Long story in NYT Magazine.
July 19, 2010
New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap
By JONATHAN DEE
If “gay rapper” is an oxymoron where you come from, how to get your head around the notion of a gay rapper performing in a sports bar? What in most cities might seem plausible only as some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-style provocation is just another weeknight in the cultural Galapagos that is New Orleans. Sometime after midnight on the sweltering Thursday before Memorial Day, the giant plasma-screen TVs at the Sports Vue bar (which “proudly airs all major Pay Per View events from the world of Boxing and Ultimate Fighting”) were all switched off, and the bar’s backroom turned into a low-lit, low-ceilinged dance club, where more than 300 people awaited a return engagement by Big Freedia, who by day runs an interior-decoration business and who is, to fans of the New Orleans variant of hip-hop music known as “bounce,” a superstar.
At 1 a.m., though, Freedia (pronounced “FREE-da”) was still a mile or so away, fulfilling a paid celebrity-hosting gig at Club Fabulous. The fabulousness of Club Fabulous, on this night at least, seemed a function mainly of its Mardi Gras-themed décor, conceived and executed by Freedia herself. Otherwise the crowd was sparse, largely straight and listless. Freedia looked weary as she leaned back against the bar with her dyed, diagonally cut bangs over one eye, holding a cordless microphone. (Freedia, who is about 6 foot 2 and very powerful-looking and dresses in a fashionable but recognizably masculine style, is genetically a man; but neither she nor anyone who knows her uses masculine pronouns to refer to her.) When “Rock Around the Clock,” one of her signature songs, came on the sound system, a few women walked over to Freedia and stood with their backs to her, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite electric enough for them to really start dancing, and the men just continued playing pool. After a while, Freedia’s D.J. and de facto manager, who goes by the name Rusty Lazer — a whippetlike 39-year-old white man with a salt-and-pepper beard — let Freedia know that it was time to move on to the next show.
The two of them had just returned from three nights at three different venues in New York, with a stop for another show in Philadelphia on their way home. These days Freedia performs five or six nights a week, often more than once a night — and increasingly, not just in New Orleans.
“Girl, I’m tired,” Lazer said as he drove them to the Sports Vue in his minivan, which was full of boxes of hand-screened Big Freedia T-shirts he sells at $10 a pop.
“Really?” Freedia said laconically. “I’m just starting to get my energy back.”
At the first sight of the commotion outside the Sports Vue, everyone’s energy level picked up. Lazer pulled the minivan into a long maze of cars parked haphazardly all up and down the grass median on Elysian Fields Avenue. Outside the metal detectors at the entrance, cops were pretending to listen to the grievances of two women who had just been thrown out of the bar. “Every night,” Lazer said fondly. While patrons were being patted down by bouncers inside the door, he and Freedia disappeared into the crowd; a few minutes later, the music stopped, and a loud, excited voice yelled into a mic a brief introduction — so brief the longest part of it was the polysyllabic participle between the words “Big” and “Freedia.”
And then something remarkable happened. The crowd — just about evenly divided between men and women — instantly segregated itself: the men were propelled as if by a centrifuge toward the room’s perimeters, and the dance floor, a platform raised just a step off the ground, was taken over entirely by women surrounding Freedia. The women did not dance with, or for, one another — they danced for Freedia, and they did so in the most sexualized way imaginable, usually with their backs to her, bent over sharply at the waist, and bouncing their hips up and down as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster. Others assumed more of a push-up position, with their hands on the floor, in a signature dance whose name is sometimes helpfully shortened to “p-popping.”
Freedia did “Rock Around the Clock,” which begins with a sample from the Bill Haley classic but departs pretty drastically from there, as well as her longtime club hit, “Azz Everywhere,” a title as perfectly high-concept in its way as “Snakes on a Plane.” Softspoken in person, Freedia has an onstage voice as deep and exhortatory as Chuck D’s. Her older songs sometimes had choruses that were actually sung (“I got that gin in my system/Somebody gonna be my victim”), but in her recent work, the beat is too fast to permit much more than short, repetitive chanting. Not that it mattered much in the context of the less-than-state-of-the-art sound system at the Sports Vue, where an occasional obscenity was pretty much as audible as any of the lyrics got.
A Big Freedia set generally lasts only four or five songs (which is why she can book two or three of them a night), but the energy brought to, and generated by, those songs is astounding. So, 20 cathartic minutes later, it was all over. Freedia left the stage, the men gravitated back toward the women and the sexual balance at the Sports Vue was restored. “Well,” Lazer said with a grin as he gave me a lift back to my hotel in his minivan, “I’ve lived in New Orleans a long time, and I know a lot of people, but you’ve just seen something that about 95 percent of my white friends will probably never see.”
Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”) Just as the earliest New York rap records featured compulsory shout-outs to the boroughs, lots of bounce songs will demand (especially when performed live) audience acknowledgment of the city’s various neighborhoods and housing projects (“Shake it for the Fourth Ward/Work it for the Fifth Ward”), even those that have been razed. Otherwise the lyrics are mostly about sex and are so habitually obscene that they have helped keep bounce from spreading too far beyond its New Orleans borders. The success of bounce-tinged New Orleans artists like Lil Wayne and Juvenile notwithstanding, at least one New Orleans record-company executive speculates that major labels consider unadulterated bounce too hard to distribute, because it can’t be played on most radio stations or even sold in many venues.
The overwhelming majority of bounce artists are, of course, straight. But 12 years ago, a young drag queen who goes by the name Katey Red shocked the audience by taking the mic at an influential underground club near the Melpomene housing project where she grew up, and in that star-is-born moment, a subgenre of bounce took root. It is a sad understatement to say that homosexuality and hip-hop make for an unlikely fusion: hip-hop culture is one of the most unrepentantly homophobic cultures in America, surpassing even its own attitudes toward women in bigotry and smirking advocacy of violence. But New Orleans’s tolerance of unlikely fusions is legendary, and today Katey Red, along with a handful of other artists — Big Freedia (who grew up four blocks from Katey and started out as one of her background vocalists), Sissy Nobby, Chev off the Ave, Vockah Redu (who was captain of the dance team at Booker T. Washington High School) — are not just accepted mainstays of the bounce scene but its most prominent representatives outside New Orleans. Katey recently received a New Orleans consecration of sorts when she appeared as herself, unidentified, in an episode of the HBO series “Treme,” with her song “So Much Drama” playing in the background.
Some part of this subgenre’s popularity is surely due to the catchily discordant name by which it has become known: sissy bounce. The term is problematic, because the artists themselves do not care for it at all — not because they object to the word “sissy” but because they consider it disrespectful to bounce music. Even when their lyrics are at their frankest (“I’m a punk under pressure/When we finish, put my money on the dresser”), they rush to point out, correctly, that they’re just drawing from the life at hand in the same way virtually every rapper does. They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not — even as their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.
The term “sissy bounce” is one for which a young New Orleans music writer named Alison Fensterstock takes very reluctant credit....
Check the original story for the rest, including images and video clips, which you can find HERE.