Sep 11, 2023 - Music

The story of hip-hop is incomplete without New Orleans

During an on-stage performance, Juvenile raps into a mic and Trombone Shorty can be seen behind him, playing his trombone into a microphone.

Juvenile and Trombone Shorty perform during the 2008 Voodoo Music Festival. Photo courtesy of: C Flanigan/FilmMagic

Hip-hop may have started elsewhere, but it didn't take long for New Orleans artists to stamp the genre with their own sound.

Why it matters: As music fans celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop this year, that story would be incomplete without the colorful diversity and originality of this city's MCs and producers.

  • New Orleans' musical reputation has existed since the birth of jazz, but hip-hop created an entirely new opportunity for the city's sounds to grow beyond its boundaries.
Lil Wayne crouches next to an indoor swimming pool, in the center of which is a fountain with a clear acrylic dollar sign symbol.
Lil Wayne was photographed in March 2003 in New Orleans. Photo: Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images

Flashback: Pinpointing the catalytic moment for cultural touchstones is tricky business, but music historians point to a 1973 block party in the Bronx as hip-hop's beginning.

  • It would be nearly another two decades before New Orleans formally stepped into the game with the creation of Cash Money Records.
  • Founded by brothers Ronald "Slim" Williams and Bryan "Birdman" Williams, the label is credited with launching the careers of artists like Lil Wayne and Juvenile.

Other labels and artists followed, and when hip-hop exploded onto the mainstream with East and West Coast rappers, it took New Orleans developing its own unique sound before its artists hit the big time.

  • "Bounce music is the foundation of New Orleans. … We had a few artists performing in '88, '89, but we were just developing our rap style," New Orleans bounce pioneer DJ Jubilee tells Axios. "But by 1991, we hit that bounce with the 'Triggerman' beat. … Once we started rapping on that beat, that was it. Our music was created."
  • Today, you can hear it when Beyoncé or Kesha partners with bounce star Big Freedia, or when Drake relies on a bounce beat in "Nice For What."

Zoom out: Despite the uniqueness of New Orleans' sound, the city has long struggled to nurture the kind of industry business landscape that thrives in places like Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.

  • That makes it easier for the city's own biggest stars, like Lil Wayne or Frank Ocean, to leave and set up permanent addresses elsewhere.
  • But even for those who leave, the sound of the city still follows wherever they land.
Tank Ball performs inside Preservation Hall. She stands at a microphone while other musicians can be seen behind her, including a bass player, drummer, and someone holding a tambourine.
Tarriona "Tank" Ball of Tank & The Bangas performs with Preservation Hall Jazz Band on May 7. Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Images

State of play: The city's hip-hop culture continues to evolve, with innovative artists like Tank and the Bangas and Boyfriend moving the city's musical history forward.

  • The connection of those dots was palpable in a recent edition of NPR's popular "Tiny Desk" series, where musicians play in the news organization's headquarters. For the set, Juvenile brought along fellow New Orleans stars Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty and hip-hop legend Mannie Fresh.
  • The video, which has been viewed 5 million times, is a refreshing reminder of how New Orleans music grows through collaboration by pairing old-school hip-hop with New Orleans brass.
  • Simply put, every track sizzles.

Looking ahead: As DJ Jubilee says, "bounce music ain't going anywhere." And that means New Orleans hip-hop isn't either.

  • "It's so crazy that music that came out in the '90s is almost as hot as the music that came out yesterday," he says. "The 90s artists, we're doing more shows now than a bounce artist that came after Katrina. … You put on a 90s bounce song at a block party, we know the lyrics … It got a lot of memory to it."

Go deeper: LGBTQ+ communities helped bring bounce music to center stage


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