NY Times article on UK writer Nik Cohn and his involvement with New Orleans rap pre- and post-Katrina

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November 6, 2005
Meet New Orleans Rap's Most Surprising Savior
By BEN RATLIFF, NY Times
A FEW years ago in New Orleans, an odd man out started sloping around the hip-hop clubs and studios of the West Bank and the Seventh Ward: a pale, aging record producer with a fedora and an English accent. He was Nik Cohn, one of the first rock critics; a novelist of great power at an early age; the unintentional progenitor of "Saturday Night Fever"; and a recovering burned-out case. He was there in a role he had never tried before: hip-hop producer.

He has written a book about the experience, called "Triksta: Life and Death in New Orleans Rap." Mr. Cohn is a natural memoirist, adept at braiding his own story into bigger events, and he is no more retiring in this book than in his others. But it is in equal measure about New Orleans hip-hop - bounce, as it was locally known - and may be the only such in-depth look at the other New Orleans musical culture, the one that has been largely overlooked in the months since Katrina.

Mr. Cohn was born in 1946, the son of Norman Cohn, a historian with a cult following among British university students. In Nik's childhood, his family relocated from London to Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, where he was an outsider top to bottom: in his words, an "Anglo-Irish Russian German South African Jew caught up in the tribal war between Protestant and Catholic, equally unacceptable to both."

Cold and unforgiving, Londonderry was the opposite of New Orleans, but his childhood left him with a life-long interest in self-mythographers, people preening beyond their station: first with Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and then, after a little research, with Jelly Roll Morton. His early novels, "Market" (written at 17) and "I Am the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo," are about street life and teen-pop myth, and he wrote about them as if he wanted to wade into them and suck them up.

He first visited New Orleans in 1972, while rolling through with the Who. He moved to New York a few years later, and his visits Down South grew longer. In the mid-1980's, after an entanglement with drugs, and in the middle of an eight-year period of no writing at all, he began to sense that New Orleans was losing its authenticity, becoming a city of ripe clichés, all party debris and bougainvilleas. Yet he kept returning: it was where he could get over himself, the place where self-invention and a certain amount of decrepitude was normal.

By the late 90's he was a changed man, clean but worn out from hepatitis C. It was then that Mr. Cohn saw, in the Tremé section, a street parade. A D.J. was playing the Triggerman beat, the menacingly thin, rattlesnake rhythm of early-90's southern hip-hop made popular by the Cash Money and Take Fo' labels. He was ready to be revived, and Triggerman made him hungry again.

It wasn't necessarily the brilliance of the music that lured him. "If someone had just sent me a little bundle of Take Fo' records, none of this would have happened," said Mr. Cohn, interviewed late last month at a TriBeCa coffee shop. He looked his age, but healthy; he wore a dark suit and sharp dress shoes, with a T-shirt from the funeral of the rapper B-Red. "But at this stage of the game, what I like is something that makes me feel more alive," he said, "and bounce makes me feel unbelievably - transcending age, transcending damage - alive. I had to have a piece of it. So it was a siren. An elixir."

One expects such grand pronouncements from Nik Cohn. The 1976 article that made him famous here, "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" (first published in New York magazine and later adapted into the John Travolta film), was so forceful that the magazine appended a paragraph at the start of the story maintaining that it was wholly factual. As it turned out, it was not; Mr. Cohn had hung out in discos, sucked in the crowd and made composites. (He later became a hard factualist, but he deposited his checks. In "Triksta" he writes: "I'd been rich once in my life, and it hadn't suited me one bit.")

In "Triksta," more than any other of his books, Mr. Cohn owns up to his blarney, almost batters himself with the realization of it. Gradually moving out of a life of exaggerations and deceptions, he learns one rugged truth after another: that New Orleans hip-hop is deeply conservative and resistant to change; that it has little musical connection to the New Orleans music he has known and loved; that most hip-hoppers are uninterested in him and his ideas, unless he's got money to back them.

In effect, he was dealing with the inverse of swinging London, the scene that he wrote about in the 1960's. That, he now says, was "a con": a movement of about 1,500 people which the press represented as a nationwide obsession. New Orleans bounce, on the other hand, has been a legitimately popular music for 10 years, but never engaged the attention of the mainstream cultural media; further, it is made by a poor populace who were the majority of New Orleans and yet aren't part of public consciousness.

He worked some music-industry contacts and got a small budget from DreamWorks, then an active major label, to executive-produce some New Orleans bounce records. Having rented a converted oyster shack in the Mid-City neighborhood, he got to work.

Working on a freelance basis in 2001, he had produced tracks with a local rapper named Choppa. (At the time, the song "Choppa Style" was No. 1 on the New Orleans hip-hop station.) Now Mr. Cohn brought in a producer for the musical issues but supplied ideas for samples, including Algerian rai music, bits of John Adams and Ennio Morricone, and New Orleans rhythm-and-blues riffs by Eddie Bo and King Floyd.

And he brought all his experience as a writer. "Nik's passion, really, is a story, " said Shorty Brown Hustle, part of a group Mr. Cohn worked with called Da Rangaz. He spoke from San Antonio, where he and his family have been living post-Katrina, helped into a house by Mr. Cohn. "But the trick part about it was that we respect his mind when he speaks on hip-hop. This old white guy who comes out of nowhere," he guffawed, "and he makes more sense than some of the artists."

At one point Choppa gave him a glossy photograph of himself, signing it to "Nik da Trik." Mr. Cohn turned this into a private joke: he was Triksta, a reminder of his old, hustling self. And yet his involvement wasn't a joke at all. Rappers began to approach, cruising him for deals.

Shortly afterward, the DreamWorks label ran aground. Mr. Cohn started paying production expenses himself. He secured an advance for "Triksta" so he could keep working with a rapper named Che Muse, with whom he wanted to make the ultimate New Orleans rap album, a catalogue of the city in its glory and sadness. "Sweet Sickness," a rap over a Frankie Beverly and Maze song, is about loathing and loving your home, and in one of its verses the rapper K. Gates concludes:

But I grew up in it
I jumped off the porch with my shoe up in it
But we still swingin', and we still singin'
Marching to the drum and gun.

Mr. Cohn's wife, Michaela, dragged him out of New Orleans in 2004 when he ran out of money as well as psychic and physical energy. He regenerated enough this year to return and make a few more recordings; then Katrina blew his posse all over the South. Mr. Cohn has spent the last months helping to relocate them. None of the records he worked on, except Choppa's, were commercially released, but he continues to talk with his contacts about the next move.

Che Muse, reached by phone at his new home in Atlanta, spoke eagerly of working with Mr. Cohn again. "He always did what he said he was going to do," he said. "We're just waiting for something that we can sink our teeth into."

Mr. Cohn says he has a concept for the next record. "I can't give up," he said. "New Orleans is a culture that won't revive in a recognizable form, but the idea - it's dead but it won't lie down - well, something could be conjured out of that."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Steve Kiviat (Steve K), Monday, 7 November 2005 06:57 (fourteen years ago) link

Cynics regarding Cohn's use of the "n" word can refer to this thread:

Jeff Chang takes on Nik Cohn, old white guys, and da capo

curmudgeon (Steve K), Monday, 7 November 2005 07:01 (fourteen years ago) link

i'm looking forward to reading this. it feels so weird to think about cohn still writing - he seems so much a product of his time. i haven't read anything of his in a long time but awop bop a loo bop definitely turned my mind inside out when i was 15.

J.D. (Justyn Dillingham), Monday, 7 November 2005 07:26 (fourteen years ago) link

"I can't give up," he said. "New Orleans is a culture that won't revive in a recognizable form, but the idea - it's dead but it won't lie down - well, something could be conjured out of that."

I'm not sure what this means but it kind of pisses me off anyway.

adam (adam), Monday, 7 November 2005 12:13 (fourteen years ago) link

If I may ask, will you be moving back Adam? You lived there, right?

I am not sure what that means exactly either. I guess he thinks some of the folks responsible for the New Orleans culture that he loves will ghost-like create a new New orleans culture at some point.

With the Bush Administration not supporting Section 8 rent vouchers, and rents going up in higher and dryer parts of New Orleans, will poor ward residents responsible for bounce/rap and second line/brass band culture be coming back to the city?

curmudgeon, Monday, 7 November 2005 16:59 (fourteen years ago) link

Mid-December.

I don't know which way to go speculating re: the return of the city's population. Living in Maryland for the past two months has awoken a very strong FUCK THIS MUST RETURN instinct in me. So I hope everyone else is like that.

adam (adam), Monday, 7 November 2005 17:59 (fourteen years ago) link

Not til they put up the money to build the levee up to withstand Force 5, and not 'til the results are convincingly inspected: nobody go back 'til then, okay?

don, Tuesday, 8 November 2005 05:45 (fourteen years ago) link

According to the links I was reading on the "looka" blog( www.gumbopages.com/looka )and stuff I've read elsewhere the Bush admin. is only offering money for level 3 hurricanes and millions instead of billions for restoring the wetlands and marshes.

David Byrne wrote on his blog around the time he was playing a benefit for Katrina survivors that some New Orleans musicians might actually benefit from being out of the insular Crescent city world and interacting with musicians from elsewhere. That's of course easy for him to say...

curmudgeon, Tuesday, 8 November 2005 13:59 (fourteen years ago) link

I haven't been to New Orleans in years, but based on my conversations with New Orleans and Louisiana musicians it's one of the best places in the country to be a musician, for the simple reason that people actually come out and hear live music, not as a special occasion but as a completely normal part of everyday life.

Rick Massimo (Rick Massimo), Tuesday, 8 November 2005 16:18 (fourteen years ago) link

New Orleans musicians might actually benefit from being out of the insular Crescent city world and interacting with musicians from elsewhere. That's of course easy for him to say...

Right. On one level I'm selfishly happy to be able to see more of the N.O. musicians I love on tour, but on the other hand I'm (also selfishly) afraid of what's going to happen to the culture and the music.

Jordan (Jordan), Tuesday, 8 November 2005 16:31 (fourteen years ago) link

David Byrne from his September 16th entry at davidbyrne.com when he was preparing to play with a NY brass band at a New Orleans benefit:

"My friend Dicky Landry in Lafayette LA says that the influx of refugee New Orleans musicians into Cajun country may actually have a good effect on the music. New Orleans musicians are famously insular. Their city loves them, they’re appreciated and they work pretty steadily — the food is great, the music has deep roots — why bust your ass for little money taking your music elsewhere? Stay home, make them come to you. And they did.

But this meant that so many great musicians went unheard and unappreciated outside of the NO community that was and is familiar with the New Orleans sound. They had little incentive to spread their music and culture out to the rest of the world — it was always easier to simply stay where you were loved. And why not? Sometimes the world just didn’t get it.

I toured once with Coolbone, a brass hip-hop band from New Orleans. Jesus, what a feel these guys had! Live hip-hop, a concept that is only now becoming accepted. Their record, though pretty good, couldn’t capture the gut (and other parts) moving sound of the tuba playing the bass lines through a sub-harmonic synthesizer, which added extra bottom. Thump. It had to be experienced live. You couldn’t download the experience either.

Anyway, I could see that my audience, though appreciative, just wasn’t as taken by these guys as I was. Open any indie or alt-rock mag and you’ll see what an insular world it is — and it has opened up in the last decade! So, no surprise there.

But now, as Landry hints, this forced exodus, this sudden diaspora, may sprinkle a little funky seasoning on music from St. Louis to Austin, and the world might be better for it. In a perfect world, those dispersed musicians might flourish and be appreciated in those far-flung cites too. They’ll be homesick, but maybe some of them can cook as well."

curmudgeon, Tuesday, 8 November 2005 17:00 (fourteen years ago) link

I liked the Nik Cohn piece on N.O. rap in Granta a while back. It definitely had a romantic outsider feel to it, but the writing was enjoyable.

Hurting (Hurting), Tuesday, 8 November 2005 17:09 (fourteen years ago) link

Here it is...

http://www.granta.com/extracts/1439

curmudgeon, Tuesday, 8 November 2005 18:46 (fourteen years ago) link

nik cohn's written like that for like ever tho! maybe its just the clash of throwback hardboiled minimalism from another era that makes it feel all funny to ppl. i mean, throw in some southern diction and modern slang and you've got a better wally lamb, if you know what i'm saying.

Sterling Clover (s_clover), Tuesday, 8 November 2005 19:28 (fourteen years ago) link

the tricky thing is to nurture a place where creativity can be nurtured, without it becoming too much about the *place.* Some people have to stay there, to keep it going, but there should be fresh arrivals and departures too. Not just New Orleans--I've heard musos refer to Austin as "the Velvet Coffin." Lots of college towns like that too.Of course, there can be different scenes in the same towns.

don, Wednesday, 9 November 2005 03:37 (fourteen years ago) link

"Not til they put up the money to build the levee up to withstand Force 5, and not 'til the results are convincingly inspected: nobody go back 'til then, okay?"

Too late.

Fetchboy (Felcher), Wednesday, 9 November 2005 04:56 (fourteen years ago) link

two months pass...
so has anyone read triksta yet?

I'm halfway through and undecided. the book's pitched uneasily between self-deprecation and self-aggrandisement and as much about his history of self-mythologising as it is on bounce/NO rap, but his love of the music does pour thru. purple prose a bit hard to take at times tho...

barbarian cities (jaybob3005), Friday, 20 January 2006 10:41 (fourteen years ago) link

bounce.

barbarian cities (jaybob3005), Friday, 20 January 2006 10:43 (fourteen years ago) link

hmmm I'm still on the fence about reading this. Cohn's early stuff is classic but you're right about "purple prose" the old gaga New Journalism approach often seems self-indulgent in the 21st century.

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