Forget hot sauce or New Orleans-style brass band music — in recent decades, rap music has been Louisiana's biggest cultural export, at least according to Holly Hobbs. With influential labels Cash Money and No Limit and artists including Lil Wayne, Birdman, Mystikal, Frank Ocean, Big Freedia and Curren$y, the story of New Orleans' rich hip-hop legacy needs to be told. Add the losses inflicted by Hurricane Katrina — displaced artists, destroyed recordings, etc. — and the scene's rich history might have gone underappreciated.
That's why Hobbs created the NOLA Hip Hop and Bounce Archive (www.nolahiphoparchive. com), a digital oral history collection that goes live this week.
"I come to hip-hop as someone who enjoys the music, but more so as a person who writes about and studies music and social movements," Hobbs says. "Rap and bounce are really the music of the living tradition in the city, and after thinking about all the pre-Katrina/post-Katrina New Orleans works, documenting the stories of rap and bounce artists here was interesting to me."
Hobbs, a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Tulane University, began the project in 2012 and sought partners such as the Tulane University Digital Library and the independent Amistad Research Center. They applied to the university Institutional Review Board for full clearance, since the project qualifies as human subject research. Then there was the simple but demanding field work — finding videographers, production assistants and equipment and locating and interviewing musicians, producers and promoters. It also required a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $6,000 last year.
To celebrate the launch, the NOLA Hip Hop and Bounce Archive hosts performances and interview screenings from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11, at Cafe Istanbul. It features a DJ set from Nesby Phips and a performance from Truth Universal, both of whom are represented in the archive.
To start, the NOLA Hip Hop and Bounce Archive will be a multi-media experience. Hobbs and colleagues filmed more than 45 interviews with pillars of the local scene, including Mannie Fresh and KLC, and performers such as Dee-1, who arrived on the scene more recently. Those are available online and accessible in a dedicated viewing space at the Amistad Research Center at Tulane. In addition, Hobbs collaborated with the Where They At project, a hip-hop and bounce exhibit created by local music journalist Alison Fensterstock (a former Gambit columnist) and photographer Aubrey Edwards. Their work is available online at www.wheretheyatnola.com, and materials from the project — including more than 50 photographic portraits and audio interviews with people such as Mia X and Juvenile — will be hosted at the archive. In total, nearly 100 documentary-style interviews will be available.
"This is an ongoing archive, we're not just quitting after 45 [video interviews]," Hobbs says. "There's a number of very instrumental people I still want to interview; it was just a matter of time and schedules. ... Plus, we'd love to move forward with an actual museum space. Hopefully starting later in 2015, we'll open up the archives to collecting ephemera and donations, and we've already had people contact us."
There have been many projects to document the scene, including years of work by photographer Polo Silk. Hobbs wanted to engage the community in her project, and she sees the archives' resources as a vehicle for the city's hip-hop community to use to continue documenting the scene.
"I'm writing a book from my dissertation on post-Katrina music and community development, so I could've gone one way with it — done interviews with all the artists and reposited those in my own words," she says. "But since I was doing all the interviews and I have a background in documentary films, it seemed like a good idea to do video interviews. That way, artists can present their own histories in their own words and talk about the things they want to on their own terms. Everyone can look up the history of Cash Money on the Internet, but there's not that many interviews with artists speaking in their own words about what happened."
The archive covers New Orleans rap and bounce from the 1980s through Hurricane Katrina. Even though there is a large amount of archival material to pore over, Hobbs says even someone familiar with New Orleans hip-hop can find surprises. She pointed to the story of former No Limit rapper Fiend. Music fans may be familiar with his work, but the rapper's family actually owned a bar in Hollygrove, right across from the venue Ghost Town — where bounce essentially began, Hobbs says. Musicians would come in every day and talk about the scene. And this intermingling of styles was something that came up with artists again and again.
"He had a front seat to understanding the mix of traditions — no rapper, no bounce artist does only rap or bounce. So many people I interviewed played in brass bands, played in high school marching bands, played other instruments," Hobbs says. "The mix of traditions is so important to New Orleans music, another example of why you shouldn't separate brass and bounce music when those two traditions are so tightly intertwined."