clear, the story of a fatherless young girl suffering from a daddy syndrome with a clever ghetto-mystery-novel ending.
Her work recently earned her a call from a lyrical female legend. “I spoke with MC Lyte on the phone a few months ago,” Na’Tee says. “That was the craziest shit ever. Eric Sermon told her about me, and she called and told me, ‘You gotta keep goin', 'cause this is what they need. You have to continue because the industry is lacking this.’”
After Na’Tee came out with the video for “Switch,” which stitched together several Timbaland instrumentals, on top of which Na’Tee hosted a battle between her three personas: the gangsta, the sex kitten, and the business-minded boss. Within 24 hours of uploading the self-directed video, Na’Tee received a call from Timbaland himself, who began arranging flights. The duo traveled together for some months, dabbling in the studio. But when time came to sign a contract, Na’Tee balked. “It can be a touchy thing,” she says to preface her explanation. “The contract wasn’t just between me, Timbaland, and his production company—they also wanted to manage me too. Some things in the contract weren’t really beneficial.” Na’Tee went on to supposedly also turn down a contract from Def Jam. “I don’t want anyone to think I haven’t signed a deal because of money. I’m not worried about the money,” she claims. “Creatively, I just want to make sure I continue to represent what I stand for. I’m sticking by this. I am not going to water my shit down.” Or as she puts it on The Coronation’s closing track, “Hi Industry”:
CEOs at the table meeting/ sayin one day I could play the beacon
Of light / Hand her the mic/ told me to paint pictures of life
Though add a few bars about ice/ take out a few bars about life
Talk about how to take pipe/ Then a few more bars about ice
Take out the last few bars about life/ Cool, that seems about right
Looking at Na’Tee, one would assume record companies might try to remake her as some rap Kardashian. I have tried to put this information as far down into this article as possible, but eventually it must be said: Na’Tee is a smoking-hot physical specimen. Bodacious, even. You might at first expect Foxy Brown, and be surprised to get something closer to Nas. “People are used to seeing Lil Kim, with her titty out and shit, but they’ve never seen an attractive woman [rapper] that didn’t talk about her pussy all day,” says Na’Tee. “I’m not going to dress like Da Brat or like a fuckin’ lesbian just because I need you to focus solely on my music. It gets people to look at me and then when they hear my music, I think that adds to the wow factor. Plus, I am a woman from New Orleans,” she adds, “the place where men are so forward just like, ‘Hey c’mere! C’mere! Let me talk to you!’ So whether I rap or not, it’s gonna happen. It’s been happening all my life.”
In many ways, she’s the quintessential up-and-coming rapper, but she’s in no hurry to sign with the labels who've thus far shown interest. “I been through a lot of shit,” she says, running down a litany of issues she’s thoroughly dissected in her songs: “From getting in trouble, to having parents who were in drugs, and daddy committed suicide. All these things, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, period. I am so happy and excited. And I am not going to fuck this up over some money, and be forced to be somebody I don’t want to be.” Or as the closing lines of “Hi Industry” state, “I’m young and I’m black, smarter than you niggas thought/ Just because I come from poverty, does not mean that I can be bought (bitch).”
As she waits patiently for the right situation, Na’Tee makes money off her app, which sends fans a constant stream of her new music and videos, and a clothing brand called BMB (Business Minded Bosses). Like everyone else in the music industry, she showed up at South By Southwest in Austin this March, where she ended up freestyling with Kendrick Lamar during her second appearance on MTV’s Sway in the Morning. And there’s plenty of further adventure lined up in her future. “The D.O.C. saw me on Dear Father and he called me and he was pouring his heart out, telling me how dope he thought the song was. He wants me to ghostwrite some things for other artists. He’s gonna have his surgery to get his voice back, but D.O.C. can still write his ass off—and I’m not just saying that because I fuck with him.” Stars she once dreamed might some day help her sound good are now calling her hoping she’ll make them sound good. “A while back there was a producer named KE on the Track—who did You the Boss for Rick Ross and Nicky Manaj, he did Swag Surfin', he did Magic, he did a lot of stuff for Wayne—and I hit him up on Twitter to see if we could work together. He said he liked my music, and said it would be $2,000 per beat. Fast-forward to a few days ago, he just sent me like 150 beats and was like, ‘Use whatever you want, do whatever you want and we can put out something.’ Then a week and a half ago I sat down with Steve Rifkind [who helped launch the careers of Wu-Tang Clan, among others] and they’re talking some great things. The past few big meetings I’ve had, people are talking the way I want them to talk.”
All that and she’s even caught the ear of the people in charge of Jazz Fest—which is really saying something. “I just want to prove that there is a lyrical female out here,” she says, “and that there are lyrical artists in New Orleans and in the South. The record companies force-feed people [music] now so people say all the time, 'Please bring real rap back.' I want to be a part of bringing it back. I believe it will be back. I believe it will.”
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.