From Louis Armstrong to James Booker, New Orleans is known for celebrating its musical legends with much more gusto after those legends have moved away or died. We won't likely change the airport to "Soulja Slim International" for another 100 years, and other New Orleans rappers probably won't even get their due after death—or they weren't going to, until the NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive debuted last month.
PhD student Holly Hobbs, who moved to New Orleans from Missouri in 2008, began compiling the archive in 2012 in conjunction with the Amistad Research Center as part of her still-in-progress dissertation on the ways that artists have used music to reconstitute community after Hurricane Katrina. "I knew I was going to be doing a lot of interviews… it seemed silly to only have them in my dissertation and book," says Hobbs. "I have a background in documentary film, so I started doing videotaped interviews."
Hobbs has so far collected 40 hour-long video interviews with New Orleans rappers—from the big stars (Mannie Fresh, Mystikal), to the obscure but important artists (T.T. Tucker, 10th Ward Buck), to the newer gay bounce legends like Katie Red and Nicky Da B. "I'm also very passionate about kids being able to access this information," says Hobbs. "Kids may not read my book, but they will go online and watch interviews of people they look up to, learn something from them, and maybe even write papers about them for school."
Hobbs also brought on a consultant, New Orleans rapper Truth Universal, who for many years hosted the city's first weekly hip-hop open mic night, Grassroots. Truth is also a member of positive rap advocacy groups like Hip-Hop for Hope, and is one of very few rap artists to regularly perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A New Orleans native, Truth's music is densely lyrical and socially conscious in a way not often associated with New Orleans rap. Once Hobbs invited him onboard, Truth brought on another consultant—rapper Nesby Phips.
The NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive's second component includes the 50-plus interviews and personal photos that comprised the "Where They At" exhibit of bounce rap lore created by writer Alison Fensterstock and photographer Aubrey Edwards for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in 2010.
After over two years of gathering oral histories, photographs, and funding (from the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Music Rising, the New Orleans Gulf South Center, and a successful Kickstarter campaign), the NOLA Hip-Hop Archive is now live at the Amistad Research Center, the nation's oldest and largest independent archive specializing in the histories of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. Hobbs says that Amistad plans an eventual physical museum space for the NOLA Hip-Hop Archive. For now, it only exists online and within a computer at the Amistad Research Center, where visitors can access the files.
I spoke to Holly Hobbs and Truth Universal about the NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive and what it means for the past and future of New Orleans rap.
VICE: Why does New Orleans hip-hop need an archive?
Holly Hobbs: We are archiving a living tradition. We find that very important. Looking back in history, nobody was archiving jazz or rock 'n' roll when it was actually happening—they're creating archives for them now. So the NOLA Hip-Hop Archive is different in that way.
Would you say that local rap isn't given its proper place in the pantheon of New Orleans music?
Every single artist I spoke to mentioned the importance of treating rap as tradition in New Orleans. Post-Katrina, rap in New Orleans has moved towards a more revered, traditional music canon—but it's still an outlier. Rap and bounce artists are still marginalized in a number of ways: low programming on local music festivals, trouble booking shows, and difficulty getting insurance for shows.
These are still issues within the rap and bounce community. This project was a way to legitimize rap in the public imagination in New Orleans and to show that there's no difference between a rapper, a jazz musician, or a rhythm and blues artist from the 1950s. It is all a logical continuum in the trajectory of New Orleans music.
Why is New Orleans rap sometimes not seen as legitimate New Orleans music?
Rap is still marginal within the public imagination in New Orleans because I think rap is still scary to a lot of people. You've also got the conflation between hip-hop and violence in a very violent city. And, in a city that is basically run by the tourism and heritage/preservation complex, you have what is chosen to be the stand-in for what is New Orleans traditional music, and what is not—and rap is just not.
But still, we've seen a lot of progress; bounce is really starting to be in the midst of entering some kind of folk revival. The older bounce artists are now considered OK. They're not "scary" like they were before. Everything is moving toward a more accepting public view, but we're not there yet.
Truth Universal: A lot of people don't choose to include hip-hop because of the image attached. If you don't know that there's other hip-hop out there, then you assume it's going to be a lot of sex and violence, and you don't really want to attach that to your "Come to New Orleans!" campaign.
Looking at the archive, I couldn't help but notice an overriding theme of death. From the gangsta lyrics to the number of local rap artists who've been killed by gun violence.
Hobbs: New Orleans has lost so many musicians over the years. It's a continual threat that people have to deal with here. Every artist in the archive talks about losing someone and the effect that has on their art and their community.
Between violence and Katrina, some people have lost whole blocks of neighbors. We have detailed stories of Magnolia Shorty, Tim Smooth, Soulja Slim, and other seminal figures in rap and bounce who have been lost to violence or Katrina. We lost Nicky Da B this year at the age of 24 to natural causes. He's a great example of someone no one expected to lose so soon.
Truth Universal: There's also positivity in this music, but I guess you want to view it as negativity. A lot of second line music and jazz is about having a good time but it's also about, "Why'd they have to kill him?" It's poverty. That's the reality of it.
Truth, what did you and Nesby Phips bring to this project?
Mainlyspreading the word and getting more people interested through social media, in hopes that people use the archive as a resource. I also suggested artists for the project who I consider valuable monuments to building the scene. I suggested T.T. Tucker—though they would have gotten to Tucker anyway—the Psycho Ward folks, Maxmillion, DJ Chicken, and Bass Heavy. I also brought in Phips, of course.
How do local rap artists respond to the idea of an archive?
Truth Universal: My hip-hop folks ask, "Why support this?" A lot of times, when we are asked to be part of documentary-type projects, the exploitation thing comes up. A lot of people don't want to really want to touch it because they feel like it's going be an "exotic animal on display" thing, or some type of money is going be generated at their expense and they're not going to get any of it.
One of the first things I tell people about this is that this will help. In the long run, it will help us be included in the discussion. Like, WWOZ community radio doesn't play hip-hop like they should. It's not included in the list of genres that are considered New Orleans music. But the archive helps us get booked at JazzFest, and get more gigs outside of here, and get more booking agents.
Hobbs: I knew a lot of the artists previously; I write a lot about music and social movements and I did a lot of programming work when I first moved to New Orleans. A lot of the artists were familiar with me, and I think I would have had a harder time had I not been. T.T. Tucker, who recorded the seminal bounce record "Where Dey At?" with DJ Irv, was the last person I interviewed. He didn't know anything about the project and he was reticent. He wanted to know what it was all about, and why, and where it was going be. We had a really long talk about it, and in the end he gave a great interview.
Do you think the NOLA Hip-Hop and Bounce Archive will strike the cultural blow it's meant to?
Truth Universal: We'll have to wait and see, but I feel like it's been received well thus far. I think it will definitely help in the discussion. Nothing else exists like this—nothing that, for lack of a better word, legitimizes hip-hop by including it in the discussion of traditional New Orleans music.
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