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New Orleans, A City Known To Create Moments, Is Having One Of Its Own

Drake’s latest foray into bounce music is just one small way the beloved city is reclaiming its cultural spotlight.

My Lyft driver is silent when she picks me up from the steps of my hotel. Aside from a polite “Hello, how you doin’?” drenched in N’awlins drawl when I open the car door, she says nothing as we set out on the 12-minute drive from the Hurricanes and Hand Grenades of the French Quarter to more reserved Gentilly. I don’t mind the silence. By the looks of things, the young woman isn’t unlike me. She, too, is likely at the edge of her ’20s, has a billow of cottony curls that shrink in humidity, and carries a calm disposition. As evidenced by the hip-hop radio station playing at a moderate volume, she also has the same taste in music.

I bob along wordlessly as we drive, happy for the stillness and grateful for the air-conditioned refuge from Louisiana’s balmy summer. However, as we swing off Louisa Street and onto Old Gentilly Road, the familiar gravel of Big Freedia’s voice on Drake’s “Nice For What” trickles out from the speakers: “I wanna know who mothaf**kin’ representin’ in here tonight.” And in a moment I could’ve missed if I wasn’t looking out for it, I see my silent chauffeur snapping her fingers to the sped-up sample of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor.”

I have to ask the question. “I’m curious… Do you guys actually like this song down here?” She immediately perks up, charmed by the honest inquiry. Her eyes, squinting through a smile, lock with mine through the rearview mirror. “Yes. It’s nice that he worked with someone from here to make it, so it’s nice,” she says. And if you’re listening to the local radio for long enough, you might even hear a proper bounce remix of it from time to time. According to her, “You just gotta catch it.”

Drake’s 2018 toe-dip into bounce music with the infectious Scorpion paean was, in some corners, categorized as an extension of the vulture’s claw, readying to parade a new minority culture like a costume, claim it as his own and collect the coins from the eyes and ears it attracted. (So far, the album, which went platinum on its release day, has spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.) However, in reality, his locally appreciated nod to the Big Easy is a small acknowledgment of NOLA’s current main stage moment.

“Oh my goodness! New Orleans is on fire now, especially because of ‘Nice For What.’” Baton Rouge, La. native DJ Kelly Green, who mans the turntables for NOLA rapper Curren$y and his Jet Life collective, excitingly says as she leans across the Pontilly Café countertop. But is it actually liked here? I ask her, too. “Man, it is loved,” she insists. “Everybody is happy that bounce is seeing the light of mainstream music.”

Drake’s “Nice For What” and even more popular “In My Feelings”—the latter’s playful new video, also directed by Karena Evans, was filmed in the streets of NOLA—both pay homage to the niche, homegrown genre that spans back to the early ‘90s. “We got people like Cheeky Blakk and Mia X. Mia X is No Limit, but Mia X is literally first-generation bounce music, so she started that,” says singer-songwriter-producer and Maroon 5 member PJ Morton, who was born in New Orleans East. Ever since then, bounce has remained an integral part of the local community’s DNA.

“This is how we party, this is what we like. We don’t really care what everybody else is listening to, we’re still gonna have bounce songs at all our parties. When you heard that [Cameron Paul] Brown Beat, that instantly, in New Orleans, changes the atmosphere,” he continues, referencing one of two famed bounce beats (the other is Trigga Man). Like Go-Go is to Washington, D.C., and Reggae is to the islands, Bounce music in New Orleans is deeply embedded in the spirits of its people, and when it plays, they can’t help but move.

Bounce may be predominantly anchored in New Orleans—Baton Rouge, only an hour and a half drive away, boasts Jig, its grittier brand of club music—but its unmistakable cultural footprint isn’t defined by terrestrial borders. “I can go to Afghanistan and play ‘Back That Azz Up’ and they going to back that a** up,” Green says, recalling the different audiences she’s had to DJ for. “They can play a bounce song in here right now and I’m going to be tapping my foot under the table, and I’m going to be talking to you just like this. It’s unavoidable.”

What’s equally as unavoidable is how much closer the genre (and the culture that comes with it) is to being a household name. Whether you’re looking through the lens of music or not, it’s clear that New Orleans is in the middle of a major moment. Well, another one. Aside from the city’s legacy as the birthplace of jazz, anyone who perks up at the phrase “the ‘99s and the 2000s” understands one of the most major takeovers the hip-hop genre has ever seen. From about 1998 until 2001, supergroup Cash Money Millionaires—Lil Wayne, Juvenile, B.G., Turk, Birdman and Mannie Fresh—had the world in their palms. “That whole Cash Money movement was just mind-blowing growing up here,” Morton, a former Young Money affiliate, says. “They shocked the world and went to Universal and signed a $100 million deal before anybody did it. It’s all about making moves that are bigger than just the city.”

I think we should be honored that people love our culture enough to want to be inspired by it. PJ Morton

Green considers 2018 the year New Orleans is finally picking up where it left off at the tail end of Cash Money’s early 2000s reign. Undoubtedly, the city has Big Freedia to thank for making the masses do a double take at the rich cultural epicenter. She had a heavy-handed influence in getting the voice and the boisterous spirit of bounce onto the singles of international music behemoths like Diplo, Beyonce, and Drake. And up until “In My Feelings,” Freedia’s visual inclusion, or lack thereof, hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“You know, my voice be on a lot of different stuff and people want to use bounce music as a part of their music, but when it comes to the proper recognition of me being in the video, that’s something that we’re steady working towards to make it happen,” she told The Fader earlier this year. “The credits are important but, for me, it’s still putting New Orleans on the map and I’m happy with the check.”

Morton caught wind of discontent within the bounce artist community, which was initially upset at the lack of support for their own musical output. To him, the anger is being misdirected. “Drake put out a song, so now it makes more bounce songs, so maybe people will be more into it,” he says. Despite the negativity, he still sees it as a win. “I think we should be honored that people love our culture enough to want to be inspired by it.”

“I know some people are saying that [‘Nice For What’] should’ve been a more New Orleans kind of thing, but at the end of the day, it’s a mainstream bounce song and New Orleans is on the map right now,” Green also says in Drake’s defense. Both of Drake’s songs broke records at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 this year, the first time a bounce song has actually topped the chart. Before that, Diplo’s “Express Yourself” featuring the late Nicky Da B peaked at No. 44 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart in 2013. In 2011, “More Than Friends,” 8-9 Boyz’s song featuring Kidd Kidd, Partners N Crime, and Big Freedia, peaked at No. 94 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. “We have our little poking in the industry here and there, poking holes in it, but this is a big hole.”

READ MORE: It’s About Time Hip-Hop Respects Big Freedia

Ample video recognition or not, everybody in town is still championing Big Freedia. And she’s not the only one. Other well-respected bounce artists and DJs include Reedie, Vicky Low, Sissy Nobby, Nicky Da B, DJ Poppa, DaNecia, Big Chew, Katy Red and DJ BlaqNmilD, who helped facilitate what Green considers a proper execution of “Nice For What.” Although BlaqNmilD co-produced alongside Murda Beatz, Noah “40” Shebib and Cory Litwin, he was the record’s guiding architect, bridging fans of the sound with the voices—specifically Freedia and 5th Ward Weebie—who are authentically part of it.

If you ask Green, Drake “gave the proper people an outlet to do what they do on a higher level.” From employing the established BlaqNmilD, (who is a master at turning your favorite hits into a certified bounce remixes), to making sure Big Freedia was heard on the track in the same way she’d be heard over the mic at Tasty Tuesday, a very popular (and very sweaty) local party at Lyve Nite Club, Drizzy made all the right moves. “It doesn’t sound clear,” she says of Freedia’s old bounce style vocals. “It sounds muffled like they recorded it in the club. It’s real bounce. They did a really good job staying true to the sound. You ever see that dude, tell him that was a really good idea.”

It’s unclear if the OVO figurehead will continue to make bounce music—hey, who knows, it might just be his next “mixtape” wave—but his gesture did perk up unfamiliar ears and planted the seed for a proper resurgence. The rise of distinct New Orleans soundscapes can and will continue so long as people, both inside and outside of the city, continue to lean into the talent cultivated there. Morton, after developing his career in Los Angeles, returned home in 2016 to replant his roots, ready to do that exact thing with Morton Records. “It’s always been that you had to leave New Orleans to be successful,” he says, citing Young Money’s migration to Miami and No Limit’s to Baton Rouge. “While there’s always been a music infrastructure in New Orleans, there has always been a lack of music-business infrastructure.” That means it can only go up from here.

Everybody is happy that bounce is seeing the light of mainstream music. —DJ Kelly Green

For now, New Orleans has re-seized our attention and it’s unlikely that it will slip away again. And even if it does, so what? New Orleans will continue to enjoy its own private party, regardless of who’s watching, trying to get in, or not.

“Care is a funny word,” Morton pauses before continuing with the rest of his thought. He’s been asked whether or not New Orleans artists, who have influenced and inspired the art of so many others, care if they get national and international looks. “I do think they would love the recognition,” he says finally, “but I think they’re okay not getting it. It’s not gonna stop them from being how they are. I think it won’t be until we look at those stats after it’s all over and they fully get the recognition. But, ultimately, that’s what New Orleans is. We’re resilient, you know?”