This post is part of our forum on Bounce Music.

Big Freedia performing. (Shutterstock)

Approximately thirty years have passed since MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv took the local New Orleans rap scene by storm with their underground cassette release “Where Dey At.” Recorded live and distributed through the city and its hinterlands on cassettes, the breakout local hit spread through word-of-mouth, and was followed within less than a year by a more polished studio recording by DJ Jimi. These releases established the parameters of a local genre or scene that would come to be called “Bounce”—defined by chanted, riff-based lyrics in a call-and-response structure; a lyrical emphasis on dancing and New Orleans’ neighborhood culture; and a reliance on certain key sampled musical backgrounds. Most notable among these was the 1986 song “Drap Rap” by Queens-based group the Showboys, which featured layered polyrhythms and musical riffs and gangster-themed lyrics that would resonate deeply with audiences in New Orleans and other Deep South cities.

In the decade that followed, the popularity of Bounce energized the New Orleans hip-hop scene and industry. It produced a host of promising artists whose efforts, alongside producers and label owners, helped develop several important record labels, two of which—Cash Money and No Limit—would become the most successful independent rap labels of the late 1990s. While the stylistic parameters of Bounce shifted over this period, with tempo creeping upwards and new samples like “the claps” (claps in an eighth-note pattern) gaining prominence, the basic elements of the style remained constant. Bounce thrived in New Orleans and retained an influential role in the city throughout the 1990s and beyond, with its emphasis on dance and neighborhood culture filling the distinct needs of local audiences. Existing alongside other styles of hip-hop (such as gangster rap) produced locally or elsewhere, Bounce retained its status as the preferred soundtrack for local African American youth in clubs and block parties.

In many ways, Bounce represented continuity within New Orleans music, drawing from cultural tendencies that helped shape genres dating back a century to the jazz age and beyond. The yearly carnival has helped maintain a shared musical sensibility with deep historical roots. In bars, clubs, and outdoor parties in the city’s poor and working-class African American neighborhoods, New Orleanians took an active role in shaping their collective musical culture. As with prior genres, the city’s geographic isolation from music industry centers in New York and Los Angeles exercised a complex influence on the development of Bounce. On the one hand, artists found it difficult to parlay local popularity into a career outside of the region. On the other, the lack of engagement by national or international music corporations allowed for the emergence and flourishing of independent record labels run by locally connected owners, who were able to monopolize the local talent pool to build their rosters and markets, achieving a level of independence that would have been difficult to obtain elsewhere.

For several years in the 1990s, Bounce was understood by both outsiders and those connected to New Orleans as an idiosyncratic local style with little chance of spreading beyond the city and the wider Gulf Coast region. In these years, New Orleans-based artists like Mystikal, BustDown, and Tim Smooth set their sights on national audiences and employed lyrical styles and themes that were generally consonant with those prevalent at the wider national level. This changed in 1998, when Cash Money Records artist Juvenile broke through to national audiences with the Bounce-flavored hit “Ha.” New Orleans artists like B.G. and Soulja Slim helped contribute to an expanded market share for southern artists and their distinctive local styles of lyrical and musical performance. The southern turn during the mid- to late 1990s in rap music (which was also driven by activity in cities including Atlanta, Memphis, and Miami) included a lyrical focus on dancing and a prioritization of more repetitive, riff-based lyrical styles. This is as opposed to extended narrative focus that had predominated in rap music until that time.

With the success of the Cash Money and No Limit record companies in the late 1990s, rappers and producers who cut their teeth in the Bounce scene began to reach national audiences. While these companies produced music that was more closely related to the conventions of gangster rap than Bounce, they nevertheless introduced ideas drawn from the local scene to national audiences. Meanwhile, the grassroots scene that flourished in the block parties, housing projects, and clubs of the city continued to be a space where local preferences predominated.

In addition to expressing local preferences, the Bounce scene and style also provided opportunities for performers who might otherwise be excluded from more mainstream iterations of rap and hip-hop. In its early years, the Bounce scene was enriched by the participation of a relatively large percentage of female rappers, including Mia X, Ms. Tee, and others. Beginning around 2000, several artists rose to popularity who would challenge the conventions of the rap genre regarding gender and sexuality. Katey Red’s 2000 album Millennium Sissy paved the way for the emergence onto the local scene of numerous other rappers (known locally by the pejorative terms “sissies” or “punks”) who expressed a much more fluid approach to gender and sexuality compared to what previously existed.

Drawing on the city’s history of sexual exploration and permissiveness, these artists represented an important shift in the conventions and expectations around rap in the city—while also producing music that was oriented almost exclusively to the tastes of local audiences. With lyrics often focusing on dance, these artists were known for their strong support among female audience members, although they achieved a level of general popularity at the local level. These artists represented a distinct departure from the hyper-masculine culture of more mainstream, nationally oriented rap, one which resonated with New Orleans’ historic status as a place where social boundaries of various kinds, including gender and sexuality, were often blurred.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the communities where Bounce emerged and thrived had already been suffering from a variety of overlapping socioeconomic challenges. The city underwent a transition to a service-based economy as the manufacturing and transportation industries declined. Violent crime, which had been at a peak in the early to mid-1990s while Bounce was in its heyday, continued to take a toll on the city’s music scene as careers were cut short by gun violence. The city’s housing projects which were constructed in the postwar period became centers of concentrated poverty and crime, despite the large number of law-abiding citizens who called them home. The citywide initiative to dismantle the public housing complexes, already underway before Katrina, intensified dramatically as the storm forced the evacuation of many, if not most of the low-lying, poorer areas where many resided. With this radical transformation of the public housing system in New Orleans, previously concentrated communities of poor and working-class African Americans were largely dispersed—as a result, in the process, the environment  where Bounce emerged and thrived was dramatically changed.

In a similar process to that experienced by prior genres of popular music that emerged from the New Orleans grassroots, Bounce is now transitioning from an emerging or current form to a historical one. But like jazz, R&B and funk from the city, hip-hop from New Orleans continues to influence national music trends. While few artists based in or originating in New Orleans have broken through to national audiences in the last 20 years (with notable exceptions like Big Freedia and Lil Wayne), the dynamic, infectious musical concepts at the heart of Bounce continue to ramify through national and international networks. Ideas and samples drawn from Bounce have surfaced in recent hits by artists including Drake (“Nice for What”) and Cardi B (“Bickenhead”), demonstrating the enduring power of the expressive cultural forms emanating from a city that has exercised an outsized influence on our national music culture for more than a century.

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Matt Miller

Matt Miller earned a PhD in American Studies from Emory University in 2009 and is the author of Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans (2012).

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