Neither Big nor Easy

Odoms and Ballzack Are Kings of the Wank

By Michael Patrick Welch


Photo by Megan Roniger

Some New Orleans artists travel far and wide, enhancing the city’s well-deserved rep as a incubator of innovative music, but other acts achieve fame and pack rooms without ever having to hop in a van. Rappers Ballzack (real name Rami Sharkey) and Odoms (Adam Bourgeois) have never even left Louisiana, but have a huge following in the world’s music capital. There’s a reason they don’t travel often—if you ain’t from New Orleans, you may not understand a thing the surrealist suburban hip-hop duo say.   

Ballzack and Odoms rap mostly about the West Bank, which is the big chunk of New Orleans that exists across the river from the city’s more renowned areas. “The Wank,” as East Bankers call it, is a much different creature than the French Quarter. Though lacking touristy charms, the West Bank is nonetheless deeply New Orleanian—while walkability and unique flavor defines New Orleans as y’all know it, the West Bank is like most of America: big, busy roads and strip malls. Meaning you need a car. Meaning until you’re 16 years old, you’re stuck. For a decade, Ballzack and Odoms, both in their 30s now, have been making music that harkens back to their West Bank childhoods and the art of conjuring fun out of suburban nothingness.

Odoms and Ballzack grew up (or never grew up) near each other on the West Bank, but first bonded in the dorms at Lousiana State University over Hot Boy$ records. Their first album, 2002's Knucklehead Memoirs, featured songs like “The Pencil Crack Tournament” and “Monkey Handjobs,” and they went on to experiment with live instrumentation on Chipmunk Dream Machine and recorded a New Orleans bounce record with Jay Yeunger of White Zombie. Each release contained “hit” songs that never got any play beyond local college radio but nonetheless sold shitloads of drinks for a lot of New Orleans clubs. Because few artists have ever gone out of their way to glorify West Bank life, Ballzack and Odoms enjoyed a giant local following from the beginning, and their audience grew exponentially after Ballzack and Odoms created Lil Doogie, a puppet that Odoms sometimes hides behind while brandishing a hotheaded attitude and thick West Bank accent (think the laid-back slur of an old-school Brooklyn dock worker).

I recently sat backstage with Ballzack and Odoms at One Eyed Jacks in the French Quarter just before the release party for Ballzack and Odoms Present: Ace N Ernie (a concept album about a pair of heavy metal heshers who decide to record a rap record—it’s better than it sounds) to discuss the Wank, riding a puppet’s coattails, and why they don't think regional rap is a bad thing.

VICE: How would you explain the West Bank to outsiders?
Ballzack: It all starts at the river, where shit is real old—the farther out you go, there’s more suburban-type new shit. But there’s also more Cajun spillover, more of like a coon-ass thing. [Coon-ass is a common word for "Louisiana good ol' boys."]

Some people who live in the heart of the city see all the outskirts as “white flight” destinations, but that’s really not an accurate depiction of the West Bank. 
Ballzack: When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon to go to someone’s house and hear racial slurs, but then they'd go out in public and get along with other races. It’s like it’s not hate, it’s just another way to rag on somebody. Whoever is the minority is going to get ribbed. I’m Lebanese and Palestinian, and in high school they would sing [to the tune of Run DMC’s “Mary, Mary”] “Rami, Rami, why you Muslim…” I got it from black people and white people. But I couldn’t help laughing, because they loved me, they were friends. I did start getting paranoid about it after 9/11. People coming up and saying shit to me. Like I worked in this kitchen the chef came up to me and said [adopts West Bank accent], “Fuckin’ Rami dude, be careful out there, some dudes they goin’ around lookin for people like you.” Before that I’d never thought that was a possibility, ’cause I’ve been here my whole life!

Ballzack, you’re from Gretna, and Odoms, you’re from Harvey. What is the difference between the two towns?
Odoms: You go into Gretna and you see Gretna-lookin’ people.
Ballzack: Well, there's more old people [in Gretna]. And more a sense of history. The West Bank feels more coon-ass-y as you move away from the river: you start off at Algiers, then Gretna, then Harvey is that many more degrees more coon-ass, and then you get to Marerro where it gets really y’at-y. [Coon-asses often greet each other with “Where y’at” and so are called “y’ats.”] Then you get to Westwego and you’re like, “Where am I?” Once I became a teenager there were times when I thought [living in the 'burbs] was terrible and I was like, “Mom, Dad, why are we here?!”

But isn’t that terribleness the cornerstone of the humor in your songs?
Ballzack: When we started it was like, “How ridiculous would it be to glamorize this when there isn’t anything glamorous about it?” But then, there were things we were proud of…
Odoms: Like the Vietnamese food.
Ballzack: We were glamorizing something we felt like a lot of people were shitting on—we felt the need to defend it. If you’d tell people you were from the West Bank, people would look down on you. They say, “Oh, I’ve never been there.” Or, “Oh, I had to go there once to exchange something at the Gap, ’cause it’s closer to my work.”

What was the music scene like across the river?
Ballzack: My dad was an immigrant who owned corner stores, bodegas. He had one in the St. Thomas projects, another in Fischer projects on Whitney. He would throw events they would call “DJs,” where he’d hire a DJ to come play in front of the store, because it would draw business. It was rap and bounce—my dad didn’t like rap, he would hire them to get business in the store. So I would hear this stuff and be like, “This is crazy.” He used to rent a building from DJ Jubilee’s brother, and TT Tucker would come to the store and get on the mic. My dad would bring these dudes’ demos to me. MOBO records and the group UNLV were really our introduction [to hip-hop], especially when we realized how funny it is. It is so funny, the New Orleans rap were listening to. Meanwhile, I was listening to metal and shit with my buddies. The new album Ace N Ernie is a tribute to that time.

How do you think your music comes across to people who don’t know anything about the West Bank?
Ballzack:
 A lot of people like it but a lot of people don’t understand it. To some people it seems important to make these definitions: “They’re not black and they’re doing rap” or else, “They’re comedians doing rap.” I’ve had a couple people who wanted to manage me say, “You’re too regional.” And I’d say, “What about Compton, man?” I learned what Compton was by listening to the records.

How can you be opposed to people calling your music “comedy”?
Ballzack:
 It’s not punchline-style jokes. I always wanted it to be more surreal or absurd. It’s not the Smothers Brothers. “Comedy rap” sounds so corny. But then maybe [our music] is corny and I’m just being sensitive. Not that I want to be a legitimate hard rapper, I just wanted it to be considered something else. Surreal, maybe. But I didn’t want it to come across as Bloodhound Gang. The local rap I was listening to was really funny, like saying, “I’mma hit you from the back for some Popeye’s.” That’s fuckin’ funny. And to me there was not much difference between that and my version of acting stupid, acting the fool.

I remember opening for you guys and having never heard of you, and you packed the Mermaid Lounge. You said you had been making music for a long time, but I’d never heard of you.
Ballzack:
 Well at first I was calling all the venues in town and being told, like, “That sounds dumb.” We had to work hard at first. I spent all my whole paycheck on fliers—back when people were allowed to flier in New Orleans—and I put them everywhere, even on the car of some girl who’d rejected me. She called me and was like, “You got a show? I didn’t know that.” I said, “Oh, one of my guys must have put that flier there.” I made it look like we had a street team, though it was just me being creepy. The first shows were mostly people who knew us. But there was a crowd of people we had no idea about us and who were weirded out.

Lil Doogie is your most famous creation. Can you explain who he is?
Odoms: He’s a West Bank puppet. I do the voice. He’s an asshole, but he’s got a nice heart.
Ballzack: He tries to pretend like he’s hard and shit, but inside he’s tender.
Odoms: He’s a virgin. He’s really scared to fight, but he loves to talk shit.
Ballzack: He’s like a lot of dudes we grew up with.
Odoms: Doogie packed the main room at the House of Blues, by himself, without Ballzack and Odoms.

Does Doogie have fans separate from y’all’s?
Ballzack: 
Oh, lots.
Odoms: And they do not like us. We put our new “Backwards” video on the account that Doogie is on cause it has all these subscribers, and the comments are like, “If y’all not putting Doogie in the video then I don’t know why you’re makin’ videos.”
Ballzack: Doogie caught on in a really weird way. We’d get scary dudes with like teardrop tattoos sending us emails.
Odoms: Dude with like no shirt on in his Twitter picture, with tattoos all over him. And a lot of local rappers hit us up to have Doogie in their videos. The only one we did was Partners-N-Crime.

Ballzack: Everyone else was people we hadn’t heard of. But shit that we’ve tried to tap into and haven’t been able to, Doogie has been able to tap into without trying. 
Odoms: And I remember we were at Oakwood Mall or something, and some dude came up and was like, “Man, I really want y’all to put my truck in the next Doogie video; I got Jason, Freddy, and Chuckie airbrushed on my truck.”
Ballzack: People have gotten Adam’s number God knows how.
Odoms: They've called my parents’ house asking for me.
Ballzack: They said, “A friend of ours ain’t doing well and he loves Lil Doogie and we were wondering if you could come cheer him up. Like, call him and act like Doogie.” Adam’s had to do that for many people.
Odoms: I need to change my damn number.
Ballzack: Doogie’s like the Saints, all races love Doogie. People leave comments like, “I know he fucking white, but he cool as fuck.” Especially the video with Doogie rapping, they have to preface it like, “I know this is supposed to be a joke, but Doogie go hard!”

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.  

Previously: My Elementary School Students Are Terrific Music Critics

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