There's no doubt that New Orleans rap is big. All you need to do is spin the radio dial or flip the channel to BET and MTV to hear the echo of the kind of Dirty South beats homegrown labels like No Limit and Cash Money have been putting out since the '90s. More than just party beats, though, hip-hop is the newest sound of New Orleans expressing itself. Artists like Juvenile and 5th Ward Weebie have created some of the most authentic responses to New Orleans' tragedy and recovery with hip-hop. Brass bands like the Rebirth, the Dirty Dozen and most recently the Free Agents have paired up with rappers to create the city's new second-line anthems. One Tulane student saw the way New Orleans hip-hop had the power to spread a message through the city, and decided to help it along.
"I love music, and I always wanted to use it to do things that matter, especially in New Orleans," says Ben Brubaker, the Tulane senior behind the Homegrown Hip-Hop Night event this Thursday at Tipitina's, which showcases nine up-and-coming hip-hop artists including Brubaker himself. "Hip-hop has got a bad rap in this city, and there are so many artists out there I've discovered with so much talent and the ability to convey a message."
Brubaker promoted his first major show in New Orleans last year as part of a class project for a course in the African Diaspora Studies department on hip-hop intersecting with HIV and AIDS issues. The first annual Hip-Hop for Hope concert at Tipitina's drew more than 600 attendees and raised $5,500 for the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School
"We were going to do tutoring as a class project," he says. "And I wanted to do an event that would raise some money. The students formed a committee and started organizing." Brubaker's Homegrown Hip-Hop Event isn't a benefit, but it's an effort to nourish the nascent community he saw coming together among the up-and-coming artists who participated in Hip-Hop for Hope.
"It focuses on hip-hop that reflects the jazz roots in New Orleans," he says. "We overlook some of our best hip-hop when we just focus on club music."
Brubaker booked artists he'd gotten to know around town, from more established MCs like Media Darling records artist Know One, who's shared stages with Dr. John and Galactic, to other students breaking into the indie hip-hop scene in New Orleans. The artists on his line-up vary stylistically, but it's easy to see that Brubaker's booking sensibility includes a penchant for the political. Jimi Clever, a New Orleans native from Uptown, uses the menacing, dramatic underlying sounds other Southern rappers like Common and Young Jeezy have become so fond of advancing on the charts with under take-no-prisoners lyrics; his track "Burn it 2 Da Ground," which opens with cut-and-pasted scraps from post-Katrina news reports, refers to the White House. J-Dubble, a former University of New Orleans English major, has an easy flow that draws hard on the old school with its pacing and clean, unpretentious mix full of lazy beats and it's-all-good grooves. Brubaker's own songs veer towards a more organic instrumental sound, drawing on the new sound of brass bands pairing up with MCs, and with a slight self-consciousness that he's treading, as an interloper, on well-plowed ground. His song "Sign of the Times" has a wicked sousaphone track underneath his rhymes that anyone would second-line to, but another, with a mix of apology and defiance, raps, "Maybe I'm not from the hood." He graduates from Tulane in spring of 2008, but he plans to stick around for a while to make sure his efforts take hold, both musically and in fundraising.
"I'm talking with some artists about putting together a kind of promotions family -- not a label, but just to do shows together and put out some mix tapes. We've got different styles but similar visions. Some really good collaborations could come out of this."
"We're partnering with [MLK Charter School] again," he says. "We want to make a real difference instead of just giving them money one time and moving on. And I'll stay a year, or two, just to make sure it keeps on and keeps on growing."
- Jimi Clever is a new New Orleans rapper.