Shake fo ya hood
New Orleans rap music is characterized by insistent vocal narrative over urban, rhythm-centric African American-identified music styles performed live and over pre-recorded tracks. Rap in New Orleans is the latest manifestation of the dance-centered, bass-heavy local sound that connects the city’s rhythm-n-blues of the 1950s to the current day. Bounce music, the participatory, dance-oriented “project music” at the heart of the tradition, has been an enduring, highly localized soundscape of the city since the 1990s. Despite their ubiquity, New Orleans rap and bounce have long been marginal within the city’s dominant musical culture, where the focus is on traditional jazz, funk, brass band and Mardi Gras Indian music with varying degrees of local cultural identification. Although the tension between the ubiquity/invisibility in New Orleans rap continues, it has undergone a noticeable shift in post-Katrina years, with increased attention to the musical style’s connections to the city’s rich history of African American expressive culture. Several preservation and continuation efforts, including the NOLA Hip-Hop Archive, work to document the knowledge and aesthetic bases of this dynamic musical tradition. While the status of rap in the broader New Orleans public imagination is shifting, on-the-ground social, economic and cultural realities for most rappers in the city remain slow to change. Writing about the systemic problems that New Orleans rap and bounce artists face requires consideration of these realities, as well as the ways in which many New Orleans music preservation efforts have been implicated in an economy of desire that affirms the contribution of culture workers but enables apathy towards, or misunderstanding of, the needs of members of poor communities not engaged in more “accepted” forms of cultural production. This case study of New Orleans rap music provides ethnographic introductions to various corners of the scene. Interviews with rap artists allow a detailed analysis of: key performance events, the revival of bounce, the rap-centered renaissance in the Hollygrove neighborhood, and the processes of documentation involved in the creation of the NOLA Hip-Hop Archive in order to better understand the ways in which some musicians are (re)building communities through music in a rapidly changing city.