In advance of this year's Street Kings event in New Orleans, Matt Sakakeeny details how the world of Brass Band came to embrace hip hop.
Brass band and hip hop: both born of the streets, about 1,000 miles and 100 years apart. At the start of the 20th century in New Orleans, black musicians picked up horns and drums and paraded through their neighborhoods, making up jazz as they marched and danced. Near the end of the 20th century, DJ's in New York wired up their sound systems to light poles, spinning and toasting over records for break dancers strutting their moves. The creative misuse of technology – hijacking instruments from military bands or scratching pristine records – propelled both the Jazz Age and the hip hop generation.
The brass band retained its vitality not through preservation but through constant recalibration.
While jazz flourished around the world, the brass band stayed close to home, eventually becoming revered as the most distinctive local tradition in a community of many, many traditions. But it is a mistake to equate tradition with inertia, or New Orleans with the past, because the brass band retained its vitality not through preservation but through constant recalibration: every style of black popular music – jazz, rhythm & blues, soul, funk and, yes, hip hop – has been given the brass band treatment. Each generation has bent tradition to make it in tune with their experience. So when rap came to town in the late '80s and early '90s, it was inevitable that kids who had grown up surrounded by brass bands in the streets would import the new sounds they were hearing on the radio and in the clubs. The prototype was a mostly forgotten track from a fly-by-night band, The Deff Generation's "Running with the Second Line."
The "second line" name is taken from the jazz funeral tradition: the first line is the family and friends of the dead while a second line of marchers gathers behind and alongside them, anticipating the upbeat dance music after burial. The name also refers to the weekly parades sponsored by social clubs, whose members parade through their neighborhoods on Sunday afternoons to the beat of the brass band. For over a century, these have been the bread-and-butter gigs for all brass band musicians, but in the '90s one band made a conscious break with the parading tradition. The Soul Rebels set their sights on becoming hip hop musicians who just happened to play acoustic instruments. After getting their start as the Young Olympians – a training ground for the mighty Olympia – the Rebels walked away from tradition and radically reoriented the brass band around the musical devices and lyrical themes of hip hop. They came out swinging with the title track to their debut album, Let Your Mind Be Free, in 1994.
Lyrically, traditional brass band music was based on hymns and popular songs that were rarely explicitly political, but as funk and hip hop became more outspoken so did brass band.
Despite the familiarity of the instruments, there is much happening here that signals a new order. Traditionally the tuba played a supporting role, outlining the chord changes in a sparse "oom-pah" rhythm, but bands such as Dirty Dozen, Rebirth and the Soul Rebels started jacking funk basslines and transposing them to the tuba. Lyrically, traditional brass band music was based on hymns and popular songs that were rarely explicitly political, but as funk and hip hop became more outspoken so did brass band. "Let Your Mind be Free" begins with a spoken introduction that is notable both for its allusion to rap and the directness with which the words deal with race, poverty and violence.
"Running with the Second Line" may have fallen into relative obscurity but "Let Your Mind Be Free" caused a revolution in the brass band scene, alienating older traditionalists and galvanizing younger progressives. The most accurate measure of the song's impact is its ubiquity: it is now required learning for every brass band musician.
The same can be said for a handful of tunes on Hot Venom (2001), the ninth record from the venerable Rebirth Brass Band and their most dedicated effort to import hip hop into their trademark "junk"(jazz/funk) sound. There's the over-the-top aggression and individualism of trombonist Tyrus Chapman's "Let Me Do My Thing" and there’s also the jacked-up arrangement of R&B crooner Levert’s "Casanova," with revised lyrics that would make 2 Live Crew blush.
But the star turn on Hot Venom comes from guest rappers Cheeky Black on "Pop That Pussy" and Soulja Slim on "You Don’t Want to Go to War." Black rapped in the homegrown style of bounce, with its trademark rhythm that has become as much a sonic symbol of New Orleans as the parade beat. Slim, on the other hand, was pure gangsta rap. His battles with drug addiction led to multiple incarcerations and he cultivated the persona of the "soulja" from the start of his short career, appearing on the cover of his first album Give It 2 'Em Raw wearing military fatigues and gold caps on his teeth. The lyrics to "You Don’t Want to Go to War" epitomize the moment when confrontational boasts and unflinching threats of violence became the stock-and-trade of the hip hop MC.
Slim was shot and killed in 2003, and Rebirth led a raucous jazz funeral that included "You Don't Want to Go to War" and some of Slim's own rap songs arranged for brass band.
After the horns play a series of melodies and solos, the track pares down to the marching drums and a menacing tuba riff, clearing the way for Slim to juxtapose images of militarism and dancing, weapons and instruments: "Y'all don#t want to go to war, we got heat / Sounds off like horns, make you move your feet." He then warns his neighbors to keep violence away from the parades that make stops at the bars near the Magnolia housing projects where he was raised: "Catch them round Kemp's, bring them round Mo's Tavern / The Rebirth is my people, you don't know what's happening." The song ends by celebrating music and dance as an antidote to violence: "We don#t want to see nobody get hurt today / All we really want to see is footwork today." Slim's (mixed) messages capture the tension between intraracial brotherhood and violence that pervades second line culture: you don't want to go to war because we're celebrating as a community and you don't want to go to war because we got heat.
Slim's words and mere presence on Rebirth's album show the congruence of hip hop and brass band at the start of the twenty first century and so, too, does the proximity of his life to those in Rebirth. Slim's mother, Linda Tapp Porter, is the president of the Lady Buckjumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which leads a parade through the Magnolia projects every year to the sounds of Rebirth, and she is the longtime partner of bandleader Philip Frazier. It was on Linda and Phil's lawn that Slim was shot and killed in 2003, and Rebirth led a raucous jazz funeral that included "You Don't Want to Go to War" and some of Slim's own rap songs arranged for brass band.
Since forming at Joseph S. Clark High School in the Tremé neighborhood in 1983, Rebirth has reigned over the pack of new-school brass bands, while the Soul Rebels are widely acknowledged as the most progressive band onstage and in the studio. More recently, the Hot 8 has claimed a space in the ring; of all the bands, their music and their very existence exemplify the trials and tribulations of the hip hop generation. In 1996, just after graduating from Alcee Fortier High School, trumpeter Jacob Johnson was robbed and killed in an apartment building in the Calliope housing projects. The drugs and violence at home and on the same streets where musicians parade seep into Hot 8 originals like "Rastafunk," a reggae-tinged tour-de-force written by trombonist Joseph "Shotgun Joe" Williams.
The Hot 8 channeled their anger, frustration and pain into original compositions in a hip hop way.
On August 4, 2004, Joe was shot by three New Orleans police officers during a routine stop and died, unarmed, at the age of 22. In past generations, the spiritual songs played at a jazz funeral – "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" or "I'll Fly Away" – pushed the limits of subversive expression imposed by slavery and Jim Crow, with metaphors of salvation that encoded black Americans' experience with varying forms of bondage. But the young men in the Hot 8 were able to channel their anger, frustration and pain into original compositions in a hip hop way. Trombonist Jerome Jones composed a song that called out the officers by name and faulted then Mayor Ray Nagin for his silence on the police killing, which was never investigated.
Today the prominent place of hip hop in the brass band tradition is thoroughly routine: all of the musicians entering the tradition were raised to the sounds of Rebirth and the Soul Rebels. The Stooges came up alongside the Hot 8 and have rejuvenated their lineup with young musicians who play songs covering the full spectrum of hip hop, from the raunchy "We Make 'Em Say Ooo," to the dance floor shaker "Wind It Up," to the protest song "Why Dey Had to Kill Him?" Most of the members of To Be Continued (TBC), currently the hottest band on the parade circuit, were not even born when "Let Your Mind Be Free" set tradition on its head. For them, "Rapper's Delight" is an oldie, gangsta rap is their parents' music and hip hop is simply part of the tradition.
Header image: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool. Matt Sakakeeny is an Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane. For more on New Orleans brass bands, check out his new book Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans.