It took only two words for rapper Jerome Cosey to spark a musical evolution.
The 26-year-old artist known as Fifth Ward Weebie specializes in a New Orleans style of hip-hop called bounce. He tweaked one of his songs on a hot Houston night last October to reflect the then-recent hurricane, punctuating it with a new two-word chorus:
The second word was a boisterous “KATRINA!” The first was the F-bomb.
The refrain, “Hurricane Katrina got me living off the FEMA,” struck a nerve with the Houston clubgoers — many of whom were evacuees worn down by displacement, homesickness and the red tape of insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency claims.
“The whole crowd just went crazy,” Fifth Ward Weebie said. “I took that little aspect of it and turned it into a whole song.”
By personifying hurricanes Katrina and Rita as prostitutes who “got my whole city underwater with the fishes,” he managed to combine the beat- and sex-heavy style of music with social commentary. And he’s not alone.
In the months following the hurricane, New Orleans rappers and deejays — scattered from Dallas to Atlanta to Miami — released songs with titles like “My FEMA People,” “1,000 Miles to Downtown” and “F*** Katrina” (the “Katrina Song”) that have remade their particular brand of hip-hop into an oral history of the hurricane and its aftermath.
“Katrina’s had the odd effect of suddenly making bounce into a kind of rallying point,” said Nik Cohn, author of the book “Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap.”
“Bounce has become the symbol of what they used to have,” he said.
These performers — many of whom evacuated before the storm — watched along with the nation as the levees broke, the streets flooded and the trapped populace waited days for help. Driven by anger, frustration and the need for release, the rappers felt compelled to record.
The 'Katrina Song'
Fifth Ward Weebie released the "Katrina Song" as a single on Thanksgiving after its initial club debut.
“It [brought] some comic relief to our situation,” he said. “I mean, who better else to do it but the Bounce King?”
The artist from the Fifth Ward of New Orleans articulated the evacuees' frustrations in a way that made them laugh.
“He’s being funny, but he’s really making sense,” said Kenneth Williams, a 31-year-old New Orleans DJ who goes by the name DJ Chicken. “I know it sounds like a joke, but the way he switched it up and flipped it, it’s like a bounce song with a purpose.”
Bounce artists like Soulja Slim, Ms. Tee and Cheeky Black may come and go, yet every bounce song stays largely the same. They're repetitive, heavy on the call-and-response interaction between the crowd and the DJ and usually used to incite the ladies to shake their booties.
There are the ubiquitous shout-outs to New Orleans’ neighborhoods or wards, usually a “Fifth Ward, where y’at? Sixth Ward, where y'at?” And the pre-Katrina subject matter was almost exclusively about sex.
Weebie twisted everything in the "Katrina Song." He even managed to change up the shout-outs: “I said the West Bank running, Uptown ain’t nothing. New Orleans East over, go and get the bulldozers.”
But while Weebie chose to create a way for the New Orleans diaspora to bounce off their worries, other local rappers recorded messages rooted in protest songs of old.
“When I think about Katrina and anything that has to do with music, and that [Katrina] song, it wasn’t nothing funny to me — at all,” said Mia Young, a rapper known as Mia X. “Because people, they’re dead, and they’re not coming back.”
Many of these songs are brutal in their criticism of government officials and agencies, but they’re also filled with hope for a renewed New Orleans.
Dizzy’s video for the title track was filmed in front of his mother’s flooded house downtown. Rusted guns and piles of debris litter his hopeful lyrics.
For Dizzy, whose real name is Raymond Seymour, "The Day After Tomorrow" is meant to inspire hope in the face of destruction, though it also recounts suicidal police officers and days spent on rooftops.
“You could have the world in your hands and it all could be gone. You lose it all,” he raps. “Take it all as a blessing … We’re looking forward to the day after tomorrow.”
Hostilities on the Tracks
At 36 years old, Mia X could be considered the godmother of New Orleans bounce music.
She was the first female artist to be signed to Master P’s No Limit record label in the 1990s. Young’s grandmother’s great-grandmother came to New Orleans from Haiti.
“I’m a wonderful, proud Seventh Wardian,” said Young, who now lives in Dallas. The Seventh Ward flooded along with most of the city, and her grandmother’s 115-year-old house will have to be bulldozed.
“Ride through my city,” she raps on “My FEMA People," her Katrina song. “Beirut. Iraq. Ride through my city. I ride and cry all through the city. Looking for the culture all through the city. We were left for dead for vultures all through the city. It’s so much bigger than the weather.”
Her song follows the travails of many a hurricane victim, including the red tape.
“Everything under water, everything gone, bill collectors stalking me on my phone. So if you’re waiting on me, then I’m waiting on FEMA,” she raps.
While Young was not in New Orleans for Katrina, several of her relatives died in the days following the storm.
“I did it mainly for the people grabbing you by your arm and just telling you one horror story after the next, one bloody story after the next,” she said. “They have this hopelessness in their eyes like nobody believes them or everybody wants them to shut up.”
David Evans, a musicologist at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, said it's not uncommon for musicians to put themselves in the shoes of the victims following a natural disaster.
"In the 1927 Mississippi River flood, there were close to 20 different blues composed on that and all of the singers, whether they experienced it or not — and actually most of them did not directly experience it — treated it as personal experience in their songs," he said.
That flood, which affected five states and killed close to 600 people, prompted country, gospel and blues musicians to jot it down in song. Artists such as Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie wrote songs with titles like "Homeless Blues," "High Water Everywhere" and "When the Levee Breaks."
"It provoked the biggest response in song of any disaster probably up to Katrina, especially from the black community," Evans said.
Post-Katrina, local New Orleans artists are doing what mainstream hip-hop is not, Cohn said. Kanye West lashed out at the powers that be in the days immediately following the hurricane, but for the most part it has been New Orleans artists who have spoken up for their broken city.
One of the most successful New Orleans artists, Juvenile, filmed his first post-Katrina video in the lower Ninth Ward, which months after the hurricane still looked like a war zone.
“It’s one of those odd things where the hip-hop rhetoric ‘Fight the Power’ finally had a moment to do something to fight the power, and everybody decided they’d take a vacation,” Cohn said.
Budding rapper and New Orleans resident Taurent Legendre weathered out Katrina in New Orleans and eventually landed in Washington, D.C.
On Sept. 10, 2005, he launched a Web site, Halla Black, dedicated to his hometown’s rap artists.
“I wanted to get people spread out all over the country like a kind of home feeling,” he said, noting the difficulty of being a local rap star when your city’s residents reside in nearly all 50 states. “Everybody’s spread all over the country. You can’t even be local. Everybody’s got to start from scratch.”
While evacuees wrestled with FEMA and temporary housing, these rappers and DJs also started resurrecting their careers and trying to find their audience.
Mia X and DJ Chicken found themselves hosting bounce nights in Dallas. Weebie shuttles back and forth between Houston and New Orleans. DJ Raj Smoove is back in New Orleans, but commutes to Atlanta to record. Dizzy bounced around until he landed in Miami.
“Katrina helped the music scene in New Orleans tremendously because it spread the music out,” Chicken said.
It also transformed bounce music from a repetitive genre to the soundtrack of a pre-Katrina youth.
“The same songs we used to like cringe when we would hear, we would play them at the party now,” said Smoove, the 30-year-old Roger Dickerson. “We’re into it and we’re reminiscing.”
Bounce parties throughout the South are giving non-native New Orleanians a chance to hear a sound locals call "dat beat."
“Bounce needs to be on the same level as any other music, as any other form of rap,” Weebie said.
That’s a hope that’s unlikely to come true, experts say.
“Could it become a major commercial player? Probably not,” Cohn said. “But could it be a sort of powerful and widespread underground hip-hop sound? Yes. It’s probably got a better chance of that now than pre-Katrina.”
Steven Waddy of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention says that as long as major radio stations are skittish about airing songs that are critical of the government, post-Katrina bounce will remain a regional sound.
“You can’t play these particular songs related to this event if they’re talking bad about the administration,” Waddy said. “That’s really going to diminish the songs that are getting played nationwide by artists from New Orleans.”
With a lack of airplay — Weebie said a clean version of his Katrina song has been played on Louisiana stations in New Orleans, Lake Charles and Monroe — the artists have had to release their music on independent, underground compilations, and they set up Web pages on sites like MySpace.com.
“Bounce in its pure form isn’t really going to be able to make the transition,” Smoove said. “It has to be adapted.”
Day After Tomorrow
The destruction of thousands of records in DJ Chicken's flooded New Orleans East home and the demise of the city’s largest hip-hop music store, Peaches, prompted Chicken and local radio DJ Wild Wayne to release 504 Radio, a compilation of the best of New Orleans bounce, pre- and post-Katrina.
Three compilations have been released thus far using songs donated to the effort by New Orleans artists.
“That’s been my mission since Katrina — to put my hands on all of the old bounce stuff — finding out who has what and looking for this and looking for that,” Chicken said. “I’ve done real good. I’ve even got my hands on some stuff that I didn’t have before the storm.”
Chicken recently traveled to Europe and found a warm reception for the upbeat music from the streets of New Orleans. Raj Smoove is hosting several music nights in New Orleans and working on building a recording studio.
“Bounce was the sound of young black New Orleans and it has a key role in the city’s life,” Cohn said. “The fact is, you don’t hear it anymore in New Orleans in general and that’s a symbol of the tragedy.”
Though these exiled artists continue to record, their brand of hip-hop needs a renewed New Orleans to weather the next storm.
“We can go to any other city in the world, but it’s nothing like New Orleans,” Legendre said. “We have to get back to making the music that makes us feel good.”